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.

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.

Salient Themes: Jim Henson versus bullies

“Dear Mr. Dionne: 
              What the fuck are you talking about?
                                                       Yours truly,
                                                       Jim Henson”
–Response to the 1960s equivalent of an Internet troll (quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography)

Well, last night I received my first insulting comment on this blog–and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed; it was a pretty pathetic effort.  In the ’60s, when trolls actually had to put pen to paper and make an effort to insult someone, people like Jim Henson got classy insults referencing ancient Roman emperors.  Now that people’s attention spans are limited to 140 characters, all the creativity has gone out of gratuitous insults.  Sad! 

However, in a way I’m glad it happened, because now this seems like an opportune moment to examine how Jim Henson related to bullies, both in his life and in his work.  

Jim was famously averse to conflict.  In Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones tells a story about how Jim would create an excuse to fly to London rather than get involved in a dispute within his legal department in New York.  From that anecdote, I think a person could get the impression that Jim was prone to be passive in his dealings with others.  But I think that impression would be false, or at least incomplete.  

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that–interestingly enough–Jim was similar to Wembley Fraggle in his approach to interpersonal conflict.  On Fraggle Rock, when there’s a disagreement or dispute among his friends, Wembley becomes paralyzed with indecision, not wanting to upset or disappoint any of his friends by choosing one side over the other.  On the other hand, deep down inside, Wembley has the ability to stand up for himself–and it comes out when the situation is truly dire, as it did in the matter of the mean genie.  Moreover, Wembley will never stand silently by while someone else is being bullied.  Whether it’s the miniscule Cotterpin Doozer, the gigantic Junior Gorg,* or anyone in between, if Wembley sees somebody being victimized, he will immediately rush to his/her defense.  It’s interesting to examine a previously unconsidered link between Jim Henson and Wembley because Steve Whitmire–Wembley himself–recently told a story on his blog about how Jim once stood up to some Disney lawyers on his (Steve’s) behalf.

In spite of his aversion to conflict, Jim was also known for his determination.  He was capable of standing up for himself if he felt he was being mistreated.  The early days of the original Disney deal were something of a love fest, but eventually the honeymoon period was over, and Jim found himself “in combat with [Disney’s] business affairs people,” as he put it.  Frustrated, Jim wrote the following in a letter to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg:

“The tone of the negotiations does not seem to me to be the way two parties should be relating to each other if they intend to go into a long term relationship. […] The kind of deal I like is one in which both parties try to arrive at a fair settlement and everyone walks away satisfied.  […]  My impression is that Disney is standing firm on all issues, assuming that my company is committed to this deal and thus we will eventually cave in.  This is not a wise assumption.”–(quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography, my emphasis)

Oooooooh.  Here’s a guy who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with two of the most powerful and influential men in show business.  Cross Jim Henson at your own peril.

Another way that Jim dealt with bullies was through his work.  His sketches, especially those variety-show staples that predate The Muppet Show, often featured a situation in which one character would throw its weight around by harassing another–usually smaller–character.  Like in the story of David and Goliath, however, the bullying character usually–if not always–gets its comeuppance from the smaller character.  Here are some examples:

Early sketches:
Jim used this theme in a couple of sketches that he performed in Hamburg, Germany at the US Department of Agriculture’s US Food Fair in 1961.  One was a sketch about an army drill team being put through their paces by a nasty drill sergeant barking out unintelligible orders; at the end, the drill team turns around and blows the sergeant away.  In another sketch, a group of characters–denoted only by the puppeteers’ gloved hands–listens calmly to some soothing (read: “boring”) elevator music.  Another character comes along and spices things up with some band music.  The other characters attack the dissenter, beat up on him (her? it?), and destroy his radio equipment…however, things don’t end well for them.  Neither of these sketches have any dialogue, which is lucky, because the following footage has no audio:


(The drill team footage starts at 00:59; the other sketch starts at 02:39.)

Java:
In “Java,” a creature that appears to be a living dryer hose does a dance number, while a smaller creature wants to join in, sort of like a younger sibling tagging alongside an older sibling, like I did when I was a little kid.  Unfortunately, the larger creature is less tolerant than my older siblings were of me…to its detriment:

Hugga Wugga:

“Do not take my sunshine away!”  The way that little creature phrases it, it almost sounds like a threat–or at least a warning.

Beautiful Day:


“You are so awful that it is truly beautiful.  You’ve probably worked all your life to be perfectly awful–year after year–to be just as bad as possible, and now all of your toil and self-sacrifice has paid off! […] In fact, you are the perfect example of beautiful awfulness!”  Generally speaking, my policy is not to feed internet trolls, but sometimes I’m tempted to try this on some of the trolls plaguing Steve Whitmire’s blog.

The Muppet Movie:
But perhaps the most triumphant example of standing up to bullies in all of Jim Henson’s work is the climactic “showdown” scene of The Muppet Movie.  Threatened with a sadistic choice by Doc Hopper–either sell his soul to a small corporation or be gunned down where he stands–Kermit appeals to Hopper’s humanity and sense of decency:

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  But Hopper gets what’s coming to him anyway in what–to me–is the greatest and most Muppet-y moment of all time:


Not even the lousy video quality and strange, floating window-blind reflection can ruin this moment!

So…to all those who want to come onto my own blog to try to tear me down, this is your last warning:  You cannot hurt me.  There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t heard before.  

In the past, I have endured verbal abuse that would make the Access Hollywood bus tape sound like a scene from Downton Abbey.  You think you can hurt my feelings by calling me a “moron”?  Please.  My classmates came up with more creative insults than that in the fourth grade.  

I’m a grown woman, and I’ve put up with more than my fair share of bullying nonsense in my life.  I’m not going to put up with yours.  I’m not going to indulge your pettiness and cruelty.  I’m not going to give you a platform from which you can attempt to build yourself up by tearing others down.  

You have no power over me.

 

_____________________________
*Yes, I’m aware that, in the episode I referenced, Junior Gorg had temporarily been rendered Fraggle-sized, but the point I am trying to make is that Wembley will stick up for a victim of bullying regardless of the victim’s size, color, species, etc.

Fraggle Friday: 30 years late to the Fraggle party

When I was a kid, my family had access to three TV channels: ABC, NBC, and PBS (which was really grainy).  We couldn’t afford cable.  At the time, it kind of bothered me, but in retrospect, I have very few regrets about not having cable as a kid (I don’t have it now, either, and I find I don’t miss it).

One regret I do have, however, is missing out on Fraggle Rock as a kid.  Since I was born in 1980, I would have been right at the perfect age for it when it debuted in 1983.  We did, however, somehow obtain a subscription to the Weekly Reader series of picture books, though I’m not entirely sure how that happened, whether my mom made a splurge or we had a sympathetic family friend who was willing to act as a benefactor…maybe Santa Claus did it; I don’t know.

So that was my introduction to Fraggle Rock.  I loved those books; they were a good, solid introduction to the characters and the world and the whole cultural enviroment of Fraggle Rock.  The fact that they came to us via subscription was neat too; it was sort of like having a birthday every month.  I think my mom really loved reading them to us too (“us” meaning me and my younger brother); I got a kick a few years ago when my parents were visiting me in my old apartment, and I don’t remember specifically what triggered it, but we were playing cards, and for some reason my mom quoted at me, “Don’t worry, Mokey.  I’ll protect you!”  (A quote from the book Best Friends, although it definitely sounds like a line from the episode “Wonder Mountain.”)

So I became acquainted with the Fraggles through the books, but I only got to see them on TV twice: once, circa 1986-87, I was visiting at the house of a friend whose family DID have cable, and I saw one complete episode of Fraggle Rock: “Let the Water Run,” which I enjoyed very much, and it stuck with me for a long time after that.  Then, of course, the Fraggles appeared in “A Muppet Family Christmas” and sang “Pass It On.”  But that was pretty much it for me, as far as Fraggles went, for about 30 years.

When I started getting involved in the online Muppet fan community circa 2011, I saw all these conversations that people were having about Fraggle Rock, and all their references and inside jokes that I didn’t understand, and their quoting song lyrics that I didn’t know…it made me feel kind of resentful.  I felt like everybody was having a big Fraggle party that I wasn’t invited to, and I was left out in the cold looking in.

Well, the 30th anniversary DVD set of Fraggle Rock came out right before my 33rd birthday, which meant that the previous DVD set had now been reduced in price so that I could justify the expense of buying it.  So I splurged on it as a birthday present to myself, and binge-watched it over the course of the entire weekend after my birthday (it was on a Friday that year).

It may well have been the best birthday I’ve ever had.

My first impression was that, for a 30-year-old TV show, it has stood up well to the test of time.  Granted, some of the Doc-and-Sprocket things are a little dated–I have to smile when Doc gets a new computer and brags that it has “64 kilobytes of RAM!”–but the Fraggles themselves are more or less timeless.

Another thing that impressed me is that, for all its silliness, Fraggle Rock is actually quite sophisicated–the concept, the writing, the special effects,  but particularly the music.  I find it a bit unfortunate that the one song that everybody knows from Fraggle Rock is the theme song–which, in my opinion, is a bit overexposed. Even though I didn’t get to watch Fraggle Rock as a kid, I could still sing the theme song–it was that ubiquitous. The music from the show is so varied and eclectic–it’s sort of like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get, but you know it will be delicious.  My family are all singers, and it’s too bad that we didn’t get to watch Fraggle Rock together and add those songs to our repertoire.

The thing that struck me perhaps most of all is how daring and honest Fraggle Rock is.  In spite of the fact that we only had three channels, I watched a lot of TV in the ’80s, and it was all very formulaic and sort of artificial.  I’d say that Fraggle Rock seems ahead of its time, but even by today’s standards some of the things would be edgy–like the Fraggles’ preoccupation with death.  But then, Fraggle Rock is a dangerous place to live.  If the Fraggles aren’t being thumped by Gorgs or menaced by Poison Cacklers or Invisible Garboils, they have to worry about more mundane hazards like rockslides and pebble pox.  So maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that they’re so casual and matter-of-fact about death.  It’s fascinating to me that, despite all the gravitas about it, Fraggle Rock nevertheless manages to be so lighthearted and fun and silly.  Maybe “joyful” is the word I’m searching for here.  In my experience, you can’t experience the deepest joy unless you’ve also tasted the deepest sorrow.

For my part, I want to make Fraggle Fridays a recurring feature here, but I’m not sure what to do with it.  Initially, I was going to do synopses and commentary on every episode, in order, but that sounds like an awful lot of work.  I’ll just have to make like a Fraggle and figure it out as I go along.

And like a Fraggle, let’s finish things off with a song: