Before the days of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson was an independent filmmaker in New York, making experimental films between commercial gigs. It was the mid-sixties. According to John Bell’s Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, Henson was sharing a workshop space for a few months in the basement of a New York City library with a German sculptor and choreographer named Peter Schumann. Schumann specialized in avant-garde performances, entertaining crowds with masks, puppets, and postmodern dance, often employing these for political demonstrations.
In watching 1965’s “Time Piece,” seen above and recently unearthed by Metafilter, it’s difficult to consider it without Schumann in mind. The film played in New York theaters on a double bill with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and concerns itself with a man (played by Henson) being examined in a hospital. As the clock ticks away, a grand surrealistic array of experiential memories overtakes his existence. Gorillas bounce on pogo sticks. There is the quiet Kermit-like plea of “Help!” Chickens emerge in strip clubs. And all this is intercut with optically printed pixellated squares.
The film is set to a intermittent drum rhythm that echoes the heartbeat of time. What’s particularly intriguing is that, according to David P. Campbell’s The Complete Inklings, “Time Piece” so captured Campbell’s imagination that the film was shown at an a seminar at the Minnesota Statewide Testing Program annual conference, with Henson’s film projected on one screen and the test results of a random individual projected on another. The idea was to show Henson’s film, with Campbell announcing to the students, “We should always remember that there is a person behind each of these test scores; to make that point dramatically, here is one person’s test scores and here is a product of his considerable imagination.”This permissive cultural climate permitted Henson to make “The Cube” in 1969, a teleplay that independent filmmaker Vincenzo Natali appears to have handily pilfered from.
A protagonist, known only as “The Man in the Cube,” is trapped inside a cube of white rectangular panels, with strange individuals who enter and exit through other doors. This premise gave Henson the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics: racism, sexism, the realm between reality and fantasy. There is even reference to the fourth wall. At one point, a professor addresses the man, pointing out that he is in a television play.
Believe it or not, “The Cube” was commissioned for a television series called Experiment in Television, a now forgotten program that aired on NBC between 1968 and 1971. This series came about because NBC needed filler material to provide late Sunday afternoon programming when the football season had ended. And they decided, quite amazingly, to provide a venue without commercials for documentaries and experimental films.
In the end, it was public television that secured Henson’s rise to fame. But today, unless you’re as squeaky-clean as Ken Burns, your prospects for national exposure are slim. Now that the first season of Sesame Street has been issued on DVD, it’s been issued with a parental advisory reading, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” The idea of children running around an inner city, looking to learning as a way out, is apparently too threatening a concept.
Given this drastic shift in priorities — the unusual idea of commissioning an experimental film for a testing conference, the now antediluvian notion of creating a space on national television where filmmakers can pursue alternative ideas, and the censure on anything slightly offensive to “suit the needs” of children — one is forced to contemplate the current media atmosphere. Certainly, there is YouTube and the Internet. But this online landscape increasingly values views — and thereby advertising revenue — over notions that are not popular or lucrative, and one wonders just how tomorrow’s Hensons will thrive. Of course, any artist who feels compelled to create will not let any obstacle stop him. But by hindering the spectrum of expression with our priorities (what sells, what’s safe, et al.), I’m wondering if we’re closing the floodgates to those who might have new and innovative ways to get a mass audience excited about the world around us.