Radical economics for tots: Baby Marx at the Walker

Filming Baby Marx
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Filming Baby Marx

It isn’t often that art for children features history’s economists as main characters. I suppose it’s possible that  there’s some sort of economic message lurking in some of the greats, similar to how author Benjamin Hoff reinterpreted Winnie the Pooh through the lens of Taoism. In 1964, a high school teacher named Henry Littlefield argued that “The Wizard of Oz” was actually a political allegory representing economics during L. Frank Baum’s era, with the yellow brick road representing the gold standard and Dorothy’s silver shoes representing Populism’s desire to move to a bimetallic standard. This seems unlikely, and the film version replaced Dorothy’s silver shoes with ruby, and so any discussion of economics was tabled in favor of rumors of a Munchkin suicide and that “Dark Side of the Moon” can somehow be substituted as a soundtrack.

But for those with a yen for economics, there is “Baby Marx,” a not-as-yet completed project that currently inhabits The Walker, which I mentioned Thursday. It’s the brainchild of Pedro Reyes, a Mexican artist who, after the birth of his child in 2007, decided to create a children’s show set in a library. There, a malfunctioning microwave brings to life the author of any book placed in it. The children who hang out at the library seem to be a bit precocious, as they immediately start stuffing books in such as Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”; then again, one supposes that children who hang out at libraries would be a bit precocious. I hung out at video game arcades, so the best I could have hoped for was that the Tron game might malfunction and bring to life Bruce Boxleitner.

Reyes’ shot a pilot a few years back, but one that left him unsatisfied. Much of it was performed on a massive set representing the library, acted by rather austere rod puppets created by puppeteer Takumi Ota. The puppeteers were likewise Japanese, and Reyes had to direct them through a translator to a prerecorded audiotrack. This left no room for improvisation or much on-set invention, and Reyes found the results rather flat, with the educational sequences feeling didactic and the show’s humor feeling disconnected. (You can watch the original trailer on YouTube.)

The library set for Baby Marx
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
The library set for Baby Marx

The Walker Art Center has brought the original library set to Minneapolis and set it up in one of its gallery spaces, and it’s something to see — a marvelous work of mid-20th century modernism. Additionally, Reyes is filming around the Walker, shooting new scenes for Baby Marx featuring two local puppeteers, Janaki Ranpura and Marc Berg. Reyes is approaching the story with a looser, more improvisational sensibility. They’re often using the Walker as a source of inspiration — the museum has just posted a scene in which Marx and Adam Smith argue about a Warhol silkscreen and then fall into a confused discussion of Facebook .

I watched the group set up on the Walker’s balcony, filming a scene in which Adam Smith runs into Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management and the world’s first efficiency expert. Adam Smith entered the scene driving a used car, while Taylor entered in a limo, and the two proceeded to bicker about the social value of their respective cars; underneath this, however, was an undercurrent of sadness. A budding friendship between Smith and Karl Marx had recently been undermined by their different economic viewpoints. If you think about it, this exact circumstance had probably actually happened many times in both men’s lives. In fact, it still happens — many dinner-table political arguments, which leave the participants feeling nothing but contempt for each other, are, at their core, arguments about competing economic philosophies.

Reyes and company will be around the Walker for the next week, at the very least, filming the new scenes and editing them on site, so visitors to the gallery can watch the process of this project getting made. There are additional associated events, which are listed on the Walker’s web page. I took a series of photographs of the scene I witnessed being filmed, which I will post below as a slide show; there’s often a sort of unhurried intensity to a film set, with people wandering off to nap when scenes are being set up, and clumping together to discuss shots, and interrupting scenes to discuss particulars of line deliveries or staging. This is made positively unreal when the characters are rod puppets, and, during the down time, they rest on a director’s chest, or hang, suspended in the air, accidentally posed as though they, too, were listening in on the director’s notes. And it’s made particularly bizarre when those puppets are Adam Smith and Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose real-life counterparts probably would have been as surprised as anybody to discover themselves characters in children’s entertainment.

In other arts events this weekend: The Fringe Festival winds down, of course. This year I have been less interested in the particulars of any individual show than I have been obsessing over the fact of the Fringe as a whole, and I’ll offer my final observations on Monday. But the shows themselves remain worth checking out, and here are a few that are getting really good word-of-mouth: The Mechanical Division’s Broadway parody “Cat“; Isabel Nelson’s fairy tale-inspired “Red Resurrected“; “Four Clowns,” which is actually presented by four clowns; The Nerdyad’s “Hamluke,” a Star Wars/Hamlet mash-up starring Clarence Wethern, who just did a perfectly reputable version of Shakespeare’s original play at Theatre in the Round; and “Super Spectacular!: To Opera With Love,” in which two opera-obsessed nobodies reinvent classic operas — I have seen the two actors from this show in costume at various other shows, and I must say, they look fantastic.

There are two other events I’d like to recommend this weekend, and they couldn’t be more different. Firstly, the Loring Theater is screening David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” Saturday night. This was, arguably, the high point of Lynch’s Hollywood career — he had done several films as a hired director, one terrific (“The Elephant Man”) and one fascinatingly misconceived (“Dune”). But here he was working from his own script, and using the language of film noir to explore a nocturnal world of sexual obsession and violence that lurks just beneath the surface of a small American town. He would revisit these themes in his television show “Twin Peaks” and, to an extent, has never stopped addressing them. But in recent years, his films have increasingly been about shifting narratives and identities, and he has abandoned conventional narrative in favor of an improvisational, ever-changing environment of mood and texture, where fragments of stories emerge, seem to take shape, and then are abandoned in favor of something else. This can be fascinating or maddening — or both — depending on your patience for non-narrative filmmaking. For fans of narrative, well, there will always be “Blue Velvet.” The Loring has decided to make a night of it, encouraging people to come in costume, hiring a DJ to spin Lynchean music, and offering prizes inspired by Lynch and his work, which will presumably include severed ears covered in ants.

This weekend is also the annual Irish Fair on Harriet Island, which I’ve been to for the past three years in a row, and will certainly attend again this year. If you haven’t been, it’s Minnesota’s showcase of Irish art and culture, and it’s impressively diverse. It’s a shopper’s paradise — if you’ve ever wondered where to get fitted for a kilt, or buy a set of bagpipes, or candy from the British Isles and Ireland, this is your chance. It’s also a feast, with the local Irish pubs and restaurants pitching tents to offer stews, sausages, and plenty of potato dishes. Tents also ring the festival, often offering educational lectures or amateur musicians. And the pros and the semi-pros all end up at the fair sooner or later, some playing in beer tents, some taking the mainstage (including, this year, Altan, a legendary traditional folk group from Donegal). The event is not necessarily more sober than St. Pat’s day — there are beer and whiskey tents, after all — but it dispenses with the green beer and the “kiss me I’m Irish” T-shirts in favor of a heartfelt investigation into what it means to be Irish in the American diaspora.

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