Mistress of Puppets

Heather Henson hones the family craft to a fine art

Indeed, after seeing the films projected on the gallery wall, many will want to take a DVD home—and there isn't one yet, at least not one that's for sale.

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"Puppets doing bad, bad things is practically a genre now," says Matty Sidle, whose "Unicycle Baby Guy" shorts feature a half-baby/half-unicycle wandering a black-and-white sci-fi universe, trying to make friends with aliens who usually end up maliciously puncturing his tire; think "Mr. Bill" as re-imagined by Canadian retro-surrealist filmmaker Guy Maddin. "I think most people really get it. Puppets for adult audiences are all around us now in pop culture."

Heather Henson. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Heather Henson. Photo by John Gilhooley.

Certainly, programs like Wonder Showzen, stage shows such as Avenue Q, Peter Jackson's movie Meet the Feebles and perhaps even former WWE champion Mick Foley's cloth sidekick "Socko" qualify as popular adult puppetry. Henson, however, is no fan of R-rated Muppet parodies (though Muppeteers like Lagasse have actively participated) and has deliberately avoided seeing some of them, notably the recent "Sad Kermit" Internet short in which the famous frog—or, rather, a decent impersonator—sings Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" while shooting heroin and giving Rowlf the dog oral satisfaction for money.

"It's an interesting phenomenon, I think. It almost seems to be a part of the experience of growing up that we take our childhood images and have the desire to re-examine them and twist them on their heads. Some of it is really funny, but to me, personally, I'm so close to Kermit. It's really disturbing for me to see too much twisted imagery with it. But I have to say, I've been totally fascinated with it, and for a while, I'd been collecting some of the imagery that I saw. I don't anymore."

She does, however, take the time to address one of the more persistent Sesame Streeturban legends out there. Bert and Ernie were definitely notconceived as a way to make children more accepting of gay couples. "I think we just look at everything so cynically now. The first episode is so innocent. It had Ernie in the bath tub, but in kind of a . . . " She pauses, not even wanting to consider the possibilities. "I think an audience today would be reading all these . . . " Again she stops, as though even imagining what they might think would be a mortal sin. And then, clarity. "It was definitely not supposed to be a gay-rights puppet dynamic. All of these characters are often about relationships and human dynamics, and so it was about these two buddies and the different ways they would play off of each other."

Anderson laments the way society seems automatically inclined toward vulgar assumptions. "The whole Sesame Street/Avenue Q thing—that's what makes me really sad 'cause it makes me feel like we're all on this sinking ship and we're all laughing like, 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' This is the best that our culture can produce."

But she thinks working with puppets can, in the right hands, help to subvert that impulse. "Every time you look at a human telling a story, there's so much baggage. . . . We have this jaded perception of human beings because of all of the terrible things that we do. And I was sort of recently looking back to Dada and surrealist movements, realizing that that art form certainly came out of a time when people were disillusioned by culture and sort of had to re-frame the human form and make it very abstract to digest it. I have similar feelings. Puppets, to me, they're a core essence of people, without being personalities or superstars. They don't come with a history. They're kind of repositories for whatever histories we want to assign to them."

Henson says she's struck by the degree to which Anderson's puppets look like Anderson; it's not a natural connection to make considering that Anderson is beautiful and her dolls slightly trollish, but there's something about their eyes that echoes the creator.

Both Henson and Anderson admit to liking Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's marionette spoof that skewered Gerry Anderson [no relation] kid shows like Thunderbirds in a similar adult fashion to what Meet the Feebles did to the Muppets. But since Anderson's company appears to have mostly moved on to CG and live-action, perhaps in this case the parody has more reverence for puppetry than the original? Henson certainly wonders. "I was looking online, and they're doing all this CG on the 'Birds. That's just horrible to me. It's so blasphemous. I guess it depends on what part of Thunderbirds he is interested in. He may be more interested in the story and the characters, which then he can translate into a different medium. I've run into some people who work in puppets because they really wanna work with humans, but wound up not being able to afford them. Ilike the medium of puppetry. I love the medium of puppetry."

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Indeed, we've come a long way since Kevin Smith had his characters in Clerks lament that Return of the Jedi was "just a bunch of Muppets." Three digital prequels later, is there anyone who thinks the "Special Edition" CGI Jabba the Hutt was an improvement over the puppet version? The Jim Henson Co.'s own Labyrinthand The Dark Crystal, both critically panned and financially disappointing when they opened, are now taken for granted as family classics, with a Crystal sequel currently in the works and a new line of action figures for Labyrinth. Computer graphics can replicate anything nowadays, but there's often still a sense of tangibility that a puppet has, and audiences seem to sense it. Plus, you can't exhibit virtual characters in a gallery, and whether or not one accepts the premise of puppets as fine art, all involved agree that being able to see the puppets in person is a huge factor.

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