If Puppet is an essay, it’s a braided one with three strands: the creation--from conception to delivery--of puppeteer Dan Hurlin’s production; the history of puppetry; and the life-story of a withering small-town photographer. But Puppet isn’t an essay, it’s a straight-forward documentary: informative not speculative, objective not subjective, rigid not amorphous.
Puppetry is a transgressive, marginalized artistic movement turned out by its visual and performing arts family. One expert in the film explains that puppets are used at whim by American culture when a throw-back to simplicity is desired, in times of conflict, and during “economic and social dislocation.” Puppet shows, for instance, do not warrant critics who specialize in the field; it is the theater and dance critics who are relegated to cover the performances. We see this idea of the transgressive marginalized in the life of Disfarmer, the town photographer, “the ultimate insider” documenting his neighbors’ major life events, but also “the ultimate outsider,” allegedly ousted by his family, an alcoholic recluse who one former acquaintance notes he had never seen converse with another human being. Hurlin, as mentioned in the film, came of age in small-town New Hampshire to a “Mayflower family” that was as “‘in-crowd’ as you can get,” but, as a visibly gay child, was simultaneously an outsider. It is their inborn disenfranchisement that bonds Hurlin to Disfarmer and both of them to puppetry: each one navigating societal norms. But this transgression is embedded solely in the content; Soll adds little, if anything, to the conversation.
We literally hear Soll’s voice a handful of times throughout the film: once when he asks a puppeteer what he does for a living, and again when he asks a puppeteer if he’d like to read the New York Times’ review of the show. Of course we shouldn’t have to actually hear the author’s voice to sense his presence--we might be able to sense his presence on the other side of interviewees--the unheard dialogue. But among the many fervent talking heads in Puppet, the viewer gets no sense of Soll. Instead we get a more authoritarian presence deviating from the very essence of Essay. Experts like Eileen Blumenthal provide us with gobs of historical and cultural insights resulting in a 74-minute long video research paper rather than Soll’s reflection on “disappearance and revival”--his own words to describe the film’s themes.
Puppet’s composition fails to complicate or question--it just tells. Visually it is unremarkable save for intermittent splicing of Hurlin’s fully realized production throughout the film. The sequencing is chronological and methodical. Opening with the creation of the featured puppet’s many heads, we are subsequently provided with a lengthy history of the art form beginning with the Cro-Magnon period. Next we’re present for the first rehearsal and alerted to the fact that Disfarmer will be at least two years in the making. We can assume then that this will, in large part, be a journey piece--we will see this production carried through to fruition. We receive background about Mike Disfarmer--connections are made between his disintegration and that of the form of puppetry thus returning us to the talking heads, back to rehearsal, to the talking heads again, the story of Disfarmer, repeat, repeat, repeat.
While screening Puppet, the documentary queen in me could not help but be reminded of Douglas Keeve’s 1995 film (and one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time), Unzipped, about the development of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi’s fall ’94 collection. The film is framed by scenes of Mizrahi at his neighborhood bodega, pouring through a Women’s Wear Daily to find the review of his most recent fashion show. A similar scene plays out in Puppet as we witness Hurlin read an underwhelming New York Times review. Unzipped, like Puppet, is part creation story and part rebound chronicle, an attempt at redemption from a naysaying media outlet. However, unlike Soll, whose only “initial reference point was the Muppets and Sesame Street,” Keeve was a successful fashion photographer and Mizrahi’s former lover, which, according to the New York Times, only “heighten[ed] Mr. Keeve’s acuity rather than compromising his perspective.” There is no evident intimacy--or passion--between Soll and his subject.
Keeve does not rest on Mizrahi’s laurels--he utilizes conceptual and structural tactics. Title cards are used throughout, directly addressing the viewer: a hallmark of the essay film according to film theorist, Laura Rascalori. Vignettes seemingly unrelated to the creation of Mizrahi’s collection break up what could be a typical linear progression. At one point, Keeve leaves the screen black to emphasize the comedy in a Mizrahi voice-over. He uses grainy black-and-white super-8 film in the opening to provide a sense of historical footage, later transitioning to a sleek 16 mm black-and-white, but astutely switching to color when Mizrahi’s textile creations see the light of day. The cinéma vérité style of Unzipped is described by one critic as “a conceit. Many scenes appear staged, and a great deal of cutting-and-pasting has been done in the editing room. Genuine spontaneity is at a premium, and everyone is aware of and playing to the camera.” One might ask that critic how anyone who knows they’re being filmed could not play to the camera, but Keeve “couldn’t care less about the ‘truth’...I was more interested in capturing the spirit and love in Isaac and in fashion...I was not interested in making a textbook about fashion.” Puppet is, in great part, a textbook about puppetry.
Unzipped, in the tradition of Essay, breaks the rules of “legitimate” documentary or non-fiction by planting itself somewhere between fact and fiction, and by effectively merging reason with sentiment. Puppet, on the other hand, resides comfortably in fact and orthodoxy and, perhaps as a result, lacks any kind of introspection from its creator. With that said, I doubt if Soll’s intent was to produce an essayistic piece. He accomplished what I suspect he set out to do: convince the layperson of the cultural significance of this other art form.