Friday, 1 August 2008

focus on jim henson

Jim Henson with his loveable creation, Kermit the Frog
The world's most prolific creator of family entertainment, Jim Henson, will be celebrated in a rich exploration of his life's work at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image this September. 

Focus on Jim Henson is a showcase honouring Henson's pioneering contributions to the worlds of puppetry, television, film, special effects and media through a variety of screenings featuring everything from his best known works in television and feature films to rarities and early experiments from deep within the Jim Henson Company vaults, accompanied by a very special guest visit by Craig Shemin of the Jim Henson Legacy.

ACMIs Head of Film Programs, Richard Sowada, is enthusiastic about the diversity of the program. "Whether you are a little or big kid, you'll find something for you in Focus On Jim Henson," he said. "This season will be part retrospective, part discovery for ACMI audiences, so while reliving some aspect of Henson's work you'll also be discovering others. Best of all, there are a number of special treats for the adults."

Since his first TV appearance in 1954, Henson began garnering serious attention for his innovative work. Over the next 50 years, his work would be recognised with no less than 50 Emmy Awards and 9 Grammy Awards, as well as legions of fans worldwide.

Henson's best known creations are not surprisingly The Muppet Show and the loveable, enduring Muppet characters which have appeared on Sesame Street and are still recognised today. The Muppet Show brought children's entertainment to prime-time, and subsequently to adults, becoming staple family viewing during a time when television was making the transition to colour across the world. At its peak, The Muppet Show attracted 235 million viewers in 100 countries, won 3 Emmy Awards, spawned feature films, recordings and more. Similarly, Sesame Street, known for its multi-cultural, inclusive casting, has screened in 120 countries, in 20 languages and has won more Emmy Awards than any other television show, still today capturing the attention and affections of millions of pre-school children across the world.

"As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood. Certainly I've lived my whole life through my imagination. But the world of imagination is there for all of us - a sense of play, of pretending, of wonder. It's there with us as we live"
-  Jim Henson in Tales from America's Favourite Storytellers by Jimmy Neil Smith, Crown Publishing, 1988

As a champion of imagination, Henson provoked a sense of wonder in young and old across the globe through fairytales, storytelling and idyllic new, harmonious worlds. Masquerading as entertainment, even escapism, Henson's productions were often characterised by philosophical messages. He was a deeply philosophical man who knew that he could use his creations to expose people, especially children, to positive messages.

This very special season will see Vice President of the Jim Henson Legacy, Craig Shemin, in attendance. Shemin, a former writer for the Jim Henson Company, has scripted episodes and TV appearances, authored books, games and DVD releases for The Muppets and other Jim Henson Company projects. His knowledge of the company has led him to be referred to as a 'Muppet Historian' and his work with the Legacy extends to the role as the organisation's Archivist.

"I am delighted to be making the journey to Australia to present this program at ACMI. Since Jim always tried to reach the entire world with his work, I'm sure he would be thrilled to know that people in Australia are enjoying his creations and sharing the joys of his timeless characters and stories with a new generation," says Craig Shemin.

During his time in Australia, Shemin will introduce and commentate screenings and present his specially curated Australian showcase of works from the Henson vaults. 
The season's curator Jim Knox spent countless hours sifting through the Henson back catalogue and buried gems to find the best pieces for Australian audiences. "The challenge for putting together something like this is not what to include, but trying to figure out what to leave out. Jim did so much incredible work that you want to show everything," he said.

Focus On Jim Henson
will be packed into ten days this September.

Program Information:

Henson's most commercially successful creation, The Muppets, hold a suitably prominent position in this spotlight on his life's work. Beginning with Muppet History 101, audiences receive an extraordinary insight into the formative years of the show that came to redefine kids' television. Australian audiences will have a unique opportunity to see rarely-seen material including early TV appearances, commercials, guest spots on The Dick Cavett Show, plus the pioneering pilot for The Muppet Show called 'The Muppets: Sex and Violence', a parody on sex and violence on television. This special Opening Night showcase will be accompanied by live commentary from Craig Shemin, who also specially curated this program. 

Music was always an integral part of The Muppet Show. Muppet Musical Moments is a collection of Muppet musical rarities. Featuring chart hits and rambunctious cover versions, interpreted as only the Muppets can, the songs feature compulsory celebrity accompaniment with glittering performances from guest stars Harry Belafonte, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Raquel Welch, Debra Harry and many more.

Henson's penchant for the fairytale is celebrated through Muppet Fairytales, which parades some of his own special touches to some classic fairytales using his best known Muppet characters.

Emanating from Henson's love of the imagination was the desire to tell stories that evoke it using a variety of art forms. The Art of Puppetry and Storytelling is a compilation of rare footage exhibiting Henson's successful harmony between the story and the endlessness of possibilities of telling it and understanding it. Within this program, a variation on Henson's signature-style puppetry is evident in The Storyteller: The Heartless Giant, an episode of the remarkable television series based on classic folk tales, where an evil giant tricks a young prince into releasing him from his dungeon. This program also features are rare behind the scenes footage and a classic episode of The Muppet Show directed by Philip Casson.

Rounding off the Muppet mayhem is The Muppet Movie (1979). In the first of the Muppet feature length films, Kermit goes to Hollywood, along with his friends, Muppet favorites Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Gonzo. The songs are wonderful: Dr.Teeth and the Electric Mayhem lay claim to the title of Coolest Rock Band in History. The film ends on an existential note characteristic of Henson's work, often embedded with philosophical thoughts and meaning. 

Loved by kids and cult fans alike, Henson's definitive feature-length films, The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986), are mystifying fantasy films that still resonate in imaginations today. Displaying a stunning level of innovation using puppets and marionettes with futuristic special effects, these feature films are hallmarks of Henson's ultimate legacy. Mixing elements of Tolkien and fairy tales, The Dark Crystal, is set in a fantastical world where a hulking, dragon-like character, Skeksis, shatters the Dark Crystal and enslaves the elf-like Gelflings, leaving two young survivors embark on a journey to heal the crystal and restore equilibrium to the world. It comes to Australia in a rarely screened 35mm print and will be presented by Craig Shemin on Opening Night. Similarly, Labyrinth is a modern-day Alice in Wonderland, featuring a young Jennifer Connelly playing girl who must find her way through the Labyrinth to save her baby brother from the Goblin King, played David Bowie in a rare, spectacular lycra-clad screen appearance.

Another of Henson's great creations, Sesame Street, enjoys the spotlight during this season.  The World According to Sesame Street is a documentary exploring the global reach of the enduring program that started in 1969 and the challenges facing its messages of literacy, numercy and good natured co-operation. From its roots in the US civil rights movement, to its international expansion with co-productions in Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa, this program will investigate how social change can come from the most unlikely sources.

Legendry animators Marv Newland and Sally Cruikshank in are honoured in Marv Newland and Sally Cruikshank Shorts for their animation and direction on inserts for Sesame Street. Newland is well known for his humorous 1969 cartoon Bambi Meets Godzilla and work with Gary Larson, who personally chose Newland to direct and animate his seemingly innocuous Tales from the Far Side. Cruikshank, known for her unique, vibrantly coloured, indistinct characters reminiscent equally of birds and frogs, animated her signature characters to songs for Sesame Street. The work of both animators was named among the '50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time' in a 1994 poll and book of the same name.

Henson's lesser-known television export, Fraggle Rock, was originally created to engage international audiences and conjure up dreams of an idyllic and harmonious world.  A Better World: Living in Harmony looks at the series that contrasts three communities - the musical Fraggles, the industrious Doozers and the giant Gorgs - who all co-exist in a carefully balanced underground world far below those mysterious creatures who live above ground (humans). This episode is followed by The Song of the Cloud Forest, a beautiful evocation of a rainforest with stunning colour graphics that tells the story of a golden toad who must avoid the 'uprights' (humans) who are trying to capture him.

In the years before the international success of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Henson tested the limits of US commercial television with stunning results. From the Henson Vault brings together rare gems in a program curated by Shemin especially for Australian audiences featuring recently unearthed clips of Muppet television appearances and other special surprises ranging from the 1950s to the 1980s. Also screening is Henson's pioneering infomercial for an IBM word processor - a blazing montage of sound and image - and The Cube, an hour-long live-action film created by Henson 1969 that aired on NBC's weekly NBC Experiment in Television. The Cube explores the pop-existential absurdity of a man, simply called 'The Man' who hosts a constant stream of visitors in a room he's confoundingly unable to leave.
Commercials and Experiments continues to expose the rarities from Henson's early career with a truly great collection of shorts, crazy commercials, and other works from deep within the Henson vault, providing an insight into Henson's formative days. Highlights of this program include: an industrial film for Wilson's Meat that must be seen to be believed; excerpts from experimental television programs The Cube and Youth 68; and the critically acclaimed experimental short, Time Piece, an eight minute masterpiece that showcases Henson's talent for making music out of everyday sounds, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1965.

Dog City + The Storyteller: The Soldier and Death
brings together two of Henson's finest later works. Dog City (1989) features one of the most fully realised puppet universes ever created - an entire 1940s film noir city populated by wise-cracking dogs. The Storyteller: The Soldier and Death (1987) is regarded as one of the finest episodes produced for the landmark television series The Storyteller and tells the tale of a soldier who is given three magic objects which he must use to outwit otherworldly creatures and save a kingdom.

Bursting at the seams, the Focus On Jim Henson program will also spill over to ACMIs Kids' Flicks program where families can enjoy feature films Labryinth and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) at Kids' Flicks prices. 

The full Focus on Jim Henson film program is here

Further information

Claire Butler
Communications Coordinator
[direct phone] 61 3 8663 2415 [fax] 61 3 8663 2498 [mobile] 0434 603 654
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