Jim Henson was a towering genius with a really remarkable beard.
He will of course be best remembered for the Muppets, but he also made some very interesting short (or hour-long) films without any puppets at all, and many of those little animations that Sesame Street uses to teach kids about numbers and letters.
I've been re-watching a lot of Fraggle Rock lately. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid, so I wasn't completely sure it would stand the test of time, but it really does - it's inventive, funny and usually manages to convey moral messages without being preachy or excessively superficial.
I've also been getting into puppetry of my own, making two big puppets last year and working on some stop-motion animation, which is arguably a form of puppetry too, and I'm very keen to do more.
So I was excited when I saw that the Filmhouse, the bigger of Edinburgh's two excellent art-house cinemas, was running a Jim Henson season this month. I got to four screenings, which I thought was pretty good considering how busy I am with other stuff right now. Here's what I saw.
Commercials and Experiments
A great collection of oddities from the archives. Before Sesame Street, long before the Muppet Show, Jim Henson and associates made a name for themselves and the Muppets with appearances on variety shows and many TV advertisements - often re-used for different products in different parts of the USA. The wit and visual humour of his later work is very much in evidence, though it is sometimes odd seeing it used in the service of selling all these random products. While the ads are a lot of fun and historically interesting, his experimental films are probably more interesting as films. The Cube is a deliberately peculiar hour-long film about a man who is confused to find himself trapped in a white cube, into which various different people enter, probably in order to mess with him. We only got to see about ten minutes of the film here, but it's not hard to find online - though not so easy to find in colour. The real highlight of this screening was the full 'Timepiece' - a sort of rhythmic meditation on life and human relations, a beautiful piece of work and the last thing they showed here.
I'd seen this a couple of times as a kid, and remembered liking it but finding it slightly confusing. When I watched it again at home about a year and a half ago, I revelled in its aesthetics and creativity, particularly the stunning character design work by Brian Froud, but I found it a little slow, particularly for a film that seemed to be mainly aimed at kids. Unsurprisingly for a film with such extraordinarily strong visuals, it gains a great deal from being seen on the big screen. This time round I was so captivated by all the stuff going on on the screen that I wasn't in the least bit bothered that there may not have been so much going on in the plot.
I always loved Labyrinth, and I've seen it quite a few times over the years, but if I ever saw it in the cinema, I was too young to remember. In many ways it's really a better film than Dark Crystal - it shares the visual inventiveness of the earlier film and combines it with a wonderful script by Terry Jones and some great songs by David Bowie. Some people find Jennifer Connelly a bit irritating, and it's true that the film largely consists of a series of tenuously related and sometimes completely irrelevant incidents, but it hardly matters. This stuff is gold. Producer and long-time Henson collaborator Martin Baker was here to introduce the film (he also introduced the two screenings above) and he was obviously genuinely moved to see it sold out to a delighted audience. He may be just a little bit bitter, and understandably still baffled, that it didn't do better at the box office when it first came out.
Muppets History 201
This is a collection of clips from a period of about thirty years, tracing the rise of the Muppets from their early adverts, their first show 'Sam and Friends' (inadequately archived and mostly lost to the mists of time - though there are a couple of wonderful clips from it here), many appearances on variety shows and eventually their own variety show and finally feature films. It's a fascinating and inspiring ride. I particularly enjoyed the fact that in the very first clip of Jim Henson he's completely clean-shaven, but there is no sign of him shaving again at any point in the next three decades. If I ever embark on a successful career as a puppeteer, I will probably do the same.