DOC NYC: Dan Hurlin fights for an outcast artistry in ‘Puppet’
Posted By: Leslie-Stonebraker
Puppets have come a long way from the days of marionettes and fingers. Puppets can now engage in explicit sex—as they do in Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles, Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police or on stage in Avenue Q—or get away with crude humor and vulgarity as many ventriloquists do in comedy routines. Currently at HERE, Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff’s The Fortune Teller combines twisted tales told through puppetry. Inanimate, yet innately human replicas give us permission to work out our neuroses, biggest fears and worst inclinations without some of the real-life repercussions.
In Puppet (screening Nov. 6 & 9), filmmaker David Soll follows the Freudian journey of theater director Dan Hurlin as he gathers a team of puppeteers and spends three years producing his play Disfarmer.
In Disfarmer, a balding, bespectacled puppet, named Disfarmer, opens a door; he gets a beer from the fridge; he winds an old wall clock; he answers a clunky rotary phone. These short images open the film, and are cyclically repeated toward its closing. What is fascinating about actors—the many public details of their sordid lives—makes for the very strength that sets puppets apart. Puppets don’t have an alternate existence. They are only what they have been created to be.
This small town photographer’s last days come to life in a more compelling way then they ever could have if played by actors. Indeed, the most enthralling images of Puppet are the brief glimpses of the puppeteers transforming bits of wood and plaster into a fully formed, incredibly sad, small, and alone human being.
Puppets resurrect happy memories of childhood wonderment for the audience filmed entering Hurlin’s show. In many ways, puppeteering as an art form is nostalgic for the days of mechanical simplicity. The character of Disfarmer is the symbol of an era when portraits meant more than screaming children and digitally inserted backgrounds. In the play, the world about Disfarmer rapidly accelerates while he physically shrinks, articulating both the unspoken fears of the puppeteers about their uncertain future and a basic human dread of irrelevancy and insignificance.
Too much screen time is given over to excavating the history of the maligned art form through talking head interviews. One of the many interviewees argues that humanity has always meant making replicas, from the first golden representations of the gods to a child’s doll plaything. According to one expert, puppeteering runs afoul of the cultural taboo of crossing the line between the animate and inanimate. Creating life is the holy prerogative of the gods, which relegates puppeteers to the realm of Freud’s uncanny and the role of the sacrilegious priest. In Puritan America, it is only when cultures clash (the 1930s, 60s and now) that puppeteering experiences a Renaissance as an art form, and is seen as something beyond children’s entertainment.
Within the film, the New York Times twice devastatingly reviews Hurlin’s work as “a little precious.” With only one interviewee arguing too briefly against puppeteering to give anything more than a nod to the opposition, the viewer is invariably aligned with the protagonist’s puppets. The bad review comes across as a gross assault that even positive articles from Variety and the New Yorker cannot heal.
We need films like Puppet and artists like Hurlin to remind us that puppeteering is a magical act that can reflect honestly upon the human condition. At the melancholic close of the play, a tiny puppet Disfarmer simply evaporates behind his camera, disappearing forever. We should embrace the broader artistic potential of the puppet show before the form similarly cycles into oblivion.
Puppet, directed by David Soll, Screening Nov. 6 & 9 Runtime: 74 min.