I just watched what I think of as a deeply flawed but interesting documentary Puppet. It follows the Dan Hurlin production of a puppet play about the photographer Mike Disfarmer. My problem with the film is that it isn’t focused. It is kind of about the theatrical backstage, kind of a about the state of puppetry, and kind of about Disfarmer. Without a doubt, Disfarmer is the most interesting of the subjects.
He was a loner portrait photographer in a rural Arkansas town during the first half of the last century. Long after he died, he gained great acclaim for his work. It is stark without a hint of sentimentality. I urge you to check out this work at the official print website where you can buy his prints for $800 a piece. Or you could buy the book Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints for about $40.
The play that Dan Hurlin produced is called Disfarmer. Parts of it are shown in film, but of course, I haven’t seen the whole thing. It tells the story of Disfarmer’s last week alive. And during that time, his body shrinks. That’s rather interesting because it isn’t especially something you could do live with an actual human being. But other than that, it struck me as interesting but not really entertaining. That’s sad, because Disfarmer is a fascinating character.
A lot of the film is dedicated to various puppeteers justifying their art form. The one counter to this was David Sefton, the Artistic Director of UCLA Live. He complained that too much puppetry is for its own sake. Instead, he felt that puppets should only be a tool in telling stories. It may surprise you to learn that I completely agree with him. And that was well on display in the production of Disfarmer. Rather than start with the idea that they want to tell a particular story, the story they are trying to tell is limited to the techniques they want to use. To me, the subject matter begged to be done as a one-man play. I don’t necessarily mean something like Hal Holbrook or James Whitmore. Looking at what Hurlin’s group did, I thought they caught the mood of Krapp’s Last Tape, but didn’t seem to catch its emotional core.
As much as I love puppets, I have my own philosophy about them. Fundamentally, they allow a storyteller to cut costs. When Orson Welles did Dr. Fausus, he used puppets for the Seven Deadly Sins. That makes perfect sense. These characters are only on stage for about a minute each. Should one use seven actors with seven extra costumes as well as costume (and perhaps make-up) changes and generally greater logistical complexity back stage? But in most puppet productions, each puppet requires multiple controllers. I still can’t get my head around that: why would a producer use the talents of a half dozen experienced puppeteers just to create one character on stage.
Another issue I have with this kind of puppet use is that I don’t think it uses the strengths of the medium. I’ve run into this with my scripts for “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour.” One of the primary characters is a puppet. There are lots of reasons that I want to get rid of the puppet, most especially the enormous technical challenges. Unfortunately, the character is a kind of Peter Pan thing: he refuses to grow up. As a puppet, he is vaguely sympathetic; as a human, he’s just a dick. And that more than anything is why I like puppets: they don’t need to have realistic personalities—they can be stretched just about any way you like.
I suspect that the play Disfarmer would have been enjoyable to watch. I just think that the producers are going a very long way out of their way in order to come back a short distance correctly. As for the film itself, it didn’t make me want to learn more about the serious puppetry business. And it made me appreciate ventriloquists more.