Defying Definition: Manual Cinema, Adolescence, and the Vague

Defying Definition: Manual Cinema, Adolescence, and the Vague

 Lula del Ray is cinema claims the company of artists “Manual Cinema.” Manual, as in done with hands, and yes, Cinema, a moving image, projected onto a screen. Here is how the company describes their work:

Manual Cinema combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music to create immersive visual stories for stage and screen. Using vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multi-channel sound design, and a live music ensemble, Manual Cinema transforms the experience of attending the cinema and imbues it with liveness, ingenuity, and theatricality.
— Manual Cinema, http://manualcinema.com/company/

Lula del Ray feels like magic even though the mechanics used in the piece are visible to the audience from the start. Underneath the main projection screen is a mirrored image that the three overhead projectors are aimed at. Technicians (or are they actors?) have baskets of props, puppets, and thick stacks of projection slides downstage of the lower screen. At points I am so distracted by the beauty of the film itself that I forget music is being played by both a live band and a digital source. The work of everyone involved is so effortlessly coordinated that it feels somehow unnatural that what's going on above their heads is actually happening live. And yet it is.  

Photos by Jerry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf

Photos by Jerry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf

Just as familiar to us as film, is the coming-of-age story of adolescence. Lula grows in and out of passions for rocket science and folk music. She learns to be alone. She learns to make decisions for herself, and take risks to pursue the things she loves. These experiences are as recognizable to us in the cinema as they are in real life making one wonder: at what point does one become an adult? When are we done growing up? There are certain rites of passage that most of us seem to go through on our way to adulthood—however, these rites of passage do not necessarily result in maturity.

The question of adolescence brings our attention to the important concept of vagueness. Was there a day that you woke up and decided that you were an adult? Perhaps on your 18th birthday, as that’s when the U.S. government decides it is so, but perhaps not. Did you become more adult on the day of your 18th birthday than you were the day immediately before? Adolescence certainly describes the space of time between childhood and adulthood, but where it starts and ends is as different between people as their genetic code.

Lula del Ray makes the transition between film and theatre as fluid as the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Manual Cinema forces us to reckon with our obsoletely rigid definition of “film” in order to make room for something with fluid, if not vague, borders. Their inventive techniques bring the wonder and appetite for magic back into the theater—and for those of us who have devoted our lives to this craft, perhaps that is a kind of magic that hasn’t been felt since childhood. By bending and twisting the techniques of their medium, Manual Cinema confounds and defies our expectations of storytelling and maybe life.

Perhaps what Manual Cinema is suggesting is that we don't have to live by such stringent definitions. We don't have to wake up one day and decide that we are adults simply because we've hit so many benchmarks, just like Lula del Ray doesn't have to be solely defined as theatre, puppetry, or film. It can just be the magnificent Frankenstein of media that it is. If all goes well, we, the audience, can allow its magic to help us cross back over the borders to childhood again.

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