[Review] - Jim Henson, By Brian Jay Jones

There are very few people in history that I would consider a personal hero, whose life and works are both an inspiration and directly influence my own. Nikola Tesla is one, Douglas Adams another. And Jim Henson. A man who changed the tone and nature of children's entertainment, pioneered experimental (and now ubiquitous) technologies, and died unexpectedly, leaving a hole in the world when he left. A determined, if at times obsessive, genius whose enthusiasm and love of the morbid and the heartfelt did nothing less then dominate the world for a time.

Brian Jay Jones, gifted with unprecedented access to the Henson family, the Henson Company archives, and to Jim's own personal journals, has crafted the most complete picture of Jim's life to date. You might think that, 23 years after his death, there wouldn't be any surprises left, and yet Jones' biography if full of small revelations that cast Henson in a different light then we're accustomed, but never diminished his memory.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that find it quite easy to be green.

This is an exhaustive work. At 585 pages, Jones labours to create the most complete examination of Henson's life possible. When the books begins touching on the making of The Muppet Show, and you are still within the first third of the book, you know that detailed attention has been paid. And yet it still feels incomplete. The vast majority of book is focused on Jim's professional career. Part of this is due to Jim's professional career being the majority focus of his life. He worked, and rarely stopped. What little private life he had was mostly the one he shared with his five children, who carry on the Henson legacy and are the most quoted references in the book. But where it falls short is in examining those more intimate moments. Considering the level of access that Jones was able to achieve in the development of HA! productions, it seems unlikely that the personal stuff never came up.

It hits the big points. Jones details Jim and his wife Jane's meeting and marriage (as was common in Jim's life, it began as a business arrangement that evolved into a deeper friendship). It covers their separation, and Jim's most significant relationship after his marriage's deterioration, with a HA! staffer named Mary Ann Clearly (strangely, it is this second and brief relationship that receives far more of the attention, perhaps because Jim was more emotionally affected by his romance than he ever seemed to be with Jane). Throughout the rest of the book, there are hints of a greater tale taking place. A summer man-whoring around Europe, a series of flings with HA! staffers and celebrities that Jim was careful to keep out of the press, but which his friends and colleagues all knew about. A row at his funeral reserved specifically to his extensive collection of girlfriends. There is an undercurrent of sexual thirst in Henson's life (for instance, Mahna Mahna was taken from a Swedish sexploitation film Henson and Frank Oz enjoyed) that is never elaborated on, and I wonder if it was omitted due to lack of concrete evidence, or as an attempt to keep as unblemished as possible the cultural image we have of Henson, in which case I say it does the narrative a disservice, as the man was who he was, and simply leaving it out is as dishonest as saying it didn't happen at all.

Beyond this weakness, there is little in Jones' account that can be snarled at. He has diligently, and perhaps at times too reverently, broken Jim's life into the smallest possibly pieces, so that the reader is given a week to week or day to day look at how his puppet empire came into being. Beginning with an (easily too in depth) genealogical examination of Henson's extended family, he quickly establishes Jim as a determined young man whose love of puppetry was not immediate or complete, but something he fell into love with and eventually came to feel quiet passionately about. He was the youngest ever president of the Puppeteers of America, pretty much taught himself his trade, and would be considered an innovative and near master of his craft by the time he was twenty. The creation of Sam and Friends, to the involvement in the Jimmy Dean Show and Ed Sullivan, to the eventual rise and success of the Muppets, is all laid out in engrossing detail. In part, this is to highlight exactly how much work Henson had to go through in order to achieve his success, a success that he himself thought came too late. And it is to highlight the most reoccurring theme in Henson's life: his obsession with detail. 

His older brother died unexpectedly when Jim was 20, and from that moment on there is the implication that Henson considered himself on borrowed time. His obsession with morbid ends in his work mirrors his own life long philosophical quest concerning death. Raised a Christan Scientist, though adopting more Buddhist like beliefs throughout his life, his position was that death was merely the next stage, that might result in reincarnation or some higher plain of existence (though he is never expressly notes as believing in a Christan Heaven). While Jim himself died at the age of 53, he lived in that time enough for two lifetimes. He slept little, and was constantly writing down ideas, developing new projects, and it was rare that he wasn't working on two or three projects simultaneously. As the people who worked with him at the time noted, it wasn't uncommon for Jim to stay in the studio until well into the early morning, or once his company spanned the Atlantic, for him to journey between New York, Toronto and London multiple times within a couple days. So consumed with ideas was he that, he would spend years developing projects, only to move his attention onto something entirely new once his previous interest had begun filming. He never once in his life seemed to linger.

Indeed, his output in the 1970's and 1980's would constitute an entire or multiple lifetime's output of a normal person. The suggestion is that Jim was somehow aware that he had a limited time, and his own disappointment for achieving what he wanted too late in his life was made up for by working so hard for the rest of it. And his eleventh hour turn-on-a-dime reversal of his life long creed, "Never sell anything I own," deciding to sell the Muppets to Disney in order to preserve his legacy points very much to this. "I like the idea of these characters living on in the Disney parks. It's a wonderful future for these characters. It's as close to an eternal life as a little frog can get," wrote Jim, an odd sentiment for a man who, to this point, hadn't shown any nostalgia or attachment to the characters themselves.

It should also be noted that this is a book that can easily move the reader to tears. The opening chapter is a slice of life moment, describing Henson filming a Kermit segment for Sesame Street, which is simultaneously heart warming and breaking. The chapter that details his death and memorial service is stripped of any of the emotionality that dominates other sections of the book, favouring a starker just-the-facts approach, and still is impossible to read straight through in one sitting. It was hard enough loosing Henson the first time, but after immersing yourself in his life some completely, to lose him all over again is very hard. And even if you weren't a fan before (what are you, some kind of monster?), I suspect it would be difficult not to be swept up by Henson's enthusiasm and joy over the course of reading the book. As his friends and colleagues note many times over, it was easy to work with Henson because his enthusiasm was addictive. So too is it, through merely experiencing his life vicariously. 

It is also a reminder (or illuminates) of how ahead of his time Henson was, in experimenting with or inventing new technologies to achieve his vision. How he was looking into computer animation in the 1960's, and was using computers to create Sesame Street segments in it's early seasons. How a character named Waldo, used in The Jim Henson Hour, was one of the first uses of motion capture. How the Henson Company invented animatronics, or set the standard for how every children's educational program since is designed (a fact that Henson lamented, wishing they'd develop their own ground breaking ideas rather than use his). How he was obsessed with the idea of using 3D, and that if he had lived, how the current 3D trend might have 1) happened a decade earlier, and b) actually found a way to integrate the technique into the film making process rather than just be an empty gimmick. It seems obvious that Henson, had he lived, would have continued the level of output he was accustomed to, and we are left to ponder what sorts of innovations we will never be party to, because he wasn't around to invent or inspire them.

This is the story of the life and death of Jim Henson, so it wasn't any surprise that it ends rather abruptly. The epilogue wraps up the lingering threads of his life, but I felt could have went into greater (and that this point, standard) detail about how his children stepped up and maintained their father's memory. Because so much of the last of life was dominated by the idea of selling the Muppets to Disney, a deal that eventually fell through, it is mentioned in passing that they were eventually sold to the House of Mouse in 2004, but nothing but a passing mention to the hardships the company went through during the 1990s. Much is made of his and Jerry Juhl's progress in writing a potential Muppet movie, the Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made, but nothing is mentioned of his own son's successful endeavour to return the Muppets to the silver screen in 1993's Muppet Christmas Carol. Because his life was The Muppets, the biography is as much theirs, and his children's, and the various Muppet performers, all of whom continued after Jim was gone, that the rather glossed over epilogue we are given seems inadequate compared to what came before.

But maybe that is more a reaction for the desire for the story never to end.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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