And so I have been working to discover what other puppeteers think of this subject. One person I truly wanted to meet was Jan Švankmajer, whose work inspired Gravity From Above, my exploration of puppetry in Europe. His work is filled with textures, purposely distressed surfaces, rough fabrics, objects rendered impenetrable by his tampering with them. During the period when the Czech communists refused to allow him to make films he began to experiment with tactility, going as far as to make boxes that one put one’s hands into as portraits of individuals. His wife Eva never was able to put her hand into the box he made for her. These were not safe textures. Yet it shows his commitment to the tangible and tactile which informs all of his work.º
Likewise the films of the Brothers Quay are filled with physical features that impede the rapid consummation of their art. And this emphasis on texture comes from their immersion into puppets and their connections with older puppet traditions like the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels and the early puppet films of Ladislas Starewitch. They also understand the importance of textures in life whether it be lacemaking or furniture. That somehow in ways we don’t fully understand we are fed by textures in a way that flat sterile surfaces cannot do.
My interviews for Gravity From Above have led me to conclude that often puppeteers are more sensitive to these tactile worlds. They raise questions about the nature of digital representations versus the tangible realms of the puppet theatre. In discussing these things in Warsaw in 2012 with the late Polish puppet historian Henryk Jurkowski he told me that: “I think that this, what is on the screen, I mean on TV and on film also, it is not real: Puppetry is real. It’s a reality. And I believe that the puppet with this ambiguity of its existence and non-existence, belongs to my reality, to my world. I can invest some belief in it. I can play with it. I can admire it, but it’s something real. I can touch it. I can even touch it. I think that puppets, and some kinds of sculpture, are real. They are speaking to us. And we can, vice versa, answer.”*
Think of that reaction to puppetry as opposed to the kind of endless fanatical devotion that the products of big budget science-fiction films and video games engender. The puppet leads us into physical reality, the tactile four dimensional universe where things are affected by the passing of time. The puppet is completely mixed up with tactile reality. As Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppets wrote some years ago: “Puppet theater is does not only consist of things – it is overwhelmed by things and lives in this obsession. In its practices it knows the typical otherworldly qualities of things and in its productions it remains indebted to them. And indeed the soul of things does not reveal itself so easily. What speaks out of a puppet’s gesture is mostly uncontrollable and in any case not suited for the specific targeting with which modern audiences get bombarded.”§
Thus the puppet as a material object contains in its essence a contradiction to this world of endless digital imagery, of the flatness of the new commercial world to which we seemingly have little redress. That is why I have often said that puppetry is an antidote art, and antidote to the fixations of this strangely empty 21st Century. In a time when human communications have been reduced to ‘memes’, or to social media, what Jacques Ellul called horizontal propaganda, to multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, to computer games where, as Alexis Blanchet wrote, “the player is only a puppet manipulating an avatar.”• The tactile, tangible, multidimensional puppet made of textures performed in real time offers a humble resistance to the epic spectacle of our age.
A younger French puppeteer, Paulette Caron, in discussing the issues related to this new virtual age: “But live performance is different! And you can go and see the same show twice, and it won’t be the same. You can feel the objects breathing. Actually seeing the tension inside of someone, between someone and the object, whether it be a puppet officially or not. What happens between the two? What happens inside the puppeteer? It’s something that you don’t really see on film, I think. Because you have a certain point of view that’s given to you. And your eyes aren’t free to focus on what the puppeteer will tell you to be focused upon.”*
And that ultimately is the question for today’s puppeteers. What will you focus upon? And what will the puppet mean in the 21st Century? Will it end up as one more digital obsession? Will it simply add to the arsenal of various propagandas? Or will the puppet point, as it naturally does, to the meaning of being an embodied creature in a world of real things?
When I gave this lecture Puppetry and Texture was already on my mind.
Thanks for reading along… Do let me know what you think.
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art by Jan Švankmajer © 2014 International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art
§ -The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order by Peter Schumann ©1993 Bread + Puppet Theater
• – La vie filmique des marionnettes Ed. Laurence Schifano ©2008 Presses Universitaires de Paris 10 (L’avatar vidéoludique, nouvelle forme de marionnette numérique? by Alexis Blanchet)
Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.
I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.
One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.
You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!
Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)
But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.
But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.
My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.
The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.
Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.
Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!
Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)
Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.
I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.
But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.
On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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Okay. Let’s start writing about Georgia again. Sakartvelo. საქართველო. I arrived here a couple of weeks back on the 22nd of December just a couple of days before Western Christmas. And I checked into the same guesthouse I’d stayed in during my 2016 stay. Mostly for continuity, to say hello to Tamuna and Shako and young Mariam again. I would within five days change to my long term apartment. But for now it felt good to have the same map coordinates and to have some familiar faces to start my sojourn of more than three months.
After arriving in Tbilisi at 6:30 in the morning I slept in till noon, and being this was Georgia I did not feel like I had slept in too late, eventually I went out to find the lari (Georgian money) I needed. Connect to the Georgia phone system and buy a metro card.
The next evening I found myself wandering past the Kachueti Church on Rustaveli Avenue. I heard sounds coming from a loudspeaker outside the church, so stepped down into it. An evening service in progress was full of people standing before the altar. (The Georgian Orthodox stand, believing that sitting before God, unless one has a physical condition, pain, age, etc. is a bit disrespectful. Sitting denotes rest. One stands before God.) They were dressed mostly in street clothes. The words of the scripture were being read in a definite musical key. The language was, of course, Georgian, and at specific moments with reference to Christ or the Trinity many Georgians would cross themselves. At one point there was a gesture of touching the ground, which puzzled and touched me simultaneously. Candles of the congregants, very thin tapers, were also being lit during the service. I was standing behind a large column. After the reading stopped I heard voices arising from a group of seven or eight men, who were dressed in gray robes standing before the opposite column from the one I was near. They sang an excruciatingly beautiful hymn in multipart harmony. As I absorbed it I was struck by the need for such beauty in my own country where it seemed that so much of our society had been rendered empty by our pop cults and cuteness fetishes. And just as they stopped singing and my heart was ready to enter a moment of rest, suddenly from directly in front of me on the other side of the column I was standing behind, another male choir began to answer them with an antiphonal song in an alternative key. And this just gripped me. I could scarcely take it in. Nothing in my life had ever sounded so evocative of the mystery of God’s world. And then the other group sang again! And then were answered again! In contrasting swirling harmonies. And finally the voices all came together before returning to their antiphonal chanting one last time. And all of the Georgians around me took this as normal.
As I continued my wandering down Rustaveli Avenue towards Liberty Square (or is it Freedom Square?) I came upon something I had not noticed before. In the place of the empty lot that had been there back in April 2016 the Galleria Tbilisi had just recently opened. And I stared at it with an open mouth at the gaudiness of the new mall. I walked into it to experience the strange deja vu these glossy beasts always elucidate and the vertiginous sinking feeling I had as I rode the escalators up six floors to the food court and then finally the movie theatres on the top floor. The place was illuminated pretty much in the standard Christmasy manner. And Santa Claus had children on his lap beneath the Levi’s and Calvin Klein stores. I suppose it had to happen. I walked outside where a Georgian boy was playing a drum and singing for a few lari. It was the perfect metonym of the country being caught between two worlds and two Christmases. The multitudes near him entered the mall as multitudes do all over the world, like Mister Toad from the Wind and the Willows, eyes bulging, caught by the shiny newness of the thing. I couldn’t blame them. They just want what they think everybody else has. They just don’t understand the trade they will make to get it. And that in the end you don’t get very much.
Western Christmas came, which didn’t feel particularly like Christmas to me, since Shoba, Georgian Orthodox Christmas, doesn’t come until January 7th. But on December 25th I did meet up with Sophie Zhvania a friend and translator from my last Georgian visit. And we had an excellent conversation at Fabrika, which proved to be hipster central for Tbilisi, and she helped me gain a bit more needed realism about her country. She was glad to be leaving for Berlin for the New Year. But she will be back soon, and we have film work to discuss.
Eventually I said nakhvamdis to Tamuna’s family and met up with Mariam and Kote, also friends from last year. I would be staying in their Airbnb apartment in the Saburtalo district for my next three months. They carefully explained to me the way the apartment worked. Mariam had artistically decorated the large room. We would be seeing each other again soon. And now I felt I could begin to settle into Tbilisi.
I began to look around my neighborhood to see what was available. I soon discovered many things including dried persimmons, tarragon soda, cheeses made with wine and honey, the delicious smoked scrumbia fish and much more. I often found myself saying “I have no category for this.” Tarragon soda was like that. Sometimes I see faces on the metro that are like that. And I have talked to people who are like that. (But we’ll save these encounters for another time.)
New Year’s Eve was upon us. Unfortunately I had picked up an annoying but noticeable sniffle. And since this was my third such attack since I first landed in Europe I decided to play it safe and stay home for New Year’s Eve. A thoughtful mood descended upon me as I reflected back on the year. But I decided I would fulfill my usual tradition of eating and drinking something new after the stroke of midnight. This wasn’t hard to do. I had the purple wine infused cheese and a three dollar (in US dollars) bottle of Georgian ‘champagne’. Quite sweet. I imagined that what would happen was when midnight came was that somewhere off in the distance I would see fireworks. With some sort of echo on the street. I had been seeing firework sales everywhere. Well for one thing you couldn’t tell when it was midnight whatsoever. An increasing roar had been developing throughout the evening. With one hour to go I looked outside to seeing the city erupting in fireworks everywhere you looked. I was completely thunderstruck by this. And as the clock approached the New Year I just heard it getting louder, I even thought I heard rounds of ammunition being fired. And so I recorded my envelopment for posterity. The next morning was the quietest I’d ever seen Tbilisi. Busy Vazha Pshavela Avenue beneath my sixth floor apartment was dormant until well past noon, only interrupted by the occasional firecracker explosion.
On the 4th of January I went to the Nutcracker at the Paliashvili Opera House on Rustaveli Avenue. It was the first time I had ever seen it performed as a ballet live. I was thoroughly enthralled. The afternoon audience was at least one third children. And it was clear that the Christmas season was still continuing strong here as I walked up the brilliantly lit Rustaveli on my way back home.
Finally came Shoba, and I found myself unprepared for the way that Christmas is celebrated here. Christmas Eve was not the still time it is even in New York City (the only quiet moment in that city). Not much seemed to be closed on Christmas Day in Tbilisi. And yet there was indeed a huge event taking place. In a feat of civil planning all of busy Rustaveli Avenue was shut down for the Alilo Procession. (Alilo means hallelujah.) Near Rustaveli Square hundreds of people prepared for this religious parade. Orthodox priests mingled with children in white robes. Real buffaloes and donkeys pulled carts. And puppet camels and elephants, even a giraffe (?) pulled up the rear. (Finally puppets!) Some people wore traditional Georgia costumes. Some held Georgia flags. The procession began around 14:00 (2pm).
Unlike any parade I’ve ever seen, you could walk completely around this procession as it went, which I suppose is quite Georgian. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. But eventually it was clear by the time we hit the halfway point to Liberty Square that thousands upon thousands of people were on the street. And this was very much an Orthodox event. Priests controlled the movement of the crowds. Thankfully the whole thing did not end with or even include a Santa Claus figure.
And so the introductory slice of my Georgian journey had come to an end. Now I’ve emphasized the new and unusual things as I saw them. And you might be tempted to see Georgia as some magical dreamscape through my description. But fear not. I am not in anyway blinded to the realities of Georgia in the 21st Century. The Tbilisi Galleria was one thing. It was like the mothership had landed bringing with it the big thing. Even the Alilo Procession was somewhat diminished by cars with loudspeakers above them playing almost Disneyfied versions of an Alilo song. (But also traditional Georgia songs.) And I had read descriptions of this parade including singing from the streets. The amplification stopped anything like that from occurring. And this is Georgia. And of course there is the poverty, the lack of anything like recycling, the endless smoking, and one could go on. And my own state of mind was not one unbroken stream of wonder and discovery. Although often something would come along just when I needed it. Whether finding problems with my bank back home, concerns about how far my dollars would stretch , unresolved issues in my life, and illness, why it was in many ways just like being home.
But truthfully I’m in the best place I could be right now. Led here by more than circumstance. And I already have made contacts amongst the puppeteers. And I have had excellent conversations and met new people. I look forward to my submergence in this surprising culture. I have had other experiences that will eventually probably work their way to the surface. But since I will be here until the end of March my reporting back will be different than at the other stops on this Gravity From Above journey. I will allow some stories to develop over time. So you might not hear from me quite as regularly, then without warning there will be an avalanche of ideas and observations. So this is a good time to catch up on my older essays. More will come. And feel free to write your thoughts as well.
(Update from January 14th: Evidently I wrote this too soon. Last night there was a second Julian New Year’s Eve blow out. Not nearly as crazy as the first. But far more fireworks than most of us see all year! Happy second New Year!)
And just a reminder. There really are needs I don’t want to elaborate on. But any contributions to this journey at this point would be deeply appreciated. Someone recently gave $25. That’s more than two days of living for me. So use that PayPal link right here and below. It’s simple and efficient and I get more of your gifts than through any crowdfunder. Thanks for all of the support in so many ways thus far! I hope I’m doing you well.
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
And sometimes you just have to make observations apropos of nothing. Travel does that to you. You see things that puzzle and intrigue you, amaze and amuse you. And so in no particular order here are a few dispatches from the road.
First of all there’s that moment when you enter a new country with a language you don’t understand. And that happened this time in Italy. I decided to break my tradition of avoiding it (for reasons of humility) and get myself down to Sicily, which I’ll write about soon. But here’s the confusing part. So I take a train from Switzerland to Italy. (I was really expecting the tunnel through the Alps to be longer.) I get out at Milan, which was just going to be a train transfer on my way to Genoa (Genova), where they still are quite proud of Cristoforo Colombo. I see that I have arrived early enough to jump on an early train so I don’t have to wait at the Milan train station for two hours. So far so good. An hour ride deposits me at Genova Centrale. I have a map, or rather a Google page, that is suppose to guide me. I get out of the station carrying my backpack load. And I start walking the direction I think I should be going. But it doesn’t feel right. I walk a bit further and nothing is resolving. Then I realize I should have gone another direction. So I go back to station and try another road, which doesn’t feel right either because its straight up hill. And supposedly I’m near the Mediterranean. At this point I just wanted a real map made out of paper. Finally I give up and go back to the white taxis I saw near the station. I use my few words of Italian and then find out my short ride is going to cost me 15 euros. Almost $20. And this is for a ride about five minutes. But the taxi driver indicates it’s ‘standard’. And so we take off. And then I get a shock. I was completely turned around. I was walking the absolutely wrong direction. And so I became grateful for my expensive little ride.
Another thing worth discussing here is sickness. Let’s just face it. If you aren’t on a slick two week package tour you are going to eventually get some foreign illness you’ve never had before. In 2012 I received two different strains of the local cold. In 2016 I had gastroenteritis so bad I was bleeding. And if I didn’t know what it was I would have been very worried. And this year I received a whopping fever. And here’s the point of all of this. In each of these cases the culprit seemed to be the Paris Metro. And specifically holding the metal poles, the perfect conductor of germs and bacteria. And I always forget to bring hand sanitizer. I also get the feeling the Europeans aren’t nearly as germophobic as we Americans are. So there’s not much to do but get sick.
And when you are sick travel changes immensely. New foods that might have seemed interesting to try now seem unappetizing. The customs of the locals seem all wrong. Does no one ever cover their face when they sneeze or cough? And they never have the kinds of things you want when you have a cold. But that’s okay there really isn’t anything you can do but rest, drink liquids and build up your body’s immunities.
On the subject of food I’ve been pushing it further this time. Of course there is French food, which I love. And yet I always have to get used to the fact I’ll be on a largely bready diet while in la francophonie. But also there are so many wonderful things that I can scarcely contain my desire to try as much as possible. There is a guy who sells cheese at the Sunday market in Les Häye les Roses where I stay while in Paris. And I am sure that this man alone knows more about cheese than everyone in the state of Alaska put together. And I have eaten cheeses that are so good I just want to cry.
And I have tried new things mate. In Brussels the central Carrefour had kangaroo meat! And since I actually had cooking facilities for once. I decided to give a try. Not bad actually. Tastes a bit like beef, without the heavy fatty feel and it had a bit of a tang to it. I didn’t get to the zebra meet sitting next to it though. But I cook up a little horse in Switzerland.
Also in Belgium I finally had Belgian frites, the original French fries. And here’s what I have to say. Astounding! They are thicker, with an amazing crust. And a wonderful flavor which I’m told comes from frying them twice in beef fat!?! Which is about as healthy as injecting pure cholesterol. But oh my! It was worth it. They actually had a big health issue over this. But the traditional frites makers argued that this is the tradition. And they won. And God bless them. Just don’t eat les frites too often.
And does everyone have annoying music on their phones in Italy? And do they ever use their earbuds? Why do I need to hear the pointless video you are watching on the bus? (Gripe number 326.) And no one seems to care. And then there is the ubiquitous presence of terrible electronic dance music, especially the excrescence know as nightcore, which involves taking old pop songs and adding new music to a vocal track sped up to chipmunk speed. This just strikes me as the most anti-musical notion I’ve ever heard.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I forgot to mention my time spent in the Museum of the Ardennes. I had been there before, but the second time was just as enlightening. And I was able to get better photos this time. And I had a chance to watch the marionette clock work from the inside!
Speaking of museums? Yeah, I went to one of the greatest museums on earth, the Vatican Museum. I’ll save my thoughts about the contents for later. But let me get a couple more gripes off my chest about tourists. Two things drove me crazy this time round. It’s happened before but this time I’ve got to say something. Are we done with smartphones yet? These things are really polluting reality. You enter the Sistine Chapel, which clearly is marked No Photos. Guards are saying ‘NO PHOTO’ over and over. And still people can’t stop. Someone really needs to invent a phone jammer. And smartphone selfies? I have no end to my disquiet over those who can only experience something by putting themselves in front it. Once in a while. Okay. It proves you were there. All the time? It proves you weren’t. Period.
Next: Tour groups following people with flags. Does this mean you do not have to pay attention to anything at all? A whole group just stops and blocks walking traffic. No one can get around them. They look at no one. And in a place like the Vatican? (I’ve heard that that the Tokyo trains are less crowded.) My advice when you travel: Do not take a tour group anywhere that is already crowded. Period. To take a tour group when you are the only ones in the building? Exceptionally great idea. But a tour group (or thirty) with five thousand others swarming you. Stay home. Or come alone. You are just in the way.
And finally there are just the inexplicable things. In Brussels early in the morning, around 6, twice I heard this strange mysterious piping. 5 or 6 notes. High shrill. Discordant. Played at irregular intervals out in the near distance. It was not a bird. It sounded like a piccolo, even higher. But it wasn’t. It reminded me of the mad piping of the blind idiot god in H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories… and that’s something I’m not about to discuss here.
Instead let me end this praising Sicilian, more specifically Palermo, Palermitan, street food and a mention of two items in particular, stigghiola (grilled sheep or goat guts) and pane ca meusa (a spleen sandwich). Wow! I’m just impressed. I’d say one of the top three reasons to get down to Sicily is the food. (There is something for everyone.) End of essay. Go!
But we’ll discuss Palermo and Sicily next time. Stick around for that one. It’s about life and death. And that’s no metaphor.
From Rome, the Eternal City
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive and now broken glass on my laptop screen. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful.
One thing that now stands out as I travel Europe investigating puppetry is that popular culture is now nearly synonymous with geek culture, Geekdom. Trying to find a film genuinely made for adults is getting harder than five year aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Somehow Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk slipped through the maw into the light of summer, of all times. But these days we are inveigled, assaulted and seduced by a digital overload from the Marvel or DC Universes, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pixar, etc. and a host of lesser lights in the firmament. In Charleville-Mézières, home of the International Institute of Puppetry, all I could find media-wise on the streets was a video game store. I’m old enough to remember when genuinely mature fare was a ready part of the diet of normal college students. I remember walking into films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Rohmer, and Tarkovsky, with audiences expectant to see the latest work from a master filmmaker. Even in the 90’s one could walk into a film like The Piano or Silence of Lambs and expect to be intellectually, as well as emotionally, challenged by the proceedings. Later in the 21st Century films by Scorsese or especially a masterpiece like Polanski’s The Pianist seemed like the final hours of dying art, remnants of an age now departed. Except of course among film geeks!
But I know what you are thinking. Cranky older guy misses his youth. Not really. I don’t mind living now at all. The Seventies were dark as pitch. The Eighties as plastic as a Fischer-Price toy. Each age has its splendors and agonies. But Geekdom is something that truly worries me. This neotenic refusal to mature. This vice of cynical cuteness. The smirking cultic know-it-all attitude about what truly amounts to nothing at all. And please don’t assume that I have stayed above the fray, never dived into the deep end of the nerd pool, oh I have. But not once in my life would I ever consider myself a geek. And no one has ever dared accuse me of such a thing. You see I know the actual etymology of the word geek. It was a word I used freely as it crawled up that last step from the sludge heap to arrive on the steps of pop culture in the 80’s. Back when the geek was the carny who would swallow anything for a buck. I knew this word inside out before its current usage. And how do they relate? I believe it is this. Today’s geek will quite literally swallow anything related to her specialized fan province. And most pop culture today, nitro-charged by the internet, has taken on the gustatory perceptions of the geek, the real one.
Now one of the fascinating things about my explorations into puppetry is that generally puppeteers are not geeks at all. There is no model for what constitutes a puppeteer, at least in Europe. In America there is one kind of puppet that inspires complete geeky dedication. And that is the Muppet. With their soft bodies and loopy childish features they act like clever nursery rhymes come to life. (We can thank Sesame Street for that.) But they are a rare case. Most puppets do not inspire the sectarian devotion that anime or video games do.
Well this actually is a complex question. On the surface the puppet has many of the same features that attract the geek: They sometimes have big eyes. They are often associated with children. They wear odd clothes and can talk strangely. Yet even among the most durable of European puppets, Guignol, Spejbl, and Punch, no large fandom has ever manifested itself. Yet one could easily imagine such a thing developing. Well not with Punch… he kills children after all! And though the Lyon city government has tried, Guignol remains a childhood friend more than another geek speciality. And Spejbl, being Czech, is much too eccentric for most people and has only really spread into Germany, an old story.
And that’s the ironic thing… puppets are genuinely obscure culturally. And the geek would rather be ahead of the curve by liking some game or film that most people haven’t really heard of yet… but not too far ahead. Or behind. Most animation geeks love film styles like Anime. (Yet most have never heard of Alakazam the Great.) And they love Pixar or Claymation. (Yet would look at you quizzically if you mentioned Emil Cohl or Charley Bowers. And then say ‘Ooh but that’s old.’) And what does that make me for being able to pull these historical roots out at every juncture. King Geek? Oh man just hand me that chicken and let me bite its head off now!
But age is exactly the problem here. The vast majority of geeks (except again film geeks) are stuck in a time loop between here and Star Wars, to affix an obvious marker. The geek needs the prefabricated structure of the commercial product, or the thing they are betting on to become the next big thing. The geek thinks about costumes, learning the languages (I forgive you Tolkien for every hack who thought they could cook up a fantasy language. Anthony Burgess and Russell Hoban excepted.), and postulated what would happen if…. (In a geeky badly drawn online comic I would have a dark black scribble in my thought balloon right now.) In Geekdom the commercial image system, including fan art, is everything. It is an extreme fetishization of the some of most commercial and technological products ever made. It also breeds a sad intolerance for the real, the unique, the profound.
Nabokov somewhere said that mediocre readers identify with the characters, great ones look for the author’s intentions. C.S. Lewis, currently spinning in his grave over the rising of Christian Geekdom (someone actually has a site called Thy Geekdom Come which I’d better not discuss since I might jump off the train I’m riding in a fit of nausea… Everything can be justified by the clever.), made similar points in his crucial book, an Experiment In Criticism, where he said that the reading of the many was often a means to construct egoistic sandcastles for themselves, where the reader is “the hero and everything is seen through his eyes. It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women.” Whereas the reading of a few was different, something else was happening. Geek culture too often demonstrates Lewis’ sandcastle building par excellance.
And this brings us back to puppets. Most puppets are resistant to Geekdom for a very good reason. Each one is a physical object. Each one is made individually. Each one shows signs of aging. They are not endlessly repeatable commodities. They remind us that to be human is to have weight and mass. And most importantly they have a mystery to them, which becomes very evident if you stand in a puppet museum with dim light. Geeks have a real problem with mystery. The unresolved kind. The thing that won’t leave you alone and keeps you up at night. The thing that reminds you that you too are created. The thing it’s hard to be cynical about. Geeks want to explore every possibility with their prefab characters. Including the dorky and the sexual. Have you ever heard of ‘shipping’?
When I entered the room to give my presentation to a few students in Charleville-Mézières at the International Institute of Puppetry. Many of them immediately got what I was trying to say. Fantastic creatures though they are, puppets are resistant to flattening deadness of this age and nowhere is the more evident than in Geekdom, for whom the physical surfaces of the world are so contaminated, in Gnostic sense, that they have retreated up the ladder to escape from it into the virtual world, only to discover that rather than ascending into a new form of consciousness, they have found the slide that whisks you down past the level of the clowns. (But that’s another story isn’t it.)
Meanwhile I continue to explore the tangible and tactile and pray that others do as well. In the end nothing virtual will save us.
On a train to Geneva Switzerland
And then it was time to give my ‘prèsentation‘ for the students of l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). It was the first time I was to actually meet the students. I went to the ‘new building’, which still had the feel of a remodeled unfinished structure… and definitely needed some added character. Designed as some lo-fi modernist piece several decades back it had such oddities of construction that I nearly smashed my head open trying to look through a window down to the street. A projector was given to me to connect with my laptop. And evidently there was some teensy pin difference between the chord and and the computer, turning my handcrafted movie clips into bleeding mud on the walls in the red tones. But it really didn’t matter. I could tell that les étudiants were finding my thoughts to be fairly substantive.
I spoke about puppetry possibly providing one answer to the realm of flat dead textures of plastic, glass, stainless steel and the endless distraction value of the screens we are enveloped by. I think something in what I said got to them. And unlike many students in this age who seem welded to their devices, belief structures never withstanding, these students, all of the Harry Potter age, seems to come alive at the notion that their craft might indeed be more than just an art or entertainment on the sidelines of culture. I could see their lights going on upstairs when I spoke of texture, materials, fabrics, wood, rusted iron, and the need for us to live in a world that had some of the features of the natural world: large vistas with details that never ceased in their fractal complexity: Old furniture, wooden walls, paintings often had this characteristic. But now we lived increasingly under the smooth surfaces of plastic, plate, glass, white enamel, and faux materials. Now the only thing of interest for vast swathes of humanity are screens on blank white walls, in theatres, on devices, and above all in our hands.
And yet the Puppet, I felt was in a unique position, with it’s emphasis on texture and tactility to provide some sort of possible answer to this terrifying dilemma. For we are certainly effected by the objects we surround ourselves with. And many of these marionnettistes immediately got the point. Rather than weakly accept the all surrounding force of commercial deadness and the pop cults of the day, these students were here to emphasize the tactile, real life movement, and the physical body. My message fell upon thirsty ears. I was telling them that there was indeed a purpose to their art in the 21st Century.
Now I don’t want give the impression that I had one glowing experience after another. It took several more days until I could actually talk with the students again. Meanwhile my fellow chercheurs Yanna Kor and old friend Paulette Caron had departed for other parts françaises. Estefania Urquijo had gone off for four days to look for puppets in Lyon. And so it was a long weekend. And I a bit isolated experiencing at last the dislocation of my transition from Alaska. As I walked through the Place Ducale I was nagged by an unresolved issue from my intense summer that was still weighing down upon me. Yet I was working on it. And I did indeed have some worthy news, that I’ll discuss in a moment. So I roved the town and waited thoughtfully for the last week to begin.
And it was indeed a memorable last week at the Institut International de la Marionnette. After my presentation Raphaèle Fleury, Manager of the Research Center, told me that the Institute was considering to help me finish the film and that included financially. Now I don’t want to go into all of the details, because this will take about a year to unravel and I want to see how things go. But one thing seems quite certain I will be back here in a year working on Gravity From Above again. And this is a big deal for me.
More importantly it was because of the effect of my presentation upon the students that Raphaèle was convinced that the istitute needed to help me get this documentary completed. And so there is justification for this journey. Yet as good as this news was it only felt like the appetizer for a main course that will come in time.
One student who immediately got what I was saying was Zoë Lizot. She spoke to me after the prèsentation and had many questions about the puppeteers role in art. Later I would see her performing a little puppet play with Valentin Arnoux and find that this serious young woman also had extremely funny voices waiting to be released into the world. Valentin himself was politely earnest and too was revealed to have a sly sense of timing as he played simply a head. (See photo.)
The student who most seriously understood the implications of my message was Coraline Charnet. Paulette had told me to talk with her. When I approached she was eager for further exploration of the ideas. We spent the good part of an afternoon sharing lunch and discussing the philosophy of texture, and our need for it. She said she had been thinking about these things for a while. Especially the flatness of contemporary society with all it’s screens and devices. She told me that I had articulated what had been disturbing her.
After weeks of waiting I was finally allowed in to see the students practice for an afternoon. A curious thing about the French training pedagogy is its emphasis on the physical body and movement. This comes from a long line of French theatrical theorists and includes traditions in theatre, mime, clowning, and of course puppetry. And so I watched Alexandra Vuillet conduct body work for an hour and a half. One of these exercises seemed almost related to some body preparation ritual prior to a burial. One student would lay on the floor as if dead and the other would massage/push/caress most of the unmoving clothed body.
But this seemed of a piece with the French casualness about the body in general as opposed to my more Anglo-American disregard bordering on squeamishness. And in my contacts with the French étudiants in general there was a physical closeness that seemed to develop quickly. Suddenly there were kisses on the cheek. Women touching me to make points. And even among the guys there was a casualness of body language quite foreign to my more northern sensibilities. I spent an evening with students Cassiel Bruder and Eve (pronounced ‘Ev’) Bigontina in which we were already like old friends with familiar gestures. Now this isn’t to imply that the French have achieved some sort of enlightened state concerning the flesh. I’m sure that issues arise often. They are just slightly different from those in more physically reserved countries.
In the afternoon they began to practice a variant of the Japanese bunraku technique, which involves one person in control of the head and right arm of a puppet, another the left arm and torso and a third the feet. And then they were broken up into smaller groups, there are only 13 students in the school, and allowed to create a small play based on photocopies of a short text. Now when I say text it’s not as if these étudiants are working with puppetry classics like Faust, Don Giovanni, Alice in Wonderland, for example. No they are working with more recent French texts, which always have a more philosophical message. One of them was about a man who had just committed suicide and whose ghost was over above his corpse in a flash of memory. And it was fascinating to watch how quickly they assembled little plays out of the material. One involved a puppet coming across Valentin’s head. Another with about a ghostly empty hoodie wandering around, while Iranian puppeteer Sayeh Sirvani played its feet. And the last contingent performed a play featuring several other students and the suicidal bunraku practice puppet.
One puppeteer stuck out for me. She was obviously moving differently, spoke English, but nearly no French, and was often seen alone. That was Latvian exchange student Māra Uzuliņa. When I had asked the students during my presentation about why they wanted to be puppeteers, she told a story about about being in a theatre program in Riga, Latvia, then going to medical school, then changing her thoughts again and choosing puppetry again. It was intriguing enough for me to ask her to be interviewed for the documentary. Like many of the students she had, what I would call, the right reasons for wanting to study puppetry. And the puppet students seemed like they understood intuitively the increasing abstraction from the physical world. Māra had that down cold. She had made a short video where she had made demonstrated her use of unusual objects to communicate deeply. We set a time to film our interview the Thursday night before I left for Brussels. When the time came I conducted the interview with a minimal amount of distraction in the Villa d’Aubilly.
This might have been the best interview I’ve ever done. Not that it had the historical significance of talking with Jan Švankmajer or Henryk Jurkowski. Not that Māra had great techniques and experience to share. Nevertheless she was open emotionally in a way that few other interviewees had been. And when we came to discussing puppetry in this media soaked 21st Century, she suddenly caught herself, honestly, passionately confronting the artificiality of this sad new world in a way that that even took her own breath away and left me affected as well. And that she was 24 years old was an important fact. I have interviews with older puppet folks discussing their discomfort with a world of increasing virtuality. In a time where younger folks will naturally defend the predigested big budget fantasy images on their ever present screens as being their own, here was one young soul who questioned it deeply. And she wasn’t alone either. I know many of the students of ESNAM would have said similar things. Though I doubt any of them would have said it with the emotional intensity that Māra had. And I was glad to meet as any of the students as I did. And I’m sure there’ll be more questioning of the spirit of the age when I return next year to interview several more. (And I will be back!) And so I’m glad to have my first Latvian friend as well whose name is Māra. Those who know me well might have seen this name show up in my creative endeavors before. And it will show up* again.
Oh and one other thing before I go to sleep here in Brussels. Raphaèle also approached me in the library to ask if I wanted to write an essay based on my presentation for their forthcoming book called Puppetry and Power. I said “Is it my name?” and of course was honored as I was by the whole experience at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. And I bid a fond adieu to Raphaèle, Brigitte, Eloi, Delphine, Aurelie and my fellow chercheur Estefania.
Thanks for following along with me on my journey. Next time we are back in Brussels for a Toone marionette version of Dracula.
OKAY now just stop what you are doing! And watch that five minute interview with Māra all the way till the end.