“Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or god.”
(from The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson)
I never particularly liked puppets – I had no experience with them as a child outside of the Muppets. I think I inadvertently put them in the same category as clowns – intended for children only and just plain creepy. My interest in puppets was ignited in my mid-twenties after seeing a performance of A Thousand Cranes at Sac State that my friend Art Gruenberger took me to. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a bunraku performance where three puppeteers operate one puppet, so the mechanics couldn’t be more exposed; yet somehow that’s what gave the actuality of the puppet’s provisional life so much power. It was as if the life force, whatever that is, totally disembodied because it was so easily transferred from human bodies to an inert puppet body, was all of a sudden visible, and at the same time entirely fleeting. It felt as if I was seeing the essence of life itself. I was captivated.
I immediately started experimenting making forms out of pantyhose and fiberfill, sewing their faces with a needle and thread and manipulating them to try and find a pulse. I then made my first series of puppets using sculpie and foam, all circus freaks, for a theater piece I wrote and performed in called Bigtopple. After that, a friend of mine whose family made IMAX movies decided to host a film festival and invited all of his friends to come and use their equipment to make the films to play in the festival. I had just returned from Mexico where I had been studying movement theater and where I had a terrifying experience while traveling in which my life was threatened in a very real way. I turned that experience into my first short, Boxed. I was really experimenting at this point with using the bunraku technique for the camera. I had no idea what I was doing; all I had was about 50 bucks and a glue gun, but all of my friends came on board and we made this little film that went on to a bunch of international film festivals, the first of which was Berlin, where it won a Jury Award. Somehow the magic I had experienced in that first performance in Sacramento was conveyed in my small effort on screen. I was stunned by its reception and immediately wanted to make another one. I then made Sunlight, and after that ola’s box of clovers, and then the scene sample for Too Loud A Solitude.
What draws me to this art form is the specificity of the puppet figure. It operates as a kind of haiku in that it distills what is essential about human expression, reminding us that everything is energy, and form is merely a placeholder within the greater movement of consciousness. Puppets allow us to imbue them with the inner stirrings we conceal even from ourselves; namely our innocence. They have a singular power to articulate the subtle states of being that supply life with its most poignant meanings.
Each film has been an opportunity to improve my technique while continuing to endeavor to recreate that magic I saw so many years ago on that stage in Sacramento – to uncover what the puppet allows us to see that the human form conceals. There’s an acute potency in what animates puppets because we know their life force is provisional, and as such it mirrors what we know on some level to be true about our own lives – that they are mysterious, fleeting, and precious.