I once asked a puppeteer if there were any disadvantages to his art, and he said, “strings!” I imagine they’re the biggest problem with making a movie with puppets, too—they’re a constant reminder of artificiality, a turn-off for audiences who expect from cinema a little realism in appearances, even from the cartoons. In Strings, certainly the most prestigious puppetry movie ever made, the filmmakers resolve this issue by making the strings a part of the mythology: they extend into the heavens, giving the characters life (and thus making the puppeteer a god—and this movie as much about puppetry as it is puppets). You’re not supposed to pretend they’re not there.
Still, director Anders Rønnow Klarlund embraces the lack of verisimilitude, employing a jarringly hyper-unreal aesthetic; honey light, crooked angles, and a rich symphonic score accompany his gothically designed locations: the characters will climb mountains in a snowstorm, swim underwater, work as slaves in the desert, fight on battlefields, walk through forests, and hole up in dungeons, sometimes during storms of rain and lightning. The story is a dark fantasy, vaguely Lion King-esque: a king commits suicide, and his brother makes it look like murder committed by their archnemeses, thus provoking war. The king’s son goes alone to find the tribe and bring its leader to justice, but when he infiltrates their ranks he discovers they’re not villains at all—it’s him and his people who are the evil oppressors. Just like in Avatar!
Released in 2004, a year after the War in Iraq had begun, the movie packs a lot of Bush-era Middle East allegory: the war launched on false pretenses evokes 9/11 Truth, and the tribes battling over the same piece of homeland brings to mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the movie doesn’t end as badly as real life does: war ends, the conquered join with the conquerors, and the Bush 43 stand-in distinguishes himself from his father by making the peace the old man never could. Ultimately, Strings preaches a mysticism of love and unity—of how our actions guide the actions of others because we’re all connected to the same strings.
Strings will be screened at BAM on Saturday at 4:30pm, part of its Puppets on Film series. Click here for more info.
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