Fraggle Friday: Wembley’s Way

Someone posted the following video in the Muppet Pundit comments.  Steve has yet to talk about it, so I don’t know all of the backstory, but it appears that Steve returned to his old high school in 1988 with some of his characters (Muppet and otherwise) in tow to participate in a concert of some sort.

Take it, Wembley:

I have another confession to make: in all my years of studying literature, I’ve found that, a lot of times, I don’t think that an author’s–or, in a broader sense, an artist’s–most celebrated or well-known work is necessarily their best.  I read The Red Badge of Courage in grad school and was underwhelmed by it; my favorite Stephen Crane work is called The Monster; you’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s utterly brilliant.  Similarly, I love Madeleine L’Engle, and I love A Wrinkle in Time, but it was a early novel of hers, and I think her later works show a growth and a maturity that is missing in Wrinkle, as wonderful as it is and as much as I have always loved it.

My point is that “My Way” is so famous and so popular, and arguably so overexposed, that I’ve never been that impressed with it.  In fact, I’m not sure if I ever really paid attention to the lyrics before.  But watching Wembley sing this little duet, the lyrics suddenly smacked me in the face, particularly the last verse:

For what is a man?  What has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels 
And not the words of one who kneels.”

Those lyrics might have been written for and about Steve; that’s exactly what he’s doing on his blog, and he’s taken–and continues to take–the blows for it.

I think there’s something really important to understand about Disney: through their movies and TV shows and such, they frequently tell these stories about people who think for themselves and take a stand and fight for what they believe in, and a person could be forgiven to think that it’s a reflection of Disney’s values when they tell those stories.  It’s not.  They tell those stories because those are the stories that they think we will pay money to hear.  They don’t want to change the world, they don’t want to make a difference; all they want is to make money.

Disney is a corporation, and corporations value people who play it “the company way”: people who know their place and stay there, who go along, do as they’re told, and don’t make waves.  Unfortunately, people like that don’t make for the basis of an interesting movie because they deliberately try to minimize drama in their lives.   So instead Disney makes these movies about people who speak truth to power and question authority…and then they find it inconvenient when people who work for them speak truth to power and question their authority.

 

So what of Jim Henson?  Well, I think that, like Cantus the Minstrel, he sought out and hired people that were traveling “in the same direction,” i.e., people who shared his values and worldview.  Not everyone made the cut.

On the other hand, Jim valued contributions of other people, not only the jobs that he’d hired them to do, but their thoughts and ideas as well.  Speaking at one of Jim’s memorial services, Frank Oz called him an “extraordinary appreciator.”  He appreciated the work that everyone was putting into a given production.  He solicited feedback not only from the people he worked with, but from the audience as well.  For example, just subsequent to the release of Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones and Dave Goelz were doing a radio interview, and a woman called in to tell a story about visiting the set of a production that Jim was working on, and how, during a break, he came over to meet her and asked her opinion of what she had seen.  And the woman was surprised that he had taken an interest in the opinion of a random layperson, but he’d genuinely wanted to know what she thought.  (I know that story is in that interview somewhere, but I don’t have time right now to listen to the whole thing and get the timecode).

So, rather than “my way” or the “company way,” I think Jim Henson took a third, less-traveled path, and gathered people around him that were “traveling our way.”  Everyone was in it together, and no one was supposed to get left behind.

****
Random Thoughts:  
The above video is almost 30 years old, I wonder whatever happened to Jimmy Morriss, the singer in the video.

When Wembley sings the line “what is a man?” I half expect him to add, “No, seriously, what IS a man?”  Because, of course, to Fraggles, human beings are “silly creatures.”

Fraggle Friday: Skenfrith

Skenfrith monster

Skenfrith needs our help.  You see, we’ve gotta believe he’s not a monster […] He hates being a monster; only we can help!”
–Wembley Fraggle

I recently read a post by my friend Marni Hill on her blog, Just for the Halibut.  (Fair warning: her post contains explicit language, but if that’s not an issue, you can read it here.)  In it, she described feeling skeptical and working through lingering doubts she still had about Steve Whitmire as a result of the nasty rumors and snide insinuations that have swarmed unpleasantly around him.  It was a challenging piece, and I had difficulty processing it.  As I was thinking about how to respond, I was suddenly put in mind of an old saying, regarded as something of a cliché, if not an outright glurge: “Believing is seeing.”

It made me smile.  It reminded me of my best friend from college, who hated that expression and wasn’t shy about saying so.  (Truth be told, I’ve never known him to be shy about saying so when he didn’t like something.)  I’m not necessarily inclined to agree with him, however; I think there’s some truth in the saying.

Then that put me in mind of the Fraggle Rock episode “Believe It or Not,” which introduced us to Skenfrith, a magical shapeshifting creature whose form changes as a reflection of the beliefs of those around him.  To put it another way, he becomes whatever others believe him to be.  It’s kind of a complicated concept; why I don’t I just let Skenfrith himself explain it:

When Jocelyn Stevenson created the character of Skenfrith for Fraggle Rock, she was trying to make the point that “belief affects perception [and] perception affects belief […] what you believe about things is then how you see them.”

And whether we’re aware of it or not, our beliefs about other people also affect our perception of them.  For example, I recently read a fascinating article about how preconceived notions about another person’s emotional state can influence how we interpret their facial expressions.  Not only that, but as we interpret the facial expressions of others, we subconsciously reflect the emotions that we are interpreting on our own faces.  So, in a way, we’re all kind of reverse Skenfriths.

As I was thinking about all this, I was suddenly hit with another epiphany:  What if Steve Whitmire is Skenfrith?

Not literally, of course.  I’m well aware that Dave Goelz played Skenfrith on Fraggle Rock, (and, as far as I know, Steve is not a shapeshifter).  But in a metaphorical sense, suppose that Steve is Skenfrith, and suppose that Disney and the Henson children are the Gorgs who–with a depth of malice only rarely plumbed by the actual Gorgs themselves–have gone out of their way to convince the Muppet fandom that Steve is a monster: a disrespectful, unacceptable-business conducting, outrageously demanding, understudy-eschewing, blackballing, destructive-energy emitting, brinkman-shipping, bitter, angry, depressed, unfunny, monster.

I’ve now come realize that, for the fans who have been convinced of Steve’s multihyphenate monstrosity, everything that he says and does to try to justify himself gets filtered through that perception, like a funhouse mirror that twists and distorts the reflected image, so that the things that he says in his own defense are perceived as reinforcing Disney’s claims instead, and he is perceived as some sort of unhinged, bullying diva when, really, all he’s trying to do is stand up for himself.

And while I am dismayed and frustrated by this…*ahem*…phenomenon,  at least now I understand how Steve can post fundamental Muppet truths on his blog–stuff that I consider to be really basic, like “the Muppet performers are not interchangeable“–and be met with eye-rolling contempt by certain factions of the fandom.  While I don’t agree with the people who say things like, “Steve should have taken the ‘retirement package’ from Disney…he’s so disrespectful of Matt…he’s just digging himself in a hole…who does he think he anyway is to dictate what’s best for the Muppets?…” etc., at least now I understand where those comments are coming from.  To me, it’s similar to what Red says in “Believe It or Not”: “I know that [Skenfrith’s not a monster]…but I found the two heads very convincing!”  

One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle.  Best known for writing A Wrinkle in Time, she was a prolific and eclectic author.  There’s an idea that shows up in several of her works, but is perhaps best expressed in her novel The Young Unicorns: “People become trustworthy only by being trusted […] Not stupidly, you understand, but fully aware of the facts, we still have to trust.”

Notice that she doesn’t say that we have to be aware of all the facts.  That would be ideal, of course, but oftentimes in situations like this, facts can only take us so far.  And when it gets to that point, that’s when we have to make a choice whether or not to make a leap of faith in trusting someone.  That’s a difficult, dangerous thing to do; to trust someone else is to make oneself vulnerable, to risk being hurt.  It’s much easier and safer to sit back, to be passive, to accept what those in authority tell us.  But the easiest choice isn’t necessarily the right one; in fact, in my experience, it’s more often the opposite.

It is now incumbent upon each of us Muppet fans to make a choice:  Are we going to make Steve trustworthy by trusting him?  Or are we going to make him into a monster by making him out to be a monster?

The Violence Committed Against Kermit the Frog


“I don’t think you’re a bad man, Doc.  But I think if you look in your heart, you’ll find you really want to let me and my friends go, to follow our dream.  But if that’s not the kind of man you are, and what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to you, well then…go ahead and kill me.”–Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie (1979)

There was a documentary on Jim Henson that was made in 1999, and in the middle of writing my previous post, I suddenly remembered that I had a segment of it tucked away in a playlist on YouTube wherein Steve talks a little about what happened when he first took up the mantle of performing Kermit.  So I looked it up just now because I thought it might be helpful to me.  And because I hadn’t seen it in several years, I kept watching it after the bit with Steve was over, and heard Frank Oz say that Steve “had to get in the soul of Jim to be Kermit.”

At that moment, I had an epiphany.  All this time, I’ve been angry and sad and upset about how Disney has been treating Steve.  Suddenly, the true horror of this situation finally hit me; it’s not just that Disney has mistreated Steve, it’s that they’ve mistreated Kermit.

The puppeteer is the soul of the character; I knew that before, but I hadn’t fully realized all the implications of it.  You can’t just take away someone’s soul.  You can’t fire someone’s soul; you can’t replace someone’s soul; you can’t audition for a new soul.  What Disney has done to Kermit–to Kermit–is an act of violation, comparable to the Dementor’s Kiss; or, to use an example from within the Jim Henson universe, analogous with the splitting of the urSkeks in The Dark Crystal.  

When viewed in that light, how could anyone greet the recasting news with indifference or  unconcern, with cautious optimism–or even, as some are doing, with enthusiastic anticipation?  How could anyone be resigned to this unspeakable act of violence against our beloved frog?  Steve has gotten a lot of flak for speaking out about it on his blog.  I’ve felt that that was unfair all along, but having had this epiphany, I don’t see how any reasonable person could expect him to stay silent; how can anyone who claims to love the Muppets stand silently by and watch as our lifelong friend, Kermit the Frog, is being eviscerated?

Of course, Disney owns the rights to the characters, so they are at liberty to cast whomever they want in whatever role.  And I imagine that their rationale was that, since Muppet characters have been recast before, it wouldn’t make much difference.  There’s no denying that characters have been successfully recast before; it is inevitable in a “franchise” (how I hate that word!) that’s over 60 years old, and if the characters are to survive in perpetuity, all of them will eventually have to be recast.  

Nevertheless, there’s a difference: in the past, the recasts happened in an organic way.  It happened out of necessity, and the main performers were allowed to have a say in who would be their replacement.  

This is completely different.  It’s arbitrary, cynical, and self-serving.  But most of all, it’s unnecessarily cruel.