Reflections on Jerry Nelson’s Passing

When I was a little boy, I loved Jim Henson.

I didn’t just like him. I didn’t just enjoy his work. I loved the man.

He was probably the first person I knew as an artist behind the material he produced. Certainly I enjoyed other TV shows, and songs and films, but I always saw them in isolation. As products distinct from whatever anonymous forces breathed life into them.

Not so with Henson’s work. I don’t know why that is, but I knew his name. I knew what he looked like. I know not only that there was a human being out there bringing all of this wonderful stuff to life, but I knew who it was. He was the first artist I knew as an artist, and that’s either a cause or symptom of how important his work was to me.

He was also a less exciting first for me: his was the first death that hit me personally…and it hit me hard.

I guess I was fortunate that, by nine years old, I hadn’t had a family member die. Or a close friend. Or a beloved pet. But when Jim Henson died, it felt like I was losing all of those things at once.

I was devastated. If I choose to look back to that news, I find I’m still devastated.

Losing a friend is tragic because that friend isn’t there anymore. There is now a hole in your life where somebody you cared about used to be. It’s not easy, and shouldn’t be easy, to move forward from there. The world has changed, and one special person is no longer there.

When Henson died, though, the world didn’t just lose one special person; it lost an entire, powerful, selfless, incomparable creative force. A man who conjured up so much magic and wonder from nothing. A man who could make you laugh or cry with a piece of felt, and — what’s more — make you fall to your knees in sorrow when he’s no longer around to carry that felt.

Partway through The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist takes out a notebook and writes to herself, “Shall I project a world?”

That’s a line I keep returning to in regards to Henson. From his lone, singular, gifted vantage point, he projected a world. In fact, he projected three worlds. Sesame Street. Fraggle Rock. The Muppet Theater. He seemed bottomless in his capacity for invention. He willed entire universes full of unique, rich and complex individuals to life. He treated them with love and respect by handing them off to great writers and even better performers. Henson’s vision was a serious one, even when it was silly. It was a life-affirming one, even when it was breaking your heart.

To this day I think it was Henson that inspired me to create. After all, what Henson did with cloth and plastic is what any artist should be doing all the time. Whether it’s words, or sounds, or colors, or anything else that brings you joy, an artist takes these small, insignificant things and assembles them into something life-changing. Henson and his team may have been constructing their characters from common materials, but when you look at Kermit the Frog you don’t see green felt and ping-pong ball eyes. You see Kermit the Frog. That’s because Henson was a success as an artist. He used small, insignificant things to build characters we not only believed in, but with whom we wanted to share our lives.

When I write, I try to do the same thing with words. If could ever be fortunate enough to create anything as rich or important as Kermit the Frog, I’d probably die of shock. Henson created characters that rich and important routinely. It really was some kind of magic, and it’s a magic that died with him, that the world lost, and that I lost at the age of nine.

By that point I was probably a bit too old for Sesame Street, and so I could have moved my affection over to reruns of The Muppet Show, or Fraggle Rock. But I found that I preferred Sesame Street in some way that I couldn’t understand then, even though I understand now: it was longer. Each episode was an hour compared to the half-hours of its sister programs. And that’s why I preferred it: it wasn’t that I wanted to watch these characters; I wanted to spend time with them.

I wanted to be part of that world of Henson’s. Be privy to that vision. Be able to touch, and feel, and interact.

I wanted the promise of his work to come true. I wanted to live in a world in which I could sit on a bench in the park and look over to see that I was sitting next to Kermit. A world in which I could look up into the sky and see Gonzo floating away with his balloons. A world in which I could see Fozzie’s act go poorly on stage, but then find him later and make his day by telling him I enjoyed it.

I don’t know. Maybe my particular childhood cried out for escapism more than others. Whatever it was, the Muppets helped me through some really difficult times, be sheer virtue of their existence. They taught me that magic was real, only it was called creativity. And with it, you really could change the world.

Jerry Nelson’s death isn’t like Jim Henson’s or Richard Hunt’s, because Jerry Nelson lived a long and full life. He was faced with an impossible legacy to carry on…and yet he carried it on anyway. (That’s another kind of magic.) I’m not sad because an old man has laid down to rest, but simply that one of the last threads connecting me to my childhood, to my early sense of wonder, to three distinct and safe places I was always allowed to visit when I needed an escape, has disappeared.

Up to the very end Jerry was an enormously talented man. He may not have had a Kermit or a Fozzie or a Gonzo or a Scooter…but he had a Gobo. And a Robin. And a Count von Count. And a blue businessman destined always to be disappointed by Grover. He had characters that could fill out these worlds, and make them more real. Everybody who worked on those shows did me — and countless other children, and adults — a service for which they can sincerely never be repaid.

The fact that my sadness at the passing of Jerry Nelson leads me to think about the larger universes Henson created isn’t meant to be a slight at Jerry…but rather a loving acknowledgement of what larger, unforgettable, culture-defining things he helped bring to life.

There’s no shame in being remembered as part of a team. And there’s probably no team more impressive to have been a part of.

Thank you Jerry. Sincerely, thank you.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Dogtooth (2009)

So ends my week of cleaning out the Netflix queue…and what a way to go. Dogtooth is a genre hybrid, a coming-of-age tale crossed with lingering, shivering horror. It’s a story told between extremes…one where we don’t know the beginning or the end, but whose middle is open to us and lets us know that its beginning and end are being withheld as an act of mercy.

The film is a relentless hour and a half of Hell. A family is held on some remote estate by its patriarch, who keeps his children in a state of fear so constant and extreme that they dare not set foot off their lawn for fear of being killed by creatures unknown.

Their mother is complicit in this scheme, though it’s unclear why. She has knowledge of the outside world the likes of which her children will never know, but agrees with her husband that it’s best to keep the children confused, ignorant, and in abstract terror at all times.

They feed their children misinformation to keep from developing as human beings. This ranges from lying about the simple definitions of words to larger, more loaded deceptions…such as when the father comes home covered in blood to report that their nbever-seen brother has been killed by dangerous creatures because he disobeyed orders. The children are forced to deliver eulogies for this boy who never existed, and learn — as far as their father is concerned — a valuable lesson in the process.

We encounter this cruel and unexplained social experiment at the very point that it begins to fray. The children begin to behave monstrously toward each other, lashing out with knives during minor disputes. The son spies a stray cat on the family’s property, and guts it with hedge trimmers in case it’s one of the dangerous creatures they’ve been warned about. And a woman who is brought to the home to service the son sexually inadvertently triggers something in t leads the children to explore their own sexuality with each other.

It’s unflinching and difficult to watch. The camera has a habit of lingering long after we’d wished it would turn away, but that’s an important part of the experience. Great films know what to leave to the audience’s imagination, but Dogtooth knows that these things cannot be left to the imagination. That, in this specific case, the imagined horrors can never live up to the reality. And so you see every last terrible thing.

There’s very little story to Dogtooth, but it’s a powerful and cohesive experience, one which raises a wealth of questions about parenting, about childhood, about family, about society, about truth, about perception, about relativity, about love, about responsibility, about identity, and about knowledge.

It answers none of those questions. In fact, that might be one of the film’s themes as well: questions are deflected, deferred, or answered with a deliberate lie. Like the nameless patriarch of the anonymous family, Dogtooth doesn’t want to give us answers. Unlike the patriarch, it can’t stop us from discovering them on our own.

Next up: Nothing. The series is over. My regular schedule of not posting anything ever shall now be resumed.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: The Last Man on Earth (1964)

This is one I’ve been wanting to see for a while, and I definitely enjoyed it. Vincent Price is predictably fantastic as the titular Last Man, and it’s a delight watching him simply go about his day. Radioing for help, seeking out fresh garlic for the front door, clearing corpses from his yard and dumping them into a pit…post-apocalyptic New York is a lonely place, and Vincent Price has been trapped there, alone, for three years.

It’s taking a toll on him, but he moves forward. Humanity has been decimated by the very disease he was once working to cure…but now it’s too late. Even if he finds a cure, there’s nobody left to give it to.

Something keeps him going, though. Something keeps him broadcasting on all frequencies every day for three years straight, even though there’s nobody out there to hear him.

He spends his days collecting food and survival gear from abandoned supermarkets, but he’s careful to take only what he needs. Inside he still harbors the hope that somebody, somewhere, must have survived, and he doesn’t want to consume all of the resources himself. It is with this small act of self-restraint that he hopes to provide that phantom pocket of humanity some hope. What’s more, he even makes daily sojourns through the city, methodically slaughtering the deranged mutants as they sleep, just to make the streets a little safer for anyone else who might have to cross them.

If this sounds similar to Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, there’s a reason for that: they were based on the same book. The Last Man on Earth, however, is exponentially better. Granted, the mutants never register as much of a threat here, but the ones from The Omega Man were even less frightening, with their religious-cult overtones and and 1970s souped-up MonsterMobile. The same book was also adapted into Will Smith’s The Last Man on Erff…I mean I Am Legend. That’s a good number of high-profile adaptations for a single text, and in this case the first was probably the best.

For starters, it has a not unforeseeable but still quite brilliant (and Twilight Zone-worthy) twist to Price’s actions that The Omega Man doesn’t have, opting instead of a graphic interracial fuckfest because that’s definitely what we expect from a story about the last human being alive. I Am Legend ditches both of these developments…for all I know, as I haven’t actually seen it…presumably in favor of having Will Smith rap with some mutants, while they all wear nice suits and sunglasses.

The Last Man on Earth interestingly contains a flashback sequence of film-dominating length at its center, which shows Price and his wife and daughter living out the last days before the plague hits America. As might be expected, the death and devastation being felt by Europe at the time feels distant and impossible here in America…until we flash forward, and see his little girl and the woman he loves falling victim to it in turn. Price himself is immune, but all that means is that he gets to watch everybody he’s known and loved die before him.

There’s a particularly lovely moment in the film when Price comes across a stray dog, alive against all odds in the wasteland. He lets the dog into his house and is so excited by the prospect of company that he launches immediately into promises of all the fun things they will do together…only to find out that the dog has been wounded, and is infected with the virus. Cut to the last man on Earth burying a small figure in a shroud with a stake through its heart, and a figurative one through Price’s as well.

There’s more I could say about it, but I won’t spoil it in case anyone out there wants to watch it. It’s early-ish Hollywood horror, so don’t expect to have nightmares over it or anything, but there’s an enjoyable story with a wonderfully conflicted central character, and it outlines perfectly valid arguments about perspective and intent. It’s certainly better than watching Charlton Heston fumble with boobies, or Will Smith and the mutants teaching Carlton how to dance.

Next up: something is explained, a problem is encountered, the problem is compounded, and then the problem is resolved. Whew!

RIP Jerry Nelson

Well, this is some extremely sad news. Muppeteer Jerry Nelson has died. Nelson was one of the few original Muppeteers who remained active with his characters. (Dave Goelz and Carrol Spinney being the only others I’m aware of.)

His signature Sesame Street character was probably Count Von Count, but he also handled Sherlock Hemlock, The Amazing Mumford, and Herry Monster. My personal favorite? Mr. Johnson, the bald blue guy who would always go to Grover’s restaurant and get soup dumped on him or something. Poor Mr. Johnson.

On The Muppet Show he played Floyd, Kermit’s nephew Robin, and Camilla the chicken. My personal favorite though? Pops the doorman, who introduces the gang to The Happiness Hotel in The Great Muppet Caper.

On Fraggle Rock he was Gobo, arguably the main character of that show. He was also Pa Gorg and Marjorie the Trash Heap.

It’s impossible to put into words quite how much Jim Henson’s creations shaped my life, and every time we lose another connection to those original, magical creatures I feel a small piece of myself disappear as well.

But we can’t get hung up on what we’re losing. We should, instead, focus on what we were given. And Jerry Nelson gave the world some unforgettable characters. Rest in peace, Jerry. And thank you.