A Life in Felt

This weekend, I went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria for the first time. I’ve lived in the New York area my whole life, in the city itself for 16 years, and in Queens for 5, and yet never been there before. Shame on me, for it is awesome. Where else could you see some of the oldest movie cameras ever built and an actual Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back, and make a video flipbook of yourself doing the herky-jerky dance from Mr. Show? (After doing this, I neglected to purchase it, so double-shame on me.)

The main reason I went there is for a new exhibit about Jim Henson that runs through January 2012. And if you live anywhere near NYC and don’t go see it between now and then, shame on you, for it too is awesome. (If you want a sneak peek, peep this preview from Gothamist.)

The greatest thing about the show is how it has artifacts from Henson’s career/creative output going all the way back to the 1950s. You can see just how early his odd, unique vision took shape, in everything from little doodles to the first puppets he made. You also see how much work he did for commercials and industrial films in the 1960s. These ads look positively deranged now, so I can’t imagine what they looked like to an audience that was still grappling with the idea of the Beatles.

While he was making these ads to pay the bills, he was desperately trying to find a more creative outlet for his vision. The exhibit is filled with prototypes and proposals for different shows (of the TV and live variety) that never came to fruition. (One of them inexplicably involves Johnny Carson, I’m almost positive without Johnny’s knowledge.) Even knowing that he would become enormously successful in the future, these stabs in the dark are almost heartbreaking to view.

The thing that stood out for me while viewing the exhibit was how Jim Henson managed something almost impossible: life-affirming anarchy. A “no rules” attitude is usually associated with nihilism, and yet Henson managed to convey a positive outlook on life while also creating universes in which things constantly blew up and gotten eaten.

He strikes me as a more mischievous version of Charles Schulz, another person who made positive art with a dark undercurrent. And also like Schulz, Henson managed to license his creations for every product imaginable yet never really “sell out”. They were both so resolutely anti-cynical that it was nearly impossible for their creations to be corrupted, even when rendered in other forms. Although from what I know about Schulz, he seems to have been a much darker, more damaged individual than Henson, who was a workaholic but appeared to have his head and life together. (If you know about Henson’s life than I do, feel free to not correct me.)

The Muppets were a stealth influence on me, one that I didn’t quite get or remember until I was older. When I was a kid, there were two items I asked my grampa to tape for me and watched at his house constantly, almost as much as Charlie Brown specials. One was a Channel 5 airing of The Muppet Movie, which holds up pretty well I think. (The Steve Martin cameo in particular is fantastic.)

The other was a Muppets 30th anniversary special that aired in 1986. Aside from containing some rare, weird clips from the Muppets’ early days (like a DC-area kids show called Sam and Friends and appearances by Rowlf on a Jimmy Dean variety show), the special itself has some amazingly elaborate set pieces. Like an entire ballroom filled with basically every Muppet ever, all of them interacting with each other. There’s also some truly touching moments in it. I’ve watched it and been moved to tears more than once (and only been drunk a few of those times).

This is the first part of that special; not digitized by me, as my copy has been watched so many times the VHS tape is practically transparent. The other parts are easily found on the YouTubes and more than worth your time. As is the MOMI exhibit. Go yesterday.