Archive for Jim Henson

The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2015 by dcairns

Delighted to have a contribution from Tim Hayes, the first entry to this blogathon to celebrate a composer, if I’m not mistaken. The composer in question being Basil Poledouris — if you know him, you love him, if you don’t know him, read the piece, you may find you have known him all along.


Coral Browne, stunning in DREAMCHILD (1985). It was to be her last role, and it is suitably valedictory. “The grim reaper wears a smile for me.” Written by Dennis Potter, whose work always had a quality of aching nostalgia, even when he was young, and whose masterpiece may be not a TV play, series or film, but his beautiful final interview.

DREAMCHILD is about facing death, which means facing your life and reflecting on it. As a vehicle for this, Potter chose Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland, who made a trip to America aged 80 to be honoured by Columbia University. Potter equips her with a young companion Nicola Cowper, and a pushy American newspaperman (a ludicrously young Peter Gallagher). And, brilliantly, he mixes scenes from Lewis Carroll with memories of Charles Dodgson, the stuttering don who loved Alice and immortalized her, movingly played by Ian Holm (about twenty years too old for the part, but who cares when the performance is this good?).

I was lucky enough to see this on its (minimal, transitory) first release, with a Q&A with director Gavin Millar, a scholarly fellow who had made many BBC documentaries. One particularly good one on Fellini explains the presence of a rippling fabric sea in Wonderland, for the grotesque, menacing Gryphon and soggy Mock Turtle to exchange unpleasantries in front of.




The wonderland creatures, even the Hatter, are all played by animatronic creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. With its comparatively miniscule budget, DREAMCHILD could never have afforded these lavish practical effects, but Henson & Co decided to treat the film as r&d for the forthcoming LABYRINTH, so Millar got himself a bargain. The idea is to make the familiar fairytale figures threatening and disturbing, as the aged Alice has a bad conscience and is menaced by memories she doesn’t want to face. The Gryphon is voiced with Scots aggression by Fulton Mackay, who had plenty of experiences sitting on beaches in LOCAL HERO, the Turtle by Alan Bennett, and the March Hare by my idol Ken Campbell (who also appears as a radio sound effects man).

These sequences, and the transitions between them, are enhanced greatly by Stanley Myers’ sonorous score, which throbs and scrapes and elevates everything it touches with a high seriousness.


There are a few problems. The budget seems strained in places. Millar admitted that it was very hard to find stock footage of 30s New York in colour. I say that if stock footage is your answer, you may be asking the wrong question. Since the stock shots cannot be integrated with the actors, it can only serve as establishing shots, and “establishing shots are a waste of time,” as Brian DePalma once sagely grumbled. I can see why the movie might have looked too small and too internal without wide shots in the pretend New York (British locations and sets, reasonably effective). Getting a cameraman to the real New York and filming UP might have helped. Stylisation might have solved everything, but I can see why Millar wanted a contrast between the “real” and “fantasy” elements of the story.

Millar also confessed that the love story in the film struck him as its weakest element, and I agree. Part of this has to do with Gallagher, who seems quite capable of playing a fast-talking newspaperman of the period (Millar cited HIS GIRL FRIDAY as the model for this stuff), but who hasn’t been driven on or given his head, and who is surrounded by actors who need time to think, so the pace never reaches a third of what it should be.


Quibbles over — when the movie is in the past, it seems rich and lavish, and likewise the Wonderland scenes. Whenever it focuses on Coral Browne, it is a majestic success. And it has a secret weapon in Amelia Shankley as Little Alice, an incredible Personality Kid who can seemingly do anything, and is a match for Ian Holm in their scenes together. Millar remarked that the kids were amazingly good at looping dialogue, but really they’re amazing at everything. Shankley is immediately my favourite screen Alice, helped by the fact that she’s doing a different job than the others, playing the real girl rather than the fictional version (Potter’s character has more dimensions than Carroll’s) and by the fact that she’s close to the right age, unlike everyone else, ever. And since she has shorter, darker hair than the Tenniel illustration, she looks like the real girl and she’s free from comparisons with any other movie Alice anyway.

Millar’s excellent work with his cast is augmented by the disconcerting way he shuffles material — no doubt suggested at least by Potter, who delighted in flashbacks, dreams, daydreams — he brought the Fellini 8 1/2 approach to British television. It’s one big Kuleshov effect — elderly Alice looks, and the Charles Dodgson of seventy years ago looks back. Time shatters and the mirror fragments reflect a cluster of disconnected moments.

Browne was right to bow out here. There are distressingly few good roles for older actresses, and the chances of another part this rich coming along would be slim. With her big, wide, wide-apart eyes, she resembles at times an animatronic effect herself, but the life she projects is real, the lines on her face sculpted by time, not a modeller’s tools. I would wish for her a death as gracious as the one seemingly awaiting Alice, but it was not to be. Her death from cancer was protracted and undignified.

As a small recompense, she was granted immortality.

Jesus Cripes!

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by dcairns

I was going to run this at Easter but I totally forgot. Maybe it’s less inflammatory to do it now. Christ has been dead and resurrected for about a month — we can laugh about it now.


Film history is littered with dream projects that never saw the light of day. Since the story of Jesus is so well-known, it’s not surprising that a number of the most intriguing unmade movies were attempts at rendering his life in cinematic form.

A few examples of unusual Jesus movies:

1) Before embarking on THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, George Stevens briefly contemplated a project tentatively titled THE GREATEST STORY EVER SMELLED. To be filmed in the wonder of Odorama, giving audiences an authentic aroma of biblical times, the costly production was eventually scrapped when research failed to come up with sufficiently alluring scents. “We had the smell of camels, the smell of blood, the smell of Victor Buono. The whole thing was downhill after the myhrr!” complained Stevens, whose Scratch ‘n’ Sniff Messiah was shelved in favour of an unperfumed version.

2) Jim Henson’s  A VERY MUPPET EASTER sought to capture the passion of the Christ in glove-puppet form, making for a family-friendly version of a story that is often too violent for youngsters. As envisaged by Henson, the film would begin with Kermit the frog narrating the story of the New Testament to his little relative, Robin. The tale would then take shape in Robin’s mind, visualised with his friends from The Muppet Show playing the various biblical personae: Miss Piggy as Salome, the Swedish Chef as John the Baptist, the Great Gonzo as Judas. Fozzie Bear would have been stretched to the limit as Jesus of Nazareth. Henson apparently abandoned his plan when he heard of a rival production starring the Smurfs.

“In any case, the problem of how to show Fozzie on the cross without revealing the puppeteer’s hand going inside him might have defeated us. One technical mistake and the plausibility would have gone out the window.”

3) The Marx Brothers’ A NIGHT AT GOLGOTHA is perhaps the most tantalising of these unseen Passions. While it is easy to picture Groucho as the wily politician Pontius Pilate (he would have looked magnificent in a toga), and Chico’s casting as an Italian-accented Judas seems less implausible if we consider Harvey Keitel’s performance in Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Ey, Jesus, whaddayadoin’ makin’ crosses faw da Romans?”), it’s much harder to picture Harpo as the Messiah, and especially to imagine him conveying the significance, as well as the poetry, of the Sermon on the Mount simply by honking a series of car horns concealed within his robe. Alas, we shall never know if this bold experiment would have succeeded, since ultimately MGM exec Irving Thalberg ruled that Jesus could not be played by a Jew. All that survives of this project is a few minute’s footage of Margaret Dumont’s costume test for the role of the Magdalene.

4) Steven Spielberg’s J.C.: THE SON OF GOD AND HIS ADVENTURE ON EARTH was a sincere, if misguided, attempt to solve the problem faced by so many cinematic Christ films: no actor could adequately portray the splendor of a God in human form. Spielberg’s answer — special effects — was one that has served him well throughout his career. In 1981, fresh from the success of the bible-themed RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg hired animatronics genius Carlo Rambaldi to construct a metal messiah. Rambaldi had built a fifty-foot high robot gorilla for Dino deLaurentiis’s KING KONG, and deLaurentiis had once produced a film called THE BIBLE (“The film of the book”), so it all seemed to make sense.

“But no matter what instructions I gave Carlo,” recalls Spielberg today, “no matter what photographic references I gave him — Max Von Sydow, Jeffrey Hunter — he kept coming up with this shriveled little grey guy. I loved the design, but I just couldn’t take seriously the idea of this little homunculus curing people’s leprosy. He looked like he had leprosy.” In the end, Spielberg abandoned his plan for a religious film, but he was able to use the grey shrunken, wrinkled figurine as the lead character in another movie — 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.


Quote of the Day: Profiler

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2008 by dcairns

‘Like Stanislavsky and Brecht, I’ve invented an entirely new method of acting, I call it the enantiodromic approach. The theory of enantiodromia is that the left and right sides of your face represent different personalities. If you’re clever with mirrors you’ll see what I mean. My right side, for instance, is that of an inept housewife and the left side — or “facet” as we call it — is that of a spanking squire!’ ~ Ken Campbell, Pigspurt.


But NO! Because, THIS, from Lionel Atwill:

‘See, one side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man.


‘The other profile is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but lusts and dark passions. It all depends which side of my face is turned towards you — or the camera.’

Wait, I'm confused, is this his GOOD side?

Ken Campbell is a genius and antic visionary, but seeing as Atwill died in 1946, I’m pretty sure he came up with this concept first.

I’ve also heard that the artists of the late lamented Jim Henson’s late lamented Creature Workshop always sculpted their monsters a little lopsided, so that you’d get a better variety of expression when they moved their face motors than you do with, say, Tom Cruise. (Thanks to Comrade K for pointing out the connection between Scientology and animatronics).