World-building: Strings (2004)

Rain = tears: from Strings (2004)

Strings (2004) is a film acted by marionettes though it could be said that all the actors are puppeteer-marionette-pairs. This reading would help explain the only instance that a part of a marionette handler is seen.

A problem for me personally is the lack of subtitles in lieu of the absence of living lips to read. Hence, the intricacies of plot and story, for me are gappy. It’s a coming-of-age story.

A king kills himself and leaves a letter explaining–the letter is taken before his son can read it–and not knowing any better, the son goes out to avenge his father. There is a happy ending, but not before the scene (above) where the prince makes it home to witness his sister’s death.

It’s easy to become so engrossed in the Strings world that one would forget that marionettes are dependent on their human technicians and human voices for every move, every expression, and every placement in a scene.

In one scene a human foot is seen hastening up a stair out of a cellar after the puppeteer apparently drops their character to the ground with a definite and frightening crash.

I wondered about the editorial decision to leave that scene as-is. Is it that the foot can be seen as a reminder of who the agents are in this entertainment, or is it to remind viewers of the technical skills that have got the story so far? Either of those could then be seen as instances where the viewer trips and falls out of the story. A no-no in fiction in general that I didn’t want to suspect of the producers.

After some thought, it seems to me that there was no possibility other than a deux ex machina moment, literally a god-in-the-machine, to explain how that character came to be in that cellar, and that the puppet’s handler as portrayed by her foot represents that god.

While I knew that there is much more to world-building than concrete nuts-and-bolts world design, seeing in Strings how dialogue and character actions translate into very specific cultural metaphors, had me on the edge of my seat.

On the Plain of Death, for example, the soldiers’ strings snap-freeze and break. In a contrasting war scene portraying war with a desert people, death is signified by strings burning.

“We are all connected,” says the Prince’s desert princess. She glances at the string-filled heavens where all strings go, and where, above the clouds, it is believed that strings are connected. The pair making love is symbolized by their strings mixing and weaving together.

Writers of science fiction are warned away from metaphor. (Card, 1990) Yet in Strings, the outcome of many of the actions hinge on, or are influenced by marionette-specific metaphor. One of many such actions is the outgoing king committing suicide by cutting his own head-string. He isn’t buried, but god-like, is strung up on a wall.

The Prince’s sister tries to stop him leaving her by holding onto his hand-strings.

A pair of children quarreling get themselves tangled up in their strings.

The Prince’s uncle goes to receive a prophecy from a bunch of ancient puppets, bunches of slack stringless limbs, with only their head-strings still intact.

The gestation of a baby is signified by being carved from an appropriate wood. At the moment of its coming-to-life, light-filled strings descend from heaven that are reverently attached to the head, hands and feet.

There are dozens more of such moving moments.

If a story is to be more than a theatrical experience, it needs visual backdrops, props, and processes for the characters to interact with.

The Prince is of a people who have plenty of water in their land. Rain is common at times of great sadness. Raindrops on sad puppet faces in lieu of tears is a nice extrapolation.

Cells in a prison are delineated by overhead frames that contain prisoners’ strings and restrict their movement.

When all strings attached to the living rise up to an unseen heaven, it makes sense that hooked machetes, for instance, are a preferred war weapon. An enemy can hook in and cut an opponent’s head-string to kill them. Or an enemy will gather all their target’s strings and cut through the lot with one fell stroke to deliver an even worse fate.

Slave drivers use a weapon reminiscent of a carpet hook to in-gather the strings with which to control their captives.

The tents of the desert people are truncated into architecturally natural shapes to allow for the ascent of strings to the heavens.

Again, these are only a few of the instances. Watch the film, is what I’m saying.

There is a better quality version than the one below available on SBS, an Australian free-to-air television station.

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy (p91-92) 1990, Orson Scott Card, Writers Digest Books, NY.

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