This Is Not a Muppet: Jim Henson, Avant-Garde Filmmaker

Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography (2013)“Back in the sixties . . . I thought of myself as an experimental filmmaker. I was interested in the image for its own sake — different ways of using it — quick cutting and things of that sort. . . . I loved what one could do with the montaging of visual images, so I was playing with that in several experimental projects”

— Jim Henson, quoted in Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography

One of the many fascinating things I’m learning in Brian Jay Jones‘ magnificent Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine, 2013) is that, in the mid-1960s, Jim Henson also made avant-garde films.  He’d been working in puppetry (and Muppetry!) for a decade, and had learned much about how the perspective of the camera shapes the viewer’s experience.

Time Piece (1965)

Here’s the beginning of Time Piece, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1967. That’s Jim Henson himself in the leading role.

Here’s another clip, from near the end of the film.

You can learn more about Time Piece in Jones’ bio and on The MuppetWiki.  The entire 8-minute film is available on iTunes.

The Organized Mind (1966)

Starring a somewhat thin-boundary’d character known as “Limbo,” here’s The Organized Mind in its entirety. The music is by Raymond Scott!

Did you notice the brief image of Where the Wild Things Are, during the last minute of the film?  More on this film at the MuppetWiki, also.

Idea Man (1966)

Like Organized Mind, this film is also from the Limbo series. It’s a meditation on inspiration, creativity, and the difficulty of profiting from your ideas — a challenge Henson faced on a regular basis.

There’s a very brief appearance from Kermit, near the end of the film. As the MuppetWiki notes, The Idea Man was “used for a live performance with Limbo on The Mike Douglas Show on July 20, 1966.”

Ripples (1967)

Also scored by Raymond Scott, this film made its premiere at Montreal’s Expo 67.  Jon Stone, who would work with Henson on Sesame Street projects, plays the central chararacter.

The Paperwork Explosion (1967)

Believe it or not, IBM once sponsored creative, long-form commercials… like this one.  Again featuring the music of Raymond Scott, this 5-minute advertisement has lots of quick cuts between images, and that old stand-by of Muppet segments: explosions!

Though this is ostensibly selling IBM’s Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, it speaks more eloquently to the hectic pace of modern life.  There’s a little more information about this short on the MuppetWiki.

The “Jim Henson’s Experimental Films” page (on the MuppetWiki) has more information on these and other films. Turn to the Jones biography for more about the man and his remarkable work. Indeed, if you’ve any interest in the Muppets or Henson, I highly recommend Jim Henson: The Biography.  It’s a well-written, well-paced excursion through the life of one of the great creative minds of the twentieth century.

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I am the Lorax. I speak for the Thneeds?

The Lorax: teaser poster (2012)The commercials for The Lorax film say:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the tweens.1

The commercials for the many Lorax tie-ins say:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the SUVs.2

I am the Lorax. I speak for the pancakes.3

I am the Lorax. I speak for the diapers.4

But what does the film itself say?  In its own way, Illumination Entertainment’s film adaptation actually does speak for the trees.  Sure, having the film’s male lead (Ted, voiced by Zac Efron) drive a gigantic motor-scooter isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. Why not give him a bicycle, or, better, the Seussian equivalent of a bicycle? That said, the kid only gets his ecological consciousness raised near the end of the film. So, perhaps having him buck social convention prior to the awakening of his conscience would have been less plausible for his character.

In any case, he does get the message. Initially, he seeks a Truffula seed solely to impress the girl he has a crush on — Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift. (She’s named for Geisel’s widow, and he’s named for Theodor Seuss Geisel himself.) However, by film’s end, the Once-ler has convinced Ted of the Lorax’s message. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Ted, defending his goal of planting the last Truffula seed in the town square, announces, “I’m Ted Wiggins. And I speak for the trees!” Indeed, the movie manages to work the book’s central message in twice:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

Realizing what the “UNLESS” left by the Lorax must mean, The Once-ler delivers this line, just as he does in the book.  Later, just before the credits roll, the filmmakers put the full quotation up on the screen:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

— Dr. Seuss

In The Lorax’s film adaptation, the book’s environmental message comes through loud and clear.

It also amplifies the book’s depiction of capitalism as amoral.  In the “How Bad Can I Be?” number, the Once-ler (in the narrative of his past) sings about the “biggering and biggering” of his business: “My conscience is clear. I’ve done nothing illegal. I have my rights.”  Just after he sings, “nothing is going to stop me,” the Super-Axe-Hacker cuts down the last Truffula tree, and the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) tells him, “That’s it. The very last one. That may stop ya.”  This puts the lie to the plaque on the wall of his mansion, glimpsed earlier in the song:

TOO BIG

TO FAIL

The Once-ler.

Aligning the Once-ler’s Thneed business with the mismanaged banking industry, the film reminds us that no one is too big to fail. The Once-ler’s remorse for destroying the trees also indicates that all business decisions are moral ones: what is legal or financially remunerative may not also be moral.

Driving this point home, the film creates a second villain who, unlike the Once-ler, does not develop a conscience during the movie.  Voiced by Rob Riggle, O’Hare is the businessman who runs Thneedville, where our protagonist and everyone but the Once-ler lives. He makes his money selling air. Thneedville is a walled-in, completely artificial city: As we learn at the beginning of the film, it’s “a town without nature, not one living tree.” Visually, it looks a little too appealing, like a Seussian amusement park.  The grey, desiccated Street of the Lifted Lorax more effectively makes vivid the effects of pollution.  However, the film shows us that scene, too. And it exposes O’Hare’s mercenary nature: he doesn’t want a tree in Thneedville because it’s bad for business. Warning Ted to cease venturing outside Thneedville (where the Once-ler lives), he says, “I make a living selling fresh air to people. Trees — they make it for free.  So, I see this as a threat to my business.”

As you will have already discerned, yes, the film is didactic. Of course, the book was didactic, too. Both offer entertaining didacticism — brightly colored landscapes, rollicking anapestic verse, and, in the film, more fully developed characters, dance numbers, a lively score by and even a tween crush.  Seuss purists may complain: but the book has no dance numbers, no tween crush, no Thneedville, no O’Hare, and the Once-ler does not play the guitar!  All of that is true.  If you were hoping for a movie that was slavishly faithful to Seuss’s original book, then the film will disappoint.

However, a picture book and a film each have different strengths and weaknesses.  An attempt to create a literal rendition of the book would fail,… and would probably be quite short.  The question to ask is not: Was the film faithful to the book?  No film can be faithful to its original source, and nor should it aspire to be.  The question to ask is: How well did the director, writers, actors, animators, etc. translate the experience of the book into the medium of animated film?  And: Did their film manage to convey the core experience of the book?  In the case of The Lorax, the answer is: Yes.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Dr. Seuss himself would like the film — or most of it, anyway.

Kelloggs' Frosted Mini-Wheats, featuring the Grinch (2000)I doubt Seuss would appreciate seeing his Lorax selling SUVs, diapers, or pancakes, just as I suspect he would have disapproved of the Grinch being used to sell cereal, candy, and soda.  The 2000 live-action Grinch film had its title character selling Frosted Mini-Wheats, Hershey’s candies, and Sprite — among many other products.  When Seuss’s anti-consumerist grouch (the Grinch) is selling Frosted Flakes or his environmental protector (the Lorax) is selling SUVs, there’s a problem.

Yes, I recognize that product tie-ins are a standard way to underwrite the astronomical costs of a big-budget film. Furthermore, I’m aware that Seuss was an advertising man himself: until the publication of The Cat in the Hat (1957), he made his living by creating advertisements, not children’s literature.  In other words, I’m not trying to represent Seuss as a morally uncomplicated, anti-consumerist figure.  He was a commercial success in part because he was able to apply what he learned in advertising to writing and illustrating books for children.

However, you don’t have to be a Seuss scholar to see that the Lorax should be speaking for the trees, not the SUVs. As the book and the film make clear, we really don’t need more Thneeds.

My rating for the film: B+.

My rating for the tie-ins: F.


1. The trailer plays up the romance narrative, which (mercifully) doesn’t figure as prominently in the film.  Below, the longer version.  The short ads give the whole love-interest angle even more prominence.

2. In connection with the film, the Lorax is selling the Mazda CX-5 as “Truffula Tree-Certified.”  In addition to running on TV, this ad ran in the theatre prior to the start of the film.  Oy.

3. As the Horton Hears a Who! film (which I would also recommend) did, The Lorax is selling food of dubious nutritional merit.  That is, both are selling food from the International House of Pancakes.  At IHoP, you can buy Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cakes and Truffula Chip Pancakes.

True, the commercial above indicates that IHoP is also giving away free seeds — which, at least, is something.

4. Seventh Generation is selling diapers bearing the Lorax’s likeness.  In their defense, they’re trying to make healthier diapers (which is more in line with The Lorax‘s message).  Of course, they are disposable, which isn’t great for the environment.

The Lorax: diapers by Seventh Generation

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The Best Holiday Film You’ve Never Seen: The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Bishop's Wife (1947): lobby cardEveryone knows It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Story (1983), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and the many versions of A Christmas Carol (1938, 1971, 1984).  But far too few people have seen The Bishop’s Wife (1947).  Sometimes, when I mention the title, people will say, “Oh, the Denzel Washington movie?”  That picture — The Preacher’s Wife (1996) — is a remake of this one.  I’m recommending the original, starring David Niven (as the bishop) Loretta Young (as his wife, Julia), and Cary Grant.

What’s the film about?  The trailer is deliberately elusive:

In keeping with the film’s trailer, I don’t want to give away any of the film’s surprises, but I do want to praise both the screenplay and the performances.  Even the supporting characters have a full history — they seem to be as “real” as the three main characters.  There’s Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge, James Gleason as cab driver Sylvester, Gladys Cooper as wealthy widow Mrs. Hamilton.  Grant, Young, and Niven are of course magnificent, too.  Sure, since it’s from 1947, you’ll find a few “dated” portrayals (the Italian shopkeeper, the Cockney maid), but those moments are few and mild.  In other words, don’t worry: no blackface!  The problems of Holiday Inn (1942) are conspicuously absent.

The themes of The Bishop’s Wife certainly remain resonant and appropriate.  Do yourself a favor: don’t read any more about the film.  Just rent it.  To take a break from grading, I’m planning on watching it again this evening.

The Bishop's Wife (1947): Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young

Image sources: Classic Movie Man, Classic Movies Digest.

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Animated Books

Just discovered this short film by Sean Ohlenkamp and Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp: “Organizing the Bookcase.”  Charming, brief, with a delightful sense of humor, and… lots of books!  (Make sure you stay for the credits!)

Hat tip to Bookshelf Porn, which I found via Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8.

Update, 5 Sept. 2011: YouTube video had moved & so I changed the link.

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Oh, the Thinks That He Thought! Some of Seuss’s lesser-known works

from Dr. Seuss's Oh the Thinks You Can Think!

Born 107 years ago today in Springfield Mass., Theodor Seuss Geisel had an extraordinarily prolific career.  Most people know him for the 44 books he wrote and illustrated under the name “Dr. Seuss.”  But that’s only part of his career.  He wrote another 13 books under the name “Theo. LeSieg,” one book as “Rosetta Stone,” and then there are books co-authored, books published posthumously, and books illustrated by others.  And those are only the books.  He did so much more!

So, in honor of his birthday, here are three other “thinks” that Seuss thought.

1. Gerald McBoing-Boing.  Featuring Dr. Seuss’s verse and the animation skills of Bill Melendéz (who would later work on the animated Peanuts specials), United Productions of America released Gerald McBoing-Boing in 1950.  The film would win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short.  The studio would go on to produce a few McBoing-Boing sequels and the Mr. Magoo cartoons.

2. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Seuss’s live-action musical, released in 1953, features notable performances by Tommy Rettig (later Jeff on TV’s Lassie) and Hans Conried.  For more info., you might take a look at this earlier blog post.  Below, a happily campy musical number featuring Mr. Conried as Dr. T.

3. Advertising, and lots of it. Before he was a children’s writer, Seuss was an ad-man.  Even after he started writing for children (his first children’s book was published in 1937), he still made his living in advertising.  The success of his 13th children’s book, The Cat in the Hat (1957), would change all that.  After the publication of The Cat, he was able to devote himself to writing for children full-time.  For more on Seuss’s ads, you might take a look at this earlier blog post.
Seuss: Flit ad (from UCSD's website)

And there are so many other areas we could explore — political cartoons, to name one example.  His paintings and other illustration work, to name two more.  But I’ll wrap things up in the next few sentences, and offer some suggestions where — in addition to the links throughout this post — you might go to learn more.  Depending on your threshold for flashy web design, you could check out Random House’s Seussville website: it features my biography of Seuss, along with abundant animation and sound effects (I suggest you mute your computer’s volume before clicking on either of the links in this sentence).  For a more complete biography, though, do turn to the primary source for what I wrote for Random House: Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (1995). Indeed, if you read only one secondary source on Dr. Seuss, that’s the book to read.

Oh, and happy Read Across America Day!

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The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T: Soundtrack Extravaganza

5,000 Fingers of Dr. T: FSM 3-CD soundtrack (cover)Film Score Monthly’s newly released 3-CD original motion picture soundtrack to The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) is a must for fans of Dr. Seuss, composer Frederick Hollander, or the film itself.  The rest of you might want to see the cult classic before purchasing.  And, for the record, if you’ve any interest in Seuss, it’s worth checking out his sole live-action feature film.

What’s it about? you ask.  It’s an anti-fascist musical about a piano prison camp run by the megalomaniacal Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), and about Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) who seeks to expose his crazy scheme and free Mrs. Collins (Mary Healy) from Dr. T’s hypnotic grip.  Bart also tries to enlist August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) to help him in his efforts.  Here’s the trailer.

In the beautifully assembled (and lavishly illustrated) accompanying booklet to this CD set, Alan Lareau — who is writing a biography of Hollander — not only provides the fullest account of Hollander’s life you’re likely to find, but also offers all kinds of interesting information about the film.  For instance, producer Stanley Kramer saw the film as a vehicle for Danny Kaye (as Terwilliker) and Bing Crosby (as Zabladowski). I can easily imagine the film with those actors.  While Conried gives a great performance, Hayes is very much b-movie material — would that Crosby had been available to make the film.  I was also unaware that Tony Bennett had recorded “Because We’re Kids” for his album The Playground (1998), or that Jerry Lewis used the song on his Muscular Dystrophy telethon.

This new 3-disc soundtrack gives you — for the first time — the complete (surviving) soundtrack as Hollander and Seuss conceived it, including material that never made it into the film, alternate takes from the film, composer piano sketches, rehearsal tracks, and of course the final songs from the film itself.  So, yes, it’s for the Seuss (or Hollander) completist.  That said, several of the unreleased songs are quite interesting in and of themselves.  In this one, Peter Lind Hayes expresses his — and Seuss’s — skepticism towards money.

Money, as performed by Peter Lind Hayes

Unlike Cherry Red Records’ single-disc release of a few years ago, these are better quality audio — not pristine by modern standards, but the best possible versions all culled from archival recordings.

Oh, having just re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! earlier this evening, I have to add: if you think the Grinch is a campy fella, well, he’s got nothing on Dr. Terwilliker.  Take a gander at the “Dressing Song,” below.

So, if you’re interested in a kitschy, campy Seuss musical, check out The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (it’s available on DVD). Then, pick up FSM’s edition of the soundtrack.  They’ve limited its release to 3,000 copies — so, you might want to act sooner rather than later.

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Safety Last

When I was about 9 years old, watching television one weekend afternoon, I saw a black-and-white film of a bespectacled man climbing the side of a building.  He ascends a floor, narrowly misses falling, is about to enter the building through the window — then, another man emerges, with a policeman in pursuit, and tells the first man to keep climbing for just one more floor.  He does, and again nearly falls (but in a different way than previously).  The pattern repeats, he ascends higher, and the peril increases.  The film oscillates between anxiety and comedy.  I found it riveting.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

The film was Safety Last (1923), and the actor Harold Lloyd (1893-1971).  Ever since that afternoon, Lloyd has been imprinted on my imagination.  I will always think of that style of eyewear as “Harold Lloyd eyeglasses.”  (Indeed, when I met my agent for the first time, the first thing I noticed was that his glasses were just like Harold Lloyd’s. And before you ask, no, George is not an accident-prone comedian.  But he does do all his own stunts.)

A couple of years ago, I bought a DVD of the film, and watched it from the beginning, learning that the friend of the character played by Lloyd is supposed to climb the building as a publicity stunt. When the law catches up to the friend, Lloyd’s character ends up doing it instead.  I had not remembered this — I remembered only the intense nervousness of watching Lloyd’s casually dangerous climb, and of being unable to look away… while simultaneously wanting to look away.  And when I watch the film today, I have the same experience.

Given the anxiety it arouses, the image of Lloyd dangling from that clock (see above) is, I suppose, a strange choice for the background of my computer’s desktop.  And yet it’s been my “wallpaper” image for years.  Why?  Because I always feel that there’s never enough time?  Because I’m daily confronting my dislike of heights?  Those may be some of the reasons.  But the main reason, I think, is an acute sense of the precariousness of being alive. We’re here. And then we’re not here. As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall (1977),

There’s an old joke — two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know — and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Allen and Lloyd both understand that comedy and tragedy are not opposites.  They’re close kin.  And, in Safety Last, Lloyd dangles between them, always just a few fingers from falling. To borrow a joke from Steven Wright’s classic comedy record I Have a Pony (1985), “You know how it feels when you’re leaning back on a chair, and you lean too far back, and you almost fall over backwards, but then you catch yourself at the last second? I feel like that all the time.”

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Harry Potter and the Two-Part Finale

In advance of the film’s release, Kansas State University’s Media Relations asked us to talk about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  We did.  They taped us, and edited the results down to 3 minutes.  Karin is on the right.  And that’s me on the left.

They also put out a news release on Friday of last week. And no, we have not seen the new film yet either.  Looking forward to it, though!

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Scott Pilgrim vs. Scott Pilgrim: Believe the Hype

Scott Pilgrim: Movie PosterJust back from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which (as you may have read by now) is a fantastic adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s si­x-volume series of graphic novels.  This is why.  Director Edgar Wright understands what O’Malley is trying to do.  As in the books, the film treats narrative as a playful, allusive, genre-bending game.  Put another way: it’s not about the story.  It’s about the way O’Malley and Wright tell the story — virtuosic understanding of form, kinetic sense of visual movement, and hyper-consciousness of … everything. Really — of everything. Narrative structure, video games, comic books, action films, rock clichés, sit-coms, and emotion.

I say emotion because at the heart of the story, there is, well, heart.  Three hearts.  Scott Pilgrim’s, Ramona Flowers’, and Knives Chau’s.  And all three characters do learn something about love during the film — that it comes with baggage, that you need to respect yourself, and that it’s worth fighting for.  That emotional resonance — wonderfully delivered by Michael Cera (Scott), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona), and Ellen Wong (Knives) — gives this fast, funny, clever film enough weight to keep things grounded.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)What’s fun, though, is the way Wright packs the scenes with references and jokes.  O’Malley does this sort of thing, too.  The little boxes that give you “fun facts” about the characters also appear in the comics, as do the references to videogames.  Wright does, of course, make some changes — moving pieces of plot around, adding some new gags and scenes.  But he understands the essence of what O’Malley is doing.  If we (taking Linda Hutcheon’s advice) think of adaptation as a kind of translation, then these two quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” are key to evaluating any film version of another work (in this case, Wright’s version of O’Malley’s novels).  First, “no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife . . . the original undergoes a change.”1 Second, “[t]he task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.”2 I have no idea whether Wright has read Benjamin, but he grasps both of these ideas.  In the case of the first, he understands that attempting to undertake a “faithful” adaptation is impossible.  As Hutcheon3 notes, different media have different strengths and weakness: attempting a literally faithful adaptation simply doesn’t work.  What works in a comic-book format will not necessarily work on screen, and vice-versa.  In the case of the second point, Wright sees O’Malley’s intended effect, which is not merely a mash-up of a relationship story with ninja narratives and Final Fantasy II.  It is this, but it’s also using the storytelling techniques of these media to tell its own story.  And it’s the confidence in deploying these techniques with the precision, verve, and nerve that only a master can do.

I know that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has received a lot of hype … along with reviews by some people who didn’t get it (deftly dismantled by Linda Holmes at NPR).  This a case though when one can safely dismiss the detractors and (with apologies to Chuck D) believe the hype.  Beyond the film’s many innovations, it’s also a really fun evening at the movies.

—————–

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (1968; New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 73.

2. Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 76.

3. Any interesting insights about adaptation here derive from Linda Hutcheon’s excellent book, A Theory of Adaptation (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).  Any other insights likely derive from my own essay on the Harry Potter movies: “Lost in Translation?: Harry Potter, from Page to Screen,” which appears in Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, revised edition, ed. Elizabeth Heilman (Routledge, 2009), pp. 275-290.

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