A melancholy woman departs by train but the journey is anything but morose. This silent short animated film uses archetypes and symbols to take us along on the Madame’s excursion.
This is my contribution to the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Be sure to read the other posts! (I know I’m a bit early but my cold has absolutely caused havoc in my schedule, so please forgive.)
Take the midnight train going anywhere
The theatrical animated short is still alive and well, found at the start of Pixar films and the works of other animation giants, but it is no longer ever-present. This is a pity because from the priciest computer-generated animation to the simplest independent puppetry, the animated short continues to delight.
Madame Tutli-Putli is one of those delights. Beautiful and strange, it tells a complicated and highly symbolic story without any spoken dialogue. It was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 2008 Academy Awards and while it didn’t bring home the big prize, we can take comfort in the fact that the winner, the flashier Peter and the Wolf, also was dialogue-free.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the brainchild of Canadian filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, Madame Tutli-Putli combines stop motion animation with computer animation; the puppets have human eyes grafted onto them, which makes for a unique look as well as a way for us to more deeply empathize with these artificial creatures. Visual effects artist Jason Walker deserves kudos for this simultaneously unnerving and endearing touch.
(By the way, whenever I review a modern silent film without intertitles, I invariably get somebody wishing to debate as to whether the film is in fact silent. As mentioned before, the use of music, synchronized sound effects and other audible flourishes does not preclude this film from being considered silent. Silent films often featured sound effects and some were even narrated. What makes a film truly silent is a lack of audible, decipherable dialogue, which is replaced by skillful pantomime. It is not the use of title cards.)
The short opens with a woman waiting for a train, an entire home’s worth of possessions stacked up behind her. While the train is modern, Madame Tutli-Putli is a throwback to the past. Her cloche hat, pearls, stockings, gloves, curtain rod, gramophone all give her away.
The train compartment is occupied by a weird kid, his grandfather, a pair of chess players who seem to have been smuggled aboard in their own suitcases and a creepy tennis player. (Lavis and Szczerbowski were heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s archetypes, the idea that all humans possess shared transpersonal elements that can be universally recognized. Whether or not you hold to Jung, I think we can all agree that the creepy guy on a train has existed in every culture since the invention of rail travel.)
The train stops in the middle of the night and—this is where I think most disagreements will start. I read everything from the first night scene onward as a vision, hallucination, dream based on Madame’s fears. She focuses on a sign warning passengers to beware of thieves and sure enough, the train is invaded by dirty bandits. (Quite literal, they leave tarry footprints on the carpet, something you can be sure the tidy Madame would not appreciate.) They steal the luggage, a kidney (!), everything right down to Madame’s writing paper and umbrella.
The detail that makes me believe that this is a dream is small but significant: Madame’s pearls are untouched. Perhaps the thieves did not find them valuable but how valuable is a small sheaf of writing paper?
In any case, real or dreamt, the danger is enough to send Madame racing through the train, terrified of something she cannot identify. Will she escape the danger? Or is the danger beside the point?
If I make this film sound heavy, let me assure you that it flows quite smoothly and never feels oppressive or slow. In fact, I dare say that few films have captured the feeling of literal travel (paralleled by a more metaphysical journey later) as well as Madame Tutli-Putli.
It’s all a tidy collection of vignettes beautifully animated. The eyes are extremely effective, of course, but the puppet design is also excellent. On first viewing, it is not even obvious that the puppets have inanimate faces. The eyes help, of course, but we must also give credit to the clever incorporation of the Kuleshov effect. (Fun Fact: Ivan Mosjoukine was the original actor used in the experiment. Most footage you see of this experiment does NOT feature Mosjoukine but is labeled as him anyway. Sigh.)
This film makes the most of its brisk running time of less than twenty minutes and builds a fascinating and dangerous world out of the familiar, the old and the new. The gestures and pantomime would not be out of place in a Charlie Chaplin film (the directors cite his Tramp character as a model for Madame) and I do not give that compliment often. I also detected hints of Lillian Gish, which would jibe with the desire to make Madame vulnerable.
It took years to complete this film but the finished product is of such quality that all I can say is that it was worth the work.
What does it mean?
According to the very scientific method called Checking the Google Autocorrect, the top question about Madame Tutli-Putli is just what it all means.
In an interview with Michael Guillen, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski share that their influences included observations of the world around them (including a dead insect inside a new light fixture), Jungian archetypes, interviews with passengers and staff on overnight trains, as well as other historical and cultural odds and ends. (The duo met in college, both were studying Near East religions.)
Madame herself has been described by her creators as a moth, a deer, a woman from another epoch and a Chaplin-esque figure of pathos.
So, yeah, a lot going on here.
Ironically, the image that sparked the film’s creation (a woman waiting for a train, weighed down by her worldly possessions) is one of the more obvious visual metaphors and is less satisfying for it. The rest of the picture is a tangled web of eclectic imagery, emotions and events. When dealing with symbolism, I am a very tough audience. Those symbols had darn well better not be juvenile, obvious or on the nose but I also don’t like films that disappear into their own navel. In short, don’t waste my time. If you’re going to do it, do it well or don’t bother.
Madame Tutli-Putli hits the Goldilocks target for me. It’s complicated enough to allow for satisfying rumination but it also does not smack us over the head with self-proclaimed brilliance. It just exists as it is and I appreciated that.
That being said, with heavily symbolic films I feel that personal interpretation equals and even trumps the creator’s original concept. (Even with directors like Eisenstein who documented the meaning of pretty much everything in their work.) This is how films become personal and deeply touch audiences who may be used to passively receiving information. If modern mass entertainment suffers from anything, it is an unwillingness to allow its audience to guess or fill in the blanks for themselves. Any tiny mystery will be explained in the prequel trilogy and tie-in novels. Give us room to think and imagine, please.
Because of this, wordless cinema is the ideal medium for such symbolism. One of the great pleasures of silent cinema is the way that it pulls its audience into a surreal twilight realm in which they receive visual information but must add their own interpretation to complete the picture. Silent dramas can be exhausting to newcomers for this reason: we are simply not used to exercising our brains in such a manner.
I take the film as the story of a mannered, repressed woman from another time finally embracing instinct and abandoning the trappings of a dead civilization that has ossified around her. I’m sure every other viewer has a unique perspective all their own.
Madame Tutli-Putli is an animated marvel and demonstrates a deep understanding of the art of pantomime (all credit to Laurie Maher for her excellent work as Madame’s model and eyes). It’s a moody, zippy film that makes the most of its short running time to create an intriguing atmosphere. The film is a rare example of a modern offering that succeeds in recapturing the lost visual language of wordless movies.
Where can I see it?
The National Film Board of Canada has made the film available for free streaming on their site but I’m not sure how many regions of the world will be able to view it. If you want a more physical way to watch, Madame Tutli-Putli has been released as a standalone disc (with making-of featurettes) and as part of the region 2 Animation Express set.
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