Emerging From the Shadows

manual cinema, lula del ray @ Den Theater, 13 December 2012.

The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.

— Oscar Wilde

Artifice is essential to the authenticity of Manual Cinema‘s postmodern shadow puppetry. As the name suggests, performances by the group are at once hands on and mediated as MC uses a mix of overhead projectors, screens, actors and actresses, video, sound both live and played back, and more. In Lula Del Ray, which the troupe has staged in Chicago over the last few years and which soon appears in New York City, MC uses odd cuts and varying scales of closeup and framing shots to lend a movie-like quality to the piece. But with the slightly off transitions, the visibility of the transparency plastic around the figures, the live actors just ever so slightly out of phase and position with the props shadowed on the screen, the awareness that this is not a film at all never entirely vanishes.

This renders the performance almost amateurishly theatrical, like watching your kids perform a puppet show in the backyard and, yet, at the same time, you feel like you are at the movies. It is from the imperfections mixed with the surprising juxtapositions of embodied and disembodied that we enter into an in-between space, one in which the live elements increasingly become cinematic and the filmic qualities start to leap out from the (digitized) celluloid. A kind of paradoxical “live” cinema emerges, one that ends up welcoming the viewer into a richly ambiguous space between the recorded and the immediate, the pre-existing and that which is created in the moment. Is it live, or is it Memorex?

The plot of Lula Del Ray works well with the effect produced by Manual Cinema’s approach to shadow puppetry. It’s a dreamlike story about a young girl’s awakening to adulthood among the satellite dishes and mobile labs of some kind of scientific nuclear era installation. We appear to be in the almost hallucinatory landscape of technology and nature in the deserts of the southwestern United States. We catch a bit of the disorienting isolation, the beauty of this landscape: a sea of satellite dishes and other equipment among the mountains, flowers, burning sun, glowing moon, and endless sky.

It is a stunningly stark, desolate, lonely, and disorienting world—so real as to be unreal—which is what makes the in-between mix of live and mediated in the MC approach so evocative. And when the young girl runs away to a city to try to see a dreamy boy band music group that entrances as they perform “live” at a theater (represented through a mix of silhouetted cowboy hat and guitar figures and live music performance), the mix of intense human emotion and distanced inhumane alienation grow to a weirdly hushed roar of feeling, an echoey fantasy of possibilities and problems, learning and loss, presence and absence—all suspended in shadow and light.

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