Funny how, well, sturdy an old-fashioned documentary can be if it has the right content. On first inspection, Puppet isn’t all that promising in that, at heart, it’s just one more behind-the-scenes/march-of-time look at the mounting of an original live-theatre production, with all the strains, setbacks, sweat, tedium and small triumphs associated with it.
Fortunately, Puppet has the right stuff even as it proceeds, checklist-fashion, through virtually every convention of the idiom. A directorial debut for New Yorker David Soll, it traces master American puppeteer Dan Hurlin’s herculean effort to craft, then stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn a play based on the last year in the life of Mike Disfarmer. An eccentric recluse from small-town Arkansas whose diet seems to have consisted largely of chocolate ice cream and beer, Disfarmer has, since his death at 75 in 1959, joined the ranks of Auguste Sander, Diane Arbus and Irving Penn as one of the world’s great portrait photographers.
Years earlier, Hurlin had tried to conquer New York with another audacious avant-garde puppet show, this one based on the real-life story of 25 female victims of the first atomic-bomb attack who’d been brought to the United States in 1955 for reconstructive surgery. The show was enjoying sold-out houses until The New York Times weighed in with a pan, whereupon the production closed pronto.
So, the question Soll entertains is this: Can Hurlin get back on his horse again and ride it to commercial and critical approbation? We see him prepare his Bunraku-style puppets, pitch ideas to his overworked and underpaid puppeteers, travel to Arkansas for information on Disfarmer (real surname: Mike Meyer) and rehearse, rehearse, then rehearse again. As the narrative progresses, Soll inserts commentary from Hurlin and associates as well as from puppet scholars Victoria Nelson ( The Secret Life of Puppets) and Eileen Blumenthal ( Puppetry: A World History) and The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella, among others.
While puppets have had a profound place in the planet’s cultural and religious life for thousands of years (and continue to do so in, say, Indonesia and Japan), their history has been especially problematic in North America, especially in the last 150 years. As one of Soll’s talking heads remarks, “everyone has these immediate inner visions of puppetry.” For some, it’s the artistry of Ronnie Burkett, what Julie Taymor achieved in The Lion King; for others, it’s the rowdiness of Punch and Judy, the sass of Charlie McCarthy, or “an inferior thing,” as Blumenthal puts it.
As a result, puppetry here has weaved in and out of favour with audiences and reviewers – a history that hangs heavy over Hurlin and his co-creators as they alternate between vigorously defending the validity of animating inanimate chunks of wood and papier-mâché, and fretting about whether it’s worth the effort in the digital age. Hurlin, in fact, wonders if puppetry (or at least his brand of puppetry) may be going the way of the humble portrait studio that every second town had in the first half of the 20th century and in which Disfarmer himself toiled. As the New York opening draws closer, Hurlin, who is gay, starts to see parallels between his life and that of his subject: “It turns out to be about what I fear most: being alone.” Is it too precious? he asks. “Will it be interesting to people who aren’t interested in puppets?”
Since I like puppetry, or at least the puppetry practised by Hurlin and company, as well as the photography of Disfarmer, the question is moot. For the equivocal out there, Soll’s documentary could, for all its stylistic conservatism, serve as a kind of conversion experience. As for the play itself, it did open. Did the Times like it? See the film to find out.
- Directed and edited by David Soll
- Featuring Dan Hurlin, Mark Acheson, Chris Green, Tom Lee, Eric Wright
- Classification: NA