Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Protagonist, with puppets

One of the funniest scenes in Being John Malkovich is when Catherine Keener asks John Cusack what he does for a living, then abruptly turns tail when he responds, "Puppeteer." As an art, puppeteering is about a half-step up from mime in the popular imagination, no matter how many folks see The Lion King on Broadway or on tour. I, too, am guilty of slagging our little wood and cloth friends, joking with a colleague who wrote on Off Off Broadway theater that she was stuck with the "puppet beat," little shows with little, hand-crafted and hand-animated actors.

Who's laughing now? I've seen Protagonist, which IFC Films opens Nov. 30, and my respect for puppeteering has gone up tenfold. Jessica Yu, the Oscar-winning documentarian of 1997's short film Breathing Lessons, and the director of the captivating portrait of naive artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal (one of my favorite films of 2004), has given wooden-rod puppets pride of place in her latest work, which is easier to watch, and enjoy, than it is to classify and summarize. I'll cheat (it's a blog entry, not a paying assignment, after all) and borrow the short synopsis from the press kit, which says, "Protagonist explores extremism and the limits of certainty. Inspired by Greek drama, this visually inventive (I concur wholeheartedly--RC) documentary weaves the story of four men--a German terrorist, a bank robber, an 'ex-gay' evangelist, and a martial arts student--consumed by personal odysseys."

If that's not good enough, consult the website, but really, just see the movie, where the stories and the technique with which they are told (the "visually inventive" bit) are readily apparent. In 2003 Yu was approached by the Carr Foundation about making a film about Euripides, the fifth century B.C. playwright, and this is her eventual, well-crafted response. The four stories are told in parallel, with quotes from the plays used as chapter headings. The puppets, designed by Janie Geiser, are based on ancient Greek theater masks and are used to illustrate excerpts from the works, and incidents from the lives of its human subjects. Superb title animation by Robert Conner, an evocative score by Jeff Beal, and ancient Greek voiceover by former Star Trek-ker Marina Sirtis and Chris Diamantopolous accentuate the mood of the past and present overlapping in a timeless choreographer.

All of this would likely be quite precious if it weren't for the candor of her four male subjects. Yu's husband, Iron and Silk author and filmmaker Mark Salzman, is the martial artist, and the use of him as a subject might be nepotistic if his own journey through an ancient culture via suburban Connecticut weren't directly relevant to Yu's aims. It is, however, a warm-up to the more insurmountable problems faced by Mark Pierpont, who denied his homosexuality and donned a missionary's cloak to bring other men into his cloistered fold; Joe Loya, whose terror-fraught childhood reasserted itself in a criminal spree of bank robbery; and, most disturbingly, German terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein, whose own rebellion against parental authority took place on the world stage in the 1970s, when he joined an offshoot of the Baader-Meinhof gang and engineered the kidnapping of 11 OPEC ministers. (Klein's representation is pictured.)

Protagonist is a unique treatment of an unlikely subject, one that manages to be quite compelling even if you're at first a little resistant to its unorthodox aesthetic. But this was all, ahem, Greek to Yu as well, and that she approached the various aspects of the production with an open mind and heart makes for an absorbing, and fully cinematic, experience. She has pulled the strings extremely well.

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