Puppets on Film
November 12-20 at BAM
There are many noteworthy special effects houses today, but the world of CGI has never had a hero like Jim Henson. 2011 is looking like a banner year (at least in New York) for his legacy; there's an exhaustive retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, the impending return of The Muppets, and, now, the "Puppets on Film" series at BAM, co-curated by the Jim Henson Foundation.
Forget willful suspension of disbelief: Henson was about assaulting disbelief. The Muppets thrive on charm offensives, eroding skepticism and winning over curmudgeons one at a time; aside from poking holes in industrial showbiz, this was Henson and Frank Oz's favorite routine. They struck gold as a comedy troupe, but with puppet-populated films like The Dark Crystal, they were developing an aesthetic that melded dynamic, human theatre with tactile eye candy. By them, there would be no more of Walt Disney's dead-eyed robotic Abraham Lincolns, or the telephoto-ed iguanas with dinosaur fins glued on that you see in old Italian dinosaur movies.
Henson's death in 1990 meant the loss of a legitimate creative genius, who cultivated his own ideas while cooking up signature effects for mainstream movies. But it was an exciting time for Hollywood phantasmagoria nevertheless: computers were making new things possible, but studios hadn't yet plunged into the uncanny valley. Jurassic Park, itself no slouch in the puppetry department, came out in 1993, and the rest is history. Puppets are fragile, clunky, expensive, weather-prone, and an all-around dicier proposition than herding pixels; BAM's repertory selections add up to something of a golden era writ small.
After Henson's own projects (like the indestructibly fun The Muppet Movie), the best studio picture in the lineup might be Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Joe Dante's decision to put the uber-cuddly monster Gizmo at the franchise's center is a hilariously subversive comment on our cultural tendency to dismiss anything puppet-related as kidstuff. Observing the gremlins through grown-up eyes today is a treat, and not just because you get to watch them gag Leonard Maltin with a strip of celluloid; the film's as much of a classic as Labyrinth, if calculated for opposite tastes.
The series highlights gourmet work from the Henson-founded Creature Shop, like the animatronic beasts in Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are and the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, directed by Steve Barron. Whatever these films' shortcomings, the intricate character designs and puppeteers' performances in either will still make you lean forward and squint with astonishment. (Wild Things is an only partial case study, with the lugubrious creatures emoting through proportionately scaled digital faces.)
Action junkies shouldn't miss the quicksilver wire-fu of Chris Huang's Legend of the Secret Stone; the versimultude of this gothic, meticulous Taiwanese wuxia fable is jaw-dropping. And Jan Sverak's bittersweet Kooky is a gorgeous Czech road movie about a pink stuffed toy who gets chucked into a nightmarish landfill; as he works his way home, the film is riddled with wry characters and vehicles fabricated from vegetables, junky plastic, marbles and twigs. If it's not exactly Svankmajer, Kooky nevertheless packs the kind of punch most American directors assume children just can't handle.
With music videos, vintage clips, art projects and sketches, the four short film programs come most highly recommended, an unmissable stew of human ingenuity. The carnival atmosphere of these programs can't be done full justice here; in the "Shortstack!" assortment (supposedly for really young kids), director Paul Andrejco breaks the classic "Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly" routine into eight quick, standalone bits and intersperses them throughout the program, riotously building up to the conclusion in a master class of comedic timing. There are a handful of classic Henson clips, including Manha Manha (say it out loud), and a glo-brite Fleischer Brothers tribute by Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero called "Graveyard Jamboree," which mixes string-operated puppets with stop-motion animation.
Both in the Hollywood titles and the documentaries, the puppets (and puppeteers) are sometimes more impressive than the actual filmmaking. Mark Goffman's doc Dumbstruck checks the pulse of ventriloquism today, and finds the same fanatical, still-knocking-em-dead scene in convention centers, auditoriums and on cruise ships. It's a fascinating cross-section of American esoterica: one interviewee is a lonely former beauty queen who worked 482 ventriloquist gigs in 2009, and another is a shy preteen from the suburbs with a blinged-out black dummy sidekick named "Reggie".
In the "Puppets From Around The World" spread of short docs, you'll see gargantuan, papier-mache-looking elephants taking up entire streets, spraying pedestrians with real water; 150-year-old Indian wood puppets painstakingly resuscitated by a husband-and-wife team (who then perform nationally); and a Dutch duo whose life-size "mechanical tramp" pals around with a frenetic marionette monkey. Watching the pair mingle with a flesh-and-blood audience of giggling, shrieking children is its own payoff, as clear a revenant of Henson's spirit as can be found anywhere.