#323. Puppetry

As a society, we seem to have a love/hate relationship with puppets. While we enjoy films featuring puppets as the main characters, like in Pinocchio (1940) and The Muppet Movie (1979), we also fear them in movies like Child’s Play (1988) and Goosebumps (2015). Aside from the aforementioned Muppets, very few films actually use puppetry exclusively for their characters. The one exception to this was the Thunderbirds in their movie, Thunderbirds Are Go (1966), and its modern parody, Team America: World Police (2004). Even if these films prominently feature puppets, they don’t necessarily get into the details of puppetry itself. The act of controlling a puppet can be quite the challenging talent to acquire, but pulling the strings of a marionette isn’t the only way to engage in puppetry. This week’s two films highlight some different puppetry scenarios.

Being John MalkovichBeing John Malkovich
Year: 1999
Rating: R
Length: 112 minutes / 1.86 hours

There have been some films focused humans controlling humanoid robots. From the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) to its live-action remake in 2017, the idea of extending a person’s life through the human mind controlling a robotic body via mental puppetry isn’t new. Robocop (1987) and Chappie (2015) both emphasize the idea that humans can use machines to live their life when their bodies are no longer able to. The concept is rarely reversed, though. It is disquieting to think that a robot could control a human in the same way we control them. As humans, we already possess the skills needed to make puppets of our fellow humans. Through coercion, blackmail, and other forms of manipulation, we can control others to do our bidding. Only one film explores the ability for a human to control another human from the inside: Being John Malkovich (1999).

Famed actor, John Malkovich (himself), decided to make a rather drastic career change and become a world-renowned puppeteer. Unfortunately, this was not actually Malkovich’s decision, as Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) was controlling his body at the time. Craig was a down-on-his-luck puppeteer who happened to find a portal into the body of John Malkovich by chance. Initially, the portal only allowed for 15 minutes inside Malkovich to experience the life he lives. Using his skills as a puppeteer, Craig found that not only was he able to control Malkovich, but he was able to stay inside the portal for as long as he wanted. However, the portal is not meant for him and the organization that plans to use the portal to prolong their immortality proceed to enact a plan to get Craig to vanquish himself from the portal, allowing them to take his place permanently.

Pacific RimPacific Rim
Year: 2013
Rating: PG-13
Length: 131 minutes / 2.18 hours

It is interesting to note that puppetry, while usually relegated to humanoid objects smaller than their puppeteers, can be used to control objects much larger than the one controlling them. Even the one-for-one puppetry scale referenced in the previous section pales in comparison to the giant robots known as “mecha.” A staple of anime and manga, mecha are usually large humanoid robots piloted by a human. There have been some notable entries in this sub-genre, including Gurren Lagann, Star Driver, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. The hallmark of these series has usually been either battles between mecha or (more commonly) battles against giant monsters. When Pacific Rim (2013) came out, I became excited about potentially seeing these mecha anime adapted into live-action films. For right now, I’ll just have to settle with its soon-to-be-released sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018).

Giant monsters called Kaiju began emerging from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and wreaking havoc on the nearby landmasses. To combat this threat, a multinational alliance started building gigantic robots called Jaegers. These Jaegers were too big to for a single human to pilot them, so the concept of “drifting” was created to share the mental load between two or more pilots. When the frequency of the Kaiju attacks left the Jaegers helpless to defend the world, the world leaders scrapped the project for building a coastal wall. When this wall also failed, the commander of the Jaegers hatches one final plan to close the portal between our world and the world of the Kaiju. Using the last few working Jaegers, the mission to detonate a nuclear device in the portal commences just as the largest Kaiju ever emerges from the rift.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 peculiar puppets

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#322. Actors Being Usurped

Success can be a fickle mistress. We can be extremely proficient at something, but find there’s always someone else who’s just a little better than we are. Whether it’s a boss who won’t retire to allow you to be promoted to his position or a king standing in your way of being the ruler of the land, what does someone do when faced with these circumstances? Well, if they’re smart and sly, they can surreptitiously obtain what they want by usurping the position of those above them. There’s no profession more cutthroat than that of acting, and the drama around who gets a role is often based on subtle actions (or inactions) of the actors who want to succeed. If an understudy wants to shine, all they might need to do is have the lead actor “break a leg” . . . literally. This week’s two films look into what it takes to usurp an actor.

All About EveAll About Eve
Year: 1950
Rating: Approved
Length: 138 minutes / 2.3 hours

Acting is just as much about talent as it is physical attractiveness. This is particularly prevalent with actresses. The moment they start their career, time is against them as they age. Younger women usually get most of the best roles, so when they get to a certain age, suddenly it can be difficult to find the leading roles they once had. Consequently, the competition for these roles can be fierce. It’s the truly conniving actresses who understand that it’s not what you know, but who you know. In the guise of a mentoring relationship, a young actress can learn what made an aging star successful and apply that to her own acting style. Eventually, though, the student becomes the master, and the older actress is left without any work as her protégée goes on to her own success. Such is the cycle of those in the acting profession.

Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) has one goal in mind: to become a famous actress like Margo Channing (Bette Davis). To do this, she picks up her life and moves out to New York to become Margo’s assistant, even if Margo doesn’t know this until Eve shows up and heaps praise upon the aging actress. Eve proves to be quite the adept assistant, often overstepping her bounds, much to Margo’s consternation. Soon, Eve sets herself up as Margo’s understudy for the play Aged in Wood just as she arranges for Margo to miss a performance. Audiences realized they like Eve in the role and didn’t care for the mature actress in a younger woman’s role. Through her manipulation, Eve soon becomes a critically acclaimed actress of her own, only to find Phoebe (Barbara Bates) is a fan of her work and wants to be her assistant.

Being John MalkovichBeing John Malkovich
Year: 1999
Rating: R
Length: 112 minutes / 1.86 hours

Sometimes, just having someone’s job isn’t enough. You want to be them. In Hamlet (1948), it’s not enough for Claudius to be given the kingdom, he must kill the current king and marry his wife. Claudius wanted to be the king in practically every way. The same can be said of certain actors, “Women want him, men want to be him.” The trouble with trying to be someone you’re not is that you’ll never quite live up to who they are as a person. Even impersonators can get close to mimicking an actor but rarely do they get it 100% correct. But what if there was a way to usurp a person’s being? What if you could literally get inside their head and become them? Who would you usurp? Would you become a famous actor? Would they let you? While this capability doesn’t exist, Being John Malkovich (1999) explores the possibilities if it did.

Behind a tiny door on Floor 7½ of the LesterCorp building, file clerk Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) finds a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich (himself). While he is able to experience life through Malkovich’s body, it is limited to a fifteen-minute timespan. After telling his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), she is enamored with the experience since it allows her to live the life of a man. Through Malkovich, Lotte starts having an affair with Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), a coworker of Craig’s who also knows of the portal. Craig is upset with this development and manages to use his puppetry skills to not only stay in Malkovich for as long as he wants but to control Malkovich as well. Meanwhile, Lotte learns that Malkovich is the latest in a string of portals meant to extend the life of Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). With Lester’s help, Craig becomes trapped in the next portal as he watches Lotte and Maxine’s happy life.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 ousted actors