Puppets of the Digital Age

Written By Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti is a queer author and Pushcart-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange Horizons, F&SF, The Deadlands, Vastarien, and Reckoning. Avra lives and studies in Athens, Greece. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

We associate puppets with theater or street performances: the stock characters of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, the Greek shadow play of Karagiozis, the traditional British Punch and Judy seaside shows. But stop motion, claymation, and other animations using object manipulation have transported puppetry to the digital age. Because of its inherent fluidity and eeriness, stop motion is a great filmmaking technique through which to disturb and delight audiences. The ephemerality of puppets and other hand-crafted creations becomes immortalized in all its weird and transcendental forms on screen.

An impressive feat of stop motion animation is the dark fairytale film Blood Tea and Red String, created by artist Christiane Cegavske. Gaining cult-classic acclaim since its 2006 release, Blood Tea took Cegavske more than a decade to film and create the characters, scenery, storyline, even the puppets and their outfits, by herself. Only the musical score (haunting folk music of flute and accordion) was created by Mark Growden. The film has no dialogue, so all the emoting happens through the stop motion puppets, which offers the story an added layer of mysticism through non-verbal communication. The film’s creator even plays a meta role at the beginning and end of the film, reminiscent of a traditional fairytale’s narrator.

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    In Blood Tea, a coven of aristocratic white mice dressed in old-fashioned finery commission the Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak to handcraft a life-sized doll girl for them. The artisan creatures do so in their woodland cottage, but soon they find themselves enamored with their ragged creation. When the white mice come to take the doll home, the Oak Dwellers follow, witnessing a feast of blood-stained teacups and the red string of fate woven through the doll’s hands, binding her to the mice and their debauchery. The Oak Dwellers decide to steal the doll back, thus beginning a long and mystical journey of destruction and renewal, through fields of skull-faced sunflowers, giant spiderwebs, and mythical forests.

    The inanimate doll that becomes the object of the characters’ obsession and affection represents the sublime. She is simultaneously a Jesus and a Virgin Mary figure, as she bears stigmata in her palms and is strung up in symbolic crucifixion, while containing inside her fabric belly an immaculate conception: an egg that, once hatched, becomes a bird with a girl’s face; a harpy. The doll’s body turns into a reliquary for life and death, as she becomes the messianic prize in the war sparked between the aristocratic mice and the forest creatures. Greed, tenderness, and possessiveness are themes that are tightly woven through the film like a red string, making for a breathless, beautiful rendition of the traditional folk-tale quest.

    Jan Švankmajer is another director who uses a mix of stop motion and live action—including several weird cloth puppets and clay creations—in his short and feature-length films. He is the creator of Alice (1988), a retelling of the classic Lewis Carroll tale made even more whimsical and nightmarish through childhood toys turned into amalgamations of found objects and bare bone. The White Rabbit that sets the events of the film in motion is a taxidermied animal who breaks his own glass display case and escapes into Wonderland’s domestic dreamscape, only for young Alice to follow. Many Švankmajer short films (freely available on YouTube) are shot exclusively using the stop motion technique. Inspiration is drawn from fairytales, classical paintings, and philosophy, while the various shorts feature food, insects, childhood memorabilia, and humanoid figures struggling to connect with, and escape from, each other.

    Written and directed by David Lynch, Rabbits is another series of interconnected short films where the abstract and the bizarre is given literal shape through malleable material (though each scene was originally shot live action). Three anthropomorphic rabbits play house as father, mother, and daughter. A family drama unfolds through domestic and mundane tableaus, accompanied by haunting music, a laugh track at inappropriate moments like a funhouse mirror image of a traditional sitcom, and sparse, unsettling, dementia-like dialogue, each character’s lines out of sync with the others’. The rabbit family sits on the sofa of a middle-class living room, staring at the spot where a TV should have been—directly toward the viewer, as the lines between stage and home, observer and object of observation, become blurred.

    The traditional sitcom scene is interrupted by ritualistic summoning of entities, burning wall clocks, and spontaneous singing possessions, images that blend horror and haunted house elements into the already psychologically fraught sitcom. Despite those interruptions, the rabbits continue to go through the motions of their comfortable lives with an incrementally creepier undercurrent. Is it a purgatory loop or a normal existential-dread night in with the family? The question remains unanswered, and all the more eerie for it. Rabbits is a Lynchian movie, through and through: alienation, automation, absurdism, and a family of puppets falling apart at the seams.