For many, Jim Henson is synonymous with "the Muppets." But, for as visionary as Henson was, the product known as the Muppets are the result of great collaborators bringing their own ideas together. Henson was the boss and much of what was produced matched his own philosophies, but he encouraged his team to think for themselves.
So, you may find it odd that, for the man who created the Muppets, his most personal creation did not involve puppetry at all. Ask anyone who worked with Henson personally, and they will tell you that the piece of art that is purely Jim is the experimental film Time Piece.
The 9-minute film can be watched here.
In 1965, Henson released this Academy-Award-nominated short, where he received lots of attention as an up-and-coming filmmaker. He showed the world that lip-syncing puppets weren't going to be his only claim to fame.
The words "experimental film" may turn a lot of people away, especially one that is created by a young filmmaker. Abstract metaphors and a pompous cloud surround these "artsy" films as they try to be edgy and different. But rebelling against the mainstream has its limits, and it can test the patiences of many. Henson avoided falling into the trap of alienating his audience by crafting a work that is both accessible and thought-provoking.
Everyone can get into this!
The film focuses on the life of one man, who stands in for the Everyman. The situations he finds himself in come at a rapid-fire pace. Each scene contains a symbolic image or circumstance that lacks overt complexity. Because the metaphors are presented so quickly, the viewer has just enough time to interpret each moment as the film moves on to the next scene. If there is a moment you don't understand, just sit tight because a new scene is just around the corner.
I'll admit, I still don't know what to make of the pink-painted elephant, but I like it nonetheless.
All of this is set to rhythmic beats based on a clock's "tick-tock" sound. Drums, heartbeats, breaths, and footsteps are just some of the many sounds that keep this film on track. This is all put in place to imply that man is trapped by time itself. All of his daily activities are just seconds ticking away from his life, keeping him prisoner in his own body.
Figuratively, of course.
There are only a few words of dialogue, and all of them are "Help." These come at the ends of particularly mundane moments, suggesting that the monotony of everyday life is the biggest threat to the man (or to Henson himself).
Eventually, the man attempts to break free and just runs away. The rhythmic drums become an improvisational jazz number, lacking any sense of pattern. He doesn't have a particular destination. He just keeps running and running and running. It's clear that this is Henson's answer. His yearning for people to embrace their creativity and to not get held back by...whoever is holding you back.
This iconic moment is captured on the Time Piece study guide, which is a thing that exists.
The man eventually reaches an edge. He can no longer run. He is forever trapped. There is nothing left to do but jump. And when he jumps, he gains wings! Henson has found his way out of the system! He has created his own method of living, one that no one before him has ever accomplished.
He looks down on us puny mortals. For he is Jim Freaking Henson.
But even in the sky, he knows that this is not enough. Once again he is must plead "Help." Eventually, everything repeats and reverses, bringing us back to the beginning, with Henson in the hospital room. It appears as though time has caught up with him and despite all of his endeavors, even he could not outrun time itself. Then, ever the trickster, the camera pulls up to reveal that Henson was also the doctor, showing that somehow, in some way, he escaped. He winks at the audience as the credits roll.
He beat the system. Even after death, he is still very much alive.
Despite not even hinting at the presence of the Muppets, it is very clear why his comrades considered this to be the quintessential Henson piece. It presents a look right into the mind of a man who would single-handedly change entertainment and innovation. Each second can be discussed and analyzed to convey some universal truth about life. It has it's confusing moments, but there is something that can appeal to everyone. Some moment that you can look at and think, "I understand completely." While most experimental films pride themselves for being avant-garde and indecipherable, Henson intentionally created one that could be enjoyed by many. Although the individual moments are familiar, they make a completely unique tapestry when woven together.
This was Jim's Mahna Mahna, which set the stage for everything that would follow.