Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jim Henson: Commercials and Experiments

by Jeff W Guay

I can hardly think of a director's body of work worth revisiting quite as much as Jim Henson's. The craft, creativity and sheer entertainment value of a his early commercials and experimental films, showing this weekend at the Northwest Film Center, at once reinforce the charm and skill of his puppetry, but also illuminate his ability as a filmmaker of other strengths. The program begins with black and white commercials, starring early versions of favorites such as Kermit and Rowlf, for everything from bygone domestic products to homeowners insurance. There's an innocence and transparency to these 1950's advertisements, and Henson's comic timing and farcical nature make these commercials feel more like sketch comedy than the manipulative advertising we're more used to these days.

“Do you drink Wilkin's coffee?” a tadpole, perhaps an early inception of Kermit, asks a chubby, gruff-voiced monster while pointing a cannon in his face. “No!” replies the monster, and the tadpole blows him away, then points the cannon at the camera. “Do you drink Wilkin's coffee?”

The commercials are sure to be the audience pleasers of the program, but Henson's experimental, non-puppet short films are worth seeing as well. “Time Piece,” a 1965 short stars Henson as a sex-obsessed hospital patient, in the throws of a psychedelic identity crisis between caveman and proper dinner guest. The editing is meticulous, with everything from Henson's footsteps to the flow of inner-city traffic moving to the beat of its jazz soundtrack.

The program in its entirety gives us a chance to absorb Henson's technical wizardry, and to appreciate his knack for comedy in pieces that are not particularly intended for children. The commercials are perhaps some of the best of their day if not of their century, and rare interviews with Henson and the opportunity to see “Time Piece” in it's entirety are all wonderful reasons to catch this screening.


Sunday, May 3rd
Whitsell Auditorium