Mistress of Puppets

Heather Henson hones the family craft to a fine art

Vampires on sticks stare icily through the darkened room. To the right, an elaborately constructed airport terminal made entirely of cardboard brims with facsimiles of uncomfortable travelers on their way to the deepest circle of Hell. On the walls, projected film loops tell tales of singing socks, musical graveyards and chimps with typewriters. But it's in the back corner where the biggest display stands: a fluorescent-colored birthday-party set-up populated with truly homicidal-looking puppets and featuring slices of cake that appear to be topped with body parts.

In front of this grim tableau, an effervescent and extremely unscary young woman is trying to keep her balance on a raised, wheeled platform.

"Is this high enough?" she asks. The photographer thinks so. "Do you want my hair down in front of my face?" Just a little. But once the lens starts clicking, all worries evaporate— Heather Henson, as expressive as any figure in the show, knows how to strike a dramatic pose.

If you didn't know who she was, you might be able to guess just by being in her presence. There's that familiar-looking face, which echoes her late father, Jim, the man who became America's most famous puppeteer. But there's also something of a puppet-like quality to her, from her stick-thin physique to her dramatically demonstrative body language in front of the photographer's lens, recalling some of the gestures of her dad's beloved Kermit the Frog.

Henson says she can see her father's soul when she looks at Kermit; it seems that all Jim Henson's children, be they flesh-and-blood or cloth-and-cardboard, have the family resemblance.

And now Heather Henson heads up a new family of sorts. Here at the Grand Central Art Center, she's proudly showcasing the creations of a new generation of puppeteers, brought together under her name. She's quick to point out that the numerous and varied creations on display and unspooling on the walls aren't hers, but she's proud to be able to use her family name (and funds) to bring this art form to a new audience.

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Though it seems a no-brainer now, it wasn't inevitable that Henson would follow in her father's footsteps.

"I totally wasn't planning on doing this!" she says. "When I was growing up, I was planning on being an animator, and then I actually went to school for illustration. I loved fine art. My interests were political cartoons, of all things. And then I went to more of a school for illustration and animation. It really didn't hit me to use puppets for my own work until after I graduated college."

By then, her father had died, and her older siblings were managing the family legacy.

A film-production class at CalArts set her on her current path. Asked to come up with a proposal for a film project, she pitched the idea of a series of short puppet films, a concept that sounded so good she proceeded to go ahead and make it happen, kicking things off with a film by her friend Tim Lagasse, who had been doing a live puppet routine called "Sammy and Sofa," about a Muppet-like punk rocker and his talking piece of furniture, that was easily adaptable into a short film. When that was finished, Henson and Lagasse bundled it with a few other short films, called it Handmade Puppet Dreams, and debuted it at the Newport Beach Film festival three years ago. They've come back every year since, with a new program.

But this year, they've taken things in a new direction. Through the tight-knit puppet-community grapevine, Henson was invited to screen the latest series of puppet films at Santa Ana's Grand Central Art Center. It was originally to be a screening just like any other, but a further opportunity beckoned.

"When the gallery contacted us to show the films, I just assumed they were looking for the actual puppets of the films. I assumed they wanted the puppets [to display] and then when we talked, we realized this was such an obvious show to do." Previously, she had displayed puppets in the theater lobby at the Newport Beach Film Festival, but the display had to be moved every night. A gallery setting adds security and cachet.

"I love this whole scenario because it really is a fine art," she says. "I think these puppets and puppet films are a fine art. So getting it the respect it deserves, by being actually in a gallery is very meaningful to me."

The show, "Heather Henson Presents Handmade Puppet Dreams," currently running through May 20, features puppets and sets from various films that have been part of the festival, DVD projectors running the films themselves in a continuous loop, and even some classic memorabilia from Heather's dad from back in his early days.

"What I'm interested in showing is handmade, grassroots little films in which the individual artist really handcrafted something and put it on film," she says. "Most of my dad's work that people know is after he became more successful: He worked with larger teams, meeting puppet designers and builders and teams of puppeteers, which is fabulous. But I'm interested in more. . . . Because he's my father, I have a deep interest in the work that was directly from his hands, without anyone else's hands. I love that." So while you won't see Kermit in the gallery display, you can see some early sketches from Jim's college years—including one of the first Muppet designs—and a handmade dragon-head maquette from The Great Santa Claus Switch, a TV special that came about as a result of puppet skits on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Aside from those, however, these puppet characters aren't your (or Henson's) daddy's Muppets! The eclectic denizens of this new Henson domain run the gamut of puppet stories and techniques:

• In Janie Geiser's "The Red Book," images fly by on what appear to be sheets of a cardboard, in a surreal attempt to capture a sense of memory loss.

Mike Mitchell's "Herd," which initially appears to be live-action, depicts a fast-food worker stalked by one pissed-off vegan alien.

Steve Johnson, who created such lifelike animatronics as the swordfish in The Perfect Storm, gives us "Everloving," with ragged puppets shot underwater for a surreal effect you'd swear was completely CG.

Hoku Uchiyama's "Prelude #2" uses Punch and Judy-like hand puppets to demonstrate the hazards of drunk driving, while another of his shorts features "Faust" as performed by marionettes.

Laura Heit's "Amazing, Mysterious & True Story of Mary Anning & Her Monsters" uses metal cutouts in the style of Victorian toy theater to correct the historical record on a not-so-famous paleontologist.

Tony Giordano, Jason Murphy and Scott Shoemaker's "Harker" uses rod puppets and old-fashioned film techniques in a parody/homage to F.W. Murnau's classic Nosferatu.

Paul Andrejco's "Last Rites" makes simple yet canny use of one of those "Punching Nun" puppets one finds at novelty stores.

And the show isn't just about shorts. One of the clips on display is a trailer for the forthcoming feature Dante's Inferno, a collaboration between painter Sandow Birk, filmmaker Sean Meredith and puppeteer/comedian Paul Zaloom (Beakman's World). Featuring the voices of Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell, it's a modern-day update of the Italian damnation tale, using contemporary American imagery as familiar to audiences today as Dante's classical touchstones would have been to his audience. Also, it's entirely done with handmade cardboard cutouts.

"I've had a lot of people who've told me that in the first five minutes or so of the film, they don't know if they're gonna be able to stay for the whole thing," says Meredith, laughing, referring to the full-length version. "They're like, 'Oh, no. If this is . . . if the whole movie's like this,I don't know if I'm gonna be able to stay.' And then they say, 'Oh, my God!' and then, it's suddenly the end of the movie, and, 'This was great!' A lot of people, it just takes a little while to settle in to this way of telling a story and watching a visual like that."

Meredith's experience echoes that of many of the other filmmakers, even those with substantially shorter movies. Heit, who curated a festival of puppet films in Chicago prior to being in this one, says that once you get the audience to watch, they usually like what they see.

"People are definitely interested, and once they've seen it, they're really interested," Heit says. "But the whole problem is that there aren't a lot of people doing it, so it's hard to get enough films together and then find a place to show 'em, really. I know when I did the screenings I did, it was sort of half stop-motion and half puppetry 'cause I couldn't find enough puppetry."

Genevieve Anderson, a doll-maker and sculptor whose short "Ola's Box of Clovers" combines some of her own family home movies with puppet work to create a comic and poignant portrait of her grandmother, finds that having audiences enjoy her work isn't always enough to make it viable. Her latest project is a 15-minute puppet adaptation of the Czech novel Too Loud a Solitude, produced by Henson with the hope that eventually it will garner interest for a feature-length version (a shorter "trailer of a trailer" plays the festival and the exhibition). The unique look of the sets and Anderson's elaborate handmade dolls are instantly eye-catching. "We've been working with this project for three years now, and we've taken it to lots of companies," she says, "including the smaller divisions at Dreamworks and HBO Films and Klasky-Csupo, and tons of places and people are like, 'Wow! So cooool. So coool. Let me know what happens.'"

What happens is no upfront offers. "Nobody wants to be the first on board because it doesn't make sense financially," Anderson says. "Everybody gives you money to create a project, but you have to be able to plug it into a formula that shows them they'll recoup their money. And this doesn't fit into any formula. But people's enthusiasm about seeing something new is really encouraging. I think you just have to stand for it and keep believing in it and proving what you're doing."

And "Handmade Puppet Dreams," as yet, isn't raking in the big bucks as a show, though that may be in part because Henson hasn't yet maximized the cash-in potential in the same way that, say, Spike & Mike's animation festival has. She admits as much, while acknowledging that perhaps more merchandising is something she should do.

Unlike siblings Brian and Lisa, who are very hands-on with the business side of things, "I have not come to terms with the fact . . . Like, I don't want to admit it," she says. "I don't wanna be this person, but I think I'm a little bit more of a puppet philanthropist than I wanna admit. I don't necessarily do this for the money. If I was approaching this more as a business, I would be selling DVDs . . . [and] if that's what the audience wants, then I should be delivering on that."

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."

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.

"Puppetry, in a lot of ways, it kind of dies when it's captured on film," says Heit. "Part of the magic of puppetry is the fact that you can see the puppeteer bringing the object to actual life. So when you don't see that happening live, I think puppetry can be very boring in film. So it's a trick to do well. I sort of set that challenge for myself when I did the Mary Anning film. . . . There's actual rain throughout the film. I thought that if I added this thing that we know can't be animated frame by frame, that it would put that live element back in."

Meredith, who pointedly doesn't consider himself a puppeteer at all, makes another key point about live puppetry. "Most puppet things that hit the mainstream, they're not very interesting cinematically. They're shot like a sitcom; they're written like a sitcom. And when you're doing theater, you have a lot more patience 'cause you're kind of in the same room as the artists. . . . [Sometimes] it goes slow because, working a certain marionette, things don't go in real time. It goes half-time or three-quarter-time, where it takes a lot longer for a guy to go across the room or pick up the paper or pass the bottle. So marionettes and hand puppets can be a little difficult to get across in a film that's not just straight-up comedy or something like that."

Henson herself isn't likely to start making films of her own right away. "Right now, it's the live experience because I love the magic of the inanimate object coming to life before me. To me, that's magical, the alternate space in full immersion. I feel like this magical stuff happens before you. Magic on TV doesn't do it for me as much as magic on the live stage. The awe of something coming to life in front of you and getting wrapped up with it, and that whole thing of being with an audience, too—I think it's more exciting. But there are wonderful things about film; the specificity you can get with film is great." She's hoping the gallery show in Santa Ana will be the first of many and is looking for a possible TV deal for Handmade Puppet Dreams.

And she has little doubt the audience will be there because "puppetry is hardwired into our humanity. Kids will animate things automatically. Kids do love playing with action figures, and before that, they're playing with their stuffed animals. I think it works so well for kids because kids have a great imagination and can take that leap of faith. That's why kids are an amazing audience for it. But I don't think they need to be the only audience for it."

"HEATHER HENSON PRESENTS HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS" AT GRAND CENTRAL ART CENTER, 125 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 567-7233. CALL FOR HOURS. THROUGH MAY 20.

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