And so in late April I returned from Georgia, the country not the state. And if you’ve been following The Anadromous Life for a few years you know that I’ve been thinking about Georgia since 2012 as an unusual place culturally that might have a few helpful clues as to how to live in these media soaked, excessively technological times. The big question I had was this, Was Georgia the place I was imaging it to be from my perch up in Alaska half a world away? Music and dance everywhere? Everyone inviting you to supras (the big elaborate meal with toasting, music and too much wine). The answer proved to be ‘yes’ and of course ‘no’ and yet verily ‘yes’ and then some. The view from the internet, from Facebook, from YouTube proved helpful. Ultimately though reality is always different. Always. And yet…
So what did I see? What did I learn? What are the Georgians like? Do they have anything for us? Or are they caught in the same traps we are? (You can read my actual Georgian tour diaries over Gravity From Above, which I highly recommend if you feel like you are getting bit by the Caucasian bug.)
First of all, no, Georgians may sing a lot, but I wasn’t greeted by songs when I landed at the Tbilisi airport at 5am. No one was dancing at the baggage claim. My first few days in Tbilisi were quite frankly bewildering. The air in late March was already muggy. The traffic insanely unregulated. I estimate in a population of 1,100,000 people I only saw four traffic lights. Crossing the street required serious nimbleness. Maybe that’s why they breed such fine dancers. Georgians weren’t exactly what an American would describe as open and friendly. But then again I’ve been convinced for quite a while that American ideal of niceness is often a façade. And I was firmly apprised of the fact that the vaunted and legendary Georgian hospitality isn’t a happy mask. In fact Georgians seem to be very low-key, low-maintenance people on the whole. It isn’t until you actually begin to talk with them that you notice something different.
But in many ways they were like any other people with access to technology. I saw plenty of Georgians staring down into their hands in the now universal gesture of smartphone addiction. Georgians have no secret immunization against television, computers or video games. And yet they do have something that seems points them down a different path. As I began to survey the culture from the capital Tbilisi I began to put a few things together. I purposely didn’t go wandering into the Caucasus Mountains, which I felt I could best save for another trip. I’ve long been suspicious of tourists who have to see everything. Quantity does not matter to me as much as quality. And since I was here to understand the culture, especially its music, dance and puppetry, it was much more important to me to spend time in one place, a place I could begin to understand, Tbilisi, rather than spend a few days here and a few days there. Understanding comes through time. And my goal was to meet Georgians who were involved in their artistic endeavors. And so staying in one place was the way to do that. And since Tbilisi was where much of that happened why go into the mountains too soon? Besides when I showed a few photos of my Alaskan backyard to some Georgians one of them said “I can see why you don’t need to see the mountains.” Indeed I do have mountains to gaze at here in Haines, Alaska.
And then there is this question: What does a person get out of such a place who just spends a few days here? Now I’m a good traveler. I do my homework. I read an awful lot before arriving in Georgia. I bought every DVD I could find on the travel, the culture and history of Georgia. I downloaded every possible relevant documentary on Georgia. I listened to lectures by Donald Rayfield, the longtime expert in Georgians studies and by others. I bought books. I connected with a few Georgians through social media. I wasn’t arriving as casual tourist. And yet I would say this; my first few days their were truly baffling, trying to make sense of the Georgian alphabet, trying to figure out how to get around, attempting to make some sense of things. And I was largely doing basic tourism level events. And so I can’t imagine how a visitor who does little homework could get much at all, except a bit of exoticism, out of a quick experience here. Georgia requires study. There is a touristic zone. But even that isn’t nearly as tourist friendly as say the same much larger zone would be in Paris or Prague. In Tbilisi it’s just one street of about seven blocks and it’s local environs. Not very big at all. The rest of the city is much more about living and working in Tbilisi.
So ‘no’ Tbilisi didn’t extend a warm friendly vibe, at least not as Americans reckon ‘warm and friendly’, which usually means lots of convenient amenities laid out in such a manner that a child could make sense of them. And that was, I found, a good thing. In my entire three weeks in Georgia I overheard American and British English about ten times. But I did hear lots of Russian! And I did overhear a few words of English from what turned out to be Iranian women. Fascinating. I had an informative little conversation with them. I hope that when more Americans do discover Georgia, and given the insatiable needs of distraction in our world they/we eventually will, I hope it’s more like the Rick Steves crowd than the cruise ship industry. Unfortunately it’ll probably be the younger post-hippies, who’ll inevitably bring the spores of contemporary alienation along like fleas. Meanwhile the relative incomprehensibility of Georgia will keep the most obnoxious folks away for a while. Which means that right now it is perfect for the traveler more than the tourist.
Nevertheless when I did manage to find an information office I was met by some of the truly friendliest people I could meet. And here’s where things began to change in my experience in Tbilisi, and it’s the reason why a person should visit. It’s in actually meeting Georgians that you find the real gold in the country. It’s when you begin to cross the line into human connections that you start to find something radically different. The standard tourist experience will produce little except fond memories of the food, crazy moments to remember when you tried to bargain at the Dry Bridge for a soviet era relic, a few sights that might be tainted by the tourism industry. But once you connect to locals? All bets are off. Anything can happen. (Which also happens to be the name of a funny book by George Papashvily about a Georgian immigrant to America in the mid-20th Century.)
So to the adventurous and openhearted I say come. To the politically correct college students looking to reaffirm their rather calcified vision of the world and the tourists who need convenience before all else, I say there are many other places to travel; try Thailand, Amsterdam, Costa Rica. But for those looking for humanity Georgia is the place.
(Georgian Lesson #2 soon!)
You can read about my whole journey to Georgia at my Gravity From Above Site:
Oh Cute! I’ve been meaning to get back to this, where did it come from? Why is it here? How did it creep up on us unawares? How did it come to be so unassailable as cultural values go? How did it come to infect children and old ladies, Christians and atheists, straights and gays, Europeans and Asians, and ultimately the world. Obviously in an essay like this, even in a series, there isn’t time or space to go into the whole process. But maybe we can suggest a bare outline. I won’t retread what I’ve already said, but maybe we can define our terms a bit, or rather the term… Cute.
Cute, as with all words, once upon a time did not exist. In fact as words go it is relatively recent. Cute, the word, derives from acute in its meaning of sharp. Eventually it became simply cute when describing, say, a couple of bright young girls. And somehow it leapt from there to the babies. How exactly? Someone needs to do more research in this area.
Words are one thing and reality is another, for we not only now have a word to denote big-eyed cuddly baby-like imaginary creatures, we now have those images surrounding us in flat and three dimensional plastic form: We have plush dolls and anime movies, posters and puppets, emblazoned sweaters and YouTube videos. And so that leads to the question of where these objects came from.
Go back a few hundred years and you will be very hard pressed to find any representations remotely resembling these treacly figments. Artists did not portray these sticky sweet characters. There were no cartoons as we know them now. Dolls had much more gravitas about them. Puppets could be downright baleful.
Then German and English Romanticism, where Nature and the Soul was deified, began to trickle down from being an artistic and poetic philosophy to a more mundane species of everyday life. Emotion reigned over the intellect for the bourgeoisie, sensitivity and discretion in matters of everyday life. Women were placed on a shelf, where today’s sexual liberations and gender philosophies are still trying to rescue them; especially from late-Victorian/1950s influenced Christians, who unfortunately are the last one’s holding the Romantic bag. And children, following Rousseau’s idealizations, eventually became the focus of sentiment, another new category. (Although sentiment at this stage was a fuller idea allied with the other new concept of sensibility.) One feels this new approach towards children in the many wonderful children’s books that began to appear in the late 19th Century and early 20th, many of which became treasured classics down to this day. Consider Waterbabies, At the Back of the North Wind, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and, supremely, Alice in Wonderland, among many others. And yet it is not these books that open the door to the Cute virus.
A visual root also hearkens back to the Victorian Era. There is perhaps a bit of a prehistory in say the little cherub motifs in European art, Rubens made the first break with his miniature Herculean cherubs. Overly fleshy, angelic baby things, inaugurating a trend towards the sentimentalization of pink tiny angels taken to extremes by a late Romantic artist like William Adolphe Bouguereau. But the decisive artistic break comes from an offshoot, a commercial offshoot of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England in the mid-19th Century. John Everett Millais one of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, later in his career painted portraits of the kinds of upper class families that certainly did dote upon their children. In a couple of images, particularly The Tea Party and Bubbles, he created a template for Cuteness that almost immediately was adopted by the nascent commercial industry for soap. And this alliance between Cute and business has remained in force ever since. Cuteness is a species of sentimentality in its more modern sense, which can now be seen as the use of emotion inappropriate towards the object of that emotion. And that emotional falsity can now be used as a tool for manipulation by marketers and propagandists alike.
Late Victorian children’s culture is awash in cutesy images and concepts. Children’s books themselves became an entire industry. But the big eyed round headed creature has not made his arrival yet.
It takes Walt Disney to do that, along with his German graphic designer Ub Iwerks. With work on Oswald the Rabbit in the mid-20s and then in 1928 the debut of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie a decisive moment had come. Though a dam of common sense is still holding back the tide of insufferable baby-likeness. The early Mickey had the big eyes, but the head shape was still a bit too rodentine. But by the end of the 30s Mickey Mouse would evolve into the prototype of all things cute. By Fantasia, which has truly fearful devils, influenced by the creepier puppet films of Ladislas Starewich, we find the round headed Mickey Mouse recognizable today, as well as far too many cute fairies in Beethoven’s Pastorale.
But through Disney the new conception of Cute became the province of anyone wishing to communicate with children, which eventually television, needing simplified imagery to avoid video feedback, would latch onto with a vengeance. Puppetry, cartoons, graphics were all made into rounded cuddly shapes.
A major addition to the canon of cuteness came from postwar Japan in the forms of manga and anime. A very early anime cartoon from 1960, known in the west as Alakazam the Great (Saiyûki), shows how much the Japanese cartoon industry was influenced by Disney and then really enlarged the eyes. And yet the truly distinctive feature of anime is that the Japanese idea of cute – kawaii – allows for sexuality and violence in ways unimaginable in western cartooning for years. There were exceptions to the cute/child paradigm in western culture before anime, Bill Baird’s stripper puppet comes to mind, but generally they were kept separate, with sexual images following the European patterns of bandes dessinées until the 90s when the West began to follow suit.
But it didn’t matter by then. Cute had become an unquestionable reality for the many artists of the late 20th, early 21st Century. Churches could feature cute art. Horror films could give birth to cute parodies.South Park could feature a rather cute ‘Christmas Turd’. (???) You might even be wonder why I’m even bothering to question cuteness. What kind of archaic monster would do such an evil thing! But it is precisely the assumed and unquestioned that needs questioning the most.
(Alas I apologize for having taken so long to get back to this series. A prolonged death in the family intervened. Also there was my work on Gravity From Above. And I kept getting distracted by the fact that I left this series unfinished. I had plenty of other subjects to mull over. And even now I’m going to have to put off the third aspect of the Sacred Cows of this contemporary world, Positive Thinking, for a while. (But I positively will finish up this series when I can!) Meanwhile I am getting closer to the country of Georgia and I wanted to report my musical findings to anyone still following this site. But for now we shall let the Sacred Cows rest.)
And then all hell broke loose.
But what am I saying? That the Sixties folks were a bunch of hell raisers? Hardly. Hell is exactly what they didn’t believe in anymore. When people were tripping out at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January of 1967 the concept was that the old corrupt society of war and repression and without a doubt religious notions of Judgment Day would be eliminated by good thoughts, by beatific visions, by sex and smiles and laughter and blissed out awareness of the sun and the music. The Fifties, it turns out, were the only the seedbed of new explosions of Fun. The psychedelic Gold Rush was on! LSD, grass, meditation, the Beatles, getting tuned in – it was all going to change the world.
And sadly it did.
The best ideas and ideals of the Sixties have long since been left in the cultural dust. The actual San Francisco Hippies weren’t nearly childlike as they wanted to be. They still clung to things like reading, like art, like Civil Rights, like Free Speech, like Art Films. They might get stoned and dance around like children but they were still reading Nietzsche and Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. They might be breaking down the sexual boundaries but they still tried to defend what they were doing to their parents with somewhat rational arguments. And though much of the intellectual content of what they were ingesting might have had a deeply Romantic post-Rousseau-noble-savage-anti-intellectualism to it nevertheless whether it was Gravity’s Rainbow, Frank Zappa or El Topo, the work from the late Sixties early Seventies still challenged one’s brain. But it proved to be nearly the last gasp of certain kind of Post-War educational boom time which would last into the early Punk Era and not much further. Ultimately the Fun loving philistines won the day.
I’m old enough to remember a conversation about morality in the mid-Seventies where Adolf Hitler was mentioned and a girl said to me, “Well I can’t get into that space personally but maybe if it was right for him who am I to judge?” An ill omen indeed. Disco, too, was a bad sign. But then again so was the slick commercial television of the Brady Bunch. Even Sesame Street did not provide for children the superior stimulation of an Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows or A Wrinkle in Time. Hallucinogens ceased to signify any sort of inner exploration of the mind, let alone the universe. Drugs instead became a recreational activity. So did nature. Though eventually the Rocky Mountain High allure of hiking and national parks would give way to cruise ships and extreme sports. Theme parks were becoming much more serious in delivering their services. Disney World in Florida and eventually the simulacra driven EPCOT Center opened. By the late Eighties Disney World had surpassed Niagara Falls, itself now a shabby theme park, as the number one honeymoon destination in America. How could a merely majestic waterfall compete with the tableaux of a faux pleasure dome? As the Seventies slipped into the Eighties Fun became a much more serious mantra.
Also somewhere along the way, in a thousand different compromises, the overly optimistic dreams of the counterculture began to blend into the teething techno-culture of the time, which created as well a new commercial culture inspired by illusions of Fun. The road from science fiction through Star Wars and E.T. towards the current digital landscape of pods and pads went from being an rarely used byway into the dominant highway of mainstream culture. Late 20th Century American society soon sloughed off the adult in favor of the adolescent and we have suffered profoundly ever since.
And people began to change their modes of behavior in accordance with their new belief structure. Fun being the number one hormone in a Youth fixated culture was reflected over and over in a great percentage of our activities. Clothing certainly reflected this change. For a while it looked as if rock music’s sassiness would predominate: Punk and Metal black leather and studs. Post-Deadhead jeans and hair. Yet a change was taking place in the Rap demimonde perhaps first of all – the emphasis on sports gear; A fad that would take over much of the clothing trade. Shiny long kilt-ish synthetic basketball shorts worn well below the place formerly reserved for belt loops. Running shoes of one stripe or another seem to have replaced any semblance of leather shoes. Post-Deadhead “hippies” now freely invest in the kind of shiny sports gear and outdoor wear that was once decried as plastic, artificial. New Age enthusiasts carry strange rubberoid yoga mats around. How much of our current society seems to dressed for some recreational activity? If one were a 1967 San Francisco hippie and were suddenly transported to this moment in time from 1967 to meet people who espoused a similar philosophy the words might sound familiar but the living style would seem completely hollow. One would be aghast at the amount of artificial materials worn and used by folks who claim to have the same ideals.
But of course those people are still with us. Many of them in their sixties and seventies. By golly it is a very quare sight in deed to pass a few aging organic hippie types on a road peddling their bikes garbed completely in plastic fabrics of one kind or another. They think they are living the same dream, with some modifications.
But really the sacred cow of Recreation cannot be questioned. It is in truth a species of the hydra-headed Fun. I remember when I first arrived in Alaska in the late 90s I was talking to a woman about the vast tracks of wilderness surrounding us. I said something like this: “It surprises me to realize how many people only see nature as a recreational opportunity.” She looked at me without blinking. My words had the faint aroma of blasphemy in her nostrils. She did not comprehend what I was saying at all. I was going to mentioned something about Tarkovsky and the vision of reality that bleeds through his films. Then I realized that I might as well be speaking Russian.
In this brave new world of Fun and Recreation there are no questions. Fun simply is the point. And yet you think there would be people who seriously questioned this idea. Perhaps those old stick in the mud Christians ,with their savior who bled and died for our sins (definitely No Fun), would challenge the new ideology of Fun? Many who aren’t Christian think that’s exactly what is happening in our times. Oh how deceived we all have been. No one has bit quite as deeply out of the candy-coated apple of Fun as modern American Christians.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
The late great military historian John Keegan wrote that “the Second World War is the largest single event in human history.” World War 2, while slaughtering more than 50 million people worldwide, wounding just as many and inflicting emotional damage in so many other quarters, left a crater in our world that is unavoidable and bequeathed to future generations down to the present day a form of global post-traumatic stress syndrome. It was only after the relatively contained Vietnam War that Americans began to seriously and collectively contemplate the effects of the psychic trauma that soldiers must endure in warfare. (Later the concept of PTSD was applied to other situations; rape, child abuse, car crashes, etc.) Some symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, depression, jitteriness, traumatic memories.
There is also a second set of behaviors meant to keep the starker aspects of war’s darkness at bay. These includes, avoiding reminders of what happened, drinking and drugs to numb yourself, workaholism and pulling away from loved ones who cannot understand. And this begins to sound vaguely like a cultural history in the Postwar Era.
When the war was over Americans, in general, tried to put both the War and the Great Depression behind them as quickly as possible. Europe was in much different shape and bred some its bleaker philosophical products, such as Existentialism, the Vienna Actionists, or the films of Ingmar Bergman. Yet much of what is being said about the nature of Fun with a capitol F, will eventually come even to the most historically blasted regions of Europe, and eventually even the old Iron Curtain countries to some degree. But it was in the United States of America, the least touched of the major combatants of the Second World War, that this avoidance of the past would scale heights undreamt of before. It was in America that the seeds of Fun would grow from a few past times into a major reason for living.
To be sure, America was not without its darker reflections too. American culture specializes in what Virginia Wilson, in her book The Secret Life of Puppets, calls a sub-zeitgeist. Zeitgeist is a German combination noun for the words for time (zeit) and spirit (geist, like the English ghost). It means Spirit of the Age. And the spirit of Fun, as we shall see, was indeed often the spirit of the age from the 1950s onward. But the sub-zeitgeist of that same period contained elements that we were less comfortable proclaiming out loud. So Film Noir, with its extraordinarily bleak outlook on human nature, was an immediate reaction to the pit opening beneath our feet in the 1940s. Yet this certainly was not the culture that anyone at the time wanted to point to with any degree of pride. You can see a similar sub-zeitgeist in the present when the official media must be positive, instructive, watchdogs of all politically incorrect ideologies (left or right) while beneath the zeitgeist things are seething: celebrity gossip, YouTube conspiracy rants and some of the most intense horror films ever made.
But the zeitgeist of the 1950s was adult relaxation and teen fun. Hard work? Yes. Get ahead? Without a doubt. Was there was Communist paranoia? Sure. But can’t we just get past that? Was there a Civil Rights Movement growing? Righteously. But then again can you have civil rights struggles in a broken down society? Not too easily. Were there Beat poets? Sure but there were also funny Beatniks on that crazy new TV set where Uncle Miltie and Sid Caesar dispensed laughs like Coca-Cola from a soda machine. Hollywood was making Biblical and Roman epics. America was flush with cash. People moved into those new-fangled suburbs, in their new behemoth automobiles, on brand spanking new superhighways, while visiting those new fast food burger joints. Adults barbequed steaks on their new rotisserie grills, that they pulled out of their new refrigerators, and then cleaned the dishes in that luxury of luxuries, a shiny new dishwasher. They listened to their new 33 and 1/3 speed record albums of soothing Easy Listening music or Light Classics as they were often called. And look at the covers of those records. What do you see? Reclining. Slumbering. Dreaming. Rest. ‘Fly Me To The Moon.’ And above all that mystical hope of Postwar adult stability… Relaxation. (A sacred cow that has since moved into the multitude of current self-realization techniques.)
But if you want to see the future look to the Youth. (Another sacred cow: that the Youth are always more evolved than their parents. That the future belongs to the young. I think of the Nazi boy singing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ in Cabaret.) The future of America? Teens! And I don’t just mean the teens will grow up into adults who will obviously populate the planet when all these older folks have passed on. I mean Teens as a new category for existence. I know 40 year-olds who are still Teens in 21st Century America.
It is by now a well known fact that the Teenager was essentially created in the early 1950s as a sociological category. Or rather that the Teen, in a similar, though not identical way, was created as a marketing concept much as we have recently witnessed the rise of the Tweens. Prior to the Fifties one does not notice much of a Teen culture. There were a few movies made with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney earlier. But the overwhelming number of films in the first half of the Twentieth Century featured adult protagonists. From the early Edison days through the early Talkies kids weren’t even expected to show up at the movie palace. The pre-code talkies seem almost exclusively focused on grownups. After the code was enforced in 1934 you see the first glimmer of family friendly entertainment. (Thank you Walt Disney.)
But focus on teens? Hardly. Kids went to see the Universal horror films. They would get the East Side Kids or Little Rascals as Saturday morning fodder. But you were supposed to outgrow these things. The reason that there wasn’t much emphasis on Teens is because they didn’t really exist. Weird notion eh? It kind of flies in notion of all post-Fifties demographics. There were certainly people who were fifteen or thirteen, et cetera. But during the Thirties and the war years America was still connected to traditional modes of family, certainly far more than they are now. That meant that in your teens you were supposed to start taking on adult responsibilities. If you lived on the farm you were already working, if your family ran a little grocery store you were already helping out, you weren’t sitting at home channel surfing yet. You certainly weren’t mastering the World of Warcraft or downloading Ke$ha’s oeuvre on iTunes. If you were a girl, you were learning to cook and sew, you paid close attention to relatives who were giving birth because by the age of 19 you might already be a wife and a mother. Likewise if you were teenage boy you were expected to start thinking about providing for a family someday. Not that everyone followed these rules, nevertheless, everyone understood them.
But suddenly the Teen was invented in the 1950s. This was an adolescent who lived in an extremely affluent version of America. This child had something unheard of by previous generations: Time. And money. And they suddenly began to use these commodities. The older folks must have felt that all that Depression Era working and scrimping was something their kids wouldn’t have to do. Its almost as if the collective wealth of the American society had created the idea that all people could suck on stainless steel spoons together. If the royals of England could lounge on their well manicured lawns, then so too could the folks in Orange County, California, or even Phoenix, Arizona, just to mention two places without water. And who played on those lawns. Ironically enough it was supposed to be children. And they did for a few decades until Hula Hoops and Wham-O Water Wiggles gave way to video games and computer porn.
Meanwhile the 1950s were the halcyon days of American Teendom. There were comic books, JD novels, films like Rebel Without a Cause or The Girl Can’t Help It. Or better still: I was a Teenage Werewolf, Frankenstein and of course Caveman. Heck any sci-fi film would do. Big bugs, drive-in movies, hot-rods and convertibles, were all part of this new dream called Teenager. There was even a Broadway musical about juvenile delinquents – West Side Story.
And of course there was music: Rock and Roll. There is a bewildering explosion of small guitar oriented bands playing some of the most ecstatic and frankly fun (in the old sense) music ever made, and all for the Teens. Few people took this music seriously. Nobody thought it would last. It was a simple, quickly digestible product from the fount of American musical invention.
And though there might be emotional turmoil (see James Dean) or poetry (see Chuck Berry) or unbelievable success (see Elvis) Teenage life in the 1950s was supposed to Fun. And this became truer the more that the Baby Boomers (the silliness of the moniker betrays the whole game) aged and looked back at the malt shops and sock hops with the Fun-tinted glasses of nostalgia. There were in truth many serious sides to the Fifties. Yet in the popular imagination the Fifties are often still viewed as a time of Eisenhower era innocence or naiveté: Happy Days when you were Sweet Sixteen. (Never mind the leering quality in the voices of those older guys singing about those mythical 16 year-olds.)
In the immediate Postwar Era it was supposed to be Fun Fun Fun till your daddy took your T-Bird away. But daddy was in some maitai-induced World War 2 PTSD haze at Trader Vic’s reminiscing with his cronies about their time in the Pacific. Meanwhile the new generation was winding up to expand the definition of Fun beyond all recognition.
And then someone drove a convertible Lincoln limo through the sunny streets of Dallas…
January 18, 2014
To understand why World War 1 is such a demarcation in the development of this new notion of fun with a capital ‘F’ we have to ask ourselves what happened to begin the change immediately before the war. And I find that turn-of-the-century era to be filled with many mysterious aspects. One of the most mysterious, and this will come back to haunt America in the Sixties, is why men began to shave their beards and to be clean shaven. This might sound like mere fashion, but no fashion is actually ‘mere’. All fashion reflects changes in thinking
Look at the Victorian Era. Beards were everywhere. Presidents had beards. Generals had beards. Writers had beards. Workers had beards. Not that every man had a beard mind you. Their were scraped jaws aplenty, sometimes accompanied by a bewildering variety of mustaches and sideburns. One of the ways in which this era of folks were freer than later supposedly less repressed generations was that there was no one style for men’s facial hair that reigned supreme.
Suddenly beards disappear.
But by the turn of the 20th Century something happened in the American mentality that indicated a seismic shift. The emphasis was now put on a youthful energetic appearance. A bicycle built for two. A similar shift can be seen in relationship to women; dress styles change radically from 1900 to World War 1. But in the case of women it becomes a bit more transparent. There is the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the new dances like the Cakewalk and the Castlewalk, and it was indeed under the influence of dance instructors Vernon and Irene Castle that women began to shed their corsets, leading to the new fashions of 20th Century.
But whence cometh this new emphasis on youthfulness, a fixation that has only intensified to nightmarish degrees in the 21st Century? Was it related to multiplicity of the new inventions? The automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, the radio, the motion picture, the telephone, the light bulb and on and on. Was it connected with the fact that America largely was unaffected by the Symbolist and Decadent Movement of Europe? Or maybe au contraire that it was in subliminal ways affected by some aspects of the new Decadence? Was it connected to economic prosperity? I’m sure there’s a serious reason, but at the moment it’s really hard to pinpoint why? (Serious historians of the times, do you have any clues?)
But nonetheless beards were slaughtered at the altar of youth and would remain so until the even more extreme youth movements of the late Sixties would make beards trendy again.
And so America in it’s optimistic prewar glory began to feel the hypodermic injection of energy and this new conception called Fun just as it found itself strangely involved in a war that killed thousands and left many more men both physically and emotionally crippled although the American soil was scarcely touched. The men returned home to a country that had no notion of what modern warfare had done to the troops. But it wanted to celebrate (or was it erase the immediate past) with a new burst of enthusiasm. While simultaneously shutting down the bars and distilleries and giving more independent women the right to vote. And thus Fun arrived in an explosion of contradictions in the Roaring Twenties.
F. Scott Fitzgerald looked back at the era with a mixture of nostalgia and regret in 1931 in an essay entitled “Echoes of the Jazz Age”. He wrote,
“Scarcely had the staider citizens of the republic caught their breaths when the wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight. This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste. May one offer in exhibit the year 1922! That was the peak of the younger generation, for though the Jazz Age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth.”
And then he points out how even the older generations were tainted by the insanity.
“The sequel was like a children’s party taken over by the elders, leaving the children puzzled and rather neglected and rather taken aback. By 1923 their elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began. The younger generation was starred no longer. A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure. “
If this sounds familiar it’s because this was but a rehearsal for the much larger funhouse called the Sixties. But back in the Twenties the considerable rural portions of the land weren’t quite as deeply affected by the new teleology of Fun as the urban zones had been. And this sexual revolution was suddenly halted in its place by the Great Depression, which, while not setting the clock back to before the war, had seriously curtailed the proceedings.
Fitzgerald continues, “But it was not to be. Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.
“It ended two years ago, because the utter confidence, which was its essential prop, received an enormous jolt and it didn’t take long for the flimsy structure to settle earthward. And after two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.”
The Depression Era and World War 2 were not exactly hot houses for Fun, but the happy-go-lucky beast would make a dramatic return once and for all after the Second World War.
(To be continued…)
Yes let’s have some fun.
And if by fun you mean let’s enjoy a few pleasurable amusements, a game of hide-and-go-seek with flashlights in the dark, spitting watermelon seeds at a picnic, a roller coaster ride at a carnival, I say why not. I don’t mind gales of laughter, bad jokes told well or rolling down a slope covered in snow. But incorporated in this traditional idea of ‘fun’ is the notion that these are occasional temporal diversions. They are not a standard feature to be achieved in daily life. They are separate moments not representative of the whole. These little moments of pleasure are like the bubbles blown by children. One pinprick and they are are gone. Thus a phrase like “Life is fun.’ would be totally meaningless in almost any traditional view of human culture that you could summon up.
Yeah but who still holds a traditional view… Therein lies the sacred cow that I intend to roast. In a world pickled in ever changing technologies and rapidly evolving variations on narcissism and nihilism disguised as individualism, anything smacking of tradition is pretty much castigated and mocked as unevolved and, even more tellingly, as boring.
It’s curious to me how many times in my life I have heard people justify pretty much any activity in the name of ‘Fun’. Everything supposed to be Fun: Music is Fun. Food is Fun. Sports are Fun. Driving can be Fun. Sex, of course, is Fun. Flirting is Fun. Cheating is Fun. (Till the tears begin.) Dogs are Fun. Movies are Fun. Videos of bestiality are Fun. (This is not an exaggeration.) Boxing is Fun. Fighting is Fun. Drunk driving is Fun. (Until you wrap the car around tree.) Yoga is Fun. Christianity is Fun. Shouldn’t politics be Fun? Travel is Fun. Italy is Fun. Bosnia is now Fun. Fun is whatever you define as Fun. Everything is Fun!
Except things that are the antithesis of Fun. Things that are boring. Classical music? Ballet? Mid-20th Century art films? Boredom. Reading a long book about the history of the Gulag is just plain work. Heck picking up a physical book and lugging it around is is a lot more boring than watching YouTube videos of car crashes in Russia.
And over time I have heard any number of apologias for life’s meaning involving Fun with a capital ‘F’. “Don’t be so serious, let’s just have some Fun.”, “As long as everyone’s having Fun, right?”, “As long as you are having Fun, that’s the key.”, “You gotta have Fun.”, “As long as I’m having Fun, I’ll do it.” or as Heath Ledger once said “I only do this because I’m having fun. The day I stop having fun, I’ll just walk away.” And then he did.
But what is this new conception of Fun? It is indeed very illusive. It has become a state of being so wide as to incorporate our etiolated sense of meaning itself. If I translate the unfocused usage of my peers I come up with a something that is perhaps pleasant and largely free of pain, though even variations of stupid injury can be roped into this new idea of Fun. I think it has to do with laughing a lot, smiling, a kind of no risk low level ecstatic experience. Maybe we can just call it the Big Wow. A sensation filled existence without the tedium of logic or rehearsal. The entertainment industry is key here. And it most certainly is an anti-intellectual creature. You really can’t question it.
Yet it doesn’t take very long in considering this teleological concept of Fun to see the massive gaping holes in such a worldview. Both raising children and caring for the elderly are situations where things get a whole lot less than Fun very quickly. It takes a commitment that moves far beyond the laughter of a moment to get you through these relationships. In fact most of life takes a kind of tenacity to get beyond the pain, the repetitions, the fears, the misunderstandings, the endless practice it takes to be truly good at anything. Yet somehow this wireless dreamworld we call contemporary existence has deluded us that all of the traditions are invalid as we pay our tickets for our very own personalized fun houses.
How did we get here?
(To be continued…)
July 4th 2013
Please excuse me, I’ve been nice for a while now. The time has come to barbecue a few sacred cows.
Which might lead someone to say OMG! Are you really trying to offend Hindus?!
And which is precisely why I’m writing…
Bizarrely, after years of scorched earth counter-cultural products that have suggested all manner of nihilistic rebellions, we are left, not with black garbed existentialists crying over the alienation of humanity, but with an almost infantile culture of folks deliriously caught in a fast food playplace for endlessly emerging adults, who tend to see the world in fun, cuddly, positive terms as they giggle (LOL) through the endless global mall while texting extraordinarily blank verse into the universe.
I recently took a trip through Europe to investigate the meaning of puppetry, how perhaps, there might lurk in the humble realm of the puppet something real, something tangible that might aid humanity in its virtual addictions. And I did indeed find much that heartened me. The European puppet folk of my acquaintance were, in general, quite aware of what puppetry might be able to mean in such a high-tech age. The puppets themselves were inspiring as individual one-of-kind handmade artworks. Those learning the art of puppetry seemed to have a leg up on those in other fields of learning. And yet…
I remember more than one moment where I said to myself aloud, maybe its too late already. I remember the sinking feeling I had in Poland as I wandered through the massive seven story mall next to the Warszawa Centralna train station. And Poland is a country I love. Yet here was a perfect replica of what had once been a California styled shopping mall. And everyone seemed happy to wander through this emporium of material delight. Here were endless chain stores and franchise food services. Here were the big hollywood movies and the brand name off the rack clothes. Here was that same sense of credit emptying glut and spent detumescence. Here were the blank souls wandering lost and hopeless. And to think that the Poles gave up the tyranny of communism for this mindless 21st Century Woodstock of the Złote Tarasy (Gold Terraces).
Or then there was the moment in Hallstatt, Austria, when I found myself alone beneath a glowing full moon on All Hallow’s Eve wandering through the most haunted graveyard I’d ever experienced under the freshly frosted medieval town on a mirrored lake as the other guests in my pension stayed indoors because “there was nothing to do” and they would rather live scrunching their fingers over and staring into handheld digital screens. And I thought to myself, how can the real world compete with these pointless and distracting virtual gadgets? Actually what I said to myself is this… Is there any hope left?
Dude chill. It’s not that bad. There’s a lot of serious fun to be had. Lighten up! Get a life. If you see snow get a snowboard. You rocked that midnight medieval stroll scene. Don’t worry about those other peeps. They’re just hanging out. They’ll come out and play eventually. As long as everyone’s having fun, right?
Absolutely wrong. When did fun become some sort of foundational reason for living? Blessed are the funseekers because they shall rule!
And fun is not alone in this brave new world that has such people in it. Cute is another strange little sacred calf that has been slicing the rational portions of our culture away in more recent times. I mean if cute means something comparable to ‘baby-like’ how can anyone critique something that is like a baby! Heavens to Betsy!
And to critique, that just sounds so judgmental. Criticism doesn’t really help anyone. Don’t be so left-brained. Be positive. Try to get along with people. Do not hurt anyone’s feelings… ever. Certainly not by implying anything negative about them. Don’t tell them you disagree, even when you do. In fact you think all sorts of people are wrong. But you don’t have to hang with them because they aren’t fully… well one doesn’t really want to say human… but you know. Yet among the people, the real people, your online friends, do not criticize their beliefs. It’s just so wrong. Remain positive.
Positively… I hear the loudest most ominous holy moo coming from this direction.
But before we get there let’s have some Fun with a capital F first.
(to be continued…)
Addendum to The Original American Gothic Series
While I’m getting myself in gear to write more. Here is a sampling of music that I would categorize as American Gothic. Remember American Gothic is neither strictly Americana nor Goth. It takes roots music in its darker form along with other emphases like circus or carnival music, late 19th Century immigrant strains, and certainly even Minstrel style is buried deep within as well. American Gothic Music, like other arts mutated through the American Gothic vision is music that is connected to the darker roots of American culture, with less of a European sensibility. (See our original essay on American Gothic Music.)
None of these songs could be considered American Gothic as such. But they certainly are the kinds of music that make up the bedrock of influences within the musical spectrum.
Chain Gang Songs – Old Alabama, Murderer’s Home, Grizzely Bear, We Need Another Witness (These are the real thing, songs sung by actual prisoners. They are as frightening and strange as can be.)
Tommy Johnson – Cool Drink of Water Blues (Perhaps the most haunted song in American music history)
Blind Willie Johnson – Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed, God Moves On the Water (There is something quite mysterious about the Christian songs of Mr. Johnson. These songs sum it up.)
Blind Lemon Jefferson – See That My Grave is Kept Clean, Black Snake Moan, Wartime Blues (Also check out Nick Cave’s tribute song.)
Washington Phillips – Train Your Child (A creaky instrumental that gets into your soul.)
Charley Patton – Moon Going Down (Scratchy voiced and scratchy recording!)
The Spirit of Memphis Quartet – The Day is Passed and Gone (Beauty, terror, death and life all in one stark song.)
Marion Williams – The Day is Passed and Gone (The same tune radically altered. It would be hard to imagine something more chilling.)
Robert Johnson – Cross Road Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Me And The Devil Blues (How could you have a list of dark American music without Mr. Johnson?)
Son House – John the Revelator, Death Letter Blues, Preachin’ Blues, Grinnin’ In Your Face (Blood curdling stuff.)
Howlin’ Wolf – I Asked Her For Water, Smokestack Lightning, How Many More years, No Place to Go, Ain’t Superstitious, Somebody Walkin’ In My House (Wolf moans quite low and means every word.)
Hank Williams – Lost Highway, Ramblin’ Man (Lonesome and dark.)
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell on You, Voices (It’s Halloween and truly weird all together.)
These are the artists that first delineated the style.
Bob Dylan – Desolation Row, Tombstone Blues, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,This Wheel’s on Fire, John Wesley Harding, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, The Wicked Messenger, Three Angels, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Yeah Dylan pretty much invented the mode, like so many other things.)
The Doors – The End, People Are Strange (Musically more European, even Hindu, but thematically Morrison was swimming in dark American nightmares.)
Link Wray – Shawnee Tribe, Waterboy, Right or Wrong (You Lose), Rumble (The Beans and Fat Back LP is a real milestone. The equivalent of finding an indian burial ground. Rumble is here but could be an Ancestor as well.)
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Walk on the Water, I Put A Spell On You, Tombstone Shadow, Born on the Bayou, Bad Moon Rising, Effigy, Graveyard Train, Ramble Tamble, Run through the Jungle (In my essay I forgot to mention CCR. Big omission. Fogerty and crew fairly reek of decay in the swamp. Seminal.)
Canned Heat – On the Road Again (This song is a real milestone in the style. Rootsy blues, but where is this sound really from? It’s not found in the original song. It’s not really John Lee Hooker. It’s as haunted as it’s soon to be dead singer’s eerie voice.)
The Eagles – Hotel California (Somewhere down on the border. There is a ghost of a dream here.)
Ry Cooder – Soundtracks: Paris Texas, Southern Comfort, The Border (When Ry Cooder lets his slide drone on… creepy.)
Tom Waits – 16 Shells from a 30.6, Earth Died Screaming, Jesus Gonna Be Here, Lucky Day Overture, What’s He Building? (Waits Gothic American sound has all of the mystery of a hog hanging up in the barn.)
Nick Cave – Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rye Whisky, City of Refuge, The Folk Singer, Saint Huck, Tupelo, Stagger Lee (He only claims to be from Australia. His heart is firmly interred behind the tent at the carnival.)
Violent Femmes – Country Death Song (Gordon Gano was quite instrumental in reinterpreting the old American themes.)
16 Horsepower – American Wheeze, Low Estate, Hang My Teeth On Your Door, Heel On the Shovel, Coal Black Horse, Bad Moon Risin’ (These guys really defined the new era of American Gothic Music.
Calexico – Black Heart, Frontera, Dub Latina, Circo (Somewhere South near the Border in Cormac McCarthy territory.)
Contemporary American Gothic Musicians
These are people actively working in the present era, when there has been a proliferation of the American Gothic style in several arts. (See our series of essays on the subject here.) Go search them out explore the zone.
Nicole Atkins – The Tower, You Were The Devil
The Black Heart Procession – A Truth Quietly Told
The Blind Willies – Last Drop of Midnight, Don’t Let the Devil Steal Your Joy
The Born Again Floozies – Dirt Cheap Suit, Street Music
The Whiskey Folk Ramblers – My Rolling Wino,Pies of Old Kylene, Into That Slide
Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons – How Long, Diana?, Hard Time in a Terrible Land, Teenage Wasteland
Harmonious Wail – I Like To Feel My Bones
Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Moonstruck, Gone in Two Seconds
O’Death – Adelita, Down To Rest, Gas Can Row
Reverend Glasseye – 17 Lashes, King of Men, Sweet Sweet Countrymen, Black River Falls, Midnight Cabaret
Liz Tormes – Fall Silent, Black Luck
Addendum to The Original American Gothic Series
This is a list of films with American Gothic elements. Obviously there are a wide range of films here. Our basic criteria is that that the American Gothic Film is a dark take on America with special reference to traditional American images and activities. To understand the criteria for this list please read our original American Gothic series. Keeping in mind that American Gothic has little to do with ‘Goth’.
American Gothic History
Gone with the Wind
Grapes of Wrath
It’s a Wonderful Life
Last of the Mohicans
Civil War Gothic
Ride with the Devil
Vietnam & US Military Gothic
The Deer Hunter
Black Hawk Down
The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao
To Kill a Mockingbird
Cabin in the Cotton
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
O Brother Where Art Thou
The Night of the Hunter
New England Gothic
A Simple Plan
Storm of the Century
The Perfect Storm
New York City Gothic
Stranger Than Paradise
Requiem for a Dream
Last Exit to Brooklyn
Bringing Out the Dead
New Jersey Gothic
Being John Malkovich
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
The Wild Bunch
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Latin American Gothic
Men with Guns
From Dusk Till Dawn
Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
Rebel Without a Cause
West Coast Gothic
The Big Lebowski
(See most Film Noir)
(Taxi Driver could easily fit here as well)
American Gothic Horror
Blair Witch Project
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Jeepers Creepers 2
Homicidal Killer Gothic
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Nightmare on Elm Street
Last House on the Left
The Hills Have Eyes
I Spit on Your Grave
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
American Gothic Vampires
The Last Man on Earth
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
The Walking Dead (series)
Science Fiction Gothic
The Book of Eli
Ghosts of Mars
American Gothic Docs
Definitely American Gothic
(But hard to classify)
Part Two – Music and Dance…
(To listen to and watch the musicians of Georgia
please click on the blue letters below.)
English Composer Gavin Bryars recently wrote that “The Georgians are probably the most musical people on earth… The division between professional and amateur becomes meaningless; such is the commitment of the professional, and the skill of the amateur… Everywhere there is the staggeringly beautiful three-part vocal polyphony – whether it is a wedding song, lullaby, or richly dissonant religious chant.”
And that is a good place to set out to really even attempt to dig into the riches of Georgia’s music. Most scholarship puts their polyphonic tradition as far back as we can estimate. Certainly the earliest Georgian Orthodox liturgy that we know of is polyphonic (many voiced, interweaving tunes). In all likelihood Georgian liturgy was polyphonic at least a millennium before Western Europe hit upon the same notion. And perhaps, though it is difficult to prove, there is even a connection between the two. I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence. The Christian philosophical underpinnings stress a triune God, who is interwoven in ways that are beyond human grasp. Polyphony, whether of Bach or of Sakartvelo, stresses these things. And polyphony may be the closest means of understanding such a concept that humanity has ever discovered.
But it isn’t simply Georgia’s religious, hence classical, tradition that shows the complexities of polyphony. It is indeed found in the work chants up in the mountains. It is found in the simplest of everyday ballads, wherever two or three are are gathered.
But did I say simple ballads. Yes this music is very direct, shooting straight to the heart, but simple? Hardly. Georgian melodies have a basic major minor modality. If you hear their dance tunes you immediately notice commonalities with Russian and other Eastern European styles. A tune by itself might sound Greek or even Italian. And yet there are real differences. There will also be something else as well. A serious touch of the Middle East with it’s bittersweet melodies. But unlike the music of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and the entire Arab World there are harmonies. And it is in these harmonies that the secret of Georgian music begins to reveal itself. There is definitely a connection to the music of Armenia, also a lone Christian neighbor in a sea of Islamic musicality. And yet to these ears Armenian music has much more in common with the Middle East, except for its liturgy. But Armenia and Georgia share a few instruments like the duduk, a haunting reed instrument played more for contemplation in Armenia and more rhythmically in Georgia. But Georgian music is a world apart.
When musicologists first began to pay attention to Georgia in the 19th Century they were really baffled. Music from other corners of the world seemed much more comprehensible. Pentatonic scales, blue notes, microtones all seemed a lot easier to classify than what was going on in the more European Georgia. So here were major and minor scales, some Middle Eastern modalities and then something else again, a startling dissonance which might suddenly raise its head from seemingly nowhere. But unlike the dissonant music of the early Modernist era, there seemed to be a real code to how this dissonance was added in order to also preserve tonality. Igor Stravinsky in an interview late in his life was asked what music was important to him. He answered, “One of my greatest impressions, is of a recording of Georgian polyphonic folk singing from mountain villages near Tbilisi. This tradition of active musical performance, which goes back to antiquity, is a wonderful treasure that can give more for performance than all the attainments of new music.” And he was referring to Modernist classical music.
Choirs like the famous Rustavi Ensemble or the Gori Women demonstrate both the earthy and unearthly sounds of the Georgian voice in a disciplined setting. On the album Archaica the Gori Women sing at moments of such vocal dissonance to make even György Ligeti blush. You can immediately understand why Stravinsky was so entranced. And yet the overall feeling of the Gori Women’s Choir is not of dissonance but of rich harmonic beauty. There are also great recordings of the wilder untamed forms of vocal music found back in the mountain villages.
What has also been attracting my attention lately is the modern dance music of Georgia based on traditional themes. One recording I stumbled upon is called Georgian Dance Music by Chabuka Amiranashvili (ჭაბუკა ამირანაშვილი). If a person loved the music of say The Ukrainians or of Gogol Bordello I would point them very firmly in this direction. I can’t explain it except to say it starts off like some sort Eastern European melody played by manic double accordions and then suddenly a modern bass kicks in followed by wild Middle Eastern percussion which then carouses between tunes jump started from inside one another. Positively addictive. And, as I found out later, these tunes are mostly eminent folk instrumentals that everybody knows and more importantly knows the dance steps for.
At the mention of dancing I think we come fairly close to the heart of the Georgian life. Many cultures have forms of folk dancing. And many more have lost their own unique dance forms in the face of hyper-modernity. Do Americans, English, French, Germans, Dutch, Japanese, Koreans or Swiss still have living folk dances? One thing is for certain… the Georgians sure do. And they are not just a few simple steps like in a square dance. Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili makes the case that the Georgians are good at ballet because essentially their entire culture is steeped in dancing. And these dances are liable to breakout at a wedding, at a supra (a very common yet important traditional feast), at a casual get together or among teens in a parking lot. Children in Georgia often take two extra hours of dance classes after school everyday. And it shows…
Latin American cultures keep their dancing very much alive too. But these are often contemporary dances: salsa, merengue, etc. Georgians are keeping dances alive that in many cases are hundreds of years old, if not much more ancient. They are using their bodies to keep alive the memories of their culture. And though naturally they are exposed to the same barrage of pop culture as the rest of us, and while they might even occasionally attempt a bit of imitation of what is seen on videos, they do not do it at the expense of their traditions. Because they know that once they stop singing and dancing they will basically cease to be Georgians.
And when they decided to put together a show, as the group Erisioni (ერისიონი) did in 2000, when they traveled to France and beyond to perform with a large contingent singers, musicians and dancers to perform in large auditoriums what essentially was a highly polished version of what every Georgian knows by heart, jaws dropped with mathematical regularity. Women floated across the stage in some of the most beautiful traditional clothing imaginable, the men’s choir hit with volley of sounds unknown in the West, young boys beat the time on the doli, duduk players raced in a bewildering competition, the girls pranced and the men jumped higher than horses and landed on their knees and toes only to spin up and do it again and the profound joy of Georgian culture left the onlookers speechless and celebratory.
And yet back at home teenaged girls still sang together in the backs of vans. Or in houses. Or on the steps of an apartment building. One girl, Ani Chincharauli, is given a microphone at a special event. She strums the panduri, a three string lute like instrument with roots back to ancient Sumeria. As she plays she is seemingly ignored by everyone… until the moment her clarion voice starts to sing. But I’m convinced, as startling a voice as she has, that Gavin Bryars is right. The distinctions between amateur and professional are almost non-existent here. It isn’t the voice that is really the signal for joy. It is the song itself. It is the fact that everyone knows it. It is the fact that the poetry of the language still resonates in a way in which poetry no longer does in the virtual world of the quotidian workaday technophages we have all become out here in the tame nowhere. The Georgians are not singing to be heard by us. They are still singing and dancing for each other.
(To be concluded)
For further research:
Check out the Rustavi Ensemble
Just trust me and buy Chabuka Amiranashvili’s Georgian Dance Music after you sample it a bit.
The Gori’s Women’s Choir can still be found inexpensively.
And finally one last simple Ani Chincharauli song.
Part One – A Truly Obscure and Blessed Land…
Okay let’s play a game. Quick think of three things you know about Georgia? No, not that Georgia! Not the US state. I mean the country in the Caucasus Mountains: The one that had been swallowed by Russia and the USSR for nearly 200 years and was only recently spit back out into the world.
Now stop reading and think about it for a moment…
If you are like many people I’ve spoken to lately you are probably drawing something of a blank. A few people get one point or another. Didn’t they have a war with Russia or something? Or, more ominously, wasn’t Stalin a Georgian? And then I notice a kind of plague of poor information. Isn’t that next to Romania? Isn’t that one of the Stans? Isn’t that a small Muslim country? All completely wrong.
But one thing is for certain, except for people who are Georgians, or who have been lucky enough to run into some aspect of Georgian culture Georgia is currently, and undeservedly, one truly obscure culture. People know more about Myanmar, Nepal, Colombia, Serbia, the Ivory Coast, most of the Middle East than they do about Georgia.
But let’s rectify that now. First of all Georgia is a country about the same size as Austria with mountains higher than the Alps AND they grow oranges there. The oldest evidence of the fermentation and cultivation of wine is to be found in Georgia. They have their own language which is unrelated to anything else outside of the Caucasians. And they have their own alphabet, which looks like a lot of hooks and squiggles. And having said that the name of the country isn’t even Georgia really. They call it Sakartvelo or საქართველო. They are the Kartli. Tbilisi the capital is built on warm springs, which is what the name means. There are about four and a half million people that live there. About 83 percent of them are various types of ethnic Georgians. Then there are Armenians, Turks, Russians, Ajeris, Jews and others.
Okay I could go on but you can look all this up for yourself. I’m not trying to interest you in the country as a tourist destination.
I have something else on my mind. As the most observant of you might notice this series of essays is entitled The Anadromous Life. I’m using the word ‘anadromous’ the word to describe certain fish that swim against the stream as the Pacific Salmon do. And by analogy I have pointed out that life today must be lived against the stream, which threatens to take everything downstream with it. I hope that over time I have also made a point that the obvious forms of rebellion are usually exactly the dead things that will just float downstream.
Having said that… finding the truly living things that swim against the current is no easy task. But I think I have something interesting here; a country that often goes against the grain in some of the best ways. And that country is საქართველო.
I have only recently, within the last six months, discovered this country with it’s anadromous culture. Finding Georgia is like discovering a hidden world, a lost civilization, that wasn’t really ever lost. It was just staring at you the whole time, patiently waiting to be noticed. And when you finally look at this culture you find that it is remarkably intact and complete. Yes of course Georgians have been influenced by the modern world. But they stubbornly refuse to give up certain antique traits that set them in a kind of odd stance vis-à-vis the larger world.
First of all to understand this country you have to understand that it goes back perhaps further than any other European land on earth. Some of the oldest post-African fossils were found exactly here. So naturally there was a Georgian or perhaps we should say Caucasian style dating way before written language… anywhere. Then again there was that wine. A sure sign of civilization if there ever was one. Of course there were Gods and Goddesses in a pantheon that was loosely connected to the ancient Greek world. Jason and his Argonauts found the Golden Fleece here. And there was such a thing! And Medea is the first historical woman we know anything about from what was then Colchis now Georgia… but she would not be the last.
Christianity was firmly introduced to Georgia by Saint Nino (წმინდა ნინო) a Christian slave of the royal house who performed several miracles and created the Georgian cross by tying a lock of her own hair around the bent dried wood of a grapevine. Then came Saint Shushanik (შუშანიკისი ) an Armenian woman martyred by her Georgian husband defending the right to believe in Christ. Her story is also the earliest surviving piece of early Georgian writing in the Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik. And there was also the Georgian golden age under the reign of Tamar (თამარი) the Great in the 12th Century. And it was under her reign that the eerily beautiful book The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი) was written by Shota Rustaveli .
Now I have emphasized the female aspects of Georgia for a reason. As countries go Sakartvelo is a predominantly masculine mountain culture of warriors that stretches back into the mists of history. Yet interestingly from pagan times and especially since the introduction of Christianity, by a woman, Georgia has had an unusual emphasis upon its women to a degree that many others could stand to learn from. Not that Georgia is in line with contemporary standards of politically correct feminist ideology. Au contraire. Yet it is has long been a country that promotes the development of the creative gifts of its women. And so looking today one finds intelligent artistic women under every mountainous rock.
A few women I could point to off the top of my head would be the Prima Ballerina Assoluta Nina Ananiashvili (ნინო ანანიაშვილი), actress Lika Kavjaradze (ლიკა ქავჟარაძე) and photographer Mariam Sitchnava (მარიამ სიჭინავა).
Nina Ananiashvili is now the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia. She claims that the Georgian approach to ballet has some unique features. We will investigate this later. But let’s just say that her own work in ballet is astounding and beyond graceful.
Lika Kavjaradze first made her name in Tengiz Abuladze’s masterwork The Wishing Tree (ნატვრის ხე) from 1976. In that film she portrays a pure village girl, a virgin Mary in transcendence, the embodiment of the philosophical questions related to the existence of beauty in the world and an allegory for the nation of Georgia itself, which is revealed when one man calls her Tamar. And the glory of it is that Lika is actually up to this monumental task with ease, from her first smile to her final mud-soaked procession.
And if you are starting to also get the picture that Georgian women also have a singular essence you need look no farther than the photographs of Mariam Sitchinava to be haunted by the female character in Georgia. She started by photographing what appears to just be friends, friends who later were discovered to become some of the most sublime models ever. Yet only Mariam can actually get to the ethereal heart of her subject.
And then there is music! Where to even begin…
Even totally amateurish videos of teenagers singing together give you goosebumps. And it isn’t being done in a self-conscious postmodern look-at-me-I-want-to-be-a-star kind of thing. In Georgia people still sing together unselfconsciously. And what a miraculous thing it is too.
(To be continued)
On Travel to Georgia:http://www.lonelyplanet.com/georgia
News From Georgia:http://www.georgiatoday.ge/index.php
On Nina Ananiashvili:http://www.ananiashvili.com/
On Mariam Sitchinava:http://mariam.ge/
The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990’s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.
When we think back on the actual Hippie dream we often imagine college aged folks prancing around in fields, flowers worn as ornaments, recreations of Eastern motifs, men’s hairstyles caught somewhere between a Native American tribe and the Wild West, women in long flowing ‘natural’ garments, stoned bliss, childlike and childish behavior. For many who weren’t alive then the drumming and mud fest as see in the filmed version of Woodstock often sums it up. (I had a few friends back then who did play in the mud tweaked as they were by their acidic visions.) For a few moments in San Francisco, between say 1965 and 1967, there actually was a dream, a fervent hope that through the use of psychedelics, free love (meaning whatever with whomever), and all that great new music, a neo-primitive community would be born, scrubbed clean of all of ‘the hang ups of straight society’. The Jean-Jacques Rousseau idea of being born free was taken quite seriously. It seemed to have bypassed most of the hip youngsters that all three aspects of this new liberated counterculture were based upon old school unfree major league technology. (Drugs, made in a laboratory. Sex, big thanks to the Pill. Rock, um, electrical amplification is indeed a key ingredient.) And not only that the ingredients of liberation were certainly not for free. You had to pay to get back to the garden. The return to noble savagery was merely a naïve dream or maybe just a pose.
And in fact well before the Sixties ended the bloom was off of those flowers placed into the barrels of National Guardsmen’s rifles. Already by the supposedly beautiful summer of 1967 the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was infested by hordes of the most lost and searching children the country could produce. The media descended to play it up. They dubbed it the ‘Summer of Love‘. Meanwhile the overdoses mounted, the abortions flowed, the music was being packaged and sold, the hucksters arrived, the false messiahs found acolytes. (Jim Jones and Charles Manson both did their San Francisco time.) By the early 70’s more religious factions, sects and cults could be found compressed into the San Francisco Bay Area than any other place on earth. All to scoop up the youth of America who had suddenly come to the conclusion that rational thinking was over. “I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.” (The Byrds – Fifth Dimension)
Did anyone in the media notice the burial of the Hippie in San Francisco in the Fall of 1967? Did the mainstream media notice that the good vibes had seriously ended by the time of the Altamont Rock Festival in December of 1969? Did Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison ever get any kind of mass media frenzy that Kurt Cobain did when they died? Did anyone observe that the royal bummer of a film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England took 25 years to be released to the public? Did anyone apart from a few prescient individuals see that the Hippie dream of the psychedelic noble savage was over by 1970? The answer to all of these questions is the same. No. And so the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll dream continued. But something had to change drastically.
For one thing the very size of the movement of those influenced by the Hippie dream of a return to wild nature had swelled to global proportions. Yet what they were getting was something much more diluted, still filled with the basic gist of the idea, that rational thinking was fairly pointless, except perhaps in construction of our techno toys, and what everyone really needed in this massive chaotic world was ‘Fun’. And the very word Fun had been blown up into a teleological rubber dolly.
The real operative words became intuition and instinct, in other words to ‘trust your feelings Luke‘. ‘Thinking was stinking’ was the way Charles Manson put it. The general impression was that thought, intellectuals, book learning had poisoned the well of Western consciousness and one way or another we had to get back to our primal selves. We needed to just trust our intuitions, our hunches, our stream of consciousness. This sounds like every song by Bjork. But she wouldn’t be alone by any means. One could argue that since the Sixties a majority of the pop music world, regardless of style, has emphasized this basic principle. ‘It’s your thing. Do what you want to do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.’
Of course, most of this hope in thoughtless intuition, or instinct (that word we use to describe animal behavior that we have absolutely no idea about why or how they do what they do), is based around contemporary concepts, or should we say deconstructions, of sexuality: The ‘as-long-as-nobody-gets-hurt’ (Yeah right.) school of human relationships. But at a certain point when hippie, singer-songwriter, new waver, punky mom and dad, who had sewn enough wild oats for their entire antecedent family tree were confronted by a child who might say, “But I am doing what I feel! I hate their guts! I want them to die!”, the elder partners in the family firm might simply have nowhere left to fall back. The concept that following your feelings might lead back to real primitive urges hadn’t crossed their minds. Yet it certainly should have.
In 1974 the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a harbinger of things to come. For Tobe Hooper it was quite clear that the Hippie dream had failed. He references the dark side of the Aquarian dream as Saturn in retrograde, not a good thing at all. And now this was what returning to the wild was really all about! A family left to their own devices reverting to cannibalism, ghoulish fetish art, a world where rational thought and language no longer apply. And though, despite the phony warning at the beginning of the film, this really was inspired by the such a reversion in the back woods, not of Texas, but of Wisconsin in the 1950’s, it was not merely as film critic Robin Wood suggested, in a brilliant 1978 Film Comment article, ‘a return of the repressed’ (again referring almost exclusively again sexuality). This was indeed more a warning that the dream of a blissful return to the garden was the pinnacle of delusion.
Not that anyone seemed to fully get the point. Whether in the commercially coy New Wave music of Adam and the Ants lauding a return to the ‘wild frontier’. Or in The Virgin Prunes Goth manifesto accompanying their 1982 album Heresie where they rail against the cleanliness of society, advocating a return to the dirt and go so far as to recommend correcting one’s civilized behavior by leaving used menstrual pads around. Later in RE/Search #12 Modern Primitives, (the book that gave every one on earth permission to get tattooed and pierced), it was clear that the answer to the dilemma of hypermodern society was a return to the tribe. And yet as Texas Chain Saw and dozens of other horror films had foreseen, this reversion to a dark tribal past would not result in a more meaningful life. By dampening our rationality, we would not find answers, we would perhaps find rage, or perhaps an inchoate howl of distress as Kurt Cobain specialized in, but we would also be opening a door that leads to madness, the kind of madness French philosophers like Michel Foucault or Georges Bataille had dreamt of. The kinds of transgressive acts that Bataille in particular believe all religions eventually led to. And my own feeling is that if, massive if, there is no God, then perhaps they are right.
Such troubling reversions to our primitive state are not isolated incidents. Hundreds of examples can be culled from the news and history: Whether in the cannibal witchcraft cult of Matamoros, Mexico, on the Texas border in 1989 or in the individual feral children found in various parts of the world. The beautiful dream of returning to a primitive state dies pretty hard in the face of the facts. And in Lucky McKee’s dark film The Woman we are confronted with a stark collapse of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic countercultural Hippie dream. There is no escape in the wild.
(Next the Conclusion of the Feral Life. We meet the Woman, wild children and learn to lose our language.)
A woman, dressed in rags and furs, carelessly filthy, black stringy and presumably lousy hair, teeth unsubjected to any dentistry and poisonous as a hyena’s, her face cocked like a gun preparing to explode, enters the lair of a wolf. The animal growls. The human brute growls back even more ferociously. The camera does not show us but we hear the beating and the tearing of those human teeth. In a moment we see her running, perhaps it is a dream. But in this story the woman who runs with the wolves is no sub-Jungian New Age empowerment fantasy. This is a fearful thing.
The film is The Woman. It was released in 2011 and more recently for home digestion. Directed by Lucky McKee, who also directed the brilliant watch-at-your-own-risk May back in 2002, The Woman has been vilified as misogynist, far too gory and just plain nerve-wracking and simultaneously praised for it’s feminist undertones and unique character portrayal by Pollyanna McIntosh. It is indeed quite hard to believe that Pollyanna (Has anyone ever been more paradoxically named?) is actually a statuesque Scottish beauty. But all of this contradiction delineates clearly the manner of beast we have here.
And as I watched this grisly work of art I was struck by many details that resonated far beyond the confines of this inexpensive little indie film. The screenwriter, novelist Jack Ketchum, had continued his novel, The Offspring, with special emphasis on the Woman at the suggestion of producer Andrew van den Houten, who had directed a version of the earlier book. The film of The Offspring also starred Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, leader of a tribe of feral humans in the American Northeast. And it is in fact this notion of feral humanity that really jumped out at me with such force in both films.
Feral is a curious word. (By the bye it can be pronounced in two ways. One, the more standard, makes it sound like fair-al. The other less common pronunciation is more like fear-al.) It suggest not merely wild, or wildness, but of the domesticated thing returning to the wild. For instance if you showed up on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean you would find a healthy population of feral cats that had been left behind by sailors from centuries back to eradicate the rat infestation accidentally bestowed upon the islands. I am claimed by a feral cat myself here in Alaska. They can go in and out a feral state. And that is very different from the human race. This could have something to do with the fact that domestication depends entirely on an animal’s relationship to mankind. We are not tamed by our pets or cattle. Now before I tread too far into some politically incorrect screed let’s return to ferality.
So to be feral is to revert to a wild state. Now at this point we bump into a raft of cultural issues that have their primary origins back in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized most famously that ‘L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.‘, which translated says that, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.‘ It was clear from his writings that Rousseau lamented the state of society that had enslaved us. All those compromises! All that book learning! All of that conformity! The individual must be free as an individual! Vive la Revolution!
Another related idea is that of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau did not invent the concept nor was he as primitivist as it sometimes claimed. Yet the somehow a reduction of his idea comes down to us like this; that the most free folks on earth are those most free from civilization, those closest to nature and the earth. Rousseau praised children for their purity, primitive tribes when they had achieved the stage of the savage. Regardless of the subtleties of Rousseau’s very influential works, the concepts of the ‘noble savage’ eventually merged with the art movements of 19th Century French Bohemia.
French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin followed a quest for this kind of wild life when he left behind everything and followed his muse to Tahiti. There was vision at the time that the Tahitians and many other tribes were more liberated than the stale old bourgeois European world that he had left behind, along with his failed marriage and children and the sense of depression that led him to attempt suicide. He wanted to find something in Tahiti. Something he was missing. Yet it could not be found. When he did eventually paint his masterpiece, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (trans. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), this was not the work of a man who had found his boho dreams come true. Death and futility are writ large. Paradise, not a paradisaical as the dream. A great painting had been made but the Tahitians were pretty much stuck on the same earth as everyone else.
Nevertheless more and more souls began to empty themselves out into various jungles of the mind in search of the perfect primitive conditions of liberation. Expressionist movements like Les Fauves, the very word meaning wild beasts, followed Gauguin into the primitivist wilds. In fact so much of modern art can be seen as a various forms of rejection of the things that make up the a dull conformist society: a return to nature, a rejection of nature, the artist as prophet, the artist as shaman, the artist as outlaw, the artist as madman, the artist as barbarian, the artist as explorer at the edges and the artist as denizen of the dregs. And all the while the dream of a feral sort of existence haunts the proceedings.
The Surrealists perfected perhaps the most intellectual version of this dream… which is of course an oxymoron. Yet one has to hand it to the Surrealists, whom I have a great deal of respect for. Following Symbolist dream theory and folding into it a strong dose of early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s reduction of human psychology to the libido, the Surrealists sought among the detritus of tainted experience in childhood, the metal institution and other outsiders for a way to connect, beyond reason, to the meaning of Art and Life. Later artists would discover Carl Jung.
But finally a movement would come along that would bubble up higher than the demimonde of the arts. The Beat Generation were by the late 1940’s pickled in Rousseau’s individualistic liberation dream. All that matters is to be true to yourself. That is the final statement. (With the proviso ‘as long as you don’t hurt anybody’ whatever that means. Actually that is the nail in the noble savage’s coffin.) But the Beats had a few nice twists in the lime of Rousseau’s gin and tonic. One, sex, and lots more of it. Two, drugs, and lot’s more of them. And finally music, or should I say Jazz, with Charlie Parker, (Oops! Sorry! Dead from primitive aid number two!) or Miles Davis in the role of the prophetic noble savage. We’ll overlook the hidden racism in considering black jazz players as noble savages with a pipeline to the primitive urges and demiurges. Did anyone ever at the time notice that being black did not equate to being more in touch with the mysteries of the savage universe? Great musicians? Yes. Fresh from the jungle? Um? Not quite. Pretty damned intellectual actually. So let’s change that addition from Jazz, just cross that out, to let’s look around a little… Oh! Wait! What’s this wild primitive stuff over here? Oh yeah! Rock ‘n’ Roll! And voila sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (!) equals another variation on the noble savagery theme.
Okay. I’m well aware that white American asses in the 1950’s had gotten damned tight and needed some musical loosening. But in plain fact, find one 1950’s rock ‘n’ roller that was truly in Rousseau’s camp. This was a case of the noble savage interpretation of what was actually fairly standard electric folk music in the traditional American vein. Had Postwar America not been quite so somnambulistically square it would not have been seen as such a radical departure from Jazz or the Blues. Nevertheless by the late 1960’s this Rousseau interpretation of Rock music was standard. (See the burgeoning field of Rock criticism.) Rock had indeed become a revolt against civilization. LSD was the psychosomatic magic which would effect the liberation of desire. Down with Christian prudery! Down with humanistic rationalism! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go! Vive la Revolution!
And now the feral dream was out of the intellectual closet.
(Next time we continue our little survey of the wilderness from Woodstock to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Virgin Prunes)
Also here’s another Anadromous essay on a similar theme…
As a puppeteer, with quite a wide definition of puppetry, I find often myself keeping an eyeball cocked onto the world of those close cousins of the puppet, dolls. Technically the basic difference between a doll and a puppet is this: you play with a doll by yourself, but get an audience and you are a puppeteer. Playing with dolls is an act of personal fantasy, the creation of a private world. When you turn the figure outwards everything changes, you now have to communicate something to someone else. Dolls and puppets both serve valuable functions. And there is some academic wrangling over the true ancestor of the puppet. Is it the doll or another strange homunculoid cousin, a more fearful relative, the religious idol? It is probably a mixture of the two. The puppet is a performer who can contain many a complex message. The doll is a figure that is usually outgrown as a playmate as a child discovers the outside world.
But what happens if the child doesn’t outgrow the doll? What happens if the child begins to treat the doll as something to emulate? What happens when the personal fantasy becomes a prison? And more to our point: What happens when the doll becomes a role model and object of desire? What happens if the doll’s lover develops a real case of agalmatophilia, that is a statue, doll and mannequin fetish?
I recently stumbled upon the phenomenon of girls becoming dolls. We have often the heard a girl compared to a doll before. But in this new trend to call a teenage girl a living doll has taken on far more than subtext. There is a girl whose real name I’m told is Venus Palermo, but who goes by the YouTube moniker VenusAngelic. Venus is about 15 years old as I write. She likes to dress up like a doll, to wear ribbons and frills and to compose her face with wide eyed innocence. Oh! Did I say wide eyed? I mean that literally. Not ‘literally’ as in ‘I literally fell on the floor laughing.’ when no such thing occurred. But literally as in this girl has a fetish for Japanese anime an is turning herself into a ball Jointed Doll (BJD in the doll world). In her video entitled: How to look like a doll (make up), Venus instructs her viewers how to achieve a porcelain like doll skin and even how to apply contact lenses to enlarge the size of the pupils. Giving her eyes a real doll effect. And VenusAngelic has about 80 videos on her personal philosophy of doll simulation. (She also speaks in a crazy doll’s voice that make her videos uniquely bizarre.) So think about this for a moment… A girl trying to become a doll.
As soon as I saw these photos and videos I knew I was looking at one of those weird trends that would catch on all over the place. It’s obvious to me that hippiedom, punk attitude, alternative piercings and tattoos all pretty much have the musty aroma of stale history to many teens these days. They need a new model. The revolutions of the counterculture are basically dead. (Occupy Wall Street not withstanding.) Here is the strange new thing. This is not my vote for a new paradigm mind you. I would hope for something more grounded, more questioning of technology, a bit more Luddite and much more fiercely intelligent. But as long as people are seduced by our wireless, app-worshipping, multi-screenal technocracy this is what we will get. I just knew I would see much more of this particularly curious blur between fantasy and reality, between plastic and flesh, between screen and quotidian existence.
And there certainly is more…
There are more doll girls already. Dakota Rose, a 16 year old, who goes by the name dakotakoti or Kotakoti is even more popular than VenusAngelic. (Between the two their videos have been watched by millions.) She’s a bit less extreme and some have said she tweaks her photos a bit to get the doll effect. She too comes across as a human BJD and creates her big eyed effect a bit more naturally. But the effect is the same. (She also reveals a connection to the Emo girl look on occasion.) And the doll look is certainly being copied. Japan? Absolutely. America? It’s just winding up. Globally? We’ll see.
But this doll/human interchange is actually a two way street. The doll itself has become a sort a laboratory for a kind of android aesthetic. Let’s consider the BJD. The unusual thing about the BJD is that they are anatomically more correct than most dolls. Some of these dolls are exquisitely crafted with incredible attention paid to detail. Not only that the costumes and accessories are even more elaborate. I first ran into the Ball Jointed Doll (though it wasn’t called that yet) in the mid-80’s through little Japanese doll books of Amano Katan. His Katan Doll: Fantasm was something I’d never encountered before. Beautifully constructed, yet disturbingly emaciated dolls, that seemed one step away from drawing a warm tub of water and contemplating a razor blade.
Since then the BJD has developed a cult following with artists vying with each other to create the most dewy eyed melancholic homunculi imaginable. In the hands of an artist like Russian/Canadian Marina Bychkova these dolls are anorexic works of art. They have a strange erotic power in their tangible realism. I’m impressed by the craft and dedication that goes into these dolls.
Oh yeah, by ‘anatomically correct’ I mean they show pink nipples and genitalia, which is quite unusual for a doll. Of course they aren’t really for children. But what is their function? I know that people get together at conferences to marvel over these BJD creations. Doll collectors consider them a real pinnacle of the craft. But there is a problem.
The Japanese have a word, ‘kawaii’, which roughly translates into English as ‘cute’. Now in English ‘cute’ a relatively recent word, means something akin to baby-like, when most people use it. Babies are cute. Bunnies are cute. Kittens and puppies are cute. Cats can be cute. A teenage girl might say that a boy is cute. (Here the meaning is slipping a little.) But generally baby-like things can’t be violent or pornographic. At least that’s our vision of things. Kawaii things in Japan can be. That is, big-eyed anime and manga characters can certainly be both violent and highly pornographic. I won’t follow this any further, but if you know the worlds of anime and manga you know exactly what I’m talking about. The BJD has evolved from the anime tradition. And like anime or manga the BJD, though fitted with the standard markings of cuteness, big childlike eyes, puffy lips, silky smooth skin. But in the very realistic, and stylized treatment, of human genitalia several categories are being blended in ways that are not only erotic but have an especially troubling kick. The moist childlike faces seem to beckon towards very forbidden fruit.
But there are further degrees of the human/doll interpenetration. If you remember the climax of the first Star Trek movie where man mates with machine you can understand that there has long been a desire to make the perfect erotic mate. One that isn’t bitchy, naggy or bleed once a month. Someone who will not ask uncomfortable questions. This curious desire goes at least as far back as the Greek myth of Pygmalion. I suspect that it even finds it’s expressions in various fertility idols of the remote past.
And RealDoll has achieved the next step. The old image of the inflatable love doll is now hopelessly antiquated. For about $6,000 one can purchase a female doll approximately the exact size and, more importantly, the weight of a real woman. And would you understand me if I said that these dolls are even more anatomically correct than the BJDs. They have certain replaceable parts and very pliant human textured silicon skin. Interestingly the movie Lars and the Real Girl, featured one of these lifelike dolls and yet did not find the concept all that creepy. Again, as so often in the movies, humans and machines were made for each other. The relatives of Lars find it getting a touch too weird. But the movie itself seems to plump down with that old saw ‘whatever works’. Well they do make porn films of these dolls too. And what is the nature of the actual relationship of the man (Girls don’t get too envious, they now make male RealDoll’s too.) to the simulacra? Have we crossed the line from fetish to idol?
I don’t know, am I being too much of a Puritan about this stuff? (Calvin did make some good points.) Or is this really the destiny of the human race? Predictably the media has recently been covering the Doll Girl phenomenon and of course the questions they ask go something like this: Are we sexualizing young girls again? Like that was the big issue here. It is indeed a problem. But I don’t think that’s the serious issue. Maybe we should ask; What are we sacrificing in our desire to blur the distinction between what we make and who we are? What are we losing in the bargain?
Too understand the answers to that line of questioning I think we can start by imagining VenusAngelic or Kotakoti twenty or thirty years down the road. What prosthetics will they choose to retain their status as living dolls? What surgical procedures will they adopt? We know that most organs can be transplanted now. What happens when they finally find a donor to give them a doll’s plastic heart?
I hope they learn to face reality long before then… But then again what in this society is really encouraging them to do that?
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. Ascension Day? Evidently the day of Jesus’ ascent back into heaven is celebrated pretty widely across secular Europa while we more religious Americans hadn’t even been informed that it was a holiday. I felt gypped. (Hey wait a minute isn’t gypped from gypsy? Uh oh I feel something politically correct hovering about. Down damn you!)
Meanwhile back in Salzburg everything was closed except the Hohensalzburg Castle, which fortunately contained the small puppet museum of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. I also discovered there that it would be impossible to interview any of the Salzburg puppeteers because the office was closed for the holiday. But I did have tickets for the theatre that night.
I found my seat in the Salzburg Marionette Theater, amid children and Japanese tourists, for an unseasonal (to my mind at least… Or maybe it fits the Ascension Day festivities?) performance of The Nutcracker. This was the most expensive puppet show I had attended on my entire trip through European puppetry: 28 euros (nearly $40 US) and hardly the best seats in the diminutive antique theatre. But after all the Salzburg Marionettes had toured the world. And when I saw their show I knew why. Their technique was elaborate, flawless. It was like watching a three dimensional film without the glasses. The use of lighting was particularly good. But it was the actual movement of the marionettes that was stupefying. Whether it was a parade of snowmen or a Middle Eastern dancer, the performance was truly lifelike. The puppets appeared to be actual miniature beings rather than mere pieces of wood, wire, fabric and paint. As the ballet concluded the possibilities of puppetry appeared nigh endless to me. Although it was curious that the group with the most refined style moved about primarily to prerecorded music. If Buchty a Loutky in Prague had this kind of technique what would they do with it? Indeed many of the students at Charleville would eventually have this level of technique and they were already beginning to move far beyond traditional concepts of puppeteering.
As I walked back to my hotel in the darkness over the Salzach River I stopped on the bridge and looked across to the lights Salzburg and the castle reflected in the dark water. I reflected on what a journey it had been. I could see that puppetry was still an untapped artistic treasury, from the folk art of Guignol to the philosophical experiments at the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM, from the savage comic timing of Der Weite Theater to the gentle humor and earnest ideas of DRAK, from the pure displays of light and shadow at the Fuguren-Zirkel to the dark seriousness of play’s like Groteska’s Balladyna and from the perfect professionalism of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre to funky absurdism of Buchty a Loutky. And I could also easily see how much was left, acres, countries, galaxies to be explored in the puppetry matrix, including masks and objects. Puppetry had been a folk art for so long, with only tentative steps towards art having been made in the 20th Century. It was as though though this art form was still in its glorious silent movie stage awaiting the advent of sound.
I also had another reflection: I remembered back in Berlin going to a rock club to watch three indie bands play. I left before the third one started. Why? Well I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen a lot of music in my lifetime. And these bands were doing what so much music does these days. They were providing a rather predictable experience for the people who like that sort of sound. The club was full of the usual suspects: hipsters standing around looking coolly bored or the folks who invariably bob their heads in approval of the beat. But nothing surprising was occurring. And without some element of surprise nothing new can be said. The musical conversation that had stretched back into the mists of the 20th Century and before now looked to have become stale. (Yes I’m well aware that there is plenty of good music out there. The problem is that it has ended up as our personal portable soundtracks.)
But in puppet theatre after puppet theatre my mind was being blown all ways from Sunday. Puppetry, by retaining its tangible, tactile character, had stepped up to the artistic task of confronting the infernal virtuality of the 21st Century. The European puppets that I saw raised questions that most of the other arts could no longer confront in our maelstrom of hi-tech simulacra. Puppetry can be used effectively in films, but it is barely contained by them. And the best puppet films by Wladyslaw Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay or Genevieve Anderson throw us back upon the textures of the real world with its mysterious essence. But the only way to truly know why the once and future art of puppetry is able to speak into our dismembered reconstituted times is find a real puppet show (not some muppety kiddie show either) and get thee henceforth. And that’s the point puppets require our presence, which gets us out of our isolation.
As I stood on that bridge crossing the Salzach River watching the lights of Salzburg it occurred to me that everywhere you go there are endless musical bands, singers, organizations. But where were the puppet troupes? Why shouldn’t there be just as many? The punk puppets of Buchty a Loutky provided an excellent model. But why not shadow puppets? Marionettes? Toy theatres? Rod Puppets? Puppet films? Crafty automata? Reconditioned action figures? Recycled junk? And not just to make kids laugh either? (But then again why not?) And not just to make adults giggle? (And again why in the name of heck not?) But why not make versions of Shakespeare, Faust or Alice in Wonderland? Why not make versions of movies? Buchty a Loutky did Rocky IX why not The Maltese Falcon or Night of the Living Dead? Or my own personal dream – a live outdoor version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a small audience following the Stalker puppet to the Zone. Puppetry is an ancient art with a deep past that ranges from Punch to King Kong, from Captain Pod to Michel de Ghelderode. But it is also an art that is still discovering its grammar, especially since it is not just a language of homunculi and funny animals but of all objects. On my journey I saw stones, grapevines, electric trains, water and light all used as puppets.
And so I determined right there on that bridge that I would take on this art myself and see if I could get it to work back in Alaska, back in North America. And take it I did. And I believe it has worked… But that is another story. It was time to leave Europe and the rich panorama of faces and characters, both human and animated, I had encountered on this astounding journey.
In early May during my last stop in Europe I had one closing benediction related to puppetry. At my hotel in the Latin Quarter in Paris the desk clerk, whom I had known for years, told me that the man on the night shift, Jorge, was a Bolivian puppet master. He introduced us and I interviewed him. As he discussed puppets made out of paper in the shape of condors I realized how much more of the world of puppets I had yet to encounter. There were indeed puppet shows all over the world. I asked him if he thought puppets would have problems surviving in a world of televisions, computers, video games, etc. “No!” He replied with passion. “People need puppets.” “Why?” I asked him. For him all of puppetry came down to one word “Simplicity.” And after all I’d seen I couldn’t help but agree with him: simplicity and a tangible reality.
March 4th 2012
And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 7 – The City of Eccentric Dreams
Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs. The Czech Republic, the eccentric core of Europe, the Surrealist dreamscape, to quote Andre Breton: “Prague, wrapped in its legendary magic, is truly one of those cities that has been able to fix and retain the poetic idea that is always more or less drifting aimlessly through space.” I had come to Prague for the second time, in the second half of April 2005, a little more prepared to unwrap it’s curious puppet mythologies.
My first stop was the Švandovo Theatre to find Buchty a Loutky. Back in Hradec Kralove DRAK Director Jakub Krofta had highly recommended them. They were performing Pes Baskervillessky, their absurd version of the Sherlock Holmes mystery ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. The lights went down. Someone played slow music on a piano. A tall bearded long-haired gentleman in a suit began to read from Sherlock Holmes. Behind him in an exceptionally funky homemade stage Sherlock Holmes and Watson suddenly appeared. Watson and Holmes were full sized actors who had crammed their heads into the tiny puppet stage. Soon the actors were replaced by little string puppets. At one point Holmes requested tea. Suddenly two full-sized cups appeared on the stage. Water was poured from above. Splashing helplessly on the tiny figures as well as into the porcelain cups. It was then consumed by a couple of puppeteers from the side as the play continued. Suddenly the actors would be in front of the little stage duplicating the movements of the puppets. A model train began to roam around the makeshift stage at one point. At another a puppet is falling and falling and falling, the miniature stage curtain descends suddenly the play stops and the bearded guy starts reading a book on swamps through a microphone. This goes on for five minutes before it starts to dawn on everyone that this is the intermission. He reads for 15 minutes. The evening continued with humor, absurdity and inventiveness blazing away in full glory. Holmes does indeed solve the case. Eventually the play ends as a cello lonely tune is bowed offstage. And the players take a bow. I approached the guy with the beard… his name was Tomas Procházka. He is the director of the piece. We set an appointment to talk for later that week before their next show. I walked off thinking, laughing, obsessed with the play, my head positively exploding with ideas. I had seen much on this trip, but nothing had prepared me for this. I would return.
The next evening I decided to visit one of the unique Czech black light theatres, Ta Fantastika to see “Aspects of Alice“, a truly weird variation on Alice in Wonderland. Black theatres tend to be quite commercial in their production design and sadly proliferate largely for the tourist market. Nevertheless as they are tangentially related to puppet theatre I felt I should see another one. This one appeared to be the best of the current crop. In the presentation Alice follows a magician by floating, always lots of floating in these shows, across a day-glow version of historic Prague. She meets some tall Jewish ghost puppets that carry her around in her hands. It was doubly odd since most of Prague’s Jews had been exterminated in World War 2 and these gangly puppets were largely nostalgic characters. Then there was a fairly successful clown show to cheer Alice up after getting depressed by the Jewish specters: lots of floating juggling day-glow bowling pins. After the intermission things turned down right odd. For no discernible reason Alice was suddenly topless and reenacting the Garden of Eden, with the snake represented by another topless woman. Now I’m fairly familiar with the Bible and many interpretations of the GArden of Eve story but I’d never encountered this interpretation before. The magician then becomes Adam. Alice/Eve becomes pregnant. She prays for forgiveness to a triangle with odd lines in it. (Was that the Trinity?) And the show ends. I’m not sure what that meant, but it sure was slick and bizarre.
The next morning I went to meet Nina Malíková, daughter of famed Czech puppeteer Jan Malik, an intelligent animated woman in her fifties, editor of the noted puppeteering magazine Loutkář, who was already being interviewed by a French student, Rachele, doing a Master’s thesis on Czech Puppet history. Eventually Nina, Rachele, an interpreter and myself were deeply involved in a discussion about the meaning and future of puppetry. Nina was worried that there would not be enough good puppet shows for children, since in the Czech Republic everyone wanted to do work for adults. I could only dream of such problems for America. “What about DRAK and other companies”, I said. “They do work for children?” “Yes”, she said, “that’s one show once in a while, but I want to take my grandchildren to puppet shows every week. We are supposed to be the land of puppets.” She had definite and high standards. She lamented that increasingly puppets were becoming a purely improvised visual phenomenon. (Several other puppet theorists have pointed to same defect in so much contemporary puppetry.) She also wondered if the future of puppets was to be contained within various filmic or digital media. I pointed out the use of strong texts by the students of the International Institute for Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières France. Rachele added that there were writers in Avignon who were assigned to specific puppeteers. That was exactly what I saw at the Institute. I said that there had to be more of an emphasis on texts to bring puppetry to the next level. Nina looked at me and said… I want you to write about what you’ve been telling me for the next issue of Loutkář. We’ll translate it. And she also offered the same to Rachele. It had proved an interesting meeting indeed. (I did write something but I suspect it was too long. You are basically reading a variation of it write now.)
Not all in Prague was fascinating theatre and engrossing meetings. I couldn’t help noticing the predators of tourism as well: the strange bad tourist puppet shows and imitative black light theatres. Prague has so many genuine puppet attractions that it is also plagued by commercial puppetry trying to cash in on the Czech culture. There were so many cheap puppet shops that the authentic ones took a little effort to find. There are two Don Giovanni marionette theatres. The real one is at the National Marionette Theatre. I talked for a while to a Bulgarian girl who was passing out leaflets in front of the imitation Don Giovanni marionette play. She worked 12 hours a day six days a week doing little more than this. She was so bored with her job that she struck up a conversation with me when I turned around to walk away from a theatre foyer. She explained how a group of Serbians also ran many of the most exploitative black light theatres. She was stuck working for them a few years until she could get enough to go home.
Returning to the Švandovo on my last night in Prague I found Tomas Procházka from Buchty a Loutky. I told him that their puppetry reminded me of old school Punk rock. Not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.” He explained how the troupe took turns coming up with ideas for shows. The group of five or six people had been influenced mostly through the strange puppet films of Jan Švankmajer, also probably the reason I found myself wandering around Europe looking for theatrical homunculi. Referring to that night’s entertainment Tomas said “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” The stage for this show, entitled Urbild Remix, was actually indeed constructed exactly in the Švankmajer mode. It was made from wood you might have found in your backyard. There were three puppet stages and extra curtains besides piled on top of each other. The show was billed as an adventure. There were chases, murders, mermaids, skeletons, American Indians and stage blood that literally flowed from the middle stage into a teapot, again homemade music, plenty of strange humor and a great comic introduction by the play’s director, Marek Bečka. And it was all a dream! I can’t possible summarize it. Except to say if you ever go to Prague if you must hunt down the performances of Buchty a Loutky at the Švandovo Theatre. I hear Rocky IX is particularly good.
At one point in my two weeks in Prague I was exploring the Strahovsky Cloister libraries, particularly their surreal object collections, not too far from a desiccated baby dodo bird; it was then that I found I found a portrait, several centuries old, made entirely from seeds. As I looked at them locked behind the glass on a low shelf ignored by the hordes of high school students currently being herded through the place, I smiled to myself. This was exactly like one of the images in the short film Dimensions of Dialogue. Švankmajer had been here. And I promised myself that next time I visited Prague I would find the man himself.
Next time we conclude our journey in Salzburg Austria with the most polished and complicated marionettes of my whole trip.
And here is what you will need to explore puppetry in Prague on your own!!!
For more information on Buchty a Loutky:
or their haunt at the Švandovo: (Hint more shows are listed on the Czech version)
And to learn more about Jan Švankmajer begin here:
To see the authentic Don Giovanni puppet opera in Prague go to the National Marionette Theatre. This is an excellent place to begin.
And if you do want to see a strange if commercial black theatre presentation Ta Fantastika seems to be the best one I’ve seen so far. And they are still presenting Aspects of Alice! (They have a video here too.)
Other spots for real puppet shows Říše Loutek theatre. DRAK plays here on occasion.
Divadlo Minor is a good place for interesting children’s puppetry:
If you want to get more adventurous translate this…
Highly recommended The Forman Brothers – Film Director Milos Forman’s sons are experimental puppeteers and high on my list to catch:
To learn more about Loutkář run this through a translation tool:
To buy a serious puppet try:
And finally to have a puppet commissioned for you! (as Reckoning Motions did) write to Lenka Pavlíčková. She does an amazing job!
There are also puppet festivals!!
Get thee to Prague …
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 6 – On The Czech Puppet Trail
I stole my way into the Czech lands by train. I arrived at the obscure town of Chrudim, looking for the Muzeum loutkářských kultur Chrudim (The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim) in the heart of its medieval core. Passing the central plague monument I eventually found the museum located in the Renaissance Mydlář building. Museum Manager Alena Exnarova, a very knowledgeable woman, and one of her assistants, a spark-plug of a guy named Radek, graciously spent an hour and a half giving me the Czech history of puppets. (A history I’ve already spent some time writing about back in Antidote Art #1.)
What was curious to me then was that Czechs had been doing mature puppet plays ever since the 1700s. They had been performing medieval church puppetry before that but were highly influenced by wandering Punch and Judy Men and other homunculoid riffraff drifting over from England and Germany. The traveling Czech puppeteers would give miniature versions of famous plays and novels for people who might not be able to see the real thing or read. It was during this time that classics like Macbeth, Don Juan and Faust put down their puppet roots. And this also proved to be a significant influence in helping to keep the Czech language alive while under a ban from the Austrians after the devastating Battle of White Mountain in1620. This was the battle that destroyed the Reformation that Jan Hus had started nearly a century before Martin Luther. Puppets therefore occupied a very special place in the Czech psyche for while their Austro-Hungarian overlords spoke German, the puppeteers performed in Czech: a language too far beneath them for the Austrians to notice.
Puppets were sometimes a way of presenting messages that the authorities overlooked. Kašpárek, the Czech Punch, sometimes made salty comments about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 1800s more was being done for children as the trend was developing in many countries. Many children looked forward to getting miniature puppet theatres as Christmas gifts. Yet before World War One there were thousands of roving puppet troupes, some for children many still for adults. They even started a puppet magazine called Loutkář (puppeteer) in 1912… and it continues today. Later Joseph Skupa invented the characters Spejbl and Hurvinek who actually made such anti-Nazi remarks so as to get Mr. Skupa thrown into a concentration camp. The Soviets, ironically, as they had done in other Iron Curtain countries, encouraged puppet theatres. And yes there were many times when the audience saw something beneath the obvious surfaces, they were used to reading the allegories. I realized that alone of all the countries in the world the Czech Republic was the only country I could think of where puppetry was not just woven into the warp and woof of its history but was positively heroic! Astounding.
It was a fascinating history from a fascinating museum in an undiscovered little medieval town. They also housed a library of 70,000 multilingual books, magazines and other items pertaining to puppet history. The museum was supported by the Czechs because puppetry is respected as a vital art form by the Czech government. The museum also serves as a focal point and aid to the Amateur Puppet Festival in Chrudim. The amateur festival is held each July for Czechs only, but foreign guests are also invited. It is a pretty big deal and might warrant a return to Chrudim someday.
As I concluded my interview with Alena Exnarova I asked her about the meaning of puppetry. “The puppet has limitations but then again it can do things actors could never do.” She explained that there is a life to puppetry that will continue even with all of the modern digital screenal gadgetry. What were some of the new trends in Czech puppetry I asked? Radek explained that there was a movement translated as something like Illusion Theatre. It was a return to certain aspects of the roots of traditional puppetry particularly the used the hidden puppeteers. In other words while Americans hardly knew much beyond the Muppets except in a few isolated zones, most of us having not even seen puppeteers standing on the stage with their puppets performing, some Czech puppeteers have already been there, done that and have started to return to the mystery of the hidden hand by behind the puppet.
There is no European spiritual program that allows one to return to states feeling vaguely in touch with the ineffable. It’s not like a trip to Asia. Instead one often just feels as stupid as a laundry bag in need of some real education. (Oh thank you American public school for partially teaching me English and English alone!) And I was hardly finished with my lessons in puppet history. I was now on my way to receive a few more instructions and to tag along with a Czech puppet troupe across some of the most dangerous roads in Europe.
A short one-hour train ride the next day took me to my next destination Hradec Kralove. My purpose in coming to this town was to visit the DRAK (an acronym that spells ‘dragon’ in Czech) Theatre. And to meet with Jakub Krofta, son of Professor Joseph Krofta, who did, and continues to do, so much to change Czech puppetry. Jakub is the de facto director of the theatre most of the time and was rehearsing a new play with actors in bear costumes. When I arrived I spent the first two or three hours interviewing and chatting with Jakub. After giving me a tour of the facilities, that I must say inspired a little wistful envy, Jakub gave me much of the history of the theatre and so many interesting perspectives that it would be difficult to begin to unravel it all here. As I watched them rehearsing their bear play I felt a need to speak out from the Alaskan perspective. Bears sniff around with their sensitive noses. If you ever see this play you might notice the bruins sniffing around a bit… now you know why.
I was temporarily adopted by the troupe and was even invited to travel the next day with them back and forth to Prague on the crazy Czech roads. I felt honored. I got to know several of the cast and crew, including the petite Petra Cicáková an unusual actress/clown/puppeteer and folk musician Filip Huml. Driving on the narrow Czech roads to the wild music of a Balkan brass band was one of the more disturbing adventures I’d ever experienced. Cars passed each other in waves on the two lane highways. Once a car drifted out into the opposing lane from some three cars back and passed three more in front of us an instant before a semi-truck plowed forward on that same lane. It didn’t comfort me to later read that indeed the fatality statistics for the Czech roads are basically the worst in Europe, all fueled by the incredible (and incredibly cheap) beer. Our able driver passed at least 60 cars on the night time ride home.
And the play, The Enchanted Bagpipes, contained a life-size puppet or two and several actors and musicians in devil costumes. The music was curious, rewritten versions of Czech folk tunes while the lead character, Filip Huml, a Czech musicologist as well as actor, played the gajdy, the Moravian bagpipe. Quite an earful! DRAK had over time been moving more into an area that used circus techniques and masks as much as puppetry. This coincided with some of the developments at Teatr Lalka and Teatr Groteska. The message of the piece was intriguing as well. The bagpipe symbolized the Czech soul. The devils tempted Filip to surrender his bagpipes. They used the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the cold uniformity of the communist system and finally the randy cash of the Americanized West. I was happy to see that the old Czech tendency to use puppetry and theatre for questioning the reigning powers was far from moribund.
Finally in a side note, as I strolled around Chrudim, Hradec Kralove and Prague I noticed something. There is a kind of connection between Alaska and the Czech Republic. Back in the U.K. men often wore a sort of uniform short post-skinhead hairstyle. In the Netherlands a very absurd waxy hairstyle predominated for male fashion. Poland was a bit formal. France a bit more stylish. But in the Czech Republic men didn’t seem involved with any particular hair trend: Short, long, beards, mustaches, shaved headed it just didn’t seem to matter, just like back in Alaska. I felt visually quite comfortable. This has nothing to do with puppetry, or does it???
Next time we finally enter the puppetry capital of Europe… Prague.
For more information on DRAK:
Go see them in Hradec Kralove!
The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim is remodeling until June 2012
But this website might be helpful until then:
Eventually their English page will be back up.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 5- Finding the Roman Polanski Puppet
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. Eventually the next day I would find it in a massive colonnaded grey cement building. I also discovered that all cultural venues in the country were closed for a week. This included puppet theatres. I also found that no one in the offices of Teatr Animacji spoke a word of English.
I continued on to Warsaw. And I met my friend Marta Czanik at the train station. Again the city was in mourning for the Pope. I attended one outdoor service that was extremely moving amongst over 100,000 thousand Poles. Although the puppet theatres were not performing that week there were a few people in the theatre. Marta came to my rescue in regards to the titanic bulk of the Teatr Lalka (teatr = theatre & lalka = puppet) and set up some meetings for me. We interviewed the artistic director for Teatr Lalka, a Polish woman with a strong character named Joanna Rogacka. Sitting in her dark office in the Palace of Culture and Science, the massive Stalinist Gothic building at the center of Warsaw, listening to this regal woman unravel the history of puppetry in the communist era, provoked quite a few thoughts. The gray morning light drifted through the windows shading the woman and her assistant Anna Bojarska is high contrasts. The furniture surrounding us was old heavy dark wood. Pani Rogacka explained that the Soviets encouraged puppetry as a form of art, though Teatr Lalka had a more elaborate history. She explained that how back in the forties a man named Jan Wilkowski began to change the presentation of puppets by stepping from behind the curtain to work with the puppets themselves on stage. Also there was clearly an influence upon the Polish style by the Russian puppet genius Sergey Obraztsov. This moved the world of Polish puppets closer towards a more artistic idea. She showed me photos of elaborate stage shows, including some tantalizing images from their version of Homer’s Odyssey. I was missing one performance because I was on my way to Krakow. But I certainly got the idea. At a certain point the interview, rather the monologue, was over. I had been granted my time. I was brimming with questions. But she was indeed a busy woman, and I was indeed fortunate to have been granted an audience. I watched a rehearsal of a story about a noble bunny rabbit, some strange looking black creatures and shadow plays. I also watched the troupe put on a clown play that reminded me of a cross between Laurel & Hardy and a child’s version of Waiting for Godot. I owe Marta good words for translating the entire interview for me. I couldn’t have done this without her.
It was soon time to go to Krakow. The city was thoroughly fascinating and well worth several visits. I also detoured for a day to visit Auschwitz, which left me with conflicted emotions about the nature of our presentation of the tragedies of the past. At last I made my way over to Teatr Groteska, which was housed in another large old domed cement building. Inside, up the four or five flights of wide marble stairs, were housed examples of the theatre’s sixty-year history. I was also allowed into the puppet storage facilities. An usher named Olga told me that she had become so fascinated with the reactions of children to puppets that it had become the thesis of her doctoral dissertation. She arranged interviews for me with one of the actors of a mature puppet play, Balladyna, which I would see later in the day. But first it was time to watch a kooky version of Little Red Riding Hood. The interesting thing about all of the daytime performances was that they were all full. The theatre had made arrangements with schools across southern Poland to bring kids to the theatre. I was told that over 90,000 students a year viewed the various shows. Now that’s how it should be done!
The afternoon show, Balladyna, was full of high school students. This was a serious work with some eerie raggedy puppets, puppets that reminded me somehow of Auschwitz, used in a way I’d never seen before. Live actors interacted with the humanoid shapes as they manipulated them. And somehow at one moment they were actors and in the next they were the puppets. The story was a dark Polish legend of sorts from a work of classic Polish literature. It was clear to me that puppets could easily do work as serious as Shakespeare’s plays if they so chose. Afterwards I spoke with one of the actors, Franciszek Mula, about the differences between puppetry and standard acting. This was actually his first puppet work. He explained that puppetry was far more humble than theatre work; that the actor had to give space to the puppets, which actually went against the obvious inclination of actors to be seen. When I asked if he would pose for a few photographs with the puppets he replied with a knowing smile, “Of course, I’m an actor.”
A couple of days later, after seeing one more performance with a Chinese theme and a wild use of masks, smoke and balloons (!), I had an interview through a translator with the slyly sagacious director of Groteska, Adolf Weltschek. He too explained that the theatre started as a result of the Soviet push towards classical culture at the end of World War 2. Essentially the way it worked was that the Russians thought that there were four pillars of culture: Ballet, Opera, Theatre and Puppets. That is why every Polish puppet theatre was so large. They had been financed at great expense by the Soviets. He also explained more of how the censorship issues worked. How the text of the play would be submitted to the censor for approval and then how the images might contradict the text to get another message across. He also offered me his theory that all Polish artistic puppetry was influenced by the Russians. And in fact, unlike the Czechs, the Poles did not have such an involved history of puppetry. There were some folk puppets. But the real burst in Polish puppetry had come after the Second World War. When I asked how this transference might have occurred he said probably during the war when Polish and Russian troops were fighting side by side. Before the war he said puppets were nothing special in Poland, just a folk art, but in Russia… And there was no way to get to Moscow on this trip!
As I was leaving Adam Weltschek, descending the marble stairs, my translator stopped. She pointed to an older funky looking puppet and remarked with pride, “This is the Roman Polanski puppet. When he was 12 years old he used to work with this puppet.” Teatr Groteska in Krakow had just become yet another crucial element of this poetic topography of puppet history.
Next we travel to heart of puppetry in Europe – the Czech Republic
January 25th 2012
For information on Krakow’s Teatr Groteska run this page through a translation tool
And this one on Warsaw’s Teatr Lalka
And get yourself to Poland!!!
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 4- Puppetry Can Do Everything
On to Berlin… The name alone conjures up some powerful images: Prussian soldiers, 1920’s decadence, Hitler, the Russians ripping the city to shreds, the Cold War and dances on the crumbling Wall. It’s all there and much more: A city obliterated by the past and a perpetual construction zone preparing for an unrealized future. City workers spend time erasing neo-Nazi graffiti, while the overwhelming Turkish presence raises questions yet to be answered. What does Islam mean in secular Berlin?
My very good friend Millay Hyatt met me at the Ostbahnhof. Millay has an endless curiosity about many subjects. She took me to a Stanley Kubrick exhibit, an abandoned amusement park, rows of endless communist era buildings and a monumental Soviet World War 2 memorial, among other places. She also aided me immensely by becoming my interpreter for two puppet theatres.
The first theatre, a shadow theatre called the Fuguren-Zirkel (Figure Circle), was run by an affable Austrian named Georg Jenisch. We watched romantic and psychedelic displays of light and shadow along with the music of Mozart’s Magic Flute. His entrancing figures were elaborately cut from malleable plastic or even flexible plastic mirrors to give an effect of not only shadow puppets but of light figures as well. Strange little figures danced around in a large circular window, the size of a pair of outstretched adult arms, and it seemed impossible that there was only one man behind the stage. His figures were based partly on Turkish shadow puppets. But he was also clearly influenced by the work of the brilliant silhouette filmmaker and shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. He was also a musician himself and composed music for his performances at times. Georg thought his figures should only move to music and never speak. This was similar in style to the Salzburg Marionette Theater where he had indeed worked. Puppet art had been more innovative in the 90s, he felt, yet he seemed to feel it was regrouping. Overall it was a courteous and friendly interview.
It was then time to see Das Weite Theater performing a piece called The White Hammer at Die Schaubude Theater, which was the funniest piece of puppet art I’ve yet to see. A small cuddly white bunny hops out onto the stage. It eats what appear to be real carrots. A sinister female puppet slinks out onto the stage and then without warning pounces upon the critter and slices open the rabbits throat in an exceptionally bloody scene of red cloth blood. I know this doesn’t sound funny. But trust me the abrupt U-turn between cute little bunny and mad slasher was outrageously funny. I mean who expects a white rabbit to be mercilessly slaughtered within the first few minutes of a play. (Don’t worry though the bunny’s ghost returns near the end of the evening.) The rest of the play was a comic farce based on whodunnits. Blockheaded puppets carved by Czechs moved in frantically satirical actions. One buck-toothed woman spun around in circles every time some the possibility of danger was even hinted at. The farcical movements were given to them by Torsten Gesser and Irene Winter. It was mostly just the two of them with as many as six large wooden hand puppets at a time. And they turned out to be excellent interview subjects. Millay Hyatt provided excellent help by translating their predominantly German speech.
As we spoke I began to piece together the story of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain. The Communist state, through direct Russian orders, funded puppet theatres. For years an artistic council planned the repertoire, which was mostly Russian Fairy Tales and folk tales. Before the Wall fell there were 17 serious puppet theatres in East Germany. Shows for adults began in the early 1980’s, notably a puppet presentation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper or as it is know in English the Three Penny Opera. (Brecht was known for his leftward leanings.)
Was criticism of the government present in these puppet shows?
“The puppet theatres did not feel as much pressure as the standard Theatre and the Opera did.” said Irene. “There was always a way to express criticism through puppetry in the GDR. You didn’t do it in a blatant way though, you used subtlety. People in East Germany were used to reading between the lines. So the audience could tell when something was being said.”
Was it done by allegory?
“Here’s an example?” Irene continued. “ We did a version of satirical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were soldiers in the forest watching everything. They were spies for the Queen. You didn’t have to spell out what this meant. Everyone knew it was a criticism of state paranoia. The spies in the forest were even wearing the uniforms of the state police. So we always expressed criticism. And sometimes the audience would read criticism into works where none was intended. And they would be thinking ‘Wow! They are so daring! They actually said that?’ But there were colleagues of ours who did try to speak in a more directly political way. And they did have trouble with the authorities”
Torsten added, “ Then, you did have a feeling that people actually heard you when you were being critical. Nowadays when you are critical they laugh; they don’t listen, nobody cares. But then, you definitely had the sense that criticism was effective.”
Did more people come to the puppet theatres then?
“Theatre was much more affordable back then.” Torsten remarked. “And it was considered a necessity. People were encouraged to go to the theatre from a very young age. The thought was, ‘If we can’t provide them with consumer goods, then we’ll provide them with culture.”
And after the Berlin Wall came down?
“It was a 180º turn.” Torsten said, “We had a professional career. Now we are freelancers.”
“In West Germany they weren’t working with puppets in a professional way.” Irene pointed out. “There weren’t university courses on puppetry. So West Germans were more self-taught or following older folk traditions. But there was no professional training.”
They had been cut off from puppetry in the West. And so it was a bit of a shock for them to see the accommodations that might have to be made to continue as puppeteers in the Western mode. Irene lamented some of the changes.
“So after the Wall came down the East German style began to become more of a popular entertainment mostly for children, although there was some movement the other way. But in the West is was more of an entertainment and in East Germany it was an art.”
When I asked them if they did shows for children they said “No! We do shows for families.” And the distinction was important for them. They didn’t want to be confined to the kiddie ghetto.
“When we have material, we think about what we are trying to convey, we don’t think about age groups.” Torsten explained. “ We try to get across the central idea, what we find fascinating in the material.”
When we did speak of contemporary children and their fixation on screens, they concurred with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost about the tangible reality of puppetry in communicating with modern kids. Irene called it the “live sensual nature” of the puppet.
Finally I just asked them the most basic, yet most difficult question: What is Puppetry?
Irene burst out laughing “Puppetry can do everything!”
Torsten agreed “It can portray thousands of images and fantasies.”
(Next: We travel to Poland to find some of the largest puppet theatres in the world.)
When in Berlin you MUST visit…
And Das Weite Theater
And don’t miss The Figure Circle
And remember to run these through translation tools if your German isn’t up to snuff. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak German, you’ll still find yourself truly impressed.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 3- The Reality Principle
We walked three floors up to an attic room with a pitched ceiling and exposed beams at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in Charleville-Mézières, France. A Polish student, with the nearly unpronounceable name Przemyslaw Piotrowski, dragged in three scruffily constructed crosses as the room darkened. He also had several nameless placards like the one that read I.N.R.I. hanging above Christ on the cross. He handed one to an audience member with a faint smile foreshadowing death. He handed out another. Then he set up the crosses and began to reveal how each of these people died and their relationships. They were just people from his life. People he was intimate with. He was the crucifier. The story was predominately about his complicity in their deaths. In the end he crawls to a light emanating from a box. He finds a small door. He knocks on it and prays in Polish. Finally a dark eerie face comes to the window. But there is no sound coming from it. He finds that it is just a mask. But a mask for whom? He doesn’t know. He stops there waiting for an answer.
Before we can find out we descend again back to the long dark hall downstairs continuing on to the next student performance. This time we pass through the long blackened hall into a room where a woman is reading names and stories on a wall. It felt like autumn with dead twisted branches on the floor and walls and walnuts in rows on the ground. The voice continued reading from brown pages on the wall. It is the elfin black haired girl again. She is of Russian ancestry from Romania. Her name is Aurélia Ivan. When she introduced Julia’s piece she seemed shy and quiet with a whisper of a voice and an open smile. But now no one had any trouble hearing her strong words as she read from the wall in her dark dress while holding a wicker basket full of walnuts. She was transformed from petite girl with a gentle smiling face into the strongest of women. She spoke directly and with authority, but also quite sadly and compassionately. She finally leaned over while reading a list of attributes describing a proud man named Jean (John). She pronounced his final name, ‘Jean le mort.’ (John the dead.) Then she picked up a walnut and looked at it. She backed down this hall beckoning us to follow. The text was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man).
Aurélia then stood behind a wooden drawer that had been filled with sand. Then slowly she picked up a strange twisted root with a little plaster face attached to it. Faces inspired by the work of artist Jephan de Villiers. And she brought it slowly forward speaking in its voice. Then she planted it in the sand. Then she brought forth another root in a quite different shape with a different motion, with a different voice and planted that in the sand. By the time she was finished she had more than a dozen of these root creatures in this box carrying on a conversation in different voices about how they would eat the body below them. We followed her and walked through a jungle of phrases hanging from the ceiling which were in French and a little too poetic for me to quite understand. Finally we stood before long scraggly bare branches whose shadows grew as she waved her illuminated hands before them. Suddenly they seemed alive. She came to a door, rapped with her knuckles and it opened. She turned to us with her basket full of walnuts and bid us to leave through the door. As we left she handed us each a walnut, the fruit of decomposition, the possibility of something new.
I stepped outside into the light my head exploding with ideas. I viewed a few other student shows but these few quite exploded my concept of puppet theatre while confirming exactly why I had taken this journey. I had been attracted to the general idea of puppetry, suspecting that as an obscure art it contained ways of communicating that been barricaded in other art forms. Yet here was a form that could speak to children, everyone’s first prejudice about puppets, yet could also in the right hands deliver strong philosophical ideas as well. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the content of what I saw. But I didn’t need to be kicked in the head to realize that this was indeed a powerful medium for ideas. And it had both ancient rules and a new vitality. It was also clear to me that it could communicate in a way that could possibly move beyond the postmodern dilemma. And this was the time to explore it.
The day ended with my talking to Julia Kovacs and Aurélia Ivan and photographing parts of their presentations after their evening shows had finished. As I was talking with Aurélia, who was quite serious and curious about why I had come all the way from Alaska to watch the student performances, there was an older French man who stood near us occasionally supplying French or English words to help the conversation along. As I was finishing my discussion with her she said “Oh! Do you know who this is?” Of course I didn’t. “His name is Francois Lazaro.” And then she proceeded to tell me he had been a teacher there for 15 years and had is own puppet theatre in Paris, the Clastic Theatre. And I turned and said, “So I guess should interview you?” He agreed and we set up a time the next day. And I walked back to the hotel that night, my head bursting with ideas, realizing that I had just had an unrepeatable day. I thought of the performances I had seen and the people I had met. And the way that puppetry could speak volumes in the right hands.
The next morning I met student Clea Minaker from Canada at a café for coffee and an interview. The first thing she said to me was that not all of the presentations were as serious or philosophical as the ones I had seen. The other set of performances had a lot crazier pieces. Her own piece was evidently built upon a mountain of consumer rubbish as she was coated in latex sheathes. (She had shown me the structure the evening before. A photo of the performance briefly glimpsed lead me to conclude that it must have been a wild piece.) Clea also explained the way the school worked. Oddly enough, there were only fifteen students in the school at any one time. The course lasted three years. And the same fifteen students moved together from an understanding of traditional puppet techniques, theatrical history, acting skills, experimental ideas and live performances. Several important European puppeteers passed through Charleville-Mézières with their shows. And the education was all for free, including the room and board. The students didn’t even need a college degree. They just needed to demonstrate their interest through past projects, speak passable French and survive the winnowing process. Clea also came back to the same line of thinking that Pascal in Paris had, that in today’s world puppet theatre provided a real tangible presence rather than yet another televised electronic spectacle. (Not that she was against puppet films.) The live performance was the chief importance of puppets in our times. So here at the International Institute for Marionettes it was quite clear that they were quite consciously leaning against the currents of the day. Clea certainly spoke of a profusion ideas herself and understood the importance of fighting against the tide of virtual electronic images to find something new. That is what struck me about the school in general: It was a place that profoundly encouraged intellectual searching and questioning in both a theoretical and a practical manner. These students truly were asking serious questions. Puppets were not seen as yet more mindless entertainment but as a means for provoking real thought.
Later I met Francois Lazaro for a beer in a café and we had a fascinating conversation about puppets, theatre and philosophical ideas. He had been performing puppet shows since 1966. We discussed his influences: Beckett, Švankmajer, even Tarkovsky. He also was quite aware of the special nature of puppets to reality in this media saturated age. For him puppets held revolutionary possibilities, not in the political sense, but in changing our view of things. He felt that traditional theatre had come to a dead end and was borrowing increasingly more from puppetry to stay alive. As we were talking Aurélia dropped in and joined the conversation. We all talked about the reality principle a little more. Aurélia was just as serious as Clea and Francois in her feeling that puppetry was a unique art form for the present moment. She planned on producing her own plays. And she had the intensity and commitment to pull it off. When she asked me how I even knew to come to see the students perform she locked eyes with me in a way that showed the need to have the question answered earnestly. She would be joining Francois’ troupe after graduation. These puppeteers understood the need for engaging the brain, a desperate shortage everywhere these days. They knew well that this world of simulated knowledge, cheap information and hollow entertainments could only be opposed by something as small, humble, tangible and intelligent as puppets. It was a way forward culturally, a way out of the maze, possibly a way to actually get people to laugh or cry or miraculously to reconsider their ideas, especially those created in virtual miasma of this 21st Century.
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. Matthew 19:30
(Next time we discover shadow puppets in Berlin and have a serious laugh.)
To learn more about Clea Minaker’s recent activities:
And to see images from her 2005 ESNAM performance:
To discover what Aurélia Ivan has been doing since 2005:
To learn more about The Clastic Theatre this link might be helpful:
For more information about the Institut International De La Marionnette (en Français):
And about ESNAM:
They used to have an English page but there are translation tools… Here is an English version of the course of study:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 2- The Unexpected
Back in 2005 when I was traveling across Europe looking for puppet theatres I did not plan on visiting every country. Sadly there would not be time for Sicilian puppets in Italy or a good old English Punch and Judy show. But I wanted to make an arc from France into Central Europe and back. There were several reasons for my journey: among them pure fascination, a desire to visit European cities with a purpose beyond sightseeing and a love of the art form. I also suspected that there was more going on in the realm of puppetry than could be seen from my media saturated American perspective. In 2000 I had visited several puppet theatres in Bucharest, Vienna and Prague while making my irregular visit through Europe. I had also been considering ways to incorporate puppetry into some other presentation. I had a mistaken notion that puppets might be added somehow to another form to create something new: Mistaken because I didn’t fully grasp what puppetry itself could do yet. But I strongly suspected that there were ways to present ideas through the use of puppets that had been minimized or even cut off in other art forms. With that in mind I decided not only to visit puppet theatres on this trip but also to interview puppeteers for a possible magazine article or two. I assumed quite correctly that the puppet masters would not have phalanxes of bodyguards keeping regular folks away. I knew that there was something here yet I wasn’t expecting to strike gold. But that’s what happened in my own creative thinking when I arrived at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in the north of France.
Now I really had no expectations at all about what I would find there. In fact it was the most dubious stop on my puppet trip. All I knew was that it was called the International Institute for Marionnettes (Marionnettes meaning all puppets in French.) and that there was a school attached to it. I didn’t know exactly where it was situated within the town. I didn’t know if there was any puppet theatre connected to it that I could visit. I had discovered their website. I had written to someone about possibly conducting an interview in English with someone. I rerouted my email to someone else with a promisingly English sounding name. My inquiry was never returned. But I did notice in a French language version of the town’s website that it seemed to be saying that the students were giving midterm presentations that were open to the public. I would miss half of them. But I committed myself to going and booked a hotel reservation for two nights. Vague indeed, however I figured that at worst I’d probably be in another French town with an old town square and some decent food.
Inauspiciously, the train didn’t take me all the way there. Track work forced me to arrive in Charleville-Mézières by bus. I couldn’t find a city map for sale at the station. So I memorized the train station’s map and started looking for my hotel. I found the street and then noticed a sign that said “Institut International de la Marionnette” with an arrow pointing my way. I sighed. Now I won’t have to spend my time hunting the place down. I dumped my heavy baggage onto the bed of the hotel. Then I realized that it was past three o’clock and that I really should get out there and find the institute. After turning the wrong way once I came upon another sign on the road. I turned to look in that direction. There next to a three story tall statue of a marionette figure built into the side of a building I saw the Institute. I entered sheepishly and asked “Parlez vous Anglais?” at the front desk, to which I received a “Non”. Then I tried in my halting French to discover if anyone there did. Another woman came out. Her English was only slightly less halting than my French. Was it possible to interview anyone? Alas no. The teachers had just finished reviewing the student’s works and were engaged in long meetings discussing them. Were the student presentations open to the public? Well, yes. They took my name and put it on a list for the 7PM shows. A group of perhaps ten people shuffled behind us then left the building. The woman I was talking with exchanged a brief word in French with someone behind me then abruptly turned to me saying, “You can go with them.” Where? “To see a few presentations. But you’ll be missing two of them.” So I hurried out to catch up with the small band of pedestrians as they rounded the corner of the building.
I walked with them perhaps five blocks mystified as to where I might be going. I heard a woman speaking in a familiar accent. She was a Canadian woman who has come to see her daughter’s performance. I had missed seeing her daughter’s piece, she was with the earlier group. But she explained a little bit about the school, l’École National Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette or ESNAM. At length we came to a large old arched wooden door. The woman leading the parade opened it and we entered a compact antique stone courtyard. A girl in her mid-twenties was standing near old rusting equipment. She was wearing a black dress; her hair was pulled back. She would not have been out of place at a New York dinner party. Hanging on a rusty pipe were several woolen scarves in black, beige and brown. She picked one up and placed it around someone’s neck. She began to talk about the word, la parole, how it brings humor, sorrow and many other qualities. She eventually placed scarves around every neck. She looked directly into everyone’s eyes as she repeated her gesture. When she bestowed a scarf upon me she said that la parole leads to silence. Evidently this was to be a philosophical piece related to the pain in relationships. After she finished dispensing the scarves she pushed the remainder of them away to revealing a dark stairway leading down to a dungeon. We all must bow to step down these stairs as we enter the dark chamber illuminated by two or three small lights. After we have huddled together in the dark she descended slowly with dim lights attached to her palms. She crept along the side of the walls, reminding me of Cesare, the somnambulist, from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, until she came to what appeared to be a small homemade meat grinder. She placed a few small smooth stones inside and “ground” them into sand. She continued her comments about words and silence as she continued to follow a row of smooth rounded stones on the side of a stone wall. She disappeared through a doorway and with the slightest of gestures beckoned us to follow. We entered an even darker more claustrophobic room. Piles of stones lay on the floor. She slowly organized them into a spiral. Then she followed the stones to what looked like a slightly oversized ant farm with a frozen shadow puppet person floating in silhouette inside. She then slowly poured sand into it burying the figure ‘alive’. Finally she spoke again about words and silence. The last thing she said to us was that the very last word will be ‘Believe.’ She picked up a large rounded stone and walked off alone into a blackened corridor, the rock illumined by light emanating from her hands. And the piece was finished and she came back for a bow almost in tears at the intensity she had put into it. Her name was Julie Trezel.
This was the only the first performance. I may not have concurred entirely with the philosophy of the piece but I was completely captivated by the presentation. I certainly wasn’t expecting this. But before I could consider it too much we were walking towards the next show.
We passed in front of an old church, practically a cathedral, and we entered a building near it. We stopped in a workshop with a couple of circular saws. By this time I was fully expecting that the saws would be a part of the next performance. (And why not?) Then a petite black haired girl in a long dark dress spoke to us. She said that the piece by Hungarian Julia Kovacs would begin in just a moment. As the time passed I was introduced to the Canadian woman’s daughter Clea Minaker and she was interested to talk with me about the school once the performances were over. She informed me that each of these midterm performances was to be done in collaboration with a French author and that it was essentially a lesson in working with a text. At last Aurelia, the raven-haired girl, led us into a darkened room that was smothered in black felt. She sat us down on wooden benches as we stared into the impenetrable void. All of the lights were extinguished.
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten meters away from us against a rough textured pale stone wall and against a tall brunette girl who was dressed in a white robe. Her hair was minimized being pulled back. She appeared to us almost as a statue from classical antiquity. Written words scrolled horizontally on the wall, against her human form. She began to speak in a clear burning voice. From what I could gather with my faulty French she was speaking about war and about what kind of people we are in relationship to war and to fear. The projection and the lights vanished. In the utter dark she held a wooden box that was then opened in a way loosely reminiscent of Pandora. Light shone from the box. She moved spectrally towards us asking questions as she paused to place broken puppets on nearly invisible black boxes. Where does war come from? She advanced closer and closer to us with her crippled marionettes. All were white or dirty beige, and while missing limbs, they were clearly homunculi, though none had defining features, hair, clothing, even color. She continued speaking about war and fear as she little by little drew nearer and nearer to us. She stopped directly in front of us before two waist high felt covered platforms. Transfixing our eyes she removed the last two puppets from the box. Though, like the others, they were both featureless and white they were also both completely intact and quite clearly male and female. I say they were featureless but this was not true of their faces. While hairless and unclothed, like unfinished dolls off of an assembly line, their faces were genuinely distinct, even riveting. This may have something to do with their eyes, which caught the light and reflected it back. The puppeteer then began to speak through the female form. She turned to look at the male puppet and she began to ask him about fear and war and life. The robed girl then changed positions slightly and began to articulate the male figure in more defiant gestures and to speak his voice. Basically he said that there is no reason to fear, these things are all just a part of life. You have to be strong, get used to it. The female continued to plead with him to help her understand. He became more incensed, more frustrated. She in turn was pleading now too much, too pitifully and he in turn was now frighteningly angered. The puppeteer, though directly before us the entire time, so inhabited the characters, that she had disappeared into each of them by turns. Finally she posed them each in their habitual attitudes: the female homunculus in a supplicating position, the male in defiance. The white robed specter finally turned away from them repeating her questions about war then sadly proclaiming all that remains is the blood. The lights were then extinguished.
The small audience applauded the riveting performance with vigor. The program notes explained that Julia’s piece was an extract of a longer work by Perrine Griselin, entitled ‘Si le vent le dit’ (If the wind says). I was so entranced by this performance that I couldn’t even remember to record the audio for it after the second session later that night. But one thing was certain… my impressions of what puppetry was and could do had just been smashed to pieces.
But I was hardly finished with my tour through the student performances at ESNAM.
(To be continued soon…)
For more information about the Institut International De La Marionnette (en Français):
And about ESNAM (en Français):
They used to have an English page but there are translation tools… But here is an English version of the course of study:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 1- The Little Buffoons
It was a pleasant Parisian Sunday afternoon in March 2005. After watching several men tightrope-walking high up in the trees of the Buttes Chaumont Park as part of the French Arbor day celebrations we strolled over to the small Theatre Guignol Anatole. I had come to visit Les Petits Bouffons (the Little Buffoons) de Paris. Pascal Pruvost was a wiry stubble-headed man with a striking countenance. Bernard Willeme, his laconic partner in Guignol crimes, stood by. When asked by my friend Corinne which story they were going to perform today he replied in French “I have no idea yet.” The show was only a half-hour away. Both men were around 40 years old and certainly did not fit the American stereotype for the kind of people who perform with puppets for children. But I suppose that is because too many Americans equate puppets solely with cute and goofy Muppet-like creatures.
Eventually it was time for the show. Pascal took a large old brass hand bell and walked around near the entrance of the compact outdoor theatre and rang it. This was the traditional signal that Guignol was about to appear to work his mischief. Guignol is the French relative of Punch in England,Kašpárekin the Czech Republic, Jan Klaassen in Holland, Kasperl in Germany: all descendants of Pulcinella of the Comedia del Arte in Italy. He is not as viscous as Punch but will always eventually find a way to get the Gendarme in trouble. To these American eyes, deprived as we are of a native Punch variation, he reminds me of the old Warner Brothers cartoon character Bugs Bunny. The brilliant thing about these performances is the way get the children involved. Although involved is too polite a term. In this episode the officious Gendarme was eaten by a large puppet crocodile. After the Gendarme’s demise, Guignol arrives on the stage to have a picnic and to go fishing. The crocodile lurks just off stage; the children go nuts trying to warn the hapless Guignol. They shout. They point. They even stand. Guignol turns to the kids several times and says, “What are you talking about? I don’t see a crocodile.” They point furiously at the corner of the little stage. He continues fishing. A big tug is felt on the line… the children are almost pulling their hair out. Of course, in the end Guignol survives because he is Guignol. And you can’t kill Bugs Bunny. You can’t kill Guignol.
On Monday I took the metro out to the 20th arrondissement to find the office of Les Petits Bouffons. I was greeted by Pascal and Bernard in their small stuffy studio. They showed me dozens and dozens of puppets that were hanging from hooks on the wall. Pascal explained that they did longer shows like Beauty and the Beast and Puss’n’Boots, not forgetting to mention a few very bloody fairytales that did not find a home in the English-speaking world. They also had a futuristic (!) Guignol show. As comical as these shows could be these guys were very serious about the Guignol tradition. And even if they performed a standard fairytale Guignol had to at least be a minor character in the show, a butler or a waiter. In my interview with Pascal we discussed the meaning of puppets in this postmodern age. He pointed out that children have changed even since they started the troupe in 1991. Kids are now so immersed in television, games or computer screens that, even at a very young age, they come to the puppet show with very different expectations than they used to. As a result they are even more surprised than they used to be. You see the stage of the puppet theatre resembles an enormous television screen to the child’s untrained eyes. So they expect something like a movie. But then as they watch something strange happens. The puppets become real. They talk to the children. They come out from the stage in three tactile dimensions. They are completely unpredictable. All of Les Petits Bouffons’ performances are improvisations based upon many traditional plots.
But the rascally Guignol or the anarchic Punch stand very far down on the puppetry scale of respect. Pascal said when it comes to puppet festivals “They don’t want to see us. It’s all become about the Performing Object. It’s become quite artistic.” Yet even though Guignol performances are folk art of the highest order they are basically ignored in the world around them. Yet it’s guys like Pascal and Bernard, with a passion for the strange little rogue, that keep the tradition alive: Guys like these and the thousands upon thousands of French children and their parents who accompany them to relive their own childhood Guignol recollections. I felt kind of proud of them for holding down the fort without much recognition or financial reward just because they value the reality of the puppet over the artificiality of the televised screen. Impressive.
In 2008 the 200-year anniversary of Guignol was held in Lyon. The future of puppetry may indeed come down to performers like Les Petits Bouffons de Paris. The future is always built upon the past. Guignol is a slice of living history. Next time you are in Paris (or Lyon) check out the little buffoon
Meanwhile the Journey into European Puppetry continues with a visit to the surprising École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières.
For More Information about Les Petits Bouffons de Paris
More puppetry on The Anadromous Life