Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jim Henson's Fantastic World (or rather, WWJD?)

Shortly after that fabulous New Orleans vacation, I was lucky enough to make a super fast jaunt to New York City. Prime objective: pilgrimage to Jim Henson's Fantastic World, in its last days at the Museum of the Moving Image. I had missed it in various locations, with the Chicago miss rankling the most. With this exhibit traveling for a couple years, how could I possibly be careless enough to miss it before it disappeared entirely? When HE has long been one of my most admired creatives ever, with a personality and approach to life that actually seemed worthy of admiration and inspiration? Plus, this exhibit would not only feature ACTUAL Muppets, but glimpses behind the scenes, to his and his workshop's creative process? OooooOOoooo, it was really too much. So! Second-to-last weekend of the exhibit, with life still settling back in from Louisiana, and with minimal planning otherwise, it was off to stay with dear friends M&P. Woohoo!

We planned the trip to Astoria on the afternoon of my arrival. I was tired from the early flight, but determined that we go on a weekday to minimize the family and children attendees. I *know* -- Muppets and Sesame Street and suddenly I was going to be uncharacteristically scroogey about kids? You say nonsensical, but I was completely earnest about getting as much out of the exhibit as possible.

The Mighty M wisely decided we needed fortifications prior to our museum trip and guided me to the oh-so-tasty Shake Shack. We shuffled along in line, contemplating the burger options and watching the aggressive metro squirrels, which shamelessly leapt onto the heated tables while people dined. One squirrel seized a mayo packet and ran away with it. Another shook a woman by her polar fleece collar, slapped her cheek and absconded with a steaming packet of curly fries.* Meanwhile, I talked myself out of a 300,000 calorie chocolate-caramel shake approximately five times. 

*No, not really. But the mayo packet! I had never seen squirrels steal condiments before. What, the tree hole already has a club sandwich at the ready? Are you sure you wouldn't rather some mustard? 

Satiated, we waited on the subway platform, with life swirling about us. Buskers and suits and hipsters, oh my! I gazed beseechingly at each oncoming train. "R train, boooo!" said MM. "That's the wrong letter to see the Muppets!! We need the *N* train! Today's visit was brought to you by the letter N!" Adult me: Well, that's silly. Younger me: grinning, clapping hands excitedly. I interlaced my fingers.

Another train pulled to a stop and an attractive, polished woman in her mid-twenties was framed between the opening doors. She held an old fashioned white cake box tied closed with thin string; she looked utterly petrified as she stepped gingerly from the train. MM was in fine narrative form. "Wow, she looks like a deer caught in headlights! The must be *valuable*!" In a whispered falsetto: "I have a cake made of gold!" He chortled. "What does she know that we don't know? Is she with the bomb squad??" Sternly: "Do you have a bomb in that cake box??" Ahhh, he made me giggle. 

So, after a few line changes and walking a couple blocks in the wrong direction, we arrived at our destination. My camera was all charged up, I was ready to buy lavish commemorative coffee table books, we were READY. Surprisingly, I was told that photos were allowed (no flash) -- total score. So, maybe not fabulous shots, but something, right?

Naturally, Kermit was front and center, ushering us lucky attendees into the larger space. That's just his way, isn't it? So warm, so humble, so down to earth, frustrated with ludicrous circumstance, but forgiving of foibles. Let's just take a moment.
Doesn't he just lower the blood pressure? Yes.

"No PHOTO-GRAPHY." The female guard appeared from thin air, as they are known to do.


"NO. PHOTO.GRAPH-IE." She frowned and shook her head at me. Alas. I mean, it would have been unusual, what with a traveling exhibit. But! Alas.

Luckily, a fine upstanding person subsequently also appeared from thin air --POOF! --*after* her and was of the mind that really, I should be someone who gets a few Muppets photos. I much preferred this mindset.
{"I hear his name bandied around a lot, but I don't know who Henson is. He seems to have his hand in a lot of things around here*." -- Kermit

"He's sort of a comfortable middle-of-the-roader -- very much what I am. I have the feeling he's desperately trying to keep things rolling. And he's surrounded by all these crazies."  -- Jim Henson, about Kermit

*Wocka wocka! That's the other thing that is so fantastic about the Muppets and Sesame Street: yes, the puns, but really all the self-referential quips and asides make it, but without straying too far into jaded hipper-than-thou territory. Sophisticated innocence, if you will. I spoke with a friend today, who told me she watched the newest Muppet movie with her young kids. They were all: "They know they're making a movie!!"}

And it was a good thing, too, because of all exhibits not to have adequate merchandising, this one, which I have trouble imagining is anything BUT extremely well funded, had NO book capturing the exhibit's focus, which is to say the process underlying the genius. Seriously? No books with photos of the sketches, the early advertising years, the scrawlings between Henson, other Muppeteers and monster creators, showing the great and serendipitous growth from a doodle with personality, through discussions of character attributes, fabric ideas, down to actual Muppet becoming? A sad, sad affair. Luckily the exhibit itself explored exactly this kind of growth. And it was mesmerizing.

"Jim wants you to make a doggish thing"

At left is one of my favorite sketches from the show, as well as one of the best illustrations of that process. I initially mistook it for the background for Sweetums, but apparently not -- it is "Dog Lion" (1977). While this is probably the case for most any artist or creative type -- and forgive me for being rather obvious here -- but what was so exciting to me was that in the initial stages they were just...doodles. Mere scraps! Nothing so exalted -- even -- dare I say it -- along the lines of some of my own hastily scribbled something-or-others. Slapdash, on yellow legal paper, with notes written in different inks and pencil lead. One sketch has coffee stains, alongside noses of varying sizes. Through the sketches, he and his co-conspirators are feeling out the nascent ideas. It just feels like home to me. And then~~! It comes so far!

Other notes on the above doggish sketch: "somebody is inside," "very long sheepskin and ostrich" "Ominous," etc. On other drawings: "eyebrows go up or light up also" "garment made of skins," etc.

"I look at the sketches until they seem to have a whole quality of the personality. Then we begin building the muppet." -- Jim Henson

One thing the exhibit strove to convey was Jim Henson's endless creativity, which roamed across media:
  • In high school he did screen printing posters (and by college? I think) he was advertising a screen printing poster service for fellow students. 
  • An eye mobile, inspired by Alexander Calder (natch. who can make a mobile, without ascribing at least something to Calder?), which delivered different (wonky) emotions in answer to shifting air currents
  • Extended experimental art films ("Time Piece" from 1965 paired strong visuals, with a mild strain of dark humor).  
  • Documentaries, including Youth68 ("Everything's changing...Or Maybe It Isn't) and "The Ordeal of the American City" (aired on NBC News in 1968).
While so many sensibly associate Henson with Sesame Street and extrapolate a certain amount of creativity-for-its-sake-or-at-least-higher-causes, Henson's puppets were also closely associated with marketing and commercialism from the get-go. Which is not to take away from the passion of creativity, but it's worth noting that a lot of the earliest projects laid out were created specifically for commercials. While Taminella Grinderfall was evil in The Frog Prince, she also attempted to thwart Hansel-and-Gretal send-ups in "Compax Presents Shrinkel and Stretchel." The less avid Muppet followers may be surprised to note that Cookie Monster and Rowlf the Dog began showbiz in commercials during the 1960s.
Sorry for the blurriness.

< -- These two were featured in commercials promoting  coffee.

"With this camera I shot pictures of people who don't drink Wilkins coffee." (*BAM*)

Being a multi-media museum, they had great old advertisements, rare Sesame/Muppet footage, a documentary and "Time Piece" running in loops throughout. There was a hysterical bit where the Viking Pigs sang "In the Navy." The opening animated sequence for the first counting film happily marched along... And naturally people couldn't help adding their own. A mother started singing "Rubber Ducky, You're the One" to her toddler, as they stood in front of the Bert and Ernie stand. Another baby, held by his Mom, too young to be able to get proper words out, nevertheless exclaimed "Buh-Ber!! Buh-Ber!!" in front of a large black and white photo of one of the best perennial six year olds ever, Big Bird.

"with Bert, the whole personality is in the eyebrow"
You could just faintly hear mahna mahna through the glass. Aren't the Snooths sweet?
While I didn't care about the Miss Piggy on display, Mahna Mahna was rather fun.
Earlier Kermit incarnation, with tiara and wire hair.
There was more, much more than I could detail, from Fraggles to puppeteers' bios, photos and quotes; to an anthropological-type display of Podling artifacts within the Dark Crystal display (also! the evil Skesis language was based on Greek and Egyptian dialects!), all of which would fall short of being there. But ultimately, perhaps the most important thing to me from the exhibit -- and this was so clearly imbued in his Muppets -- was his approach to life:

"I believe that we form our lives, that we create our own reality, that everything works out for the best. I know I drive some people crazy with what seems to be ridiculous optimism, but it has always worked out for me." -- Jim Henson

We could do worse than to follow such a model, within our lives, creative or otherwise. As Henson noted, each of us must determine how to best live our lives. But I also imagine that if you knew Jim Henson, and he were to give you his seal of approval, you had to have been making pretty good use of your life...

Last idolatory quote:

"Jim was like a sailor who had studied the compass and found that there was a fifth direction in which one could sail." -- Jerry Juhl

On that note, I'll sign off. Yesterday, I worked my last day at the old job, where I worked for almost ten years. Tomorrow, I get to visit my family for a little bit and then it's time to start the new job! In between the two, I'll be car shopping, sketching and just generally settling into the new variations of my current life. 2012 has definitely been a year full of change, so far! Best to Everyone.