Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Power of Felt and Ping Pong Balls

[This was inspired by someone else's article, which, along with a film clip, can be found here: Saying Goodbye 20 Years Later You don't have to read that article first, but it provides far more historical context than I'm going to, and I think it's worth your time.]

Jim Hensen was my introduction to the idea that you didn't have to shackle your imagination. The idea that if you could dream it, and believe in it enough, you could make it real. You could turn it into something you could share with other people, even entertain them with. The idea that the stories clamoring to get out of your head had a place to go where they would be welcomed and where you could revisit them.

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw The Muppet Show. I doubt I watched it during it's initial run, given the time frame and my age, so almost certainly I saw it rerun in syndication. There were, of course, Muppets on Sesame Street, but to this day they feel slightly different than the rest of Hensen's creations. They cater to an audience that is primarily children, and in short spans at that. The average Bert and Ernie segment probably doesn't last more than five minutes at most, and even if there was a running storyline - such as the time the Count stayed over at Bert and Ernie's - it was broken up across the hour. (Such is my age that I remember when this was the format of Sesame Street, in the days before Elmo.)

Fraggle Rock was different. So was the Dark Crystal. The latter is one of the first movies I distinctly remember being in a theater for. (My mother insisted I sat rapt through Star Wars, but being about five or six at the time of the first re-release just prior to Empire, I don't really remember it.) The Dark Crystal I remember. It blew me away then, and aside from being one of my earliest movie memories, it was also my first real introduction to the fantasy realms. The Fraggles were one of the first shows I made it a point to watch, each and every week. I can still sing the theme song.

Just as importantly, these were worlds. Complete, whole, and though in the case of the Fraggles occupying a space alongside ours, they were entirely different places. (We can't eat our architecture, for example, and my trash has never spoken to me. For which I am both grateful and yet disappointed.) Here was a lesson for a young creative mind like myself. You could give free reign to your imagination, and more importantly, if you worked at it, you could see it brought to life. Labyrinth just reinforced this a little later. (While also giving me a lifelong appreciation for David Bowie, and a lifelong crush on Jennifer Connelly. But, again, another entry.)

The non-Muppet movies didn't do very well, of course, and the Fraggles eventually went into reruns themselves. By that time, I had sort of out grown them, having hit an age where the bright colors and generally upbeat messages (though at times serious) were something I was disdaining a bit. I wasn't done with all things Hensen, though, because then came the Storyteller. Like the Fraggles, this was must-see tv with me before such a phrase had been coined. And I remember the Storyteller being the first series cancellation that bothered me. This was the first series to have the plug pulled where not only did I miss it, but I wondered what idiot had made the foolish decision to yank such an incredible show off the air.

(Wasn't the last time I had that thought, just the first.)

And he was the first celebrity whose death I mourned.

Hensen's legacy lives on, of course, and the Muppets continued. Yet, to me at least, these post-Jim projects have lacked some of creative vision of the mind behind the Fraggles and the Storyteller. They have been "Muppet Treatments" of other things, and even the original storylines have not had the force of imagination, nor the completeness of story that came with Hensen's works. There have been no more worlds. (There is another Dark Crystal movie in the works, though, so we'll see.)

More so than anyone else, and as much as I can claim to have been inspired by anyone, Jim Hensen is it. (Yeah, sure, George Lucas is in there somewhere, but he's a one trick pony.) Hensen had multiple worlds in his head, and expressed them in a media that few else would have dared to. I'm sure someone, somewhere, early in his career told him there was no future in puppets, and I think on that every time I hear someone say there's no future in print, either. You can't separate them, either, as Hensen's vision and his legacy would not have been the same if he'd been a cartoonist, or just used actors. He worked in the format that called to him, making the stories that called to him, regardless of the critics, and while I have read that he took a lot of the criticism to heart, he kept at it anyway. There are lessons in that for anyone.

I said at the beginning that this entry was inspired by another article. I said you didn't have to read it. You still don't. But, if you do, I would call your attention to the video clip at the end. If there is a better way for someone of such imagination to be remembered than by being mourned and missed by his own creations, I don't know what it is.

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