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.

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.