Bright Lights Film Journal

“Hand Me That 14-Inch Willy!” The Puppet Artistry of Barry Purves

This brilliant Brit’s sleight-of-hand breathes life into wood and wire

At a symposium on puppet animation in Seattle a few years ago, Barry Purves, an alumnus of the Aardman Studios (whence came Wallace and Gromit), spoke passionately about “directing” his elaborate puppets as if they were people. This is no mere conceit; Purves’s puppets have a breadth and depth that sets them apart from most work in this field and far indeed from the flashy but frigid creations of most computer animation. In about a dozen years of production, Purves has created a memorable gallery of characters who are so close to real, despite the artificial trappings, that disbelief is willingly, happily suspended. As part of the “2001 Queer Arts Festival” playing various venues in San Francisco, the gay puppetmeister himself will make an appearance to introduce his five major works.

Purves had a brush with Hollywood as head animator of Mars Attacks, but his puppet designs were ultimately scrapped in favor of more easily controlled, less labor-intensive computer images. Judging from his latest work, a tragicomic operatic bio of Gilbert and Sullivan, he’s no worse for the wear.

The earliest work here is Next: The Infinite Variety Show (1989), which in seven frenetic minutes manages to squeeze in an image or two from every Shakespeare play. The film is a must for fans of the Bard, who could spend some serious time determining which scene is from which play. Purves whimsically envisions Will himself auditioning on stage by enacting snippets from each of the plays to show his skill as an actor. In a typical image, a blue tablecloth (Timon of Athens) is jerked from a table and instantly reborn as a faux ocean on which a toy ship sails (a la The Tempest). The “14-inch Willy,” as Purves called his Shakespeare puppet, also takes time to kiss a dummy of indeterminate gender as part of his audition. This is a consistently entertaining work that dazzles even when it’s at its most vertiginous, which is often.

Three years later Purves released Screen Play. This startling re-creation of a Japanese Noh play (based on the ancient legend of Blue Willow) opens with the narrator asking the audience to “Pay attention when I show you young hearts in love, young hearts in pain.” What follows is a star-crossed romance between upper-class Takako, whose parents want her to marry a wealthy samurai, and the peasant Nayoki. The film, which uses a stationary camera until the last minute, has spare, elegant backdrops that move on and off the small stage as if controlled by an unseen, godlike force, a resonant metaphor for the lovers’ inability to control their destinies. The story’s romanticism is tempered by a brutal, bloody ending that’s genuinely unnerving, but what remains with the viewer is a convincing otherworld that does justice to its source. Not that Purves is entirely reverent toward the material; it’s unlikely that earlier versions featured naked, anatomically correct actors, as Screen Play does with its puppets. The film, which encompasses a world of Japanese culture in a mere 11 minutes, well deserves the acclaim it’s received.

Opera is obviously one of Purves’s pet interests, as evidenced by two of the works on display here. An evocative and convincing Rigoletto (1993), made for the British TV series Operavox, is one of his most ambitious creations, running 30 minutes and incorporating all that opera’s dramatic fireworks. Some purists – perhaps disturbed at seeing their beloved property enacted by puppets – have complained about the truncation of the music in this and others in the Operavox series to fit the short running time. However, this Rigoletto, with its striking mise-en-scene, has its own poignancy and power and could arguably entice viewers who’ve never taken to opera to have a look.

Gilbert and Sullivan: The Very Models (1998) pictures the legendary pair as endearing buffoons, the stars of their own operas. Purves and company here indulge, among other things, a whimsical sense of genderplay as the pair portray both male and female characters, dress in drag as appropriate, and strut their considerable stuff in every imaginable guise. The sense of fleeting fun that marks all of Purves’s work is here confronted directly in surprisingly moving scenes of the demise of our boys.

Purves studied drama and Greek civilization before moving into the animation business, and his best-known work (at least among gay audiences) is Achilles. This story of the romance of the mythical hero and his young lover Patroclus is gorgeously imagined, with stylized historical scenes played out by rippled-abs puppets on a dark stage. It’s also a masterpiece of eroticism. It’s not hard to imagine a new genre of puppet-art-porn following from Achilles, though “porn” hardly captures what occurs. The film envisions sex as a sacrament, with the pair sensually caressing each other and fornicating with brio. While the basics of the story are there – the attempt to rescue Helen from the Trojans, Achilles’ refusal to fight when Agamemnon steals his slave girl – what’s most indelible are the love scenes between Achilles and Patroclus, a long overdue visualization of the sexy side of all those “devoted friendships” so coyly mentioned as common in ancient times.