Skip to main content
Jim Henson Essay Feature Image © Photography courtesy of The Jim Henson Company.
  • Jim Henson's Secret Cinema


    Posted on: 16/09/2008

    Curator Jim Knox on the work of the world's most beloved puppeteer.

    Jim Henson's Muppets are a singular phenomenon with a universal appeal. His technical innovations were multiple, beginning with the use of materials like foam and felt to provide more expressiveness than traditional wooden marionettes. Rather than being the simple embodiment of elemental Jungian archetypes, Jim's Muppets workshop the emotional range of their human performers. Their ambiguity - human protagonist / fun-fur apparatus - is one key to their success: they charm a willing suspension of disbelief from their audience.

    Now that CGI effects have rendered all things possible, its easy to forget the ridiculous lengths that The Muppet Movie once journeyed in order to create an illusion of verisimilitude: Henson submerged in a river-bound bathyscape, the better to manipulate Kermit as he sits on a floating log and strums a plaintive banjo - no strings attached!

    Henson is justly eulogised for his work with the Muppets, but the success of those characters - in the long-running children's' program Sesame Street as well as their own internationally popular TV series and several spin-off features - has eclipsed decades of his equally creative work for a range of other entertainment imperatives. Largely misremembered, Henson also enjoyed considerable success in the production of experimental works, and some perhaps unlikely corporate commissions. This survey encompasses all that work, as well as later film and television which occasionally ventures a darker, minatory tone. ACMI's Focus On Jim Henson examines a Muppet evolution which took place over decades - from the first Muppets television broadcasts in 1955, until Henson's untimely death in 1990.

    While never a radical, Henson's liberal sympathies are often apparent in his work: "entertainment for everyone" is, ultimately, a humanist project. Like the Theodore 'Dr Seuss' Geisel of The Star-Bellied Sneetches and The Truffula Tree, Henson's later work with Fraggle Rock gives an undisguised expression of ecological concerns. The Fraggle ecosystem is surveyed in A Better World: Living In Harmony, screening with a handful of hilarious PSA infomercials. Voiced by a human, these same sentiments might be painfully earnest and trite; but with the warm good humour that informs so much of Henson's work, Kermit and co. make perfect advocates for the world that houses us all.

    Henson's earlier works often provide creative responses to a different environment: the gray flannel constraints of a Madison Avenue corporation. The incendiary La Choy dragon, and Wilkins' punchline detonations, typify the anarchic comedy that was the Muppets' sales pitch. The characters and situations of these advertisements often prefigure the mature Henson of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. The acerbic wit of Waldorf and Statler, balustrade hecklers from The Muppet Show, echoes the acid dialogue of earlier verbal sparring partners - dating at least to the Wilkins and Wontkins campaign for Wilkins Coffee (1957). Three years before appearing on Sesame Street, the voracious Cookie Monster debuts in an add campaign for a General Foods snack; a year earlier, he was digesting an explosive computer for IBM. "Its a typical Muppet ending. When you can't get out, blow something up."

    Henson produced a staggering range of work in the decade-and-a-half preceding the launch of Sesame Street, and his creative intelligence is evidenced as much in the adds, as in his concurrent experimental works. The most elaborate and celebrated of these is Time Piece, with a score by jazz arranger, Don Sebesky. A concentrated satire of normative behaviours, illustrated by syncopated non sequiturs, it earned Henson an Oscar nomination in 1965 (the dinner sequence includes a parodic nod to Tony Richardson's Tom Jones, which had dominated the Oscars two years prior). The following years saw further speculative works, often with soundtracks produced by the former CBS bandleader turned electronic musician, Raymond Scott. Within these films, Henson explored a range of matte and collage effects. The Commercials and Experiments program explores both these margins of Henson's filmmaking practice.

    Henson and Scott's initial collaboration, on a five minute infomercial for a revolutionary new IBM word processor, conflates this distinction between expedience and whimsy. The image is a polyglot montage of different actors delivering a mercurial narration, a "visual jazz" of repetition and variation. Scott's scoring is among his most complex studies in musique concrete: a weave of electronic tonalities and sound effects. Its a strikingly apt promotional device for a technology which has come to characterise new formal possibilities in sound and image media. Screening as part of the Rarities From The Henson Vaults program, this ad for the IBM MT-ST is paired to one of Henson's most elaborate experiments. Produced for NBC's Experiments in Television series, The Cube is a highly stylised forum for conjecture into the nature of identity, and its social construction.

    Its a remarkable testament to the possibilities of commercial media at the end of the 1960s; fan's of the Vincenzo Natali feature will recognise some commonalities.

    By the end of 1969, the principal arena for Henson's creativity was public television, and the Sesame Street series (now in its 39th year). Arising out of a 1968 Carnegie Institute report into educational television, Sesame Street embodied the "Great Society" aspirations of former-schoolteacher, and then US President, L B Johnson. It might sound trite, but Sesame Street is as responsible as any other single influence for what we recognise as contemporary Western commercial media style: rapid, disjunctive edits; dynamic use of popular music and animated graphics; familiar and reassuring personalities. Our commercial cinema and television struggles to reconcile another of the Sesame Street's innovations - the pre-eminence of Afro-Americans, and other non-Anglo peoples ... and in this context, it should be remembered that the Muppets on Sesame Street function as non-race specific neighbours to Gordon, Maria, Mr Hooper, et al. Broadcast internationally to this day, the success of Sesame Street speaks both to what is best in US culture, as well as its perhaps alarming domination of world media. The documentary, The World According to Sesame Street, explores this global phenomenon; witnessing both the very different challenges that confront children in parts of the developing world, and Sesame Street's response through decentralised co-productions.

    Henson and his Muppet colleagues were the most famously prominent of the Sesame Street creative team. In fact, they had largely pioneered that original Sesame Street style. Following the success of Sam and Friends, for a Maryland NBC-TV affiliate in the 1950s, the Muppets were constantly in demand as "special guests" for US variety and magazine programs. In turn, Henson would devote himself to the production of the Muppet's own variety format television. A string of one-off pilots and finally culminated in the support of Lord Lew Grade, from the UK's ITV network, for the Muppets' live guest series that Henson had been talking up for almost two decades. By the end of the 1970s, The Muppet Show was the top-rating program in its time-slot at most points of the global compass. This is the history described by Craig Shemin, in his Muppets 101 presentation.

    Henson's close engagement with popular music is audibly apparent in much of his work; there are Muppet bands even in advance of The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. The Muppet Show took this further, by providing its guest humans the opportunity to showcase their own musical abilities. But rather than simply dramatising a song, musical performances on the Muppet show are often in ironic counterpoint to the lyrical content. The affectionate spotlight afforded to some of the show's more memorable visitors is the subject of the Muppet Musical Moments program, as well as other fondly remembered sequences, like the Muppet's cover of Mah-na Mah-na, originally on the score of the shockumentary, Sweden: Heaven or Hell?

    Like David Lynch, Jim Henson had a non-conforming affinity for '50s beat aesthetics, and his Muppets come on like angel-headed hipsters of the pre-school set. Among the most perennially engaging Muppet routines is "The Art of Visual Thinking", originally produced for Henson's Sam And Friends (1954-1961). Like many Muppet routines, this dialogue was produced specifically for a television appearance, and refined and adapted to repeated performance over a number of years. In its earliest form, Harry The Hipster clues up 'Alter-Henson', Kermit the Frog, by waxing hysterical, jive-talk vernacular "like, cool"-style; his extemporised thoughts illustrated by dynamic, abstract animated overlays. Backmasked beatniks? Youbetcha! This is the unlikely beginning to The Art of Puppetry and Storytelling, which demonstrates the technical virtuosity of the Henson team.

    Ever alert to a good storyline, Henson was exploring the possibilities of mythic archetypes from as early as 1962. After the good-natured parody of Tales from the Tinkerdee, subsequent Muppet Fairytales are more authentic to their sources, before assuming the chiaroscuro qualities of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. There's an obvious correspondence to the ideas of Joseph Campbell in even so innocent a Henson film as The Muppet Movie: isn't Kermit as much a hero engaged at a quest, as Jen and Sarah in those later films?

    Further Henson productions employ other narrative forms, such as Dog City's playful adaptation of film noir style. Folkloric inspirations, old and new, are revealed in the Dog City / Storyteller program.

    Ultimately, Henson was able to realise a number of theatrical features, and this retrospective includes a representative sampling. Their success was sometimes indifferent at the time of their initial release, but all now enjoy their considerable cults. All these works are colourful, dynamic, steeped in popular music and enlivened by an ironic wit: explosions are a commonplace. Programmed with the kind cooperation of the Henson Archives, this program is the first outside the USA to survey the work of a filmmaker who spanned the gap between 19th Century vaudeville, and the 21st Century moving image.

    Jim Knox, September 2008

    comments powered by Disqus