Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 15 August 2007
Source SuperHappyFun DVD
Fool’s Fire is the world where theatre meets cinema. It was inspired by those first masters of film, the Lumiere Brothers, Murnau, and Melies, who not only through necessity but also through the love of a magical medium played with the world of reality by transforming it.
A PBS mainstay for fourteen years, “American Playhouse” gave eminent and unknown directors alike the chance to create boundless dramatic works for television. Beginning with The Shady Hill Kindapping, a collaboration between writer John Cheever and director Paul Bogard, “American Playhouse” became a vehicle for fostering independence in television art, as well as a resource for national dialogue. Actor-director Bill Duke’s 1982 The Meeting offered viewers a fictional encounter between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Deborah Reinisch’s Andre’s Mother came in 1990 and examined the relationship between the lover and mother of a gay man who died of AIDS. And in 1993, Anne Deavere Smith became twenty-nine separate observers and survivors of the Crown Heights riots for Fires in the Mirror. Julie Taymor, only five years away from bringing The Lion King to Broadway, directed an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Hop-Frog” entitled Fool’s Fire, starring Michael J. Anderson and a slew of frightening puppets, and delivered a scathing appraisal of prejudices in both film and theatre.
Opening with a calm, almost otherworldly scene, Fool’s Fire quickly establishes itself as an exercise in abstract filmmaking. Seated around a stark wooden table, a family of dwarves passes bread and bowls of food to one another in languid movements, as though they were members of a dinnertime ballet. They are dressed in ashen rags similar to burlap sacks, and their faces are ghostly white—painted on, it seems, as the shade appears overly communicated. It makes them out immediately as innocents, and within seconds their small banquet is interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. The family dissolves into various corners of the one-room home: An older man takes shelter in the body of a cabinet; a mother grabs her young child and hides in a timber chest; another man disappears beneath a thin bed. And a young man flees out a window, pursued down a steep incline until captured. In the very next scene, he is presented to us once again—without his plain clothes, without his angelic face, without his glowing innocence—as Hop-Frog, the King’s court jester and servant, living plaything, and target of ridicule.
The King, as it happens, is a fat-faced, jagged-cheeked, life-sized puppet, and his royal court is a menagerie of the same: Old men and women with skinny synthetic frames, their faces shaped into exaggerated features. They sit around a banquet table in the finest of clothing, eating opulent food, then soak hedonistically in hot baths while drinking wine, all while Hop-Frog remains dressed as a dour jester, his cap plied with nails; he is kept in a dark palace tower, where he puts on puppet shows of his own and is tormented by thoughts of his family being hunted. He seems resigned to his new life, to his world of torment.
The story shifts when a gift arrives for the King: a caged dwarf named Trippetta, who sports a golden cap and plume of feathers. Her face, veiled behind a set of bars, is a familiar, blinding shade of white; she moves slowly when presented, her body in a measured, impassive dance. To Hop-Frog, she is radiant. Soon, she falls under the dominance of the King and his ministers, who exploit and dehumanize—even sexualize—her in the same manner they mistreat Hop-Frog; wine is thrown in her face, and the King take no regrets in laughing at her. She is kept in her cage, where she passes time by hanging from a wooden swing, until she joins Hop-Frog in the cold tower and they devise a strategy of revenge.
Taymor achieves the contrast in visuals—the comfortable atmosphere of the dwarves’ home; the cold fraud of the King’s palace—by combining high-definition with 35MM theatrical film. The same misty look that accompanies the opening slow-motion dinner is utilized later at the King’s meal, where he and his advisors sit in hot-water tubs around the table. Only Hop-Frog is no longer with his family, and the romantic fog here is artificial—not an evocation of home and comfort, but from bubbling water.
Additionally, the bizarre world of Poe’s characters is brought to life with astonishing sets. Referred to as an “insane rake,” the King’s horseshoe-shaped banquet table is constructed on an angle. Providing adequate space for puppeteers, it also transforms what would have been an ordinary scene into something symbolic—an immoral royal court inclined to expose Hop-Frog’s new world as corrupted and uncentered. As the King and his subordinates eat, Hop-Frog lies stooped at their feet, waiting for a fresh bone to eat from.
But a discussion of Fool’s Fire isn’t complete without noting the most obvious aspect of Taymor’s film—the casting of a dwarf actor and actress in the two lead roles. Michael Anderson, renowned for playing the backwards-talking Man From Another Place in “Twin Peaks,” is Hop-Frog, while Mireille Mosse is Trippetta. Not only do the actors fulfill the distinctive qualities of Poe’s original characters, but they’re also instrumental in making a point. As Taymor noted in Playing with Fire, the book on her career:
In order to emphasize the point of view of the dwarf, the outsider, and the inhumane treatment he receives as the court toy, all the characters in the film—with the exception of Hop-Frog, his family, and Trippetta (all human actors)—were rendered using fantastical, Boschlike puppetry and masks. This choice allowed and in some ways forced the audience to identify with the tormented Hop-Frog and to accept and root for the ultimate retribution he delivers… The idea of the vulnerability of their flesh had extra impact and significance because it was confined to only these characters in the film. These two little people, so often used in the theatre and cinema as special effects themselves, were deeply and painfully real.
With very rare exceptions—Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, Alejandra Podesta in Maria Bemberg’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It—dwarf actors and actresses have been given the very same derisive, underdeveloped roles over the last century of film: trolls, elves, hobbits, Munchkins. Warwick Davis has never surmounted the roles that made him famous—the head Ewok in Return of the Jedi, the titular creature in Mark Amin’s Leprechaun series—and is now relegated to a small recurring role in the Harry Potter franchise. Similarly, actors such as Billy Barty, Herve Villechaize and, more recently, Verne Troyer, are employed as ornaments rather than serious performers. By casting human actors alongside synthetic puppets, then having those lifeless mounds of mock skin regard the living characters as meaningless, adds a sense of irony to the story, personified when Trippetta cuts a hand on shattered glass and bleeds. Fool’s Fire is Taymor’s evaluation, however secondary, on the mistreatment of dwarf actors in culture.
First broadcast on March 25, 1992, Fool’s Fire consumed nearly two years of planning and production. The acclimatized and elaborate sets, the precise wardrobe and masks, the intricate puppets—all the result of a painstakingly detailed process managed by two hundred individual artists. Roughly two years afterFool’s Fire, “American Playhouse” went off-air. The casualty of a bloated budget—nearly $100 million over twelve years—and notable disinterest from home viewers, PBS’s ambition left prime-time with over 200 productions to its credit and $213 million in revenue. The goal thereafter for “Playhouse” producers was to, as one journalist put it, “go indie,” financing a slew of independent films for movie theatres rather than television sets. Many of their projects since, including films by Todd Haynes and Errol Morris, have earned enormous accolades. Yet “American Playhouse” remains their ultimate achievement—a wellspring of vision in a medium that, especially today, fosters imitation and stupidity.