The art of Muppetry

Claire Faggioli June 21, 2007

Almost everyone had a favorite Muppet at some point in their lives, be it the iconic Kermit or the more recent Snuffelupagus; anyone who didn’t probably had a childhood miserably lacking in television. I, personally, was a Grover fan, but I have found in my old age that my blind devotion to a certain charismatic blue inhabitant of “Sesame Street” had, in fact, blinded me from appreciating the man behind the fabric. Lucky enough for those like me (and even for those who aren’t), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts over the next two weeks hosts the series Muppets, Music, and Magic, a Jim Henson career retrospective designed by The Jim Henson Legacy and Brooklyn Academy of Music to please not only Muppet-lovers but also people whose tastes stretch beyond. This undertaking traces Henson’s work as it evolves from simple shorts and advertisements to full-length films and, of course, a couple of highly successful television shows.

“It’s BIG…14 screenings. I never really do anything that big, but I figured we might as well just show it all,” said Shepard. The extravaganza begins with two nights of the essential Muppets 101, a compilation of skits, clips, interviews, and advertisements that underlines Henson’s stunningly long and diverse career. “Muppet Show” alum Gonzo & his puppeteer plan on attending as special guests during the first two evening’s shows Thursday and Friday. Muppets, Music, and Magic spends much of its time avoiding the better known Henson forays, however. The program gives access to many rare screenings, such as the über-sweet “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas” (paired with some hard-to-get holiday television skits) and the acid-colored “Song of the Cloud Forest,” an environmentally conscious foray into computer animation that appears with the perky, symbiotic world of “Fraggle Rock” in the A Better World showing.

Some of the most exciting moments come from The Art of Puppetry and Storytelling, a program that reveals the hard work and artistry that Henson put into every inch of his work. “Every single person I asked, you could just watch their eyes light up,” said Shepard, “[and I realized] Jim Henson was a total genius…somebody who could take this piece of cloth and stick some things on it and give it this incredibly complex motion, like a real being…. You don’t get much of a better definition of ‘art’ than that.”

This particular show goes behind the complex preparation involved in every elaborate scene of “The Muppet Show,” giving attention not only to Henson but also to his entire support system, giving credit to the various puppeteers, writers, and musicians behind the series. It also screens Henson’s dark, innovative, and rarely seen television series, “The Storyteller,” starring John Hurt. Henson’s artistry extended beyond his Muppetry, as the program Commercials and Experiments proves; in addition to more of Henson’s award-winning advertisements from the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, the screening includes his Eisenstein-esque musical short “Time Piece,” nominated for a 1965 Academy Award.

There’s still plenty of material to satisfy those of you jonesin’ for hours of Muppets. Muppets Music Moments gives a look at famous musical numbers from “The Muppet Show,” many featuring celebrity guests. Muppet Fairytales shows both early and later fairytale spoofs (puppet Elvises, anyone?). The program also features “The Muppet Movie” and “The Great Muppet Caper,” both chock full of all the celebrity cameos you can stand.

A far cry from his friendly “Muppet Show,” “The Dark Crystal” is Henson at his darkest and perhaps most ambitious; a frightening and violent world Henson has painstakingly detailed. While the film often falls into the realm of “fantasy-weird,” lulls in the narrative expose minute creatures and strange landscapes that showcase Henson’s skills at constructing alternate puppet-universes. The true highlight comes in the film’s belligerent and overindulgent villains, the decadent Skekses. A film for the less esoteric is the fantasy-musical “Labyrinth” (playing next month at Landmark Theatres, as well), which features a teenage Jennifer Connelly as a bratty adolescent fighting to save her baby brother and learning a few things about friendship, responsibility, and pedophilic villains along the way. David Bowie is at his finest playing the crystal ball waving Gareth, bedecked in his most voluminous blond wig and finest package-highlighting leggings. What with Bowie’s camp value, a psychotropic peach, and some very fun musical numbers, “Labyrinth” is quite the cult-classic.

Afternoon screenings in the “Muppets, Music, and Magic’ program are designed to appeal to a more innocent audience, while evening showings cater to those of the more mature persuasion. While these might breed some aversion in adult viewers, Henson’s artistry and subtle sense of humor still surpass most of the computer-animated summer blockbusters. But don’t blow this event off as “kid stuff” says Shepard: “That’s the thing about all of Jim Henson’s work, it’s always working on two levels. It was kind of like child-like wonder, but it was totally working on a sophisticated adult level, too… he was always dealing with very deep, sort of universal themes, like love and friendship and nature, which is always really elemental kind of stuff.” If that doesn’t do it for you, many of the series’ rare works are impossible to find elsewhere. “I don’t think there’s ever been a comprehensive Jim Henson retrospective, so it’s certainly long overdue,” laments Shepard, and in the sad era when not even the local Blockbuster carries “The Muppet Movie,” this may be your only chance to see some of these classic and incredibly sophisticated films.

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