My entire life, I have been envious of those who were in the early twenties during the 1960s. The United States was undergoing a transitional time during this decade. The innocence and complacency of the 1950s was shed as Vietnam and The Civil Rights Movement exploded into consciousness. Through the technology of television, Americans were forced to face that the world was not only made up of the stereotypical Christian, white, nuclear family. Other cultures and other people existed. The sheltered were forced to acknowledge this as art became more mainstreamed. It was an electrifying time and this electricity can be felt from the music, writings, and film from the time. Artists and creators like Jim Henson and his core group of innovators, writers, and performers had bright eyes, expansive imaginations, and were drunk with the possibilities that accompany youth. At this time, Henson was already a phenomenal success. He cultivated and learned puppetry and film techniques on his local television show Sam and Friends. He had moved on to New York where he would immerse himself in the art culture. Rowlf the Dog was built during this time and appeared in Purina Dog Chow commercials and in regular spots on The Jimmy Dean Show. Henson also learned animation and core creative team members Frank Oz and Don Sahlin joined him during this time. Thanks to appearances on Today, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tonight Show, Jim Henson and the Muppets were household names. It was during this budding success that Henson would write, direct, and star in an eight-and-a-half-minute experimental film entitled Time Piece, which would earn him a 1965 Academy Award nomination for “Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects.” During this and other experimental films, Henson learned techniques and honed film skills he would later use in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The short film is a heavy dose of surrealism steeped in jazz syncopation and stream of consciousness. It warrants several viewings. At first, you will probably be like yours truly and wonder, “What the hell was that?” My advice is to watch the short four times. The first time is like jumping into a cold swimming pool on a warm summer’s day. It is shocking and overwhelming, but the familiar site of Henson is instantly calming. Upon the subsequent viewings, dedicate your attention to one aspect such as the protagonist, the role of the protagonist’s wife, and then focusing on the numerous minor characters. This way you can study the film as an artistic statement without missing anything. The basic concept is that a nameless everyman faces the day to day frustrations of modern life. He works much like a cog in the gear of a factory, he goes home to a sexless/genderless wife, and he travels the same boring commute to and from work until he finally dies. There is a beat during almost every second of the film which helps to reinforce the concept of a ticking clock and the passage of time. The film is incredibly short, but Henson took great care to pack in as much imagery and symbolism as her could, making each moment count. The concepts of consumerism, sexuality, inescapable death are interspersed with quick cut editing, animated sequences, Jazz, and splashes of the irreverent humor that Henson carried over to the Muppets. Visually, this film reminds me of many of the short sequences Henson wrote and directed for Sesame Street. His animation and editing styles contained his distinctive finger print that can be seen in many of the shorts he used to “sell” the concepts of counting to children. The protagonist is portrayed by Henson in one of his rare on-screen roles where he is not accompanied with a puppet, but the protagonist is just a nameless man who is going through his life. At first, he is in a hospital bed being examined by a doctor. Nothing seems to be wrong with the man, almost like it is just a routine checkup. In the next sequence, we see the man going to work. The man walks through the city on his way to work. It could be any city and any day. Nothing is spectacular. It is as if the man is going through day to day drudgery. Once at work, we see the man leering at his secretary. As she walks up and down the hallway, her breasts are exaggerated and bounce up and down. The man stamps his papers at work with “rush,” “sex,” and “damn.” At work, the man is just another piece in the system. He is not special and expendable. He is chasing the idea of money, sex, and greed. These ideas are pushed onto us by the media and commercialism. If we can just be sexy or rich, then we will truly be happy. It is at this point we hear the recurring line of the film. Henson looks at the screen and calmly calls out, “Help.” The man walks home through multiple nameless streets, fields, and neighborhoods. A traffic cop, light, and sign all instruct him on when to cross. These symbols of authority control him and he is bound by them to social conformity. He wears different costumes throughout the film. He is dressed as Tarzan, a cowboy, a formal tuxedo complete with top hat, and he is even shown as possibly being nude. He longs to be more heroic and masculine than he is. He passes by a child on a pogo stick who bounces up and down. As the boy bounces, he switches from Caucasian to African American. This could be an acknowledgement of school integration. Eventually, the boy disappears, much like the man’s own childhood and youth quickly disappeared. He walks into his home where his wife was waiting for him. As he enters the home, he gives his wife a very conservative and vanilla kiss. He sets the table, but it is done backwards and instantly. We want instant gratification. Everything is prepared for us, just add water. The table itself is perfect with lit candles and a rose in the middle. The man politely eats a hamburger and after a cut to his wife, he is in shabby clothing and ruggedly eating a turkey leg. His clothing and hair have been messed up as he ravages the meal. The camera cuts to a dog that is eating in the same manner. Everything at dinner is about consumption. A platter is set on the timer and the dome is lifted to reveal the man’s head which once again cries, “Help!” After dinner, the husband and wife are at a night club. A very conservative, traditional couple dance on stage, a comedian is hit in the face with a pie, and then a stripper starts dancing on stage. He looks sideways at his wife, clears his throat, gulps a drink, and hiccups. Once again, he represses his sexual urges when looking at another woman. Any sexuality has been removed from the wife. She is seen as waiting dutifully for her husband and cooking for him. When she strips, it is done sloppily and reveals a locked chastity belt. The parallel between the stripper and wife reinforces the Victorian belief the women can be either a mother/saint of a whore, but cannot possess both matronly values and female sexuality and the same time. The man shoots the Mona Lisa and is sentenced by a judge. This could be phallic imagery of him finally ejaculating and subsequently being punished for it. He escapes prison by running and eventually sports mechanical wings he uses to try to fly away. There is more phallic imagery of explosions such as a rocket, The Statue of Liberty’s torch, and the wife returns to shoot a fire extinguisher in the air. A clock falls from the air and shadowy images from different points race across the screen until we finally see a corpse under a blanket. Time has run out for another poor schmuck. Time Piece premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. Muppet fans will notice Henson styles that bleed over to Sesame Street shorts that were also written and directed by Henson. Keep an eye out for cameos made by Muppet writer Jerry Juhl who plays a bartender, Don Sahlin who plays the comedian, and Muppet newcomer (at that time) Frank Oz (credited as Frank Oznowics) who plays a messenger boy and wear a gorilla suit. This Muppet fan gives it 3 out of 5 rubber chickens! Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.