I have returned to Tbilisi Georgia nearly two years after my 2016 visit. And I am gaining a larger perspective than I had before. I’ve nearly finished learning the alphabet and I’ve met many friends, old and new, as I wander the streets observing the world around me. My observations directly connected to my chief aims of puppetry, music and dance will be covered on my Gravity From Above site, but here I am going to continue dealing with the other aspects of Georgian culture that call to me. And today nothing called out as loud as the legacy of Communism in the old Soviet Union, which Georgia was buried deeply within, as I visited the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum.
But before we enter that world a bit of background. A quick look at the wars of Georgia, both outside invasion and civil strife, produces well over a staggering 150 conflicts before the year 1800 from Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Mongols and the Ottomans among many, many others. And around the year 1800 the Russian Empire muscled its way into the area and presented a deal the Georgians couldn’t turn down, eventually swallowing them into greater Russia. To this day it is a common misconception that the Georgians speak Russian and write in the Cyrillic alphabet. Then after a very brief season of Georgian independence during the Russian Revolution Georgia declared itself as a state and from 1918 until 1921 they were free and the blossoms of liberty began to grow everywhere. Until they were harvested by the new Soviet Union and were ‘allowed’ to spend another 70 years under Russian/Soviet yoke.
Since the 1991 declaration of independence Georgia has remained free, though not without periods of strife. And so it is inevitable that the marks of both Russia and the Soviet Union (not the same thing at all) are still quite heavy on the land. To be fair some of these marks are not bad. Under the Soviet system education was encouraged as was theatre, ballet, puppets (!) and other cultural products… though always at the whim of the state censors. But other effects were much more troubling. Churches were banned under the atheist system. And many church buildings were destroyed or put to non-religious uses. I stepped into the Lado Gudiashvili Museum to look at work by that painter who had been part of that brief moment of freedom in the early 20th Century and who had continued on under the Soviet Union. He mostly stayed with a sort of surrealistic portraiture heavily influenced by his wide knowledge of Medieval Georgian frescos. And in 1947 he was asked to paint the altar of the Kashueti Orthodox Church on Rustaveli Avenue. He did it, then was barred for a while from the painters union. He often made scabrous sketches reflecting his cynicism of the Soviet system. But his fresco still stands.
Another area where the Soviet Union is still deeply felt is in the endless blocks of concrete apartment buildings circling the town. And they are often indeed gray and eerie as they house thousands upon thousands. And so while there is much new building going on these days it is hotels and not as often affordable replacements for these gloomy structures.
One question I sometimes wonder is where would Georgia be today if it could have stayed free in 1921. It’s a dream I know. Nevertheless the Georgian people have a lot of natural creativity and drive. Yet one gets the feeling that they are still digging out painfully from the basic burdens left by communism. And part of that burden is a kind of fatalism that I have encountered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. In Romania, in the Czech Republic, to a lesser degree in Poland, you often hear some equivalent to the statement “What can you do?” Here in Georgia it attaches itself to issues like traffic congestion, air pollution, recycling, etc. But not only that, these very creative people will sometimes hit a roadblock in their lives. And then you can see a cloud of fatalism passing over them. Which is odd because I’m convinced that this fatalism is a foreign import, it is not native to Georgia. Yet even I being one of the least optimistic Americans you will ever meet, always feel that there must be more options. The world may be dark, but I don’t have that fatalism that clouds future action.
The most interesting thing that happened to me with regard to Georgia’s communist past occurred today. I went to find a strange little museum that I’d heard about. One not covered in guide books. You probably already guessed that I mean the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Now if that sounds strange to you trust me on this, the title of the museum wasn’t nearly as weird as the museum itself. I took the metro to a stop I’d never been to before – 300 Aragveli*. (I don’t know what that refers to, it’s not an address.) After a rambling walk I arrived at a door that could be no other than the house museum. It featured hammer and sickle designs in Soviet red. And what was odd is that it didn’t look like commentary or in any manner ironic. And lo and behold it wasn’t. (See above.)
For those who don’t know history as well as you should, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not Russian, he was in fact the most famous (or infamous) Georgian who ever lived. His Georgian name was Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი). He was born in the Georgian city of Gori, where a controversial museum dedicated to him exists to this day. Stalin is of course responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and yet there are those, even in Georgia, who wax nostalgic for the old days. And I had indeed walked into such a place.
The museum was like a frozen tableau of the Soviet Union without any upkeep whatsoever. Entering the dark corroding building was like entering into a time warp of the days before 1991, no really before 1953, it was the grayest dingiest thing I’d ever come across, from exactly the kinds of minds that thought that people wanted big ugly apartments. I was brought into a room festooned with red flags and pictures of Lenin and Stalin and an old comrade, a true believer in Soviet style Communism, named Zhuli was speaking Russian like a native. A young Russian teenager and his mother were there too. And that was fortunate because the boy became my interpreter for the deeply felt tour Zhuli was just starting. I mentioned that I was from America, which produced a puzzled look from Zhuli, who then recovered quickly with the only question one could ask at such an occasion: Are you a communist? The answer was a simple ‘No’. I wanted to understand what was going on here much too much to say that I was anything but! Yet from then on he took it as his mission to convert me. To tell me of the heroism of comrade Stalin and the way things had been.
Zhuli told us that back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, during the summers, over 500 hundred people a day would come to this museum. And this place was the house that hid Comrade Jugashvili, where they printed revolutionary pamphlets and papers in Georgian, Armenian and Russian. He show us fading imitation copies, decaying on the walls. (“They don’t give us much money for this museum.’) They had built a loud printing press under the nearby house (a reconstruction since it had been torn down by the Georgians after it had been discovered) and had an elaborate escape hatch through a deep well. And that was fascinating in itself. The well was still there. And another printing press, same German make and model, probably used somewhere else for propaganda, was rusting under the house because the chamber would flood regularly. Zhuli showed us diagrams and models of the house plans. He showed us photocopy clippings of atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War 2. He showed us a large map with little lights that glowed where revolutionary cells had been. We walked by socialist realist paintings of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov and others. He told us of Stalin’s heroic escapes in times of danger. Not a word was whispered about purges, famines, gulags, murders, the millions.
I was just in awe that such a man still existed. Zhuli was a man who still lived for the party. He was a man in his 80’s with a cult-like devotion to communism. And he knew it was going to come back. And when I thought about recent far left appropriations of the hammer and sickle image, whether by Antifa or by Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the UK, I wondered if he might not have a point. Because this was a man entirely possessed by his ideology of total egalitarianism, and that idea had come back with a vengeance, though applied with different terms for oppression, among people in the West who know nothing about the Gulag and the millions of victims of communist totalitarianism from Russia to China and far beyond.
As I left I looked at a funny work of graffiti on the wall outside, and I thought of this earnest man inside for whom such a thing would be incomprehensible. Bourgeois hooliganism would be the only category he would have for such a thing. He called the independence of Georgia a blow for the ‘counterrevolutionaries’. But you knew he thought it was only temporary. As I walked back towards the Avlabari metro station I walked passed a massive new Sheraton Hotel going up not far from the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Here’s the new ideology Zhuli. Yes indeed there will be one world, it’s just not the one you were imagining.
*Discovered later: 300 Aragveli – The Three Hundred Aragvians are a detachment of the highlanders from the Aragvi valley, near Tbilisi, who fought to the last man against the invading Qajar (Persian) army in 1795 at the battle of Krtsanisi, .
Another visual addendum to our Georgian Lesson series and then I think I’m done… or maybe not. One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Tbilisi last year was the architecture. It had a style all it’s own built up literally through millennia. I was absolutely taken by the curving lines, which seemed of a piece with the alphabet, of the buildings and streets. So allow me to share them with you. Tbilisi is a great great place to get lost. And you never know when you turn some corner on a humble street when a unique structure will present itself to you. Not only that I loved the sense of age and decay. This may not last, since city planners are doing more to revitalize various parts of the city. Though it does seem rather random. But go now before things get too ‘nice’.
Thanks for traveling with me to Tbilisi, Georgia. I think I’ll do one more addendum featuring videos taken along the way. But for now enjoy the architecture.
Here then are the observations that began to accumulate around me after my journey to the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Tsminda Sameba) in Tbilisi Georgia. I don’t mean these to be anything definitive, nevertheless I did begin to comprehend something that had been tickling my eyes and ears for a couple of weeks.
First of all there was this: If in an Orthodox Church the actual times do not matter the way they do in America or Northern and Western Europe, to different degrees, then that helped to explain the rather casual attitude towards work and punctuality. Why only this week I stepped into my local Presbyterian Church and they were discussing whether it was exactly 10 o’clock or not. (‘No we still have a minute to go.’ ‘Well my watch says 10.’) This attitude would be positively incomprehensible in Georgia and I suspect many Orthodox countries. And this would make it quite difficult to enforce Western or East Asian standards of business production. Thus anyone coming from outside Eastern Orthodoxy expecting a certain kind of timeliness would feel very disappointed. But I adjusted my own expectations accordingly. When I went to see Nino Sukhishvili I was constantly playing tag with the times. I didn’t really lose a beat over this. People seem to come and go. And when I went to the theatre or the ballet the shows did start generally, though never precisely, on time.
Next and much more to the point. The Orthodox church service did not revolve around the sermon. In an American church, Protestant or Catholic, in many ways the liturgy builds up to the message. It’s a little less with the Roman Catholic Church who focus upon Communion, but it’s certainly still there. And when one leaves you discuss the message to compare what one already believes with the words of the minister. Did the sermon stick with the Bible? Was it delivered well? Did the words ring true?
Now what this means is that not only is the emphasis upon the truth of the message, but in fact this weighing of the message for truth is a hallmark of Western Christian culture. And it is also a fact that although the vast swaths of Europe and America think about God as much as they do the country of Vanuatu they nevertheless have inherited the same approach to ideas. So that an atheist judges the truth of a thing the same way. A third wave feminist who blames the Christian patriarchy for the sins of the world still will react with a miffed ‘That’s not true.’ Or perhaps ‘That’s just so wrong!’ So our churches have grown stale over the years but the assertions of truth don’t end, even if the speaker claims that Truth doesn’t exist.
Now look at Georgia and the Orthodox Church. I’m sure people care about the Truth in Georgia. But not in the same way. In fact, unlike the western branches of Christianity, the Orthodox Church believe the Bible is true and yet don’t really try to harmonize science and the Bible. In other words the Bible is true AND science is true. And I see no force trying to reconcile the differences. Now again I don’t see everything going on, but I do know that is a feature of Orthodoxy. In other words there are no ‘creationists’ in the Orthodox faith. There is paradox. Two truths held together. Looking from my position on the West Coast of the USA that strikes me as, well, radically different. So what this means in practice is that there is a lot of leeway in belief. But God created the world and Christ died for us and was resurrected. And maybe things most likely evolve or maybe not. It’s just a human idea.
What this means practically in international relations is this. Remember Russia is an Orthodox country. Even if that Orthodoxy is suppressed as it was during the Soviet Era. What happens when Americans come over with their true or false mentality? It just seems rather silly to them. Especially since publicly we change our truths like we change our socks. One minute, after World War 2, one must be a good member of the Christian Democratic world. The next they see us haranguing them about homosexuality, which only a few years back we weren’t in favor of. Is it any wonder that there are major conflicts? Neither side is even on the same page. How to communicate? Now Georgia isn’t Russia. That must be said. But many of these issues still hang over them as well.
And here’s one last Orthodox observation. The point of the service seemed to be the glorious mystery of God. The words seemed secondary. But the music, the actions of priests, the reverence of the congregation definitely seemed focused upon that aspect of faith. And that affected everything. For one thing the music was not being passed around to amateurs. The five women singing may have been mere congregants, but the sounds coming out of their voices put to shame anything I’ve heard in a western church service for my whole life. Only once in a while have I ever heard a church choir come anywhere near the beauty of that music. In America we value inclusiveness over the quality of the music. It is rare that I hear good music in churches these days. The songs we sing together are again more about collective feelings than anything to construed as depth. Every now and then we sing the old standards, which still are glorious (Amazing Grace, O For A Thousand Tongues, How Firm a Foundation) But even those get updated. (How on heaven or earth is Amazing Grace improved by adding a chorus???)
Or here’s another comparison: If I enter the standard Protestant church, or even many Catholic churches, is there any reminder of God’s mystery, his Otherness? If I walk into that same local Presbyterian church the answer is a resounding no. Not in the folksy/poppy music. Not in the various activities of the church, not in the potlucks, not in the architecture, not in the quilted wall hangings, occasionally the sermon gives hints. And that’s about it. So our inclusive faith essentially makes God into our pal. Make sure no one squirms.
Now again what is found in our churches is found in all aspects of our culture. And it’s a two way street. We’ve just become folksy dorky self-conscious people. Real things bother us. Even the approach to nature among folks who would never step into a church these days is often mostly recreational. We could all stand to watch and understand the great Russian films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Our walks into nature would change immensely. In his very Orthodox films the textures of the environment become alive and mysterious. But again we like to make things casual, cool, no biggy. And thus we live in a neutered world, as we gaze into our hands and make magic swishing motions over the devices at our fingertips. So yes I was overwhelmed to find God’s mystery in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
My feeling is that a cross-pollination between Western questing for Truth (capital T please) and Eastern Orthodox Mystery would be a beneficial thing on both sides. But I’m not sure they need our postmodern casualness however. Yet that seems inevitable as the ‘blessings’ of pop culture descend like crematorium ashes across the whole world.
(But we’ll get to that soon enough… Come back again for our next Georgian Lesson.)
November 14th 2016
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.)
Next door to the teleological notion of Fun is another rather modern sacred cow. It’s something that crept in through the nursery as innocent as can be, yet has grown in the most bizarre ways to affect and influence our attitudes and behavior. And it’s the kind of thing that, if you point it out, makes people think there’s something wrong with you for even mentioning it. And folks will swear it’s an eternal notion, something ever present, and never questioned. And yet in the last hundred years it has been a serious source of smuggled concepts and ideas into lives that have no idea whatsoever that they are being infected. Postmodern hipsters cynically smile at it, while collecting its endlessly manufactured kitsch. It certainly has crossed international borders to become nearly universal. And it goes by such an innocuous name: Cute.
Cuteness is sometimes these days explained in purely biological terms: Big baby-like eyes, small chins, vulnerability. All of which is fine. But doesn’t really explain how we got to a place where these strange cartoonish images ,whether from Disney, Japan or baby animal porn, surround us in all sorts of strange locations. I descend into the basement of a church and find large posters of excruciatingly cute rodents and barnyard fowl having something to do with the Bible. Or I walk into my local post office in the depths the winter season to see an official USPS poster up on a window of a smiling big eyed cuddly snowman representing in some odd manner the federal government.
And I suppose there are people reading this who, already at this point, are starting to feel uncomfortable about my criticism of these images… which I can guarantee you is going to get a lot sharper before I’m done. I mean why am I attacking these Cute images? They’re Fun!! (If you’ve been reading this series you know exactly why this Fun defense is going survive about as long as a hamster, a cute cuddly baby hamster with saucer eyes, in a microwave.)
It comes down to the formulation of the idea that Cute is somehow baby-like. And violating a baby is unthinkable. So how can I critique the notion of the baby-like? And it is this big-eyed baby quality that is so seductive. And it is precisely because the Cute is beyond reproach that it then becomes the perfect vehicle for smuggling ideas. Disney understood that very well as Mickey Mouse morphed from rodent to round headed baby thing. The same can be said for certain styles of Japanese manga and anime. I mean Cream Lemon isn’t exactly the Seven Samurai. But beyond using cute imagery to import strange cargo into the geeky sectors of society the most pernicious result of these images is to give us the unassailable yet twisted conception of Cute itself.
Now before we get too far in this essay let me point out something that I shouldn’t have to say, yet I need to lest someone accuse me of it. I am not a misanthrope. At all. I love babies when they smile and giggle. I love kittens, puppies and bear cubs. And yes indeed they are cute with a small ‘c’. Anyone who knows me well knows I get along famously with children. No problem so far. But don’t ask me to like pictures on a wall with kittens and a silly bit of doggerel. That is way too far over the line.
And for that matter with today’s digital cameras and social networking just how many images of cute babies and kids do we have to look at? Yes I know. I know. Everyone is proud of their children. But the truth is this, in all honesty, those thousands of photos of our children do not mean as much to those outside of the immediate family as they do within. But the tyranny comes at this point for exactly the same reason. Who dares tell their friends to slow down with the reproductions of their young? It’s akin to attacking children. No one dares speak the truth.
Or let me put it another way. I have approximately ten photos of myself before the age of eight. And you know that seems just right. It makes my early life interesting. Poetic not prosaic. I have very strong recollections. Do we have any understanding of what we are doing to our children when they have hundreds, maybe thousands, of images of themselves available to gaze upon before they even have a functioning memory. Yes I appreciate having so much freedom to take endless shots. But Lord I miss the deliberation that film engendered.
Meanwhile back to our central subject! You know a culture creates images of things that have some sort of real meaning to them. They spend time making art that expresses the most important aspects of their society. Ancient Egyptians focused on death and the afterlife. The vast majority of their art was funerary. The classical Greeks sculpted their ideals. Look at their statues. During the Renaissance another ideal of a harmony between nature and the divine is evidenced. Look at Michelangelo or Botticelli. The Dutch during the Baroque Era sought to create a sense of the value of even the lowliest people in a very real world. Rembrandt and Vermeer come to mind. What does it therefore mean to see statues of Mickey Mouse, paintings of impossibly cute children, posters of weird big eyed cartoon characters? There has been a dark transformation here. These Cute things have replaced a well considered view of what it means to be human. They make us smile and laugh. Sometimes they are also used in inverted ways, see South Park, to elicit cynical variations of the same responses. “Oh My GOD! That is just so SICK!” (Translation “That’s just so Cute, but I’m far too cool to say it that way.”)
But the thing that keeps haunting me is this… How quickly these strange images have entered into our world and how protected they are. And so the serious question is this: Where did this new alien notion of the Cute come from? It was hardly here at all a hundred years ago. Now we are drowning in Cute detritus. It’s time to investigate a bit of Cutesy history.
Come back soon.
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.
Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend
Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
From Smiling Faces Sometimes
Written Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
(Classic versions: The Temptations or The Undisputed Truth)
Now, dare we assay the outline of a history of this modern notion of Fun as an organizing principle in life? I doubt I’m going to be cool in doing so. But allow me to produce a few salient moments in such a account.
First of all obviously fun in the sense of a temporary enjoyable sensation has been around as long as human beings have laughed over spilled food or missteps into a stream. It may not have been called ‘fun’ in the modern sense of the word, but it was certainly funny. But the notion that life is fun, or that fun is what determines the validity of an event is a much more recent concept.
If we go back a ways to say the paintings of Dutchman Frans Hals, with his smiling figures and publican hominess we might confuse that joyful bonhomie with our modern notion of ‘Fun’. But it would certainly be a mistake. For one thing he certainly did many other paintings which were serious by any standard. Next it’s clear that the enjoyment in the twinkling eyes of a Hals subject was not meant to be taken as an eternal condition. Likewise in Bruegel’s dancing peasants and the like. Life during the Renaissance and Baroque Eras was seen as a fairly serious affair, but certainly tempered with joy and lots of dancing. Nothing could be further from the postmodern notion of life as Fun.
Curiously the word ‘fun’ itself was not too far back a word of some suspicion. Back in the 1600s fun was a verb that meant something like to cheat or trick or to make a hoax of something. We still use the word in that way when we ‘make fun of someone’ or when we talk about ‘funny money’. And something funny is definitely going on in our contemporary reliance upon Fun as reason for action. Somehow our Fun is indeed a trick, a hoax. The old word is still buried in the new.
Another false step along the way to trying to find the origin of today’s notion of Fun with a capital F is too be found in the Declaration of Independence. You know what I’m talking about… “the Pursuit of Happiness”, which by our lights ends up being something like ‘do your own thing’ and of course ‘just have fun’! A very hedonistic concept. And how dare anyone suggest that someone could be in error for following their bliss?
And yet Thomas Jefferson seems to have borrowed the phrase from English philosopher John Locke who uses the phrase and relates it to ‘our greatest good’ which is certainly not the kind of whatever-turns-you-on mentality that people espouse today. It’s not about getting the most toys, the cheapest drugs or best sex you can find. “The pursuit of happiness” is something much deeper. And certainly NONE of the folks who founded America had the slightest notion of living for sensational Fun.
So where does this beast come from? Perhaps the carnival or the sideshow? No I don’t think so. First of all the carnival is never meant to be a permanent event. Secondly the carnival and the sideshow are much too dark in their implications. Though undoubtedly there are some would would love to live in an amusement park. And an amusement park is much closer to today’s idea of Fun.
One of the first permanent amusement parks was the Coney Island complex. (It was never one single entity.) And Coney Island’s history and heyday are to found at an interesting moment in time. There had been resorts and clam bars for years, but by the early 20th Century Coney Island became the place for New Yorkers to get away from the tough business of city life. And it is in that early 20th Century we begin to see a new type of person.
Look at a photograph from the 19th Century. You know the stoic flinty seemingly dour faces of the early age of photography. Now it has been posited that these people look so stern for various reasons, i.e. shutter speeds were slow, they thought they were posing for something like a painting, even that people had bad teeth. But whatever the reason, it’s quite clear that they lived in a very different world than we do now, ca. 2013. They did not see things through our postmodern fog; they took things seriously, including and especially their photographs. They thought that their images should be worthy of posterity.
(Oh and by the way there are plenty of photographs of smiling Victorians. They certainly did know how to laugh and have little ‘f ‘ fun. The point here is that they did not consider Fun the reason for living.)
Now look at our images. They scream of “Fun”. Smiles all round. Loopy posings. Shamelessly bad acting in “selfies”. Endlessly happy faced goofy grins in self-congratulatory group shots. I have met people who do not possess one serious photo of themselves. All they’ve got to prove their existence to the world are teeth and muggings. And, whatever else can be said about so many of our images, there seems to be a growing taboo about taking yourself and anything else too seriously. Because in the end it’s all about having Fun.
World War I turns out to be the real demarcation, the moment when the concept of Fun with a capital ‘F’ seems to suddenly have exploded into the American consciousness. The Roaring Twenties growls with this new sense of revelry. Flappers, bathtub gin, the automobile as a portable love nest all contributed to the notion. But why should that be the case. Why directly after a major war should this sense of absurd playfulness have broken out?
(To be continued…)
The Švankmajer Effect Comes to Life
In 2005 I traveled through Europe tracking down puppet theatres and talking with puppeteers. I spent several weeks in the Czech Republic and in Prague in particular. I was thinking about Švankmajer the whole time, half hoping to run into him. At one point I wandered through the library of the Strahov Monastery on the castle hill. I looked through the shelves and glass displays at objects like a desiccated baby dodo bird when I saw a portrait from hundreds of years ago of a face made of seeds. I knew that Švankmajer had seen this too and found inspiration in its pronounced Mannerism.
I had visited tourist friendly puppet shows on a earlier Prague visit so this time I was determined to find something a little closer to the heart of Czech puppetry and also if possible to the spirit of Švankmajer. Jakub Krofta, a director from DRAK in Hradec Kralove, had recommended I look for Buchty a Loutky (meaning Cakes and Puppets in Czech, a parody of Bread and Puppets) whom he said, along with the Foreman Brothers (both sons of the film director Milos Foreman) were making intriguing innovations on Czech Puppetry.
I descended into the brick walled basement of the Švandovo Theatre in the Smichov district, a 15 minute walk south of the Charles Bridge. Buchty a Loutky performed an absurdist take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles, retitled Pes Baskervillský. There was no stage as such only crudely constructed wooden boxes and cubby holes. Then I watched many strange things that I had never associated with puppetry before. At one point the puppets request tea. On the side of the ramshackle assemblage a Czech puppeteer pours liquid out of samovar into a teapot. Meanwhile the small Holmes and Watson puppets are given full sized teacups. The puppeteer steps up and pours the ‘tea’ straight down into the cups, liquid splashes out of the cups of course, yet some of the refreshment does indeed remain within the porcelain containers, upon which two suited puppeteers stand off to the sides of the little cage-like wooden puppet stage as the puppets and their life sized human doubles sip gently as the tiny figures do the talking. This doubling effect serves Buchty a Loutky as a sort of signature style. A puppet has a gun. Suddenly a human hand in another small box directly below the main puppet theatre is holding a gun as well. At another point we hear the sounds of train while a tiny HO scale train circles the aimlessly around the wooden boxes. Even the intermission midway through the show was handled in the most unpredictable way imaginable. One member of the troupe, Tomáš, began to read from a boring scientific textbook about swamps as an eco-system. He read this for perhaps ten minutes. The time it took a majority of folks to ken to the fact that this was indeed the break and that a small snack bar had opened up. I, of course, was one of the last.
In another performance entitled the Urbild Remix, a variation on one their older shows, a tiny, perhaps seven inch tall, crudely made puppet wanders out into a ‘stage’ about ten inches by fifteen, with a teensy beer bottle in his hands. He sits on a miniature bed drinks a little. And then falls to sleep. The rest of the show is his dream. And takes place in the multiple small boxy stages below him. Then all mayhem breaks out as a mermaid breathes bubbles in a large water filled jar, carnal relations ensue, one character is killed and very red stage blood streams off the already red stained set, enlargement doubles with weapons take place in the space below the dream stage, live acoustic music encircles the audience and an American Indian figure plays a sort of heroic role while a skeletal figure brings a warning. And this state of brilliant theatrical anarchy was as funny as could be even for a non-Czech speaker. Especially when Marek Bečka, the Buchtys de facto leader and founder stood up before the show and recognized a few English speakers. He told us he would explain everything. Then spent several minutes talking to the Czech audience who were sitting on bleachers then turned back to us and said “That was important information.” Then continued on in Czech.
In a discussion with Buchty a Loutky’s Tomáš Procházka, the director of Pes Baskervillský, I asked him about the groups connection with traditional Czech puppetry. He replied “We don’t feel such a strong connection between the puppet theatres and stuff. We are very interested in film and in bringing the film style into puppet theatre.” I was fairly certain I had seen a Švankmajer connection. He confirmed that, “Švankmajer is the only name we can say we all love it.” As I was still about to see the Urbild Remix he added, “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” Among the objects that caught my attention was a vortex shaped chunk of rusty iron that looked like it been unearthed in someones’ back yard. This was definitely not standard theatrical gear. Later after Urbild I observed that, like Švankmajer, they must be pack rats of odd artifacts. Procházka explained, “Our office is full of rubbish. When we find something that looks interesting we just keep it.”
This approached struck me as something I’d really never seen before in puppetry. And it was clear that that the Buchtys were using the junk and detritus of the past less in a postmodern spirit than in an almost entropic patchwork mode. Tomáš Procházka said “Now is the moment when (Czech) people need to find a new way to get the rich life of puppetry, to find some new way to do puppets, what is the modern theme for puppets, to say what is the use of puppets at all. And there are only a few people who really want a new direction. Otherwise it is very classical and conservative, it’s still the same from the 50’s to now.” That is to say that they were seeking something beyond the Modernism of the mid to late 20th Century. To me there was an affinity to Punk rock; not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. Procházka concurred “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.”
In an age of artificial surfaces, hollow objects, virtual screens on every angle of perception, Buchty a Loutky had taken hints from Jan Švankmajer about the importance of the dense inhabited tactile object, perhaps what Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor called the l’objet pauvre, the poor, ruined, or miserable, object. Švankmajer’s film work and experiments in tactility open up the possibility for a breed of puppetry that is not interpreted through the artificiality of theatrical tropes. He not only breeches the fourth wall but the other three as well. It was seeing Buchty a Loutky’s version of this as well as coming across the works of some of the students of l’École Supérieure Nationale de le Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in France that convinced me to hijack this style and to apply these principles to the puppet troupes we would soon form in Haines Alaska. But that is another story.
For more information about Buchty a Loutky read this:
Or to visit them in Prague:
or to find the Divadlo Švandovo:
Explorations in Texture
In 1989 I first came across the puppet films of Jan Švankmajer at the Film Forum in New York City. I remember feeling an oddness popping through the screen. I couldn’t put my finger on it. A little later I also discovered the films of the Brothers Quay, which also touched a similar, if indefinable, nerve. (Someday I’ll discuss the Quays in more depth.) I wasn’t consciously interested in puppetry then. My interest was primarily in film. But over the years I kept returning to the works of Švankmajer. I eagerly bought my tickets at obscure venues to watch Švankmajer’s Alice and Faust as they were released. These works were bellwethers for me.
Švankmajer’s films, with their manic crosscutting and hyperreal sound effects, reflected the preoccupation of the filmmaker with his pet obsessions; childhood nightmares, food, the difficulties of dialogue and, certainly, puppets. As an American I saw puppets mainly as a folk art relegated to the nursery where fluffy Muppets amuse toddlers. Švankmajer’s use of puppetry was a revelation. Yet throughout the early 90’s only slowly, dimly, did it occur to me to seek out puppetry in New York. A little diligence would have amply rewarded. Yet in a way I’m glad that it was only in my last year in the city, before moving to Alaska, that I began to realize that much of the strength of the Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay lay in their puppets. In 1994 I discovered their VHS tapes at Kim’s Video. Only as I began to closely examine these films that I began to understand what I was seeing.
But even before I lay hold of the videos I knew what it was that really grabbed me in Švankmajer’s works. In a word it was texture. By the late eighties I was already convinced that something was off in the modern preoccupation with flat empty surfaces. Whether it was the white walls of galleries, offices and apartments, or whether it was the flatness of of our appliances, fixtures and electronic gadgetry, it occurred to me that humanity was not meant to live in sterile empty environments. Nature was a system at once soothingly simple and extremely complex. Their was the visual sweep of the forest and the unique singularity of the bark on one tree. Traditional art and design had many of these elements as well. But Modernist aesthetics, say Bauhaus or minimalism, had been commercialized and sold to people in a variety of packages. Take a walk through the average postwar office building; look for the cheese in the sterile rat trap. What would be the effect upon humanity living in an environment as dead as the surface of the average refrigerator? While it would be almost scientifically impossible to calculate I think we already know the answer.
Švankmajer’s puppet films fly in the face of the sleek modernist ethic by pushing your face directly into the path of dense textures. There are few simple textures in a Švankmajer film. Instead you get a riot of corrosion, fracturing, old wood grain, rotting food, vegetation, dank metal and dry bone. He even animates cow tongues and pieces of raw pork.
In Rakvičkárna (known in English as Punch and Judy or it’s more literal translation The Coffin Factory) textures and puppetry go hand in hand. From it’s opening shots of decaying musical automaton monkeys it pushes texture to the foreground. The textures that then assault us include mechanical toys and carousel horses, a dead animal eye suddenly slipped in among the painted. Then we are forced to observe the ripped patchwork of gunny sack burlap that makes up one of the backdrops. And then come the two puppets, each a masterpiece of textural complexity. While called Punch and Judy, there is no Judy figure represented. Instead we have Punch and what seems to be Harlequin (which touches of Pierrot). Punch is fashioned in an antique manner a la the 17th Century. But this is not an antique puppet, it is purposely aged. The face of this punch is like a painted moonscape, designed to appeared cracked and dented. Likewise the Harlequin wears an extraordinarily colorful ragged patchwork gown. Then to really up the textural ante, as if it wasn’t already thick with cracks, crevices and features, Švankmajer throws in a live guinea pig then proceeds to show us its fur, eyes, teeth, and moving tongue. All of this is still only the opening salvo. There is a strange house wallpapered with antiquarian clippings from books and newspapers. There is a coffin papered in a puppet sized engraving of a skeleton. The coffin is then hammered, nailed and dripped upon by candles. Finally in a frenetic battle holes are drilled in the wooden floor and carnivalesque paintings are punctured as we are reminded that at the beginning these puppets were merely the extension of fleshy human hands.
Similar textural studies can be found in Don Šajn (or Don Juan) where the Švankmajer thrusts us into further conundrums: Are the puppets old or merely painted that way? Are the puppets real or are they actors in puppet garb? Is that a set or is it a very non-theatrical reality? Švankmajer distinctively blurs such distinctions. At one point two human-sized puppets are sword fighting in a decayed medieval setting, which is overgrown with weeds and shrubbery, when they pass a wing of the Baroque stage they have also been seen on. And it isn’t the front of the stage. We instead get a casual sidelong glances at the back of the painted set. No attention is paid to this detail. This breakdown between the theatrical or the filmic illusion and the grittier denser textures of reality are a hallmark of Švankmajer’s work. It doesn’t matter if you see the hands or the back of the set. He does this without breaking the illusion of the piece at all. What matters is to bring the animated figure or the object freely back and forth across the borders of our reality, much as messages, books, music, etc had to be smuggled in and out of the old Communist world. And texture is one of his chief means for accomplishing this feat.
And so Švankmajer uses real bones in Neco z Alenky (or Alice), his version of Alice in Wonderland, and stuffed rabbits, various socks, actual false teeth, glass eyes and many other objects not generally associated with puppetry or animation. In Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions in Dialogue) he uses most of the objects found on a desk, in a kitchen, in a refrigerator, not to mention shoes, butter and toothpaste. And not content to merely use these things he crushes or destroys each in its turn changing the textures from the rather hollow items purchased in stores into symbolically charged objects.
People sometimes use the phrase object theatre. And just as often they mean something which is taken from the outside world and treated theatrically. The object in Švankmajer’s hands retains the mystery of the thing in itself. He points us away from the slick surfaces of modernity towards the haunted characteristics of older inhabited used materials. In doing so Švankmajer displays an aspect of his professed Surrealism. And old school Surrealists valued the displaced object highly.
(To be concluded next time.)
For more Anadromous puppetry essays:
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
There are questions and implications that I have left dangling during this survey of various aspects of American Gothic Culture. And undoubtedly I have left a few confusions uncovered. Since this has been essentially an introduction to a subject that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with before I’m well aware of how many other examples I could pull from a hat. There many discussions left to be had about what is and isn’t American Gothic Culture. There is also a fairly serious delineation to be made between this nascent American Gothic sensibility and what is often called Goth. I will attempt a little of that now.
One question that has been left unexplored is this: Why did American Gothic Music take so long to come into being? The short answer goes like this. Music has always been a part of that which links people together. Thus there has often been an underlying sense of confidence that often pervades the music. Music often has a joyful component to it. Or at least a simulacrum of joy as in the sterile ‘fun’ of so much pop music. Even the blues, as painful as they can be, often has an aspect of hope buried in the implications: The idea that “the sun will shine on my back door someday”. Or even the notion that by hearing the pain of these lyrics someone will change somehow.
As a result music hasn’t been the best vessel for expressing real darkness… until fairly recently. After years of exploring various musical phenomena I think I can fairly confidently state that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a certain kind of philosophical darkness entered popular music with groups like Love and The Doors. This existential dread festered into real anomie with Iggy and the Stooges. (It is curious to note that all of these bands were on Elektra Records.) And finally the music erupted into explicit rage with the Sex Pistols in 1976. And this rage was new. I don’t just mean it was a new musical trend. I mean in all of the history of music there was absolutely no precedent for such blood curdling scabrous anguish as to be found in, say, The Birthday Party’s Fears of Gun where Nick Cave vomits out the word ‘Love’ as if being disemboweled. You can search all you want, I have, for anything that sounds remotely that angry… you will never find it, prior to that point in human history.
It takes that sort of bleak intensity to comprehend the American Gothic vision. And it is not Nick Cave’s spewing forth that is his American Gothic work. It came when he started to try to find answers for the questions he had posed about the nature of humanity. And this is one reason why American Gothic Culture is vastly different than the usual Euro-Goth scene. Goth is about the darkness. Goth is about vampires, funerary motifs, ghosts. It finds these images to be helpful as some sort of anodyne to the blandness of contemporary culture. Goth also dips into fetishes quite liberally; leather, rubber, corsets, etc. Goth Culture seems to say I am the darkness. I want to be a vampire. I want to be as spectral as a ghost. I want to be cool. Don’t dream it, be it.
American Gothic Culture seems quite Other, by comparison. Even the darkest of the dark within the American Gothic spectrum, for instance Ambrose Bierce or Joe Coleman seem to have other fish to fry. Instead of being cool, their work seems to scream, “Why is it so dark? Huh!” Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fever pitched cry of black despair fuelled more by cosmic anger at the insanity surrounding him than by any desire to laugh at the rubes. Even the extremely sardonic and gory humor of EC Comics can be seen as a series of serious questions. The man who pulls the face off of an ugly woman with a hot body trying to get her to unmask says more about the mysteries and problems of beauty in this dark world than has ever been written in a fashion magazine.
In fact the hallmark of real American Gothic work is a recognition of the evil, the bleakness, the absurdity, the darkness of the human condition. And that’s the answer to another implication: Why don’t folks with an American Gothic perspective sell out to the commercial forces the way Hippies, Beats, Punks, Rappers, etc ad nauseum seem to do? It’s because there is no point in becoming huge. There is no progressive utopian Romantic goal to achieve. The end is already seen in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy or other successful American Gothic folks aren’t happy to be selling a few books and discs. But the truth is they aren’t driven by commercial imperatives. If they didn’t sell a thing their viewpoint wouldn’t really change.
Fascinatingly American Gothic Culture houses both Christians and Atheists quite comfortably. But by Christians I don’t mean the contemporary commercial mega-church consumers. I mean folks like Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, David Eugene Edwards. Nick Cave has been seemingly close to Christian faith at times. And by atheists I don’t mean the Richard Dawkins variety of confident hucksters, I mean the bleaker, more honest souls like an Ambrose Bierce or H.P. Lovecraft. And it was Lovecraft who admired the Puritans for their darkness.
But the point is this: These aren’t the gullible folks. These folks don’t seem to have nice positive attitudes. They aren’t trying to boost anyone’s self-esteem. They aren’t Romantic in any sense of the word. (Another big difference with Goth Culture.) There is no collusion between Disney and American Goth. There is no cute version of American Gothic Culture. And most interestingly American Gothic sensibility is in no way Postmodern.
Postmodern Culture thrives on postmodern irony. It lives on the deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe into Madonna into Lady Gaga. It lives on surfaces, since surfaces are deemed to be the only reality. It takes style as substance, content as merely social conditioning. It laughs at seriousness as pretension. The old Modernism was way too serious, though in disassembling everything they paved the way for the ironic hordes. Who to say that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t as good as James Joyce?
American Gothic trumps postmodern irony with bitter irony. And bitter irony is fairly impervious to deconstruction. Who can deconstruct the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I don’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Sure you can. But you have to get into the dark EC Comics mode to do it. But I mean put the DVD into your machine tonight. See who wins? Leatherface or postmodern irony? There is no contest. Your most postmodern child will wither before such an onslaught. Why? Because although there is humor to be found there, ultimately this thing is too damned serious to be turned into a deconstruction of itself. Tobe Hooper really believed in the power of the chainsaw. The same goes for The Road (film or book), Winter’s Bone (ditto), Nick Cave wailing Saint Huck or Tom Waits who uses humor all the time, yet really can’t be touched be postmodern irony.
The reason that academic theoretical babble about appropriation or deconstruction don’t get to far down the American Gothic road is because instead of ironic appropriation you have junkyard salvage, instead of deconstruction, you are faced with a much older stronger concept: destruction. American Gothic Culture is entropic. It sees the limits of a culture, our own, that is based upon endless progress and positive vibes. American Gothic Culture sees the good effects of negativity: The meaning behind the word No.
This isn’t to say that every artist I’ve mentioned was consciously saying No to the mindless optimism of the larger culture. But I do believe a good many of them have. There is a sense of realism in the face of the endless facades. American Gothic Culture is not an active movement. There is no town I could recommend for you to hang out in for American Goth trappings. There is intelligence, sorrow, black humor, history and even sometimes deeper strands of questioning and faith to be found in American Gothic outlook. At it’s best the American Gothic sensibility is a lot like the character of Ree in Winter’s Bone or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is grit and integrity in the face of the American nightmare, which it projects as the growing dimming entropic reality of the American future.
We’ll leave this introduction to American Gothic Culture here. But it is obviously one form of Anadromous Life being birthed in our times, one culture going against the stream of endless propaganda and the hype, a real question mark in the face the growing fiction of the 21st Century.