Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The frog prince: The legacy of Jim Henson

As a child, there were few television shows (not counting cartoons) I was more devoted to than The Muppet Show. This would've been approximately during the early-to-mid 80s for me; I suppose by this time the show would've been running in syndication. I do know that when 7:30 came around, I would be parked in front of our TV, singing along to the theme song, and having a grand old time with these extraordinary creations of felt and rubber that were as real to me as my own family.

My love of the Muppets begins and ends with the characters. The humor was great (and still holds up all these years later), and seeing them with the pop singers and actors of the day was nice (although many of them were unfamiliar to me at that age), but what kept me coming back night after night was the characters. So many of them, and all so distinct, and the best part was that while they could often be childlike, the show as a whole never felt juvenile. Kermit and Fozzie could've been Richie and Potsie from Happy Days; Miss Piggy could've been Flo from Alice, Gonzo could've been Latka from Taxi; not so much in terms of direct comparisons but more in the sense of the functions they served on the show. The Muppet Show stood up favorably to the popular sitcoms of the day, and in some ways, surpassed them, and credit for that has to go to the visionary artist responsible for it, Jim Henson.

Henson would've turned 75 this Saturday, the 24th. Henson's Muppets, as seen not only on The Muppet Show, but Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and a variety of other TV shows and movies, may seem quaint in this modern era of performance-capture, computer-generated creatures, but as I've discussed before, for an actor, there's nothing like having a physical object sharing the same frame of reference to play off of, and I believe that physicality is something the audience can sense more intuitively than a CGI creature, no matter how lovingly detailed. Henson's Muppets changed the world, but his skill as a filmmaker and an artist is just as important, and all of these aspects of his life and career are on display in a current exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image here in Queens.

"Jim Henson's Fantastic World" includes Muppet figures under glass (including a breathtaking Miss Piggy in a bridal dress), original artwork by Henson from his youth, storyboards, production notes, concept artwork, props, and video footage of some of his old commercials and TV appearances. There is a short avant-garde film of his called Time Piece that plays in rotation. And every weekend throughout the life of the exhibit there are panel discussions and related activities. 

This past Sunday, as part of my visit to MOMI to see the exhibit, I attended a panel featuring a group of past and present Muppeteers, Henson executives and associates, including his daughter Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation. Each of the panelists showed specially-selected clips from the various Muppet shows and films, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of Henson and the other Muppeteers in action. They talked about the evolution of the characters, in terms of not only their creation but their personalities, as well as how the changing times have affected their approach to film and television making. For instance, they mentioned the rise of political correctness and feminism, which meant a Sesame Street short of two girls playing with dolls was looked upon less favorably now by parents watching the show with their children than when it was first made. They briefly discussed the forthcoming new Muppet movie with Jason Segal and Amy Adams. Henson had always wanted the Muppets to be part of Disney, who will distribute the new film, and its success will determine how Disney moves forward with the franchise in the future.

I remember crying over Henson's death - and I never get weepy over a celebrity death. With him, though, it was different, partially because he died so relatively young (only 53), and partially because it felt like the end of an era. I knew that the Muppets would continue without him, of course, but it would never be the same without him. And with his death, if felt like a chapter in my childhood had ended. Now, thanks to the MOMI exhibit and the new movie, it almost feels like coming home.

A brief word about MOMI: this was my first time there since the re-opening, and because the panel was so long I didn't get to linger around the rest of it as long as I would've liked, but what I saw of it was fantastic. The design has an almost retro-futuristic feel to it, like something out of George Lucas' THX-1138: low, sloped ceilings, inclined walkways, and stark white walls. There's an exhibit to your left as you enter that's a large mosaic of hundreds of YouTube-like videos of ordinary people, projected along the wall. There's a cafe towards the back of the lobby.

What I saw of the permanent collection included photos of movie stars, make-up and Latex masks, original screenplays, costumes, set designs, old cameras and other film equipment, and film memorabilia, as well as video displays of classic film moments. There are also interactive displays that show how certain aspects of film and television are made. It looks great but I'll definitely have to come back again soon to pay closer attention to it all.

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