I, too, must admit, there were points at which the film attempted to wax too poetic, and waned for it's audience.
And, also, I'm not sure how much a documentary can "essay" either. Especially a prototypical documentary with basically only one (polemic) dissenter.
What interests me in this film is the notion of puppetry as a marginalized but apparently still-vibrant art form. Cyrus Console called poetry "a possibly sustainable art form". Although very different, I wonder if puppetry might fall under this category. With a rich and varied history, we are shown the various cultural responses to the proprietors of the uncanny. Puppetry is, of course, like many art forms, even our own, being kept alive by those passionate about it, and those curious enough to buy a ticket. Similarly, advances in technology (although one of the puppeteers is very distrustful of technology) and design seem only to serve and challenge this form of art to evolve.
More interestingly, I think, is the meditation the audience is asked to perform: what is the value of puppetry? What is beautiful about an inanimate object being brought to life through the choreographing and cooperation of multiple, visible human beings, obviously devoted to their art? Can we dismiss puppetry as easily as David Sefton, that is, asserting that it is more interesting to watch his dog run around the yard than to watch him, although that doesn't make it "more beautiful" and it "certainly doesn't make it art." It seems problematic to have such a reductive approach to the art form, and art in general, especially as we trudge ourselves out of the (post)postmodern era. Do I trust an art critic to define art for me, simply because of his credentials? No. Moreover, the analogy doesn't fit the bill. The fascinating thing about puppetry, which is pointed out time and again, is that the puppets are lifeless without human beings, and dependent upon their hands, bodies, and mutual interaction to highlight the smallest motions in life.
Like one of the puppeteers mentions, there is a growing renaissance for many ancient art forms that seem in danger of extinction* - often these are forms that rely on patience, innovation, cooperation, etc. Things that force us to slow down in an over-stimulated world. I myself bought a quill and ink last week, and it has taught me to appreciate the physical act of writing in a way that I had heretofore been unable to consider. And I can now somewhat, in an oblique way, come a little bit closer to understanding why writing, and the alphabet itself, have often been considered sacred in ancient cultures.
I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not sure this film, if it is capable of essaying, is about puppetry. It's a case study within a case study, and it challenges us by asking us to make - somewhat uncomfortable - judgments about what we consider "art" is capable of being in the 21st century. In this documentary, the construction of the puppets is minimized - that is, puppetry as art is presented as a live act, rather than the puppet itself as art. I'm not sure how the puppet really differs from sculpture, or the live act differs from dance, other than that the medium is reliant on humans using an inhuman object to heighten the subtleties of human motion.
I'm not sure that this film is actually that far off from Schlansky. It presents a whimsical approach that harkens us back to childhood, and challenges notions of form and genre. Could Soll have done better? Probably. Is any work of art ever "finished"?
*This is an unexplored moment in the film, when Dan Hurlin ventures the possibility that the Disfarmer production is actually autobiographical.
Note: Although it is long, I encourage everyone to read the linked review. It is quite interesting, and I think, relevant.