As a Jim Henson fan, I’ll admit it took me quite a while to get interested in some of his more unusual, non-Muppet related projects. In hindsight, it seems that this was a bit of a mistake. It never occurred to me that the inner-thoughts of a great filmmaker generally come through their most personal projects. Early last year, I was studying film genre and when the curriculum came around to discussing experimental filmmakers, I realized there was a piece of Jim’s mentality I had completely skipped over without a second glance.
His sense of mortality.
Time Piece, in its shallowest synopsis, is the tale of a man who finds himself running against Time, facing all the facets of life while trying to escape Time’s clutches. According to Jim Henson: The Biography and multiple other sources, the tragic death of his elder brother, Paul, provided Jim with an appreciation for just how delicate and short life can be. Many of his friends and family have reflected on this revelation and its effects on Jim’s own philosophy and work ethic, as if Jim believed he needed to get as much done as possible with the time he was provided by some kind of Fate.
While pretty much non-existent as you’d expect from an experimental film, I’ve tried to breakdown the narrative of Time Piece into three sections:
- Work, Sex and Family
Breakdown and Work Sex and Family make up the majority of the films run-time. The leading character who is only known as The Man (most likely to avoid any kind of generalization) seems desperate to live a life unencumbered by the workaday life that the standard American societal expectations has set up for him. The Man conforms to traffic lights, deals with traffic, gets a job he hates and joins the rat race. All of this occurs to a steady, on-beat soundtrack while The Man’s brain appears to be wildly off-beat, looking around for a chance to make a break for it.
Nine to five workdays, finding a nice girl, getting married, starting a family -The Man wonders if there is more to life than all of that and seeks to escape. The only word spoken in the entire film is ‘help’, The Man pleading to the audience (or Fate if you’d like to be symbolic about it) to get him out of his situation so he can be free from Time’s clutches.
Unfortunately for The Man, Time remains persistant. He comes to learn that Time is all encompassing, even having the power to strip him down to the most primeval aspects of humanity, seen as The Man walks through the city and suburbs and eventually finding himself in the jungle, stripping and relieving himself of his clothes as he goes. This is also seen later in the dinner montage as The Man and his wife are seen depicted in different forms of period dress and displaying varied forms of table etiquette (or lack of). This leads into an odd exploration of sex and feminine appeal in their most basic forms. Sex is pleasurable and entertaining, but it has a habit of providing more responsibility once children are conceived.
Personally, I read this as the film emphasising humanity’s ability to change and evolve, and Time’s blatant ignorance towards it, regarding it as it has been since the beginning of man.
This is where we come to Death. This more than anything explores and searches for the answers Jim may have been trying to find during that period of his life.
In the final two and a half minutes, The Man finds himself running the last leg in his race against Time. The montage begins with a medium long-shot of a judge banging his gavel, the signal of The Man’s final judgement being handed to him, followed by a series of narrow close-up shots of handcuffs being snapped to his wrists, entering a cell and then a wide shot of The Man in classic prison garb doing stone work. The editing is rapid as the shots continue to move by in quick concession, the climaxing emergency is emphasized by the trilling of a djembe in the percussion heavy soundtrack as The Man breaks from ‘prison’ and begins to run.
As The Man continues to run, his clothes change from the prison garb to a tuxedo and top hat. Random shots are mixed in, all acting as hints to the finality of The Man’s pointless life. A close-up of pink liquid pouring down the drain and a clock chiming allude to the phrases ‘pulling the plug’ and ‘time’s up’. As The Man switches between his tuxedo and a loin-cloth, he runs across a grassy field and through city streets, the camera panning horizontally to follow his actions in either wide or close-up shots. Other random shots are placed in between, such as The Man painting an elephant pink to emphasize the absurdity of life.
Eventually The Man takes to the sky in man-made wings, several switches are flicked, setting off rapid fire from things like a rocket launcher, a cannon, the Statue of Liberty and even The Man’s wife with a fire extinguisher. The Man is shot down, his death symbolized by an arrow hitting the bulls-eye, a bell ringing and a bowling ball getting a strike, all indications of a point being made or an ending of some kind. There’s a wide-shot of a feather floating softly down to the ground, only to be juxtaposed against a panned-in close-up of a golden clock thudding into mud after a quick cut.
A final vignette of earlier scenes acts as The Man’s life passing before his eyes, a superimposed clock chimes in the background. The final few seconds returns to the hospital room. A bed sheet is placed over The Man’s body, only for the camera to pan out and upwards to reveal The Man as the doctor, looking straight into the camera and winking with one final click. There are different ways you could read this conclusion, but I’d like to think it was Jim’s way of telling us that in the end, while The Man had spent his whole life escaping, he was simultaneously bringing it all upon himself through his own choices.
That’s a very broad conclusion to make from nearly nine minutes of nonsensical, weird imagery and a heavy percussion soundtrack all mashed together with quick cuts and staccato timing, but how else am I supposed to make sense of it? I may not understand Time Piece, but I can understand Jim and when you step back and really look at the driving forces behind this ambitious little project, there is almost no difference between Jim and The Man. Not only did Jim portray The Man, he really was in his own battle against Time, but knew he was never going to get away from it. Nobody can ever tell you for certain, but there is merit in the notion that everything Jim ever did was driven by that same ambition to just get things done because they were worth exploring.
Time Piece has been both a pain in the neck to grasp the concept of and a lesson in never underestimating what you can learn about someone from even their smallest projects. If I want to truly understand my greatest idol, I need to listen to what Jim Henson is saying between the lines. Not only will it make me a more-informed fan, but also someone whose eyes are much more open and ready to observe and understand what others may overlook.