At first, I started to fall in love with David Soll’s Puppet. I admired its convergence of cultural history, behind-the-scenes exposé, and biographic information about a tornado-swept photographer. But as the film pressed on past the twenty or twenty-five minute mark, I had more and more trouble staying in love with the film. I kept thinking, puppets are cool, unique. Where else am I going to find out about them? But the problem with Soll’s film, I realized more and more sitting in front of the television, was that I didn’t find out enough.
I certainly felt that the experts interviewed gave enough of a historic and cultural background for puppetry, but I wanted more. I listened to expert after expert wax historic about how puppetry and puppets are the red-headed step-child of theater, but I never heard any of them put puppetry in the context of other art forms. The Lion King, Being John Malkovich, and the like were mentioned, but they were mentioned as other forms that are beginning to feature puppets. Not other art forms that relate to puppetry. It was as if puppetry evolved completely isolated from other art and culture.
Yet the film lets me know that this wasn’t quite the case. Earlier on in the film, an expert tells me that puppetry has improved the lives of Americans in eras of conflict. The 1930s, with its economic and social dislocation, was a time that needed puppets until after World War II. Similarly, the chaotic social and political moment of the ‘60s created a socio-cultural need for puppets. This idea of the social need for an art form, this close tying of artists and the public en masse, engages me. It takes artists a bit out of control of their work and puts them at the whim of history in a way. Though I’m not sure it’s entirely new, I do still like it. It makes me reconsider that I may have known this, in some sense, of visual art but more importantly, that I rarely grapple with this fact when it comes to essay writing and essayists.
Nevertheless, this analysis of American societies need for puppets in various decades is one of few instances in the expert commentary that’s very enlightening. Aside finding out that the form has ancient roots in almost every culture, I’m given fairly thin information. Again, I’m reminded again and again of how much of an underdog puppetry is, how its only subjugated to the world of children in the States. I wished that more of this time was taken to interview folks outside of who you might expect but who could give a broader scope of insight. What if Soll had interviewed a famous pantomime actor or a choreographer from Joffrey or the Merce Cunningham company? What if I got to hear what a philosopher specializing in theory of mind had to say? What if Soll had interviewed theorists like Brian Rotman or Andy Clark? What if I got to hear from a cultural studies expert who didn’t necessarily write a book about puppetry but still had a vantage on it? It’s not hard for me to rattle off a rather long list of folks I would’ve rather heard from than those that I did. Certainly they serve a function and, in my mind, serve it well for the first half hour or so of the film. But the overall thrust of the expert interviews almost never diverged from a rather easy-to-predict path of informed support.
There is perhaps one voice of dissent among the chorus. David Sefton, former executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, gets a few minutes late in the film to voice his critique. He tells us how he feels that part of the problem is that too many people have been doing it over the past fifteen years. And slightly more poignantly, he questions the view that puppets can make banal movements and activities more profound. “It’s no more significant if a puppet does it or if I do,” Sefton says. “Look, it might be a bit more fun to watch my dog run around the garden than me, but it makes it no more significant, and it certainly doesn’t make it art.” Sefton’s argument might be a bit of a straw man but at least it’s a bit dissonant from the rest. At least he questions the gravitas given again and again to puppets. And, for me, it’s not that I dislike puppets or that I necessarily dislike what most of the experts are saying about puppets, it’s just that it hits one note and stays there. I want at least nuanced voices of approval and probably a bit more active questioning of the form as well. Perhaps the point is that enough people question puppetry in the States, so the film wants to wave the banner for it a bit. That’s fine, but I just think that there are much deeper and broader ways of doing it.
There are even moves that Soll makes as a director that could’ve been capitalized upon more. One of the most captivating parts of the film for me were moments of slightness, quiet moments when I was able to watch the puppeteers work. To watch the grace, uncanny rapport between a puppeteer’s hand, a camera trigger, and a puppet’s body. Somehow it all gets elided and is visually acceptable. My heart hits the bottom of my stomach when I watch the puppeteers of Disfarmer rehearsing with an incomplete, armature version of Mike Disfarmer. The rapport between puppeteer, puppet, space, and motion hit a lyric fluidity that engages me and proves so much to me about the ability of puppetry as a form. Perhaps more than the intellectual through-line of expert interviews.
And, of course, there’s also the thread of Dan Hurlin and his production of Disfarmer. The thread did give me a behind-the-scenes look at the world of puppetry. It also allowed me to have a few rather ecstatic moments of awe while watching puppets move. But even with these noteworthy aspects, watching Hurlin and his colleagues prepare for opening night felt a little stayed. Something I’ve seen before. We start in medias race on openings night then jump back three years and work our way forward. The form is typical of documentary and is surprisingly out of sync with Disfarmer itself. Hurlin seems to have a much more artful way of portraying Mike Disfarmer’s life than Soll does of capturing Hurlin’s production. Hurlin employs a more impressionistic, almost magical realist tack while Soll stays in the typical documentary mode.
Perhaps Soll doesn’t need to parallel Hurlin’s aesthetic. Maybe this kind of mimesis isn’t needed. But I do think that something more is needed in its place, if not. I’m simply not invested enough in Hurlin and his colleagues to feel the emotional weight of whether or not Disfarmer is going to succeed after opening night or not. Instead, I’m more so waiting for the form to finish. I can sense that I’m supposed to be invested in a way that I’m not. And more than that, I can feel the way that I wished that Soll would’ve taken some cues from Hurlin. The Mike Disfarmer puppet gets smaller and smaller, he becomes more and more paranoid that every sound he hears is a tornado, but the accretion in Hurlin’s show doesn’t translate to Soll’s film. Neither does the mystique that Hurlin and his colleagues portray in their show. Instead, we find out perhaps too much about Mike Disfarmer’s origins. Soll goes the easy route of using Hurlin’s research for Disfarmer as a foil to give me biographical information about Mike Disfarmer.
Maybe this is a “two pony” reading of Soll’s Puppet; perhaps I’m trying to make his film into the film I would’ve made or just the film that I wanted it to be. Though, I’m not so sure. It feels a lot more like I saw the potential in Soll’s subject matter and even in the first twenty or twenty-five minutes of his film but both the content and the form fell flat for me soon after. I wanted to love it a lot more than I did, and perhaps all of these comments are my way of trying to fill a gap of creative work that I felt was left undone after I finished the film.