Jim Henson's Lost Epic: "Tale of Sand"

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In his early years, Jim Henson wrote a screenplay called Tale of Sand that was never produced. He and his writing partner Jerry Juhl returned to the project repeatedly over the years, revising it, but it was never filmed, and the screenplay went into a drawer in the mid-1970s. Now the project has been resurrected, adapted by Ramón Pérez into a graphic novel that conveys the sardonic, absurdist humor of early Henson and Juhl. Read on for my review and an exclusive interview with Karen Falk, Archives Director and historian for The Henson Company.

Time Piece

The first thing you have to understand about Jim Henson's creative career is that it wasn't just about the Muppets. In the mid 1960s, Henson created his first landmark film, the live-action Time Piece, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Time Piece shows us an early incarnation of Henson, concerned with issues of alienation, conformity, sexuality, and mechanization. The film is available for two bucks on iTunes. It's well worth a look if you haven't seen it, partly because it helps to put the later work in context and partly because it's a really fun short film.

There's an excellent entry on Time Piece in the Muppet Wiki, including various stills. Here are a few still images from the film shoot; click for much larger versions:

Jim Henson - Time Piece top hat

Jim Henson - Time Piece prisoner

Related to Time Piece is The Cube, a 1969 experimental TV drama created by Henson and Juhl that occurs entirely in an 8-foot cube. The Cube is another important touchstone when we're talking about early Henson, and gives you some idea of what Tale of Sand might have felt like, had it been produced as a film. More on this below, when we get into the interview material.

My Kingdom for a Cigarette

Tale of Sand - Wandering

Tale of Sand is the bizarre story of Mac, a man racing through the desert (specifically, the desert of the American southwest), battling his better-dressed and -equipped doppelgänger, tempted by a seductress, and always, always, trying to smoke a cigarette. The most concrete and explainable part of this story is that Mac's motivation can be distilled into his desire for that cigarette, his desire for the peaceful setting required to smoke that cigarette, and his continual frustration when he can't seem to get a break (or rather, a light).

Tale of Sand - golf ladiesThe graphic novel, like the screenplay it's based on, is heavy on action, visuals, and absurd situations. This is not a talky piece -- which is why it actually makes so much sense as a graphic novel; as you read (or rather, visually parse) this book, you spend a lot of time by yourself, making sense of the beautiful visual madness contained in scattered boxes. Pérez lays out his frames expertly, conveying at once the disjointed mental state of our hero (like the protagonist, sometimes we don't know where to look until it's too late), as well as the gritty, fun, weird loneliness of the piece. It is the kind of work that makes sense if you've spent any time in the desert, and you've heard how the tiniest click or snap is amplified, and made bizarre, by features of the landscape. While it's undeniably a strange story (I would do you no good trying to explain it or give away spoilers), it is one that works in its medium only because Pérez manages to translate pages of action into pages of striking visuals. In lesser hands, this could have been a disaster. The attention to detail here is enormous -- and the nods to the screenplay are everywhere, from a custom-designed font based on Henson's handwriting used in the book, to literal screenplay pages shown scattered throughout the desert, integrated into the artwork.

Throughout the graphic novel, I was reminded of the Pixies song "Ana" (listen if you're not familiar with it). There's a sense of the American desert, and menace, and desolation, and unresolved tension. That may not sound like fun, but we're not here for fun -- we're here for an inexplicable death race through the desert. A death race occasionally interrupted by absurdity, including a cameo from Henson himself as a film director. It's good to see you again, Jim.

Tale of Sand screenplay snippet

Interview with Karen Falk

Karen Falk, historian and archivist for The Henson Company, generously answered a few of my questions. Away we go....

Chris Higgins: Can you tell me a little about your role at the Henson Company, and how you came to be a Henson archivist? I presume you were a fan of Henson's work first?

Karen Falk: I was working in the art trade but, being a Muppet fan, I couldn't help but be curious about the people I saw working down the block that wore Kermit the Frog jackets. When I saw a job listing in a museum association publication for something in the Henson Company exhibit department, I immediately sent in my resume. It turns out that they had filled the position already, but they kept my resume and a few months later, I got a call asking if I would meet with Jane Henson (Jim's wife) about the archives. Since the archives were just in their embryonic form at that point, there was a lot of flexibility in what the job would entail. I was hired as part of the PR department but supposed to focus on pulling together the archives and moving it forward. Within a year, the archives became a separate department. Jane Henson was really the catalyst for its growth and has always been a big supporter.

CH: What is the Henson Archive like, as a physical collection? I envision a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" style gigantic warehouse full of crates, but with labels like "Fraggle Concept Art" and stuff.

KF: Well, we have a range of collections stored in various ways. The document and art collections are on-site in my NY office - in standard gray archival boxes and flat files - looking like any academic or municipal archive. There is off-site storage with boxes containing 3-D items including licensed product, awards, etc. That is all bar-coded and in a database for easy retrieval. The media collections (film, video, audio and still photography) are in Los Angeles and we have two media archivists out there who manage those items. They have a library on-site, again in an air conditioned room in archival storage cases, and they have the bulk of the items in a facility specifically set-up for media materials. The historical puppets are managed by the NY-based Jim Henson Legacy foundation (I'm on the board) and share the same storage facility as my 3-D items. We try to aim for professional collections management standards for all of our collections. Of course, the labels can be fun - like the box labeled "Kermit Repair Kit" or "Jim's Sound Effects Card File".

CH: "Tale of Sand" is, to me, a product of an early Jim Henson that most people don't know about. To me, this is "Time Piece" Henson -- an artist coming up in the 60's, concerned with alienation, paranoia, and dabbling in absurdism. Can you help us understand where Jim was in his creative life when he started working on this project?

KF: Jerry Juhl once told me (in a discussion about The Cube) that there were a lot of people writing things with surreal paranoid themes at that time, so it was not surprising that he and Jim took a stab at some projects in the that direction. A lot of the humor that they were attracted to (Rocky and Bullwinkle, Stan Freeberg) was somewhat absurd and was part of a general questioning of authority that was growing in the 1960s. So - they were both aware of these sorts of ideas floating out there. As an artist, Jim saw that others were using film and animation to express themselves abstractly so he embraced the opportunity to try to express his visual sense - but he also saw opportunity in television as a truly expressive medium and took many of his ideas to the small screen, something less common at the time. He was exploring how to show on screen what was going on in his head - often in humorous shorts - and some of these projects reflected that. Jane Henson has described The Cube as being about a man trapped not in a cube but in his thoughts.

CH: Are there other Henson works that explore similar themes? ("The Cube" comes to mind, as does "Labyrinth" to some extent.)

KF: Time Piece and The Cube are the most obvious works along those lines. As I mentioned, Jim did a series of things related to "The Organized Brain" which was a sort of tour of the inside of a man's head. They were shown on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show and then Jim used the same concept for a Bufferin commercial. Jim's documentary-like "collage" (as he described it) Youth '68 captured a general sense among both the youth generation and the older generation that they felt disconnected and somewhat alienated by the confusion over how to behave in a changing world. Even The Muppet Movie is an existential road trip where the characters, particularly Kermit, have to find themselves.

CH: Are there other unproduced Henson works like this, waiting in the vaults? (I will gladly take a "no comment" if you like.)

KF: There is nothing on this scale, but there is a lot of interesting material that we would like to find ways to share. I've been putting a lot of stuff out there on the blog I write, "Jim's Red Book". We post entries from his journal and then I add background information and post documents and images from the archives. We have been discovering some wonderful footage that we've been posting as well on our YouTube Channel.

CH: What level of involvement did Jerry Juhl have in the writing of the "Tale of Sand" screenplay? (Assuming that's known.)

KF: Jerry was probably close to an equal partner on this and certainly would have been the one to translate Jim's descriptions of his visual ideas into words on the page that were specific and clear. They had already written two long-form scripts together: The Great Santa Claus Switch and The Cube - so they probably had something of a rhythm going in how they shared ideas. I am guessing that Jerry may have had a stronger impact on The Cube and Jim on Tale of Sand just because of the visuals, but I think it was a pretty equal collaboration. All of their projects - and pretty much anything Jim did - had to include some humor.

CH: What's the "Tale of Sand" screenplay like, in its text form? Specifically, the graphic novel has a lot of action and relatively little dialogue. Is the screenplay itself also light on dialogue?

KF: The screen play is almost all description - in fact, Ramón has pretty much included every word of dialogue from the script in the graphic novel. I just compared them and he's pretty much got it all.

CH: There were apparently multiple versions of the "Tale of Sand" screenplay written over the years, as discussed in the preface. Do those different versions survive, or was Ramón Pérez working from one version?

KF: We provided all of the drafts and script versions to Stephen Christy at Archaia (some of which are reproduced in the book), but I believe Ramón was working from the last revision for the book. The first draft is from 1967 and then there was a finished 1968 version that got sent out. In 1974, Jim and Jerry made some additional revisions before trying to sell it again, and that is the version Ramón focused on.

CH: In the larger culture, it looks like we're seeing a resurgence of Henson's work, not least the recent Muppet movie -- I gather we'll see Dark Crystal and Labyrinth projects coming soon. What can we look forward to in coming years from the Henson Company?

KF: The Company certainly values its history and wants to celebrate Jim's legacy, but in the 21 years since Jim's passing, we have also produced an array of extraordinary and innovative projects, like Dinosaurs, Farscape, and Sid the Science Kid. We will continue to pursue projects that both build on Jim's work (like our efforts in the direction of a Fraggle Rock movie) and to reach out into the whole array of new areas that we've pursued in recent years. More family and educational programming like Dinosaur Train and Pajanimals, more live stage appearances like Stuffed and Unstrung, and more film and television projects that take advantage of our technical and creative strengths.

Where to Find the Graphic Novel

Tale of Sand is available today from major bookstores. Try Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound. Because the book is a large-format hardbound graphic novel, and so well-designed (it features an integrated elastic bookmark strap, and a surprisingly nice binding), I don't think you would really want to get this on an e-reader, even if it becomes available digitally (it doesn't appear to be available currently on the digital stores I checked). Maybe if your e-reader did color. And had a super high-resolution screen. Maybe.

Blogger Disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated for this review.

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January 18, 2012 - 7:31am
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