PRINT May 2006


Laurie Simmons

A CENTURY AGO, Edward Gordon Craig, the first modern theater artist, wished he could replace all actors with puppets. Never mind the divas, he said. Forget Stanislavski. Craig was a symbolist at heart, a director who wanted actors to come to the stage and leave their feelings at home. Personalities! They only got in the way of art.

Cut to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the premiere, this month, of artist Laurie Simmons’s first film, The Music of Regret, 2005–2006. All of the characters are puppets. Some are played by humans, Meryl Streep among them, but most are either vintage rubber hand puppets or male ventriloquist dummies from Simmons’s 1994 series of photographs also titled “The Music of Regret.”

There must be something in the air. Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty, the 2004 rock musical by artists Dan Graham and Tony Oursler (currently in the Whitney Biennial), features the two-man band Japanther and a company of marionettes. Pierre Huyghe, too, recently made a twenty-four-minute film with marionettes, This is Not a Time for Dreaming, 2004. Here puppets portray Huyghe and the architect Le Corbusier, among others, in a real-life drama with background music by Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xenakis. And then there is Kara Walker’s latest shadow-puppet film, 8 Possible Beginnings . . . , 2005, an instructive slave narrative filmed in black-and-white with a scratchy old-time soundtrack. I’m wondering if artists are turning to puppets for the same reason that Craig did: With their childlike appeal, puppets are useful vehicles for conveying abstract propositions, circumventing the potentially distorting influence of the human ego. In this way, they function as masks, subjugating the artist’s identity to the revelation of a larger truth.

Simmons is an old hand at this, having established herself in the ’70s with photographs in which dolls and dollhouses act as surrogates for decidedly female psychological states. But in her pictures the dolls never quite transcend their dollhood, whereas the puppets in her film do: They appear to move in the real world and to be ruled by real emotions. That is partly because the sets were built to a doll-size scale and also because cinematographer Ed Lachman (Far from Heaven, The Virgin Suicides) shot them as if they really lived there. But the most transforming element is Michael Rohatyn’s music.

Nothing in movies is more manipulative than music. Music tells audiences when to sigh, when to clutch their throats, when to swallow. The reactions music demands are not just emotional; they are physical. Rohatyn’s score, which incorporates a mix of generic styles, from weepy mood music to torchy tangos, does for Simmons’s Regret what the Strauss waltzes did for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It gives onscreen playthings the illusion of natural movement, a quality that sets Simmons’s film apart from the other puppet movies. Music here is more than mere accompaniment: It is a driving force, an almost tangible presence that imbues Simmons’s figures with an unexpected emotional depth that her photographs can only suggest.

Last November, under the auspices of PERFORMA05 (a performance-art biennial in New York City), Simmons showed two excerpts from her film at Salon 94, the townhouse gallery owned by Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the composer’s sister-in-law. (Greenberg Rohatyn coproduced the film with Donald Rosenfeld.) The first and third acts were all that Simmons had in the can at that point, but that was enough to get me thinking about the relationship of music and image—to my mind, the film’s real subject.

The Music of Regret has a three-act screenplay by the artist Matthew Weinstein, who collaborated with Simmons on inventing situations where ambition, jealousy, and desire all lead to a different sense of sorrow. In other words, this is a movie that is about nothing but feelings. Without the insensate puppets, the film could have been maudlin and ridiculous. Instead, it is truly touching. Act 1, “The Green Tie,” tells the story of an irrevocable rift between two families in a white-picket-fence suburb. In Act 2, the title section, Streep is made up to resemble a dummy—specifically, one that Simmons had made in her own image for a previous work. Looking for love in all the wrong places, the actress goes on a speed-dating binge with four different dummies, singing of love and longing. (Simmons wrote the lyrics herself.)

Act 3, “The Audition,” is partly based on Magnum Opus, the final photograph in a series that Simmons made between 1989 and 1991, where different objects—such as a perfume bottle, a leather-bound book, and a globe—“walk” on little doll legs. In the film, six members of the Alvin Ailey II dance company embody these surreal assemblages as they compete for a major role in an unidentified production. As in most auditions, some candidates, like the tap-dancing house, are allowed to shine while others are humiliated. A gun is quickly dispatched, but the heavy book must push itself, on pathetically squeaky wheels, across a daunting expanse of floor. Watching is painful. The scene ends with a forgotten pocket watch dancing a bravura solo that should have won the part.

Simmons is an admirer of such Broadway musicals as A Chorus Line and Gypsy; the genre was, for her, an inspiration. But the most direct precedent for her film is Todd Haynes’s 1987 docudrama, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Though Barbie dolls filled all the leading roles (and all dialogue was voice-over), Haynes’s use of the dolls humanized people whose real-life celebrity had turned them into objects. The Carpenters’ sentimental music didn’t hurt either.

Ironically, the most powerful moments in Simmons’s film come in the gaps between songs, in the silences where characters can inhabit their own kind of being. I’m thinking of the final scene in “The Green Tie,” where two identical hand puppets, painted to look like balding grandfathers with bushy mustaches, sing a heartfelt lament to a life that must go on: “When a life so full of sorrow asks you what you have done / Stick to what you know now / Not what may have been.” The situation is pure melodrama: One man’s son has killed himself over losing a job to the other’s, the boy’s lifelong friend. In the end, one puppet consoles the other with a clumsy, sobbing pat on the back, letting its head fall on the other’s shoulder. This awkward exchange of affection and grief takes place in a silence that descends on the scene like a falling curtain.

In art we talk of external and internal vision, of what there is in the world to see and what lives independently in the mind’s eye. As John Cage demonstrated, the mind has an ear as well. It listens to the way we think. Perhaps Simmons’s film is a picture of the mind’s ear, and the music of regret is silence.

Linda Yablonsky is a New York–based critic and novelist.