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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Future Has an Ancient Art
by Donald Levit

Representing the Jim Henson Foundation, daughter Cheryl Henson introduced a special screening of Puppet and presented feature-début director David Soll and subjects ex-choreographer and puppet theater director Dan Hurlin and puppeteer Chris M. Green. Shown earlier at the new DOC NYC Festival, the seventy-four minutes covers a range of straight fact as well as a deceptive amount of implication.

On one level a defense of the art as more than entertainment for youngsters, the film does include one naysayer UCLA professor, but he is far outweighed by talking-head writers and practitioners who necessarily briefly consider its genius, forms and long history and not unfavorably compare and contrast it with live-actors stage or film performance. Despite Howdy Doody, Kukla, Ollie, the Muppets, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, and continuing appreciation in Asia, hand- and finger-puppets and marionettes are marginalized in America and Europe, where they once were the mainstay of mass and folk entertainment, attracting the talents of Mozart, Haydn and Goethe.

The core, however, is not this history but, rather, the record of three years’ development, planning and rehearsal for one show, Disfarmer, “thirteen [ninety-minute 2009] performances in New York and other cities, . . . ending in a slice of pepperoni pizza.” Hurlin’s earlier Hiroshima Maiden is praised by Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu -- whose Protagonist incorporated rod-puppets for excerpts from Euripides -- but an unfavorable New York Times killed that show.

Enthusiasm masking apprehension, Hurlin gathers a crew of puppeteers at his studio, a converted church two hours north of the city, to create and prepare his next project, for performance at the 274-seat St. Ann’s Warehouse theater. Improvising from Sally Oswald’s bare ten-page script, they both bond and squabble in close quarters where, over time, they come to feel overworked and underpaid at $400 a week. The hand-molded puppet heads are interesting but more so are the bodies and the shock of recognition at their eerily lifelike movements. These wood-and-wire homunculi do not fit initial expectations, for this is Japanese bunraku-style, here called “tabletop,” in that, three to each figure, the larger human manipulators are plainly visible though dressed in black and, indeed, are themselves part of the stage illusion of creating another, different illusion.

Above the preparation and climactic public performance -- panned again by The Times but praised by Variety and The New Yorker -- is the intriguing story of the story of Disfarmer. Yu’s Protagonist focused on four loner outsiders, as her In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger had considered that major “Intuitive and Outsider” illustrator-writer; gay Hurlin was an odd egg growing up in New Hampshire, and Mike Disfarmer was a self-outcast, his background briefly researched onscreen in Cleburne Country, Arkansas. According to Hurlin, the physical resemblance between himself and Disfarmer was not intentional.

Born Mike Meyer, the subject legally changed his surname -- he disliked farms -- claiming that it was incorrect, anyway, since a tornado had kidnapped him from Indiana to deposit him on the Meyer doorstep. In the Meyer Photo studio in the ‘20s and ‘30s he took thousands of portraits of local townspeople and farmers, individuals and families, some of them shown during the film.

But the photographer lived alone and died alone, without family or friends. It is harder to notice on the screen than on a puppet stage, that a half-dozen puppets were used for the sole, title character, growing exponentially shorter and smaller until he disappears.

It may not be too much to see parallels among his disappearing art of sepia portraiture, his bodily shrinking, and the dwindling audience for image performance such as that of puppetry. In any case, the type of isolated American eccentric “other” calls to larger issues. Ironically, Disfarmer’s moment of posthumous limelight happened at the 2008 Oscars when his photo was used as that of the Coens’ put-on editor “Roderick Jaynes.” This sad, obscure life is one subject of Puppet, which projects that life onto a larger stage at the same time that it makes a pitch for an old and endangered art form.

(From Burnside Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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