Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Our ongoing Sesame Street Week has us thinking about movies starring puppets.
Don Juan (1988)
Before Jim Henson came along, Sergei Obraztsov was probably the most famous puppeteer in the world. His troupe’s international tours were huge draws, and his Moscow State Puppet Theater was a Soviet cultural institution. Obraztsov—who had trained at the Moscow Art Theater, the birthplace of Method acting—was also an important advocate for puppetry as an art form and a historian. When a teenage Henson started learning how to make his own puppets, the book he consulted was Obraztsov’s autobiography, My Profession. Three decades later, when Henson was finally able to travel to the Soviet Union, it was specifically to meet the Russian puppeteer.
Obraztsov’s specialty was complex rod puppets, which could take as many as four people to operate. He was a stage performer first and foremost; the films that do exist of his work—much of it mind-bogglingly complicated, involving a small army of puppeteers hidden under the stage—are essentially performance films, shot from the point of view of the audience. The most famous of these—and the one that looks least staged—is An Unusual Concert (1973), a parody of variety shows that the Moscow State Puppet Theater first performed in 1946.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any English-subtitled recordings of Obraztsov’s work. The easiest entry-point for a non-Russian speaker is his adaptation of Don Juan, a fairly late production that was filmed in 1988. (Portions of it appeared earlier in the now very hard-to-find VHS series Jim Henson Presents The World Of Puppetry.) Don Juan was designed specifically for international tours, with all dialogue spoken in gibberish, most of which sounds vaguely Italian. It’s strange and at times dazzlingly designed, full of ornate puppets and inventive scenery changes.
Availability: Don Juan can be seen on YouTube, with an unsubtitled introduction from Obraztsov intended for Soviet TV audiences.