Retro Short Review: Time Piece (1965).
This eclectic and satirical short film by Jim Henson netted the Muppet maestro an Oscar nomination for Live Action Short.
The Henson Company is having one of the many renaissances the company is famous for. The Dark Crystal has returned in television form on Netflix. Rumors of a Labyrinth sequel abound, with Don’t Breathe director Fede Alvarez shopping a script. The Muppet resurgence got some steam in the early years of the decade, and teased a new project for this year. Heck, as of last year Joseph Gordon-Levitt was attached to a Fraggle Rock movie. Fraggle Rock!
Digging in to Jim Henson’s filmography, I decided to look at something from his early career that wasn’t adorable puppets. Henson wasn’t afraid to dabble with more mature storytelling, and Time Piece certainly isn’t children’s fare. Blending stop-motion, abstract art, time-reverse photography, and jazz notes, this artsy short feels chic and counter-culture savvy. Watching Henson ditch the puppets to wax poetic about the existential angst of modern life feels like a breath of fresh air, even fifty years later.
Time Piece (1965).
A man (Henson) lays in bed, having his heart listened to by a doctor. The stethoscope picks up odd noises and syncopated beats. As the camera follows the sound, we get a jazz composition made up of musical instruments and the sounds of daily life. We follow the man through an increasingly surreal experience of daily life, seeing the mundane become absurd or dangerous as the tempo of the sounds speed up.
All in the Technique.
Henson went about making this film in a rather odd fashion. He story-boarded the whole thing out, but then shot it in his spare time over the course of a year. Maximizing his film and time, each sequence was deliberately kept short and sweet. This economy creates a pace that almost literally propels you through our protagonist’s day. Even mundane moments such as stamping paperwork or sitting down to a meal becomes fraught and frantic. The sound work underscores this. The jazz tempo pushes the events ever onward, and the ambient noises are ratcheted up several decibels to give it all a feeling of immediacy.
To suffuse everything with a surreal feeling, the film uses two consistent techniques. First, the camera follows most of the action in dolly shots, giving the sense of following close behind our subject at all times. Second, rapid cuts keep the pace racing, while allowing Henson to insert absurdist elements. As the man walks down the street, his clothes change from business dress to a hospital gown, and he goes from striding purposefully to hopping madly on a Pogo stick. At dinner, he goes from elegant evening wear to Elizabethan clothing, exchanging his restaurant meal for a roasted turkey leg. All throughout, the time and place and context slip and slosh around. And then we cut to the shapes and colors.
The sequences of the man going about his day are cut with frames showing just shapes and colors, and with odd abstractions that recontextualize the proceeding scene. As the office scene gets more unhinged, we suddenly see Henson’s face on the dollar bill, asking for help. The dinner scene ends with the waiter opening a platter, with Henson’s head on the platter, again asking for help. Each sequence of the day grows in oddity till it ends with a motif and cry for help, before cutting again to the jazz music and colors patterns.
It’s these elements that give the piece a subversive wink and nod. The normal becomes laughable and then grotesque – the man attends a burlesque and we get inter-cut images of various phallic references before we see the dancer has stripped down to her very skeleton, and then we get Henson’s head trapped in a toilet, again calling for help. It’s pretty clear that normal life is not only not desirable, but downright dangerous. The final scene has the man again on the hospital bed, covered in a shroud, before zooming out to show Henson as the doctor as well.
A Smile, Revealing Teeth.
There is a playful feel to this short, but also a biting critique of modern life. Work, high culture, sex, money, and even the legal system all have their fancy clothes yanked off. The skewering is cheeky in places; good for a laugh at our own peccadilloes. In other places, it’s almost an anarchist throwing bombs, showing how dangerously absurd we’ve let things become. The 60’s certainly had plenty to throw bombs at – but the critiques are mostly timeless. We’ve always been this messed up, as evidenced by Henson swapping casually between caveman pelts and black tie attire at will.
Part of the shock is seeing the the guy who voiced Kermit for my entire childhood ogle a lady’s chest while rubber stamping documents with the words “Sex, Damn!” I think that, much like the covertly satirical bits of The Muppet Show, the social satire and criticism not only hold up across time and audience expectation, they’re more effective for the smile on Henson’s genial face as he points again and again to the Emperor, completely naked.