The puppet’s gaze

Yesterday I saw the wonderful retrospective of the work of the Brothers Quay at MoMA. Like their predecessor Jan Švankmajer, they center much of their stop-motion animated filmmaking around puppets trapped in a dark and surreal world of rag-tag and seemingly found objects eerily come to life.

I think what makes this genre so arresting, more than any other single factor, is the gaze of the puppet. The puppet stares at its mysterious world, looking this way and that with fixed and intent expression, and in our minds we cannot help but project a Kafka-esque existential crisis into every frame.

For the puppet always seems to be trying, with tireless desperation, to make sense out of its circumstance, out of its very existence. Yet we know something the puppet does not: It is itself only a thing of borrowed life, a shell into which a soul has been breathed by an unseen force.

We also know it is only the will of the puppet’s master that animates this soul from one moment to the next. So the puppet’s gaze becomes something deeply affecting and tragic, as we watch it try so desperately to find the logic in an absurd existence.

For on some deep level, whether we care to or not, we know exactly how the puppet feels.

5 thoughts on “The puppet’s gaze”

  1. Hi Ken,

    Great post! You may want to include a link to the Quay Brothers MoMA exhibit?

    And, yes, after some investigating — Alice Krige (a.k.a. “Mother Borg” in Star Trek film) — acted in the Quay Brothers films.


  2. Your post reminded me of this:

    At one point while watching the video, I was struct by a finger extending into the scene poking at the puppet, who cowered in its presence. Took me a second to realize that the finger was my own, reflected on my computer screen due to the video’s black background.

  3. Thanks Cynthia! Here is the link.

    I really like the story X told about watching that video. I always knew there must be a reason that seeing Petrushka on video feels uncanny, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. ­čśë

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