From Japanese theater to court testimony to Avenue Q, people have always used puppets to talk about disturbing events. Puppets (as well as masks, cartoons, and CGI) remove a certain level of bodily empathy that comes from watching other humans, and after the boom of puppets on children's television, they also come with a certain level of irony when the subject matter is 18+. Unknown Mortal Orchestra's new video participates in this long tradition by narrating a short story about isolation and perversion using puppets and stop motion.
Reminiscent of Todd Solondz's film Happiness, the story follows a protagonist who is caught in the act of spying on a neighbor while masturbating, and is forced to examine his inner demons and the emptiness of his life. There's some shock value, of course, since it's not every day that you see puppets going through existential crises with their hands in their pants. But there is also a profound message: in the end, this character finally finds comfort in the fact that other people are just as fucked up as he is, yet our own sympathy with this character feels very warped. The medium of puppetry, with its implications in removal, humor, juvenility, and Freud's theory of the uncanny, is an examination in isolation in and of itself. Perhaps it is because of the felt-and-thread nature of the video that we can feel comfortable at the end, with the unconscious refrain of "That's not me."
Watch the video for "Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)" below:
Here are some other videos from the past decade that have incorporated puppets and masks in interesting - and often frightening - ways:
MGMT - "Kids"
In this music video about the terrifying nature of the world, the "devils" of adult life are represented with grotesque masks, and the human face that we're meant to focus on is that of a crying baby (even the mother is wearing sunglasses that shield her face). Most people watching will automatically identify with the child, making it an evocative and chilling film.
Lily Allen - "Alfie"
A more humorous take on puppets, this video features a human Lily Allen singing to her mute brother Alfie, a puppet who can't stop smoking pot. The subject of addiction within families is often painful, and it might be hard to find humor in it if Alfie was played by a person. Also, we're sensing that puppet masturbation is a theme.
Mastodon - "Deathbound"
Produced by Adult Swim, this music video was probably going for shock value over meaning, but it's still worth looking at. What we're shown is basically a horrible perversion of children's shows like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street, with puppets engaging in all manner of violent acts, from arson to cannibalism. No blood is shown, and the only human in the video only appears outside of this world of chaos, but at the end of the video, it's difficult not to feel, well...violated.
Interpol - "Evil"
Unlike the videos listed so far, this one has a puppet playing the part of the lead singer, lip-synching the lyrics and looking at the camera. What could be just another rock video set in a hospital is upgraded to super-creepy material with the bloody, ashen puppet that seems to sing to us from beyond the fourth wall of his experience, possibly from beyond death. This video does not show the faces of the humans, but focuses intensely on the uncannily human movements of the puppet's face. Does it make us more comfortable with the violence, or more bodily unnerved?
Imagine Dragons - "Radioactive"
Adorable stuffed animals are forced to fight (and are often decapitated by) a very cuddly dragon-gorilla in this sleek video. The villains in the story are humans, but the hero (a teddy bear with laser eyes) seems to have a human accomplice, and they work together to serve the ultimate fluffy justice. Like the Mastodon video, this one also juxtaposes childhood symbols with adult corruption, but it shows both humans and puppets committing violence and ultimately breaking the system, resulting in a strangely inspiring experience.
Note: We can't help but feel that an article about music and puppets would not be complete without a nod to Jim Henson's Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie as the Goblin King: