Thursday, April 21, 2011

Not dispuppeting.

I was so excited about Puppet after having seen the trailer. The film didn’t disappoint me – I am always beguiled by the unfolding artistic process, independent of the medium under exploration. See also Lost in La Mancha, Looking for Richard, or a whole slew of mediums examined through the lens of reality TV: Project Runway, Top Chef, Work of Art, and the long-defunct Project Greenlight.

In his review of the first Project Greenlight film, Roger Ebert raised an interesting point via his old sparring partner:

Gene Siskel proposed an acid test for a movie: Is this film as good as a documentary of the same people having lunch? At last, with "Stolen Summer," we get a chance to decide for ourselves. The making of the film has been documented in the HBO series "Project Greenlight," where we saw the actors and filmmakers having lunch, contract disputes, story conferences, personal vendettas, location emergencies and even glimpses of hope.

For Ebert, this film did turn out to be as interesting as the documentary about it, but with Puppet, most of us (all of us?) will never know if the performances of Disfarmer were as good as the documentary about its making. Such is the ephemeral nature of theatre, or any live performance, really—certain concerts have grown epic in my memory, for example, based on whatever odd/interesting thing happened onstage. Through this alchemical-seeming process, I switch from being just an audience member to a witness.

Anyhoo. What does all that have to do with David Soll, or Puppet, or Dan Hurlin, or Mike Disfarmer?

To be honest, I’m not completely certain. But it’s interesting to me that in our discussion of the film yesterday, and in the other blog entries below, and in my blathering above, we seem to be projecting an awful lot onto the film: what we think it should be doing that it’s not, what it reminds us of, what implicit thing(s) it seems to be about. On one hand, whatever—this is what people do when they talk about anything. But on the other hand, isn’t this curiously akin to the experience of watching puppetry, as described in the film? It’s almost as though this film, like its subject matter (puppetry, Disfarmer the man) is open enough to contain all sorts of projected associations from the viewer (which is why we looked at Scott McCloud's book before our discussion).

I think that alone is one kind of argument for the degree to which the film essays. Isn’t it grim when the essay under discussion yields nothing in the way of conversation? A silent, collective shrug is the worst kind of damnation, I think. (Note: I don’t think that applies to anything we’ve discussed this semester.)

But here is another argument for this film as an essay, from this interview with David Soll:

And what I was hoping to do was not just make it a lot of context for this guy [Hurlin], but have Mike Disfarmer, Dan Hurlin, and the form of puppetry as three intertwining threads, which have these overlapping themes of disappearance and revival. All three experience issues of disappearance and legacy and marginalization, and I was hoping to find a way to put those three in dialogue with each other.

This strikes me as a fundamentally essayistic impulse, and I am not bothered by David Soll’s lack of screen time or apparent invisibility in the film. As someone in our class pointed out, David Soll edited this film as well as directed it, and he co-produced it too. If we want the project to fulfill the criteria of being present with the author/creator’s idiosyncratic mind—well, it is. What else could the filmmaker’s choice of subject matter be, if he is his own producer? That Soll largely absents himself from the final project in terms of voice over or screen time is a stylistic choice and not a defining characteristic of the project’s status as essay. Finnegan is just barely in “Silver or Lead” as a first-person narrator, for example. Similarly, the inconspicuous visual language of this film is a stylistic choice, a decision to get out of the way of the material, to let it speak for itself.

I’m talking myself into making a pronouncement here. It’s this: To me, Puppet is unequivocally an essay.

Before our class discussion, I was on the yes side of undecided in that matter, so I’ve tipped into more definitive territory. But the real question is whether this is the best essay we’ve discussed this semester, all mediums being equal. I tip on the no side of undecided in that regard.

If we weren’t writers, but scientists – OK, fine, there are scientists among us, too – maybe we would have a neat and tidy rubric to consult, through which we could indicate whether we think each essay succeeded or failed on a series of agreed-upon measures. (This is top of mind for me because the head of a program where I work showed me a really beautiful and exhaustive analytic document she developed to determine her students’ learning outcomes – a three-judge panel quizzed each of 23 teams and cued in their responses to 11 learning outcomes in real time using clickers – !! – and now the program can tell which of those outcomes is struggling to gain traction in the classroom, etc.)


In conclusion, it’s not so much that Puppet falls down for me in terms of its essaying (although I wanted the threads Soll speaks of entwining above to collide more spectacularly), but that in decision making of the sort we’re being asked to take on, I tend to rely to some extent on my gut, and I have been more in thrall to other projects we’ve looked at.

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