Cinema Lamont and Detroit Puppet Company bring a month-long puppet film series

(Some) strings attached

click to enlarge The Adventures of Prince Achmed, argued to be the oldest animated feature still with us. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
The Adventures of Prince Achmed, argued to be the oldest animated feature still with us.

Throughout August, metro Detroiters will have a chance to see a range of free and pay-what-you-can puppet-centric films each balmy Friday night of the month. A collaboration between Cinema Lamont and Detroit Puppet Company featuring an eclectic suite of works, each entry in the series will screen at 8:45 p.m. at the Detroit Puppet Company’s amphitheater at 2221 Carpenter Ave. on the Detroit-Hamtramck border (save for an afternoon showing of The Adventures of Prince Achhmed on Saturday, Aug. 13 and a live-streamed performance of Tom Lee’s The Great Zodiac Animal Race on Saturday, Aug. 27, both at the Detroit Film Theatre).

The showings span nearly a century of work, from 1926’s silent The Adventures of Prince Achhmed, rendered by Lotte Reininger in elaborate paper cut-outs, to 2021’s The Plastic Bag Store, a musing look from just last year about how our descendants might regard the mess we leave behind. Across these works — as often with the craft of puppeteering — both the material nature and visible labor behind each film color what’s expressed onscreen. In each, whether they’re hybrid works (as with Faust) or immersive stop-motion ones, key physical features of the films’ respective worlds are built from the ground up, allowing for the presentation of a distinct aesthetic world in each.

With that in mind, what follows is a preview of the works showing: one which attempts to grapple with the array of aims and styles featured among them.

The Plastic Bag Store

Friday, Aug. 5
Detroit Puppet Company Amphitheatre

Often presented as part of a larger installation. Robin Frohardt’s The Plastic Bag Store proves hearty enough as a stand-alone feature on its own. Veering between a variety of flat and three-dimensional puppeteered modes and embracing satire alongside more meditative aspects, the film provides an overview even within itself of the many modes of puppeteering developed over centuries. By integrating different styles of presentation which span so much of human history, the film (which wasn’t available in full by the time of filing) seems well-suited to its timeless subject, which will surely outlast us all.

Screening alongside it, too, is Frohardt’s short “FITZCARDBOARDALDO (a cardboard Fitzcarraldo),” which plays on the Werner Herzog feature in which a crew of workers managed, gallingly, to pull a ship over a mountain. Working in playful dialogue with this, Frohard shifts the register of the film’s labor from the monumental to the minute, granting it a different kind of weight. A more intimate collaboration is spotlighted here, placing it in opposition to the original’s consciously grand efforts — something “The Corrugation of Dreams” (also showing) does in its own behind-the-scenes portrait of the work involved.

Anomalisa

Friday, Aug. 12
Detroit Puppet Company Amphitheatre

Both existential and romantic in the vein of so much of Charlie Kaufman’s work, 2015’s Anomalisa captures the drudgery of alienating white-collar existence with an irony-light, disarmingly tender style. The corporate meetings, the serpentine hallways, and a sense of oneself as alone and powerless all feature, with the film treading like ground to shows such as Enlightened and Severance both before and since. Deploying a medium (in the film’s committed use of puppets) more often used for things fantastical for a corporate conference, the very definition of the brazenly mundane, Kaufman aims to get to the heart of feelings more easily evoked than described.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Saturday, Aug. 13
Detroit Film Theatre

Often argued to be the oldest animated feature still with us, Lotte Reininger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (released in Germany in 1926) remains as much a marvel as it ever was. Done in layered cut-outs of both solid and translucent paper backlit to create ornate silhouettes, the film still stands out for its remarkable sense of design. With its puppeteered figures managing to feel both ornate and remarkably solid whether in the midst of acrobatic transformations or swooning articulation, the film reworks portions of One Thousand and One Nights (“Aladdin” among them) to form a tale that freely spans the globe. While Prince Achmed does bear certain orientalizing markers of its time — particularly in some of its characters’ designs — it synthesizes a wide range of design motifs in a way that’s plainly remarkable, and should prove all the more inviting for the fact the screening is free.

Faust

Friday, Aug. 19
Detroit Puppet Company Amphitheatre

Executed in a hybrid style employing both stop-motion, elaborate costume, and life-size marionettes, the Czech master Jan Švankmajer makes his take on Faust a kind of extension of what the story’s always been about. With its titular scholar attempting the slippery task of bargaining with the devil, his efforts often prove upended in manners as surprising and disturbing in their renderings as they do richly existential in emotional effect. A truly free work for how it slides between theatrical presentation, bleak realism, and alternately buoyant and jarring forms of fictive reality, Faust can be a dizzying, overwhelming work at times — but the experience is more than worth the time.

Puppet Shorts

Friday, Aug. 26
Detroit Puppet Company Amphitheatre

A suite of seven global short films including the Quay Brothers’ immortal, influential “Street of Crocodiles” and Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s similarly macabre stop-motion work “The Bones” (produced by Hereditary’s Ari Aster), the range of works and subjects in the showcase demonstrates the reach of puppet-centric work beyond flights of whimsy. Touching on matters as wide-ranging as death and the afterlife to the Black Panthers’ activism (1970’s “Puppet Show,” by May 1st Media) to Japanese folklore (1972’s “The Demon.” by Kihachirō Kawamoto), the showcase reflects the same aspirations, range, and mature sensibility of the series as a whole.

Tom Lee’s The Great Zodiac Animal Race

Saturday, Aug. 27
Detroit Film Theatre

A live-streamed performance by New York-based and Korean-born director and puppeteer Tom Lee (and thus unavailable prior to filing), Great Zodiac works with the materials of the artist’s own past to retell a traditional tale. The screening looks to provide a chance to enjoy the artist’s craft at a scale that’s sure to flatter, employing a menagerie of shadow puppets and accomplished artistic technique to render an old story new.

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