Housecleaning

I’m sorry for spamming you with a lengthy, off-topic post last night.  I’m trying to figure out how to get it to go under the menu instead of on the main page, but last night I got tired and frustrated and decided to delete the post and go to bed.  I think I figured out where I went wrong, so I’m going to planning to try again later today when I have the chance. However, that won’t be for several hours because I start my new job today.

Funny thing: I’ve been so preoccupied with all this Muppet stuff that I didn’t have time to be nervous about starting a new job.  I’m nervous about it now, though.

Salient Themes: Duality

Mercury revolves around our mutual parent sun in such a way that one face is always turned toward the sun and is brilliantly lit and burningly hot; and the other side is always turned toward the cold dark of interstellar space.  But Mercury oscillates slightly on its axis, and thereby sunside and nightside are integrated by a temperate zone which knows both heat and cold, light and dark. So the two disparate sides of Mercury are not separated by a chasm; the temperate zone mediates […]  thereby making wholeness instead of brokenness.”
                  –Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season

I see this as a theme in a lot of Jim Henson’s work; the disparate halves of light and dark, warm and cold, inward vision and outward vision.  And while I don’t claim to know what he thought and felt about things–while I always have to be very careful not to assume that I know–the fact that the theme showed up as often as it did in his work implies that he thought a lot about it, and perhaps he struggled to find that temperate zone between dayside and nightside.

This duality is present all through Jim’s work with the Muppets.  It can reach the greatest possible heights of silliness, with explosions, boomerang fish, and characters eating each other, but it can also plumb the greatest depths of poignant emotion.

On Fraggle Rock, Jim played two different characters: Cantus and Convincing John–or, as I call them, the sage and the showman.  I think that each represented a different facet of his personality.

(As an aside, I’m always amused by the fact that Convincing John’s baloobius, i.e. the tuft of fur at the end of his tail, doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head.  The implication being that he dyes his hair.  I think that’s hilarious.)

When you watch Jim Henson in interviews–particularly when he doesn’t have a puppet in his hands–he always seems very gentle and soft-spoken and often somewhat ill at ease, with a simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of putting his hands up by his mouth, often muffling his words somewhat.  In interviews, I find Jim to be very much the sage; for example, here’s an interview in which he makes some very farsighted predictions about the future of television technology.  This interview is also interesting because you can see the difference between the way that Jim casually chats and laughs a bit with the people in the room before the interview starts, and after it ends, with his more calm and serious demeanor during the interview itself.

But he could also be a showman.  There was a pitch reel–which, unfortunately, I can no longer find–for an early iteration of The Jim Henson Hour wherein Jim himself gets up and gives a pitch for this kooky TV show he wants to make, with a rotating schedule of content.  From what I remember of it, he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera (perhaps because he was working from a script and not answering questions extemporaneously); he assumed something of the energy, the gestures, and the vocal tone of the carnival barker, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth.  It’s a completely different attitude from that which he has in interviews.  So, which is the “real” Jim Henson–the showman or the sage?

Well, that’s the thing–they’re both real.  Or, in a sense, neither is real because a human being is more than the sum of his multiple facets.

There are other examples of this duality in Jim Henson’s work–Bert and Ernie come to mind–but perhaps the most dramatic example is the Skeksis and the Mystics (or urRu) in The Dark Crystal.

(WARNING: Thirty-five-year-old spoilers ahead.)

The first time I ever saw The Dark Crystal was fairly recently, within the last five years or so.  I was completely blown away by it.  At first the story seems like a rather familiar story of good versus evil.  We have our protagonist Jen who–like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter–is a lonely young orphan, fostered by the gentle urRu after his parents were killed, with a special destiny to go on a quest and defeat evil by finding a MacGuffin, in this case the crystal shard with which he is to heal the eponymous Dark Crystal, by which the Skeksis will apparently be vanquished.

Ah, but then Jim Henson throws us a curveball: it turns out that the Skeksis and the urRu are actually the same creatures, unnaturally split apart when the Crystal was broken, and when Jen heals the Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction of the three suns, he sets off a chain reaction that reintegrates the two divided halves–Skeksis and urRu–back into their singular selves; the glorious UrSkeks.

This is not a straightforward story about good and evil after all.  The Skeksis and the urRu need each other.  One cannot live without the other.  Without the Skeksis, the urRu lack agency.  Without the urRu, the Skeksis lack moral fiber.  It’s not that the Skeksis are evil and the urRu are good.  The real evil is the division between them.  

This is an old idea–dating at least as far back as Plato–with far-reaching social, political, historical, etc. implications around the world–but it’s applicable to the situation  that we, as Muppet fans, are in now with regard to the Schism between Disney and Steve Whitmire.

It is not, as one faction might argue, that Kermit is good but Steve is evil.  Nor is it, as another faction might argue, that Steve is good but Disney is evil.  It is not that one faction of Muppet fans are good and any and all other factions are evil.  But in each case, whenever we stop cooperating and start competing, whenever we start believing that some people’s contributions are not necessary or not important, whenever we start thinking, “I am right; therefore, anyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong”…those are the things that divide us, and it is the division itself that is inherently evil.  As Dumbledore says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

So how do we bridge the chasm between sunside and nightside?  How do we find the temperate zone that moderates the two?  How do we move from brokenness to wholeness without subordinating one side or the other?

The reason I started this blog is because I think it is imperative to keep the conversation going in a civilized way; to firmly but gently probe and palpate the bruises, the open wounds, and the recently formed scar tissue–not with the object of causing more pain but with the goal of diagnosing and treating the wounds that this Schism has caused.  

At the same time, I think it is equally imperative to respect and validate opinions with which we disagree.  All too often–not only as Muppet fans, but as human beings–we fall into the trap of thinking, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  We assume that the dissenter must necessarily be wrong.  We equate “having a different opinion” with “having a bias.”  We regard anyone who disagrees with us as an evil enemy.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is possible to see things from another point of view without losing your own, and it is possible to recognize a valid viewpoint while still disagreeing with it.  The more we are able to have a respectful dialogue, and try to see things from another point of view, the closer we can move toward a consensus.  

If there’s one thing that I have in common with Jim Henson, it’s that I’m averse to conflict of any kind.  And speaking strictly for myself, the reason why I’m conflict-averse is that I’m terrified of losing my temper.  I’ve always seen myself as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk; when I get angry, it’s as though I turn into a completely different person, and I’m terrified of what I might say and whom I might hurt while in that angered state.  And I do work on trying to integrate the light and dark sides, and to channel whatever anger I feel constructively–to turn a negative into a positive–but it’s a constant struggle.

That’s why I prefer to write a blog, so I have the chance to rethink and revise my words before they are published, and also, so that I don’t come across as spamming other blogs and forums through lengthy, in-depth analysis.  

It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me to jump into the fray and take the risk of being provoked into that angry state that I so fear, but if it helps to get–or to keep–the dialogue going, it’s well worth the risk.

Sesame Saturday: Ernie prepares for a possible flood

The weatherman on the radio predicts a chance of rain.  Ernie starts by grabbing an umbrella to take to the library, but then gets carried away:

This is a somewhat unusual sketch in that usually the camera stays static during Bert and Ernie sketches, but in this one it pans along with Ernie.

The thing that makes this sketch for me is the sound of Ernie’s galoshes.  Whether that was foley work or Jim Henson just literally put on a pair of galoshes, I don’t know, but the sound is hilarious.

There was once a young man of my acquaintance who went through a growth spurt and all his pant legs (trouser legs, if you prefer) were suddenly three inches too short.  His classmates made fun of him and asked him if he was expecting a flood.  He told me about it and I said, “Just say, ‘Yes, and when the flood comes, I will be ready and you will not, and I will laugh in your homely faces!  HA, ha ha ha!'”  He thought that was funny but, as it happens, schoolyard taunts go in and out of fashion like most things, and he never got to use it.  So I’m using it here instead, because I thought it was a pretty good comeback, if I do say so myself.

This is all in good fun, but I see that they are having literal flooding in Oklahoma right now, and that’s no laughing matter.  Stay safe, everyone.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.

 

Fraggle Friday: “A Friend is a Friend”

This is from episode 304, The Grapes of Generosity:

I assume that most people reading this know what’s going on in this episode, but just in case there are some other latecomers to the Fraggle party, I’ll give a brief synopsis:  Gobo discovers the magical Grapes of Generosity, which are so delicious that he refuses to share them with his friends.  As karmic retribution for his selfishness, Gobo becomes weightless as a result–because apparently Fraggle karma doesn’t follow any discernible logic.

The puppetry in this is quite impressive.  If I get the chance, I’d like to ask Steve Whitmire how it was all done.  I recognize a few effects, ChromaKey being the most obvious, and at one point it looks like they’re using a “throwable” Gobo, and towards the end, it sort of looks like Jerry was on a different, higher level from where Steve was on the floor.  So I can kind of piece it together from what I can see, but it’s always interesting to get the real behind-the-scenes story.

This song is an example of what I was talking about earlier in the week, about the otherwise indecisive Wembley always sticking up for his friends.  It’s interesting that when Wembley stops to think about what is the right thing to do, he gets bogged down by indecision, but when he reacts instinctively in defense of a friend, his instincts are always spot-on.  

I envy him that.  I have to put a little more thought into things.

For example, I have a personal policy of not feeding internet trolls.  It’s tempting to fight back, and I’ve been known to succumb to the temptation, but since they feed off of attention, to fight back against them is only to make them stronger and hand them weapons.  The only way to win is not to play.

But then, what to do when a friend is being harassed by a troll?  I observed just such a situation earlier this week, and it posed a bit of a dilemma.  On the one hand, I had just got done talking about Wembley not standing by when someone is being bullied, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to follow Wembley’s example.  On the other hand, feeding the troll could make things worse for everybody.  Ultimately, I decided to ignore the troll completely but address a comment to my friend with words of support and encouragement.

As another example, what do you do when someone you care about has been accused of something awful?  

There was a time in my life when I suspected one of my dearest friends of untoward behavior based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.  This is the first time I’ve ever been able to talk about it outside of a confessional.  I can’t even go into detail about what happened; it’s just too embarrassing.  

(Also, it requires too much exposition to be worth my time or yours.)

Suffice it to say, I was relieved when my friend turned out to be innocent, but I was wracked with guilt for having assumed the worst of him, especially for what turned out to be really no good reason at all.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to ask him about what happened instead of flying off the handle making baseless accusations, and I think I was successful in not letting on what I had been thinking about him–and, as far as I know, he still doesn’t know.

Nevertheless, I felt burdened by the knowledge that I had committed an act of betrayal against someone that I loved, even if it was only in the secret recesses of my innermost heart.  I had no one to blame but my own foolishness and credulity; it was entirely my own fault.  I never want to feel that way again.  So I decided that, from that moment on, I would rather give someone that I care about the benefit of the doubt and risk being proven wrong than to automatically assume the worst.  

Therefore, if somebody accuses someone whom I respect and admire of “unacceptable business conduct” or “brinksmanship,” etc., the burden of proof is on the accuser(s).  If they want to convince me, they’d better be able (and willing) to produce some incontrovertible evidence.  

I’ll check with Sam the Eagle but, as far as I know, in this country we’re all still innocent until proven guilty.

The False Dilemma Between Steve and Matt

“‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ creeps in this petty pace from day to day.
I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy
Without my having to name the play.

They think me Macbeth; ambition is my folly.
I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass–a massive pain.”
                        –Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, lyricist)

It may seem like a bit of a strain to apply Hamilton lyrics to the Schism, but I use this particular passage to illustrate the unfortunate attitude of some in the Muppet community who have been unfairly characterizing Matt Vogel as some sort of undertalented, opportunistic usurper of the throne.  I condemn this attitude out of hand; not only is it cruel and unfair to Matt, but it makes no sense: Matt has no more control over who does or doesn’t get hired than Steve does.  

(Now that I think about it, you know what else doesn’t make any sense?  My equating Matt with Alexander Hamilton.  Steve is clearly Hamilton in this whole scenario.  There’s not a comfortable analogue to Matt at all–at least, not as far as I can see.  But I digress.)

Conversely, in other factions of the Muppet fan community, support for Steve Whitmire is sometimes being interpreted as disrespect toward Matt Vogel, and if one expresses the desire for Steve to go on performing Kermit, it is sometimes interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in Matt.  

Let me state unequivocably that, as far as I am concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.  I have complete confidence in Matt’s abilities and, more importantly, in his good intentions.  In fact, I’ve felt a little sorry for him as all this has played out; Disney has put him in a terribly awkward position.

Though Matt has a fairly significant footprint on social media, he has not commented publicly upon the Schism one way or another–at least, not that I am aware of.  Whether he has remained silent voluntarily or Disney has imposed a gag order on him, I don’t know.  If it is his own choice to remain silent, I completely respect that.  However, I don’t think he’ll be able to avoid it forever.  Eventually, Kermit is going to have to start doing interviews again and, given journalists’ penchant for asking Muppets uncomfortable questions, sooner or later someone is going to ask Vogel!Kermit about Steve.  What is he supposed to say?  

Even looking at this from an executive’s point of view and considering it strictly as a personnel decision, by every objective measure, Steve is simply more qualified for the job of performing Kermit–not for performing in general, you understand, but specifically for performing Kermitthan Matt is.  That is not to say that Matt is unqualified by any means; on the contrary, it is more to say that Matt’s time and talents would be better served elsewhere, like performing Jerry Nelson’s characters–in accordance with Jerry’s own wishes.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s think like an executive and take a look at the job description:  Kermit is supposed to be able to talk about working with Jim Henson. Kermit is expected to be able to reminisce about working on The Muppet Show.  On both counts–and through no fault of his own–Matt lacks the experience that Steve has in these areas.

Matt’s a qualified puppeteer.  No one is disputing that.  If it was a matter of necessity, I think he would be an excellent candidate to perform Kermit.  But there’s the rub; it wasn’t necessary.  Even if you take Disney’s vague rationale at face value, even if you genuinely believe that they were justified in dismissing Steve, the irrefutable fact is that they had a choice in the matter.  For better or worse, they made their choice, and now they’re going to have to deal with the consequences, as all responsible adults must.

But I do feel sorry for Matt.  I see him as a victim in all this too.  As terrible as Steve’s situation is, at least he’s free now to speak his mind.  On the other hand, Matt has been thrust into a situation over which he has no control and put on the frontlines in the charge to recreate the Muppets in Disney’s image.  And I imagine that the circumstances of Steve’s dismissal must be hanging over Matt like the sword of Damocles: do a good job–play it the company way–or we’ll serve you the way we served Steve.

I support Steve and I will keep fighting for him, no matter what.  I support Matt equally.  If he does his best performing Kermit–and I have no doubt that he will–I will be grateful to him, just as I have been grateful to Steve for all these years.

Thank You and Welcome

Before I forget, I want to be sure and say “thank you” to Jarrod Fairclough for featuring my article “30 Years Late to the Fraggle Party” on The Muppet Mindset.  I’ve been a fan of the Mindset for some time and even contributed some articles in the past.  Thank you for your support, Jarrod; I’m grateful for the opportunity to reach out to more Muppet fans!

To those of you who may have surfed over from the Mindset, welcome!  Consider yourself at home.  Let me show you around a little and point out some features of interest:

For an introduction to this site and an in-depth explanation of what I hope to accomplish, click here.

For more detailed, and somewhat random, biographical information about me, click here.

For my policy on comments, either scroll down to the widget at the bottom of the page, or click here.

To watch Bert and Ernie make comments as they watch an aquarium filled with goldfish that go “mulm-mulm-mulm,” click here.