Picture of the Week #78: Charlie McCarthy & Edgar Bergen in ‘Nut Guilty’


I have another movie treat for you today: a complete short film starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the courtroom comedy, Nut Guilty (Lloyd French, 1936). At this point, Bergen and McCarthy had appeared in a few shorts, including The Eyes Have it and At the Races, but within the year they had landed a contract for their own radio show that would keep them on air, with huge audiences and a string of major guest movie stars, for almost two decades. Many people find it odd that ventriloquists performed on radio, but it’s not so strange. Ventriloquism is only partly about the visual illusion of two voices emerging from two separate bodies; also important is the creation of two distinct voices, and the aural illusion that you’re hearing a back-and-forth conversation rather than a monologue. Bergen admitted that years of performing on radio left him out-of-practice at hiding his lip movements (something McCarthy would often tease him about), but his banter with McCarthy is exemplary for its speed and timing. It’s also a bit saucy, and bordering on the inappropriate when you consider that McCarthy is meant to be a schoolboy delivering a stream of flirtatious innuendos.

For more on radio and TV ventriloquists, Kelly Asbury’s (the director of Gnomeo and Juliet, no less) book Dummy Days is a good start. You can hear more about it here. For now, though, enjoy ten minutes of ventriloquial fun with Bergen and McCarthy:

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Picture of the Week #60


This week’s picture is a little preview of things to come, I hope. Tomorrow, I’m off to Frankfurt to visit archival holdings for the Diehl Brothers (Ferdinand (1901 – 1992) and Hermann (1906 – 1983), German animators who released a feature-length puppet film (Die Sieben Raben) days before the world premiere of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (though neither film can truly claim to be the first animated feature, an honour which must go Christiani Quirino’s The Apostle from 1917, though no prints survive, leaving Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed as the oldest surviving animated feature). They achieved lasting fame with their hedgehog character Mecki, but little has been written about them in English. I’d like to find out much more about them, hence the visit to Frankfurt. I look forward to sharing much more information here in the future, but for now here’s a taste, in the form of the patent filed by Ferdinand Diehl in 1935. His innovation is a system of animation that allows for improved mouth movements, removing the need for head replacements when changing the expressions on a puppet’s face during stop-motion animation. Here we find one small example of a puppet’s anatomy becoming the site of negotiation over realistic motion, as well as the practicalities of streamlining the industrial production of animated subjects.

Fragment #4: Mae West and Charlie McCarthy


On 12 December 1937, Mae West appeared on the Chase and Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his monocled knee-pal (dummy), Charlie McCarthy. [You can hear the whole broadcast here.] Stars of stage and screen and airwaves, Bergen and McCarthy had a huge following, and West was keen to promote her latest film, Every Day’s a Holiday. She appeared in two sketches, including “The Garden of Eden” with Don Ameche, and a flirtatious banter with McCarthy. The announcer introduces the meeting as “the romantic battle of the century”, a contest of seduction which the dummy might just prove strong enough to resist. There follows a blistering back-and-forth, during which West describes Charlie as “all wood and a yard long”. This was too much for many listeners (though the studio audience found it hilarious), especially on a Sunday, and the Federal Communications Commission deemed it indecent. NBC banned West (you couldn’t even mention her name) from all their radio stations. She didn’t appear on radio until January 1950. Here’s a transcript of some of the offending dialogue. Watch out for those splinters:

Charlie: Could you even like Mr. Bergen?
Mae : Ah, Mr. Bergen. He’s very sweet. In fact, he’s a right guy. Confidentially, you’ll have to show me a man I don’t like.
Charlie : That’s swell! Bergen’s your man. You know, he can be had.
Mae : On second thought, I’m liable to take him away from you.
Charlie : Well, if you take Bergen away, I’m speechless.
Mae : Why don’t you come up … uh, home with me now, honey? I’ll let you play in my woodpile.
Charlie : Well, I’m not feeling very well tonight. I’ve been feeling very nervous lately. I think I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown. Whoop! There I go.
Mae : So, good-time Charlie’s gonna play hard to get? Well, you can’t kid me. You’re afraid of women. Your Casanova stuff is just a front, a false front.
Charlie : Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening.
Mae : Oh, yeah! You’re all wood and a yard long.
Charlie : Yeah.
Mae : You weren’t so nervous and backward when you came up to see me at my apartment. In fact, you didn’t need any encouragement to kiss me.
Charlie : Did I do that?
Mae : Why, you certainly did. I got marks to prove it. An’ splinters, too.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: The Other Toy Story


Pixar’s Toy Story, and all its sequels? Delightful, right? Witty, fast-moving, emotionally resonant when they need to be, poignant and clever. The characters will endure for their sharp dialogue and strong personalities, even when that CGI has dated and looks to us like Tron looks to young, misguided yoofs nowadays. But watching Jiří Barta‘s In the Attic – Who Has a Birthday Today?, I’m reminded (even though I’m biased on this issue) of how stop-motion retains its affective power even when popular rhetoric might dictate that it has only an occasional retro appeal for enthusiasts and aficionados.

Click here to read on…

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio: Motion, Pictures


[Michael Sporn’s amazing animation blog has a post of design sketches from the production of Pinocchio, such as the one above. See many more here.]

Walt Disney's Pinocchio1940’s Pinocchio has long been my favourite Disney cartoon. Aside from the consistent beauty of its cartoon cast, Olde Europe sets (a lot of which seem to be warmly lit by log fires) and the immaculate handling of key set-pieces (that’s a hell of a whale!), it’s the most deeply self-reflexive of Disney films. It matches the Disney template of a loosely adapted classic tale (Pinocchio feels like a much older folk tale than its 1883 publication date) with a morally didactic structure, to a meditation on the magic of movement and characterisation. As well as being an animated feature film, Pinocchio is a story about animation. The course of Pinocchio’s journey from lump of inert wood to a “real boy” is a trip through various gradations of anthropomorphism. Pinocchio starts out as a lifeless marionette, animated only by Gepetto’s hands, and works his way up to the goal of becoming a real live boy.

Disney Pinocchio Background

Disney misses out the earliest bits of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio, where the tale begins with a simple bit of wood:

Centuries ago there lived–
“A king!” my little readers will say immediately.

No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of
wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common
block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the
fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.

I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that
one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old
carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him
Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny
that it looked like a ripe cherry.

As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy.
Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:

“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of atable.”

That piece of wood, soon to be cut into boy-shape, was enchanted from the beginning. In the Disney film, his animation is the work of the Blue Fairy, who acts upon Gepetto’s heartfelt wish for a son. Come to think of it, the Disney version also misses out quite  a lot of Pinocchio’s antisocial behaviour, and the bit where he burns his own feet off, and the bit where he kills Jiminy Cricket (referred to as the “talking cricket” in the book) with a hammer… It’s also clear that when Collodi’s story talks about the aim of becoming a proper boy, it is referring directly to the process of becoming a functional, obedient, mature member of society. That interpretation is certainly available in the Disney rendition, but it seems more focused on the advantages that Pinocchio will enjoy by becoming a full, flesh-and-blood human, by inheriting a “correct” body that isn’t marked out as distinctly “other”: aside from his basic designation of otherness (he’s a puppet!), Pinocchio doesn’t seem to suffer many consequences associated with it – he is exploited for sure, but only like other little boys are seen to be exploited. He suffers none of the heartlessness of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, for instance, and seems to function pretty well as a stringless marionette. Here, Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy is the wish for animation, not socialisation. When the Blue Fairy brings him to life for the first time, Jiminy Cricket turns to the camera:

His exclamation is intended to invite the viewer to marvel in return at Pinocchio’s vitality, as if he’s some kind of modern marvel. Sure enough, the film wants you to notice all the different kinds of movement there are. It anthropomorphises plenty of things – look at how expressive Figaro the cat is, or how much like an eyelash-batting starlet the goldfish behaves, or how the whale has a gangster’s sneer and snarl – to give a kind of human essence to so many living things;

Gepetto’s workshop is filled with automata and clocks; Stromboli the puppet master puts Pinocchio in a show with actual marionettes, setting up for a comparison which shows how robotic and inert they really are;

the fairground at Pleasure Island is a deceptive paradise of motion-machines of entertainment (carousels, ferris wheels etc.). It’s all a part of the film’s underlying theme of movement as the external index, the visual guarantor of internal states of mind and personality. When Pinocchio behaves like a good boy, he’ll be allowed to move like one.

031009_NF_Feat_PinocchioModel_feat A full-sized marionette built by Bob Jones was used as a character model by the animators, to help them to add a bit of puppet-like movement to the character, capturing the swing of strung limbs, the clack of wooden joints. It is one of the oldest models in the Disney archives today. The Character Model Department had been created during the production of Snow White to make clay versions of the main characters to give the animators a three-dimensional point of reference, but the Pinocchio puppet is fully articulated. Jones worked in the camera department, but was asked to design and demonstrate how a marionette moves. They even made him dress up as Gepetto to do it. You can find out more about the Disney puppets here, and Cartoon Brew has scans of a Popular Mechanics article about the making of Pinocchio here. Mark Mayerson’s blog has a ton of stuff about the film, including mosaic frame grabs indicating which animators worked on which shots.

The house style of Disney character animation might be seen as the result of studious analysis of physical movement, whether it’s using a real marionette for reference, or taking live action film of actor Val Stanton going through Jiminy’s moves to use for rotoscoping material: several characters, most obviously the Blue Fairy, whose movements are the most reserved, were traced over, either copying motion exactly or using it as a rough guide. The rules of stretch and squash, which you can see formalised and played out in design sketches like the one below from John Kricfalusi, define consistencies in the ways in which bodies extend and reform their shape:

See also this definition. Adherence to rules such as stretch and squash can help to establish a “house style” – by making sure that all characters within a studio’s film(s) have similar characteristics of motion, you can ensure consistency, and prevent the distortions of bodies from becoming too surreal or elastic.  The crazy-limbed, eye-popping, tongue-lolling Tex Avery figures, for instance, exhibit a lot more bodily stretching and squashing than most Disney characters, for instance, but they still obey certain kinds of internally consistent logic.

Of course Pinocchio tells a more prominent story of a child’s adventure and development into a brave, selfless hero, but it is built from the elements of a system that turns even the most basic movements into points of spectacle, channelling attention towards the twirl and swish of cartoon bodies brought to life.

You can see more of my Pinocchio frame grabs in the slideshow below, or visit my Flickr set and download them for your own ends:

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P.S. Now, maybe this is nothing, but I couldn’t help noticing the prominence of buttocks in the opening scenes of the film. Yes, you read that right. Don’t believe me? See below:

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It’s just an observation – I have no theory on why there are so many bottom-based jokes, but I’d be happy to hear some if you can figure it out. It might just be an insinuation of the threat of discipline: badly behaved children get a spanking (as evidenced by the little automaton that’s stuck in an eternal vignette of punishment for a transgression long-forgotten). I don’t want to get psychoanalytic about this, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments section below.

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King Kong Randomised


King Kong Poster

king kong concept art

It’s been a very useful film for me in so many corners of my research, as well as being a childhood favourite of mine, so it seems natural to turn to King Kong (1933) for the latest of my Randomised posts. Randomly selected frames provide a point of entry for discussing aspects of the chosen film. What could be simpler?

The random number generator is requesting 38, 47, 61 and 80.  Yes, four frames this time. Kong is special. Holy mackerel, what a blog…

King Kong 38th minute: Fay Wray

Fay Wray could never get away from the legacy of King Kong. With over 100 screen credits, some of them pretty damn good, such as Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game (shot after hours on the Kong sets), the most common publicity photographs show her cowering in terror at the sight of some offscreen horror, or dangling like a ragdoll from the big ape’s fist. One might get the impression of a passive figure, prostrate and helpless, and to some extent this is true – Ann Darrow needs rescuing, and screams her way through most of her later scenes, showing little in the way of fleeing ability. She is a beautiful object at the centre of a four-way contest, between film-maker Carl Denham, who wants to use her to attract dumb, slavering audiences to his documentary film, Jack Driscoll, who wants to domesticate her, the Skull Island natives, who see her as an invaluably exotic sacrificial artefact, and King Kong himself, who wants to keep her and stroke her and smell her on his fingers. She is subject to a multi-pronged attack of desires, into which her own impoverishment has led her to blunder. Where is the space for her desire? I’m pulled between chiding the film for its objectification of its leading actress, and acknowledgement of how it lays those processes of objectification completely bare, showing her complete disempowerment amidst the pull and push of rampant masculine exploitation. This particular shot tilts me in favour of the latter interpretation. Ann has just been kissed by Driscoll, and their romantic bond is forged: for the rest of the film, it is his duty to rescue, protect and eventually marry her. Everything else in the plot is an obstacle to that union, but their connection is never in doubt. But check out the look on her face. Holding up her hand in the same swooning gesture that accompanies her helplessness in the face of Kong-sized threat, she is overwhelmed by a sexual thrill that leaves her not defenceless, but wanting more. The camera doesn’t follow him offscreen, but lingers on her lascivious look of erotic desire. The blank blackness of the night sky behind her, the diagonal perspective and the straight line of the side of the ship (plus the instructive lighting that makes her glow), all lead the eye to her face. That is a look of lust. Everything that follows is a catalogue of male ignorance of that desire, and her simple wish to select a man to gratify her gets lost amidst their inflated battles to use her for their own fulfilment.

King Kong 47th minute

Kong is ready for his close-up. The camera pushes in to a full-frame view of the monster’s visage as it breaks through the trees. It looks to me like they’ve got some three-point lighting going on the big guy, like any other star being introduced. The facial expression is meant to be fearsome, but the raised eyebrows make a little quizzical.  If you didn’t know the context of the film, and I told you this was a shot of a big monkey who’s just seen something terrifying through the bushes, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe, I bet. There are only a few shots like this in the film, using a large-scale mechanical model of the beast’s head (they also made a giant hand for shots where we see Fay Wray sitting in his palm), and the technique doesn’t really blend effectively with the more nuanced physical performances given by Willis O’Brien‘s stop-motion miniature version. This shot attempts to impress with its sheer scale, while O’Brien’s modelwork tends to emphasise Kong’s gait, his pugilistic skill and his proud but sometimes reluctant responses to threat. Everytime I see Kong this effect is jarring, like they’ve used an inappropriate stunt-double or overdone the soft focus on a homely lead. But it is a big reveal, so whatever makes it happen, it at least has an eye-opening impact. The push-in close-up, emphasising Kong’s massive teeth (for the rest of the film it is usually his arms that do all the damage), is a good way to mark him out as the monster of the piece, but it is at odds with the film’s reception and legacy. Who doesn’t sympathise with Kong? There’s little in the film’s construction to show him as anything other than a mortal threat – he abducts a woman and destroys all who try to take her back. He stomps on innocents and trashes public property, and there’s little ceremony about gawping over his smashed corpse on the street. It is only in the emotional clues and complex mannerisms given to Kong by Willis O’Brien that the spectator can come to see him as a fully-rounded character, an aspect that was probably not built into the script, which keeps referring to him in the bluntest, most fearful terms. The big scary head of the giant Kong model is residue of those original intentions, fixed in a rigid expression, captured in a conventional monster mugshot, and unable to fully communicate his plight to the audience.

King Kong 61st minute

One of the aspects of King Kong that will always remain extraordinary is the creation of a complete, enclosed fantasy world on Skull Island. This dreamlike space, a fantasy imagining of a lost world rather than a geographically specific location (the position and ethnic constitution of the place is obfuscated in the plot, hybrid in the visuals), is rendered with immaculate set design: see how the backgrounds extend into a dense, misting distance as one layer of jungle gives a glimpse into the next and so on.  The variations in vegetation create an overwhelming sense of vivacious biodiversity: vines, trees, leaves, moss, fronds all growing in different directions. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of creatures hiding in those complex pile-ups of shadow and foliage. The visual effects are masterful (must stop gushing, sorry…), precisely combining the elements to make it look as though Kong can really reach out and clutch Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), even though they are filmed as separate elements in separate time zones.  Lacking a snappier term for it, I’ve referred in the past to this as “transphotographic” contact, one of those moments where an illusion of co-existence is reinforced by having figures, photographed separately, appear to touch or interact.  By playing on the awareness of their essential difference (one live, the other animated), yet flaunting their apparent proximity, the spectacular effect is heightened, even as it purports simply to depict a narrative event. Cabot, though, is reduced to the status of a scuttling pest, a little thing to be grabbed and squashed. Kong is not predatory, in fact he is contrasted with the more insidious dinosaur attackers that share the island with him – he is consistently aggravated by disturbances of his peace.

King Kong 80th minute

I didn’t recognise this shot at first, perhaps because of the unusual perspective, which looks down on the scene as from Kong’s-eye-view. It is a view of the village on Skull Island as Kong pounds on the doors (I’m sure there’s a good proverb along the lines of “those who do not wish to be visited by giant apes should not put giant-ape-sized doors on their property”). It is from the top of this gateway that the shot is taken. The villagers are rushing to the barricades in defence of their homes while, in the centre of the frame, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray are walking away: you can just see him in pale shirt and dark trousers, his arm around her shoulders. The battle is not over, but they are already leaving it. With Ann rescued, Jack wants no further part in the scene. It could almost be the end of the film, with the lovers’ unity encapsulated in their movement against the stream of bodies, setting off into a metaphorical sunset, from the darkness at the bottom of the frame, to the light at the top, but of course, there is much more to come. Their isolation from the action might also say something about the visitors’ attitude towards the island: they show up, cause mayhem, then walk away. For a film of ballyhoo, bluster and big boasts, there’s a remarkable sensitivity to subtleties of shadow in King Kong, with deep dark areas in so many frames punctuated with outcrops of architectural or natural scenery, all of it potently artificial and nightmarishly inescapable: there is only temporary flight from one danger to the next.

Fantastic?


Fantastic Mr Fox

[See also the follow-up post here.]

The self-conscious whimsy of Wes Anderson‘s films was starting to seem a little forced, as if he just wanted to put pretty pictures to a collection of his favourite songs. So it’s good to know that he’s probably refreshing himself by trying something new. Fantastic Mr Fox will premiere at the London Film Festival in October (Americans will have to wait another month to see it, I’m afraid) and, as you’ll notice when you watch the trailer, is entirely composed off stop-motion puppets. Very old-school:

I seemed to remember hearing with deadening regularity that stop-motion animation was dead, that the ease and efficiency of CGI had superceded it and rendered it obsolete. This couldn’t be less true. Actually, this decade has seen more stop-motion feature films made than in any other. Ever. And by a long distance. In the 20th century, there were around 71 stop-mo features. I only say “around” because I don’t trust my own counting, but I think it’s accurate. Since the year 2000, there have been 27 released, with a further 19 in production. It’s certainly true that digital tech makes it easier to capture and edit stop-motion footage, but there’s no getting around the longform, hands-on, painstaking process of moving the models incrementally and photographing them one frame at a time.  It feels like rather an artisanal activity to be overseen by a major studio and dropped into the multiplexes: CGI seems far more suited to the slick packaging of contemporary Hollywood.

Look at the movement of of the animals in the trailer. The fur ruffles, the movement is a little jerky, and faces are not crazily expressive like they tend to be in CG animation.

ice-age-scrat-wallpaper-1920

These side effects of the stop-motion process might be seen as deficiencies, revealing the touch of backstage personnel whose traces are supposed to be wholly effaced. I won’t indulge in any more of my pre-judgements by predicting that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland will have none of the creepy tactility of Jan Švankmajer’s version, but I bet it turns out to be true. Animation is a folk art prone to industrialisation. Stop-motion may have become the mark of soulful indie filmmaking, a neo-Luddite (I don’t use that term in the pejorative sense it was intended to carry) response to the digitisation of cinema. It’ll be interesting to see how the technique meshes with Anderson’s louche dialogue, much of which has reportedly been recorded on location rather than in a controlled studio environment.

Fantastic Mr Fox

But where is Wes Anderson in all this? Originally signed on to oversee the animation, Henry Selick left the project to make Coraline (probably a good choice – innovating an art form rather than referring nostalgically back to its past), and Mark Gustafson took over as animation director. But, according to an inadvertently extraordinary (assuming they didn’t intend to make Anderson look like a clueless buffoon) interview with the animators in this month’s Empire, he’s keeping his distance from the set and directing via e-mail, sending in his favourite DVDs to give an impression of what he’d like to see. Cinematographer Tristan Oliver, asked about his working relationship with Anderson, replies:

I think Wes doesn’t understand what you can do, and he often wants us to do what you can’t do, and the length of time the process takes … I don’t think he quite comprehends that, and how difficult it is to change something once you’ve started. It takes a big amount of someone’s time to change a very small thing. I think he also doesn’t understand that an animator is a performer. An animator is an actor. And this is the secret to animation: you direct your animator, you do not direct the puppet, because the puppet is an inanimate object. You direct an animator as if you’re directing an actor, and they will give you a performance. So we’ll get a note back from Wes saying “that arm movement is wrong.” But that arm movement is part of a fluid performance. And that has been really quite difficult for the animators.

Even without an absent director, animators must already be wound pretty tight. Reminds me of this:

Twin Animators


The Fall (Tarsem, 2006)

There’s a scene towards the end of Tarsem’s The Fall, an exhaustingly aestheticised excursus on mythology and storytelling, when one of the lead characters (the incredible Catinca Untaru, giving surely one of the most natural and riveting performances by a child on film) suffers a head injury. The operation she undergoes is represented in stop-motion animation, a fluttering montage of cowled doctors, dolls and opened skulls.

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Immediately, I assumed this was the work of the Brothers Quay, who produced a sequence for Julie Taymor’s Frida, also representing the woozy trauma of major surgery, using puppets to portray the hallucinatory in/out-of-body sensations of heavy sedation, extreme pain and semi-consciousness after Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is injured in a road accident:

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The sequence from The Fall is credited to Christophe and Wolfgang Lauenstein, twin animators from Germany, and being a suspicious chap prone to the charms of even the tiniest of conspiracy theories, I presumed that this was a pseudonym for the Quays. There couldn’t be two sets of twin brothers working in stop-motion, surely?

Turns out I was wrong. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. There really are two sets of stop-motion twins out there, though closer inspection of the Lauensteins’ back catalogue reveals their work to be considerably cuddlier than the Quays. Their short film Balance won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1989. Accessible allegory abounds:

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Honourable mentions must go to the Chiodo Brothers, sibling puppeteers of the Critters films, Team America and a load of others. See their stop-motion showreel here. Also the Bolex Brothers, makers of The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, though they’re not actually brothers at all. I once met the Quay Brothers, and found them to be entirely personable (that’s not a euphemism, and there’s no “but” coming), but (oops!) there is something undeniably fascinating about the closeness of their relationship, the way they communicate with great empathic sensitivity; that’s not exclusive to twins, but it does chime with the image we tend to have of stop-motion animators practising an art that requires preternaturally intense focus and a seemingly occult power to make dead matter come to life. That’s certainly an air that has formed around the Quays, while the resolute gravity of their work has siphoned off any residual sense that there might be some fraternal japery during their sessions around the animating table. The silly superstitions around telepathic twins, confusing close interpersonal bonds with psychic ability, just feed the mystique about the powers of incarnation wielded by animators.

Punch and Judy (Jan Švankmajer, 1966)


Punch and Judy (Jan Švankmajer, 1966)

[For more of my Jan Švankmajer entries, see here.]

Probably the most densely allusive, frenetically charged film ever made about puppets hitting each other, Jan Švankmajer’s Punch and Judy is pretty extraordinary. At their best his short films are as tightly structured as incantations, delivering a sequence of actions and a barrage of images that somehow add up to a perfectly arranged whole. That’s not to say that it’s easy or even possible to draw conclusions about what it means, what the conjuration of that incantation might be, and the lack of easy explanation for all of its imagery is unsettling. If I give a recap of the plot, it might all seem very simple. After a prologue in which a band of automaton monkeys introduce the opening titles before the curtain rises on the stage within the film. Mr Punch is caring for his guinea pig. His neighbour Joey (another stock character from the Punch and Judy stories – note that, despite the title, Judy, along with all the other characters, is nowhere to be seen) envies the guinea pig and tries to buy it. Mr Punch refuses every cash offer, and they settle the dispute with violence, each taking turns to stuff the other into a coffin. It all ends with both characters dead and boxed, while the guinea pig strolls away through a hole in the scenery.

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Like The Last Trick, which is also built around a terminal battle between two puppets, this seems to have more allegorical substance than its setting and subject might immediately suggest. This is partly because puppets invite allegorical interpretations. Puppets are not individuals, especially when they depict stock characters, so they become marked by accreted meanings from their acquired historical uses – while a certain actor will carry around a set of intertextual baggage from role to role, acquired not just from the kinds of parts they play onscreen, but from what we know about the private life and public profile, a puppet has no personal history to inflect the meanings its conveys during its performance. Put simply, perhaps obviously, watching puppets is not like watching substituted humans – they bring with them a complex representational history, and by being simultaneously inert objects and animated creatures, they unsettle the usually dichotomous line between life and death. OK, maybe that’s not so simple. How’s this instead: puppets are creepy because they pretend to be alive when they’re not (though I suspect that children don’t make these subconscious connections when they’re watching Sooty and Sweep). As a result, watching a puppet show raises questions of human nature and identity that extend beyond whatever story they are acting out. Svankmajer told Peter Hames in an interview:

Puppets are firmly anchored in my mental morphology and so I keep going back to them in my work as if to create something which signifies certainty for me in relation to the world around me. I create my golems to protect me from the pogroms of reality. Secondly, I studied at the puppetry faculty at the Prague School of Dramatic Arts; thirdly, Bohemia still retains a strong tradition of puppetry from the time of the National Revival when travelling puppet theatres were the only theatres performing in Czech. And fourthly, I believe that puppets best symbolise the character of man in a contemporary, manipulated world. All these aspects create the nucleus of my obsession with puppet theatre.

Wouldn’t it be great if all artists could give such richly informative answers to simple questions like “why do you like puppets”? In one go, Svankmajer points to the personal, ethnic and symbolic significances which puppets hold for him. I’m most interested in the contention that puppets embody “the character of man”, since I think it suffuses not just the films involving traditional puppets (marionettes, glove puppets etc.), but also most of the films that involve stop-motion techniques to portray malevolent animated environments or living objects. All of these can be seen to contribute to a coherent world-view in which the human subject is pray to symbolically loaded devices given life and agency like the mechanisms of state power or consumer society (I think the metaphors are that flexible). I’ll try to elaborate on this as I work through a few more of the short films.

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So, although the back-and-forth slapstick fight over property seems like a simple scenario, the tone that Svankmajer creates is unsettling, and hints that more is at stake, and that these are universal social principles being played out. The action is too deliberately ritualised to be taken as a replay of popular children’s entertainment, and the montage images point to symbols beyond the central duel. When I started looking at Svankmajer’s films, I thought I might count the shots in some of them to calculate an Average Shot Length. This has proven to be impossible, or at least, more onerous than I can manage: I wouldn’t usually count the individual frames of an animated sequence as separate shots, since they depict singular actions and are not designed to be considered in isolation, but often the lines between shots are blurred, or they flicker by so quickly that they seem to create new animations, rhythmic flurries of movement who make less sense as individuated shots than they do as flows of connected pictures.

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The prologue, which announces the theatricality of the tale by detailing the accoutrements of the performance with a cacophony of musical noise and close-ups of painted scenery and mechanical monkeys, moving paintings and cherubs; the camera matches the pictures with a quasi-automatic clockwork motion. It’s almost as if the theatre is running itself, but we do get to see the puppeteer’s hands picking up the puppets. This will be mirrored at the end when the puppets die and the hands retreat back out of the frame and under the stage again.

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As Punch and Joey argue over the sale of the guinea pig, they go through a series of gestures –  a handshake, a shake of the head, pointing at the money. as with The Last Trick, these are not the warm indices of human interaction, but instead, in the hands of puppets, mechanically codified, barely sincere signs of greeting, debate, and disagreement which will extend to gestures of violence presently. When Joey tries to stiff Punch out of the money for the pet, Punch beats him with a hammer then casually stuffs him into a coffin and lights candles: ritualised signifiers of death rather than heartfelt memorialisations. Attempting to steal Joey’s money back, he returns to find the coffin empty. The base of the coffin is imprinted with an anatomical diagram of a skeleton, but the image does not guarantee that an assurance of the occupant’s death. Joey will pounce, and hammer Punch to death in the coffin, and the resurrection will be repeated.

Although the prologue promised this would be a theatrical presentation of a puppet show, Svankmajer doesn’t shoot the film like a theatrical tableau. Instead, he gives his characters close-ups, eyeline matches and two-shots, all cut together in a dynamic montage that implies the agency and subjectivity of these wooden numbskulls. The final battle kills them both, punching holes in the stage and violating the mouths of the painted backdrops. This oral violence will manifest itself in many other Svankmajer films, especially those dealing with food, consumption and sex. Punch is nailed through the mouth, and the mouth of one of the pictures on the wall of Joey’s house tells Punch that Joey is not in fact dead; we also see close-ups of the guinea pig’s mouth, and the mechanical mouths of the monkeys in the prologue. And yet the two puppets are robbed of speech. There is no swazzle-voiced, smart-alec dialogue for Punch: they communicate only through gesticulation and blows to the head.

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All the while, the guinea pig munches its feed impassively. It is played, except in the final shot, where it escapes through one of the pierced mouths in the back drop (taking advantage of the wanton recklessness of Punch and Joey) by a real live rodent, and as Michael O’Pray noted in his review from Monthly Film Bulletin (1988, thankfully reproduced in the DVD booklet):

There is a textural contrast here between the surfaces of artificial objects and the animal presence but, more importantly for Svankmajer, animals express a supreme indifference to the fate of humankind and thus they act as silent reminders of a wider scenario, one that stresses the destructiveness of Svankmajer’s puppets.

Of course, the guinea pig takes on gigantic proportions next to a couple of glove puppets, and makes their struggle all the more petty and self-absorbed. Hopefully, I can come back to some of these themes in discussing more of these shorts periodically. In particular, the textural nature of Svankmajer’s films is striking, focusing on the scratched, aged and tactile surfaces of objects, heightening the sense of their thingness; no attempt is being made to smooth the edges and suggest the total vivification of his animated characters: they must remain palpably solid and lifeless, even as they seem, uncannily, to move and act before out eyes.

I strongly recommend buying or renting the BFI’s Svankmajer collection on DVD, but if you really have to see it right now or remind yourself of it, you can watch a lo-res version here: