'Puppet' an overstuffed doc

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:11 PM ET

If you believe the premise of the overstuffed documentary Puppet, appreciation of puppetry-as-art is akin to bell-bottoms -- something that emerges predictably every other decade or so.

The rest of the time, puppets go back to their modern role as trite children's entertainment.

The thesis is clearly meant to explain the mixed success of its protagonist, Dan Hurlin, a puppeteer in the Japanese bunraku style who just can't buy a break from The New York Times. The guy works for three years each, preparing artistic puppet productions that last but a couple of weeks after each slag by the Times. (The reviewer seems stuck on the word "precious" in describing Hurlin's work).

I don't buy it. The movie does provide fodder for the idea that the Times wields too much sway over which productions succeed or fail on and off Broadway. But the esthetic "market crash" that is ostensibly at the root of Hurlin's misfortunes is belied by productions like War Horse, the ongoing success of Julie Taymor and the acclaimed doc Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey.

The problem may simply be that Hurlin's artistry, while undeniably fascinating, is too esoteric for a mass audience.

But that would just be kicking the guy when he's down. We'll leave that to the Times.

The problem with Puppet is it can't decide whether it's a documentary about Hurlin or about puppetry. It's possible to be about both. But to do it in 72 minutes requires a blur of fast talking and editing.

The history-of-puppets part is sketchy at best, dragging various Asian and European traditions, mini-Renaissances in the '30s and '60s, the impact of Taymor's Lion King (lifted stylistically from the Bali tradition) and even kinescope footage of Howdy Doody from the '50s.

It punctuates this deluge with an array of talking heads from galleries, the Jim Henson company, universities, etc., either rhapsodizing about the magic of the genre, or dismissing it for its limitations and pretensions.

Hurlin's story is more interesting, when Puppet decides to tell it.

Fresh from the sting of his previous show, Hurlin has become fascinated with the story of Disfarmer, a little-known Depression-era portrait photographer who changed his name from Meyer on the pretext that a tornado dropped him as a baby on his "parents'" doorstep (kind of like Superman).

Something about this outsider art appealed to Hurlin enough to make him devote years to telling his story allegorically with puppets -- the conceit being that the puppets (and therefore the subject) become smaller as the world around Disfarmer changes.

What soon becomes clear is that Hurlin has fashioned a Disfarmer puppet that resembles the playwright/puppeteer himself. He claims to have been unaware, but accepts it after a while as a subconscious manifestation of his fears of failure and loneliness.

The best part of Puppet is the light it shines on a darkly-lit stage, the preparation, the smoothness of movement, the choreography (Hurlin is of the school that believes seeing the puppeteers is part of the "dance").

Wages, per diems, research, workshopping, previews, etc. aren't cheap. And it is another weakness of Puppet that it doesn't tell us where Hurlin gets the money for these failed shows.

I'm guessing grants.

 


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