A 60's Psychedelic Tale of Youth Conquering All (the Revolutionaries Are Puppets)
New York Times
By STEVEN HENRY MADOFF, DEC. 1, 2004
In a small theater on the grounds of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, across the street from the hundreds of art dealers offering works this week at Art Basel Miami Beach's international fair, a very different kind of art event is selling out. For seven performances starting today, packed audiences will watch 10 marionettes strut, scheme and rock out to the music of Sonic Youth, among others, as they send viewers back to the 1960's in a bitingly funny and psychedelic piece of puppet theater, "Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty."
When the veteran conceptual artist Dan Graham first thought of creating the piece, he had no idea that marionettes would have stolen their way back into pop consciousness.
The makers of "South Park" hadn't launched their apocalyptic movie satire "Team America: World Police," now in theaters, with its marionette supercops conquering a toy-size Kim Jong Il. Even Spike Jonze's screw-loose hit film from 1999, "Being John Malkovich," with John Cusack as an existential puppeteer who mysteriously enters Mr. Malkovich's brain, was still to come.
"""Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty" is a funky, funny adaptation of Barry Shear's 1968 movie "Wild in the Streets," an astonishingly cheesy slice of paranoia in which Max Frost, a 24-year-old rock star turned politician with a simpering look halfway between a Beach Boy and a Rolling Stone, takes over America. Rallying the youth to shut down the country while his band of merry pranksters drugs Congress with LSD, he manages to get the voting age changed to 14 and has himself elected president. Then he does what any normal 20-something president would do. He locks everyone over 30 in internment camps, keeping them perpetually stoned.
"""I've had this piece on my mind for more than 15 years," said Mr. Graham, 62, rumpled and amused, during a recent rehearsal in New York, "but the timing certainly seemed right to do it now."
Two years ago, Sandra Antelo-Suarez, the director of the New York-based arts organization Trans, having heard the idea to restage the movie years before from Mr. Graham, convinced him that with the presidential elections on the horizon this would be a perfect moment to realize the project.
Bringing together a dazzling gang of Mr. Graham's friends -- including the video artist Tony Oursler; the artist and musician Rodney Graham; the rock groups Sonic Youth and Japanther; and the master puppeteer Phillip Huber, whose marionettes were featured in "Being John Malkovich" -- Ms. Antelo-Suarez and Mr. Graham envisioned a layered, multimedia reinvention of puppet theater and, for that matter, of rock opera. Punch and Judy meets the Who.
In true seat-of-the pants, nonprofit fashion, they pressed the team into intense, almost nonstop labor as the months crept up to the premiere's deadline, and Ms. Antelo-Suarez scrambled to find backers for what rapidly became a $300,000 project, with stops over the next two years in Miami, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and art festivals in Dijon, France, and Vienna.
Each of the 10 marionettes took Mr. Huber more than 100 hours to make. Their period-perfect looks match their hippie stoner swagger -- with the single exception of the president's dog, appropriately named Eisenhower, who stretches, wags his tail and curls up with idyllic canine ease.
Mr. Oursler worked closely with the puppet master to create the short bursts of video that loop like druggy dreams through the live marionette scenes. Neon-green and pink backgrounds, backdrops of "Leave It to Beaver" suburban settings and Kennedyesque television speeches flow into real-life film clips from the Kent State demonstration and woozy images of puppets floating on acid trips through the Senate chamber.
Meanwhile, Japanther's and Sonic Youth's pounding music and the more hummable, Neil Young-style title anthem by Rodney Graham (no relation to Dan) punctuate the action, which compresses the story of "Wild in the Streets" into an hour's time.
The results are what Mr. Ousler describes as "a small spectacle that's both cinematic and theatrical, the videos zooming in and out on a screen above, while these amazingly cool-looking 24-inch puppets with strings are on this little stage below."
Mr. Ousler continues: "It was really kind of stunning to be sitting there, editing these scenes about a spooky presidential election when the real election was going on. And I'm watching these little wooden stick figures on my monitor become politicians with agendas as they move in this slightly surreal, artificial way and, well, you know it's obvious what I'm thinking."
To which Ms. Antelo-Suarez added, "We wanted the characters to be funny and nostalgic, but with the bittersweet tension of reflecting the present, because everything that 1968 stood for, fighting the old ways, fighting the conservative right, has been crushed now. So in a way the piece is saying, "If you think these puppets are freaked out, what about us?"'
That sense of dual reality is typical of Mr. Graham's other artworks, which often employ two-way mirrors to make people standing in front of them feel as if they're there and not there, looking at themselves and through themselves into the landscape or at people on the other side of the glass. His marionettes serve a similar purpose. Their cool, New Age whimsy, twisted into the exaggerations of "Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty," is a funhouse mirror "of our totally youth obsessed culture," Mr. Graham said.
The artist shoots his dart straight at the heart of Peter Pan-ism, of what he calls "our culture's crazy wish to never grow old; that age, like films, can be fixed with special effects." So it comes as no surprise that his puppet president makes an easy career transition from the image-driven spectacle of rock to the spectacle of politics and that he announces: "Man, you don't want to even live to be 30. Thirty's death, baby. Pure death."
When Mr. Graham first thought of retelling "Wild in the Streets" or even when Ms. Antelo-Suarez approached him about reviving the idea, none of the events that mark the current political landscape had unfolded.
Asked about the timing now, and particularly about the ending of his hypnotic, weird and eminently contemporary theater experiment, he repeated that it couldn't have worked out better. In the final scene, as music blares, the hippie president and his old regime are pushed aside. A band of stick-wielding, power-mad 10-year-olds takes over.