5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

Team America 5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

There’s an element of puppetry to all movies, given that they usually stem from the mind of a writer whose words and actions are then brought to life by a cast of actors, who are further controlled by an overseeing director. Some directors will take a hands-off approach to their performing talent, but there are many throughout history, most famously Alfred Hitchcock, who closely guided their every move. So it seems natural that filmmakers would be accustomed to the act of dictating someone’s movements and the words coming out of their mouths.

This can take a variety of forms. In some cases you’ll have stories featuring a person feeding words into someone else’s head, the way a screenwriter works. Other instances will feature a guy literally controlling the movement and actions and even thoughts of another person, which mimics the role of a director. Though often, actors will bring qualities to the life of a character that a director and screenwriter did not anticipate or dictate, making for a richer collaborative process—this aspect of the analogy has been represented on screen too.

Here are 5 movie puppetmasters that came to mind for me. If you have others that fit the description, add your picks in the comment section below.

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1) Craig in Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich 5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

Being John Malkovich may be the ultimate puppetmaster movie, given that its protagonist is a literal puppeteer. It marked the first collaboration of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, and they burst onto the independent movie scene in a big way. John Cusack starred as Craig Schwartz, whose vocation consists of making and performing with marionettes. In an absurd twist that Kaufman is now known for, Craig stumbles upon a portal that allows him to inhabit the body of respected thespian John Malkovich.

It’s a whole new art form for Craig, who takes his puppet act to the next level, at first simply observing but eventually controlling the thoughts and actions of John Malkovich as he goes about his days. Of course, he had been training for this his whole life. But it’s one thing to make inanimate objects seem to come to life; Craig finds out it’s another matter entirely to take a living, breathing human being and treat him like one of his marionettes. He has to fight against Malkovich’s own desires and impulses to make him his own, and as he states outright, it poses a host of philosophical questions about identity, the nature of the self and all that. That’s not just true with the Malkovich experiment, but by extension the notion of identity for made up characters, how much of them are an extension of the artist’s identity and how much comes from somewhere else. It’s about puppeteering as an art, to an extent, and features a beautiful scene consisting of Craig’s actual wooden figures.

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2) Christof in The Truman Show

The Truman Show 5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

This one was released a year before Malkovich but had a similar theme involving one made possessing immense power over the actions of another human being. It was a bit of a precursor to the reality TV wave that swept over the 2000s. You have Truman Burbank, the protagonist played by Jim Carrey, living in a world that, unbeknownst to him, is completely artificial and created specifically so his life could be shown on television. The mastermind behind the manmade town and surrounding area is Christof, played by Ed Harris.

There’s all sorts of themes at play in The Truman Show. On one hand, Christof is like a god who has created a world for his own amusement. He also seems to be genuinely loving, a kind of father figure, to Truman, even though Truman isn’t aware of his existence for 30 years of his life. But he is incredibly manipulative, directing the scenes of Truman’s life with the intention that Truman acts in certain ways, specifically ways that will prolong the reality series he’s produced. There are also some gorgeous moments in which Christof is feeding his actors—aka Truman’s friends and family—lines through an earpiece, and you hear them repeat the words from out of his mouth. A heartfelt scene between Truman and his best friend played by Noah Emmerich (who’s in the new show The Americans. You guys, watch The Americans!) is especially touching and well handled.

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3) Geppetto in Pinocchio

Pinnochio 5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

Perhaps the best known puppetmaster, or rather puppetmaker, in all of cinematic history is that lovable woodcarver from Disney’s Pinocchio, Geppetto. Similar to Truman and Christof, Geppetto and Pinnochio have a kind of father-son relationship, although it’s a little different here because Geppetto actually made Pinnochio, like out of wood, formed with his own hands.

Pinnochio could also been seen as an inverse Being John Malkovich, or rather, Malkovich is like an inverse Pinnochio. Instead of a living person being turned into a puppet, Pinnochio is a puppet who, through the good Disney virtues of being truthful and considerate, is granted the wish of becoming a sentient being of sorts. So you’ve got this puppet who’s come to life, and a puppetmaster who wished for it himself. It’s interesting that instead of desiring the power to control another person, Geppetto’s wish is for this object that requires his manipulation to operate without it.

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4) Comte Paul de Reynaud in Chocolat

Chocolat1 5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

Lasse Hallstrom’s 2000 film Chocolat offers an analogy of the God-human relationship as involving a degree of puppetry, but demonstrates the common sense interpretation of God ultimately in control of humanity being flipped on its head, and instead offers the position that maybe it’s humans that are treating God as their puppet, using him as an authoritative figure through which people can be controlled.

There’s one shot in the film that I have talked about before and will talk about again. It consists of a church interior, beginning high above the back of the minister, showing him towering over the congregation. Like, really towering. He’s looking way, way down on him, putting him in the position of God, visually. Then it swoops down into the pews, slowly gliding over the congregants until it reaches Alfred Molina, continuing to close it tight on his face, and you see him mouthing all the words of the preacher’s sermon as he says them. Because he’s the dude who wrote this guy’s sermon for him. So advance his agenda or something. Who cares what the rest of the movie’s about; that right there is absolutely fabulous filmmaking.

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5) Bruce in Bruce Almighty

Bruce Almighty 640x360 5 Of Film’s Greatest Puppetmasters

The puppetmaster in Bruce Almighty is God, sort of, or at least it’s the divine powers of the supreme being that is Morgan Freeman. Bruce is granted these godly powers to teach him a lesson of some sort, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the resulting goofy sequences involving Steve Carell being controlled by Jim Carrey. And other hilarious hijinks of course.

You can see why it might be fun for filmmakers to play around with this kind of material. In the case of Bruce, it’s almost like the way Judd Apatow and other comedy directors will throw lines at their actors while shooting, and they’re expected to just repeat them back for the camera to capture. Christof is doing the exact same thing to the people in Truman’s life when it calls for it. There are varying levels of control at play, but the theme that runs throughout the differing expressions has to do with some aspect of the seduction of power and how difficult it is to let go of having control over another human being. Then of course this has all sorts of philosophical and religious implications about to what degree we’re all puppets, whether by our surrounding circumstances or by some divine power.

And it doesn’t stop there. To what extent are we all the puppets of the people whose movies we’re watching? Our emotions and thoughts are in the palms of their hands, being shaped and molded with every image and sound and piece of background music. It’s a power relationship all of its own, audience and artist, and as much as we try to take back some of the power by asserting our own thoughts online, ultimately we’re the ones submitting, with our beloved filmmakers pulling on our little strings.

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