January 19, 2012 / 10:03 AM / 7 years ago

Book Talk: Absurdist Jim Henson film that wasn't

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Although he was best-known as a creator of children’s puppets like Kermit the Frog, Jim Henson had a parallel career as an experimental filmmaker before “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” made him a household name.

He was even nominated for an Academy Award for an early short film, “Time Piece.”

In 1968, Henson and collaborator Jerry Juhl wrote the screenplay for a live-action western, “Tale of Sand,” but the movie never got off the ground despite Henson’s efforts. It is a darkly comic story of a man pursued across a desert by swordsmen, a lion, a football team, and a mysterious villain with an eye-patch.

“Tale of Sand” is now a graphic novel. Frantic, nearly wordless, and full of absurdist touches such as a light switch that turns day into night, it shows a side of Henson, who died in 1990, that may be unfamiliar to many fans.

The Jim Henson Company’s archives director, Karen Falk, who has spent nearly 20 years poring over Henson artifacts and who unearthed the script, spoke to Reuters about the storyteller.

Q: Many of the reviewers who praised the recent Muppets movie cited its warmth and the gentility of the Muppets’ world. Is that a part of Henson’s legacy?

A: “Jim and (collaborator) Jerry Juhl wanted to present their characters in a positive light and have an optimistic view of the world. That was Jim’s mindset, that you should tolerate others’ differences. It’s not trite. It’s a valid way of looking at the world.”

Q: Yet ‘Tale of Sand’ is essentially a black comedy. Was it a case of a younger man trying to find his voice?

A: “There’s a lot of funny business, so it’s not completely dark. It’s just kind of absurd. It really is a product of that late 60s period. People were writing paranoid stories about being in situations and not being able to get out, and this was (their) take on it. Jim felt he was getting pigeonholed as a children’s performer. He was trying to regain his reputation as an entertainer for grown-up audiences as well.

“He was on the fence about which way he was going to go, whether he would really pursue the puppets or pursue the filmmaking. He was really pushing his film work before he got involved with ‘Sesame Street’ in late ‘68, early ‘69. That took him in the other direction.”

Q: Why do “Tale of Sand” as a graphic novel?

A: “(Artist) Ramon Perez was able to look at a script that was very, very descriptive. There’s very little dialogue in the screenplay. Jim was a visual person, very aware of how much sights and sounds could tell what’s going on, instead of words.”

Q: Where do you see his influence these days?

A: “I see it in Broadway shows. ‘Avenue Q’ is really a tribute to Jim Henson. Pete Docter, the director of ‘Up’ and other Pixar films, says the graphic sensibility of Jim Henson was a huge influence. Tim Burton cites Henson as an influence.”

Q: You curated the Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Is the craft of puppetry threatened by computer graphics?

A: “It’s been around since the beginning of man and will continue to be around. Jim was interested in new technology and certainly embraced early computer animation. I don’t think he would have forsaken puppetry. He would have combined them, because he was always looking for the most expressive way of telling a story.”

Q: So one shouldn’t think of it as just a children’s medium?

“Puppetry is much more than that. You see puppets in so many productions, whether it’s something like ‘War Horse’ or ‘Avenue Q,’ even the ‘Madame Butterfly’ opera. Artists are incorporating puppetry into theater work, recognizing it as a valid way to tell a story.”

Reporting by Nick Zieminski; editing by Patricia Reaney

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