Friday, September 11, 2009

The Muppets and Gnosticism

[I put this post up yesterday, but forgot to change the timestamp, which was set to the day I started writing it, so it got buried with posts from four days ago. Sorry if you are seeing this again.]

For Sara's birthday I got her a bunch of Muppet DVDs and the first thing we did was watch The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan. We had this discussion at dinner about the movie that I thought might be worth getting down in blog form.

The main thing that stuck me was the ending of the first movie. Kermit has traveled from the swamp to Hollywood picking up muppets along the way, finally getting to the office of Orson Wells' Lew Lords, who gives them the "standard rich and famous contract." The next scene is the muppets themselves making their movie, which is the movie we have just finished watching, with cardboard sets. The film could have ended there, and if it had the point would have been that their hard work paid off, and that they found friends and became successful so you should follow your dreams and so on.

But it does not end like that. It ends as Gonzo floats up high on the movie set and crashes into the cardboard rainbow which falls and breaks the whole set and then the ceiling explodes opening up a huge hole -- and a REAL rainbow comes through. There is a close-up of Kermit singing which backs out so that you see all the muppets, then backs out some more so we see a host of Jim Henson creations all bathed in the light of the rainbow. This ending is quite different because it identifies the rainbow light of the imagination (which Shelley uses at the end of Adonais) as an otherworldly force, something emphasized by the fact that the rainbow lights characters that are beyond the scope of the film -- this is not the imagination of Kermit or the muppets, but of their creator.

(And THE Creator -- remember that the rainbow is figured in the bible as the sign from God after the flood, his promise that he will not destroy the world again.)

The other thing about the Muppet movie that struck me as particularly gnostic was the way the characters recognize each other. In gnosticism some people have that "spark" of god in them and these are your people -- you have to find them, especially because as part of the fall into the mortal world they have forgotten where they come from and may not recognize themselves as chosen (think of how Morpheus finds Neo in the Matrix). A wonderful unspoken joke in the Muppet world is that while we the audience can see that that one is a muppet while that one is Eliot Gould, the characters in the movie cannot break the world into such categories. When Miss Piggy runs off with Charles Grodin in The Great Muppet Caper no one says to Charles Grodin "why would you want to date a muppet rather than a human woman." As far as anyone in the world of the films are concerned muppets are no more different from humans than humans are from each other. Part of the fun for kids watching the Muppet movie is that they know, of all the people Kermit could talk to in one scene, he is going to talk to Rolf the Dog -- because WE know they are both muppets, and we know he will be invited to join Kermit in his quest for Hollywood. We know Rolf is one of Kermit's people before Kermit does, and it is satisfying to watch him work it out -- as for example in how they both sing together and harmonize within moments of meeting each other (music, for the muppets is the great shibboleth). Gonzo's "There's not a word yet, for old friends who just met" is an absolutely gnostic maxim. You are old friends because the spark of god comes from the same ancient source, but you have not yet met in the fallen world.

And this notion of the fall making you forget who you are is a key part of the third act of Muppets take Manhattan, in which Kermit looses his memory and forgets who he is. He thinks he should be working for an ad agency (staffed by frogs) and does not know the power that is lost inside of him -- except it cant stay hidden, as he plays a tune at the diner unconsciously, alerting all of his friends to who he really is. It is a good ratcheting up of the conflict in the first movie: there, muppets did not know they were muppets; here, Kermit -- the origin, the gnostic muppet messiah -- does not know he is Kermit.

(Notice also how the Muppets Take Manhattan simply reverses the structure of the first film. In the first film Kermit starts from nowhere, gathers people and goes to get his wishes fulfilled on in Hollywood by a very Wizard of Oz Orson Wells. The "sequel" does not have much in the way of continuity as they start at the end of their college days, get rejected by Dabney Coleman as they were accepted by Wells, then scatter, then Kermit forgets who he is and becomes a indistinguishable nobody -- Phil, surrounded by Gil, Lil, and Bill. It is only a last minute lucky reversal in The Muppets Take Manhattan that does not end Kermit in the obscurity that he began at in the opening of The Muppet Movie.

And in the end he gathers all the minor muppets he has met in Manhattan and says "That's what the show has been missing -- all of you" and he puts them on stage. See, because they all BELONG on stage, and he can remind them of who they really are, just as he recently remembered. And the human waitress Jenny? Well she can make the costumes but she does not go up on stage, because at the end of the day SHE IS NOT ONE OF THEM.

I am not sure about that last paragraph, but I am sticking with it just for now. Sara may have more to add in the comments.

22 comments:

Pallas said...

"This ending is quite different because it identifies the rainbow light of the imagination (which Shelley uses at the end of Adonais) as an otherworldly force, something emphasized by the fact that the rainbow lights characters that are beyond the scope of the film -- this is not the imagination of Kermit or the muppets, but of their creator."

You've seen the movie mor recently than me but,

Don't you have to ignore the beginning of the movie to reach that interpretation (and the intermission gag)?

The Muppets are watching the movie in the theater, and it's "mostly how it happened". The ending, as part of the movie in the movie, is an embellishment of the real story.

And why does the rainbow have to represent Jim Henson, instead of just something vague like imagination or following your dreams?

Pallas said...

Oh, and although its true that we know who the Muppets will pick up in the first Muppet movie, this has nothing to do with them being Muppets. (I believe some have muppet relatives or whatever)

It's because they are celebrities. It's like watching a movie where the Beatles meet for the first time, on the road to becoming stars. The Muppets are already the famous stars of the Muppet Show. We are watching the movie adaptation telling us how they became famous.

Jason said...

Big Bird is both Muppet and celebrity, yet he does not join the quest.

Think about it. I haven't.

Pallas said...

"Big Bird is both Muppet and celebrity, yet he does not join the quest.

Think about it. I haven't."

Great response. Of course we know he ends up a celebrity on Sesame Street, so won't be joining Kermit's group.

Of course Kermit was on Sesame Street as well... perhaps after his Muppet career took off? I can't believe I'm discussing this :)

Jason said...

How does Dr. Teeth's access to the script fit into this reading? He literally says that he knew where and when to catch up with the others because he has the screenplay: "A narrative of very heavy duty proportions."

(That's my favorite line of the movie.)

Pallas said...

"How does Dr. Teeth's access to the script fit into this reading? He literally says that he knew where and when to catch up with the others because he has the screenplay: "A narrative of very heavy duty proportions.""

Not sure if this is directed at Geoff or me, but basically the main plot is about the characters becoming famous, and the opening establishes that they made the movie after they were famous.

Its sort of assumed that they are the characters from the Muppet Show, but later movies change the setting enough and retell the process of becoming famous so that this isn't clear.

Throughout the movie, there's movie jokes like a line at some point "Is this going to be a recurring gag?"

There's also a point where the characters say "Here's the patriotic part" in the theater (one of my favorite parts, its very forced to suddenly have a random patriotic scene, but the characters put it in there as if its a required Hollywood chiche)

Dr. Teeth saying he read the script isn't inconsistent with the other meta jokes and could be part of the movie the muppets made but didn't "really happen"

That said I think Muppet is supposed to be simply zany. Trying to interpret it as gnostic or a movie in a movie, as I am trying to do, is somewhat forced, as the end of the movie eliminates the movie in a movie conceit.

If the movie was consist in approach, they would have been filming the Muppet Show at the end, or the scene would go back to the theater, but it doesn't

Lawrence Miles, writing about family Guy and Simpsons wrote:

"The Simpsons is a highly-developed descendant of the Hanna-Barbera Flintstones line, nailing itself to a fake-sitcom format which could almost have been designed as a way of training children to watch The Honeymooners (or nearest modern equivalent). Yet despite having a big fat idiot at the gravitational centre of the programme, Family Guy's roots are in the '40s Warner Brothers tradition, where the rules are in a constant state of experimentation and it's reasonable for Daffy Duck to go from twentieth-century comedy foil to twenty-fourth-and-a-halfth-century superhero in the space of a single narrative."

I think Muppets is definitely in the Warner Brothers tradition, the rules are in a constant state of flux and even if,as Geoff argues, they've reached Gnostic understanding at the end, they are college students trying to break into broadway in the next movie, or pirates, or whatever. The rules are in a constant state of flux.

Some of the Warners brothers films have the animal characters in otherwise human settings (I believe). Probably even recently that continued with space jam (which I didn't see) I don't think it has anything to do with characters sensing each other's souls.

A lot of early American animation is very zany (for lack of a better word) and there doesn't have to be a justification for a cartoon interacting with a human, in fact, the event being odd or "wacky" is its own justification.

I think its probably a tradition that goes back to some 1930s cartoons...

Pallas said...

"See, because they all BELONG on stage, and he can remind them of who they really are, just as he recently remembered. And the human waitress Jenny? Well she can make the costumes but she does not go up on stage, because at the end of the day SHE IS NOT ONE OF THEM."

Not all of the Muppets belong on stage, at least in the TV show, there's the critics and doesn't the rat guy work off camera?

Is that the movie where it turns into a wedding scene with Muppets attending the wedding? It sort of reuses the end of the first film where the line between the show and the reality outside the show gets blurred...

I wasn't a bit fan of Muppets Take Manhatten, it reused too much from the first movie, and I found it boring.

Richard Melendez said...

Great essay, Geoff. As I'm not well versed in anything Gnostic, I would never have come up with that interpretation. It's a fun way to look at a familiar film.

I haven't seen the Muppet films in at least 10 years (a tragedy you've inspired me to rectify soon), but in hindsight I took the first movie (or at least the end of it) as a somewhat of a nod to Fellini's 8-1/2, in that it's a movie about making a movie, which happens to be the movie that you the viewer are watching.

-r-

ct said...

i believe that gnosis is the defining element of the gnostic realized. the divine element is within all, but only the gnostic knows this.

also, fundamental to most christian gnostic dogma is the errancy of the creator or demiurge. it is the creator that is the source of imperfection just as the creator itself is imperfect. the creator is an emanation of the supreme divinity and all things that flow from the creator are further emanations of that supreme divinity and retain an element of the ultimate perfect divine.

it is only by knowing, gnosis, that one can return to that ultimate divinity.

so, the comparison of the imperfect reflection of the universe by inherently flawed creation to the movie set and the real world is dead on, but creator jim henson would then be relegated to the role of the almost-villainous demiurge. muppets recognizing other muppets is comparable if it emulates the knowing gnostic also knowing their fellow gnostic as one who -- well, knows, and not because they are made of different stuff.

during my admittedly strained composition of this, i returned to the previous comments to see your assertion that the analogy is rather forced, but i had written too much to quietly go away. call me ishmael.

Timothy S. Milligan said...

I would recommend watching "The Great Muppet Caper". It's much better than "Take Manhattan".

lazysmurf said...

I thought the end of the movie when the set falls apart and the rainbow comes through was a sign that nothing mattered since they all found each other, their community. It's the founding of the rainbow connection: the lover the dreamer and me.

sara d. reiss said...

"life's like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending"

I have a very different take on The Muppet Movie than geoff, although I don't disagree with his analysis. I was obsessed with this movie as a small child, watching it pretty much everyday at the age of 3 (although I had to make my mom skip the part when animal gets big) and last week was the first time i had seen the whole thing from start to finish in a very long time.

as an artist, i can't help but connect to this as one artist to another. Initially, I told geoff I was sad, because I wasn't immersed in the magic of the movie the way i remembered from my childhood, but once i became comfortable with these different "eyes" it opened up a whole new experience. The line I quoted above maybe excessively cheesy, but I think that's exactly how Jim thought and felt. It is incredibly exhausting to be an artist, and you have to keep pretending. keep yourself immersed in the world you're creating, keep believing that you will one day find the others who see like you, who want to be there with you, you pretend along with you. whether that is your fellow artists, your audience.

I recently learned that Jim hated this movie, it's the only one he didn't direct, and that the entire cast was miserable. but the sentiment still rings clear as a bell, so much so that I cannot even think those lines without getting teary-eyed and I still get chills during that last scene. I both know what it's like, to find other like yourself, when I met my friends in my MFA program, and we just clicked in, and I am jealous because I still feel like I haven't yet gotten the chance to "do just what I've set out to do," at least not yet. But I will keep believing and keep pretending because Jim did.

and for the record, kermit and fozzie meet big bird on the road, they're going in opposite directions: kermit and fozzie are going west and he's going east. They ask him if he'd like to join them to try and make it into hollywood and he says "No thanks, I'm on my way to New York to try and break into Public Television." Kermit and Fozzie share a look, wait a beat and say "good luck with that" it's one of the meta-jokes (one being that sesame street was already on the air for awhile and he basically WAS a public television start and two being that the idea of "breaking into public television" is a bit ridiculous). Carol Spinney gets separate billing and thanks in the end credits. So Big Bird's appearance fits geoff's bill: he was recognized and invited.

and yes, Muppets Take Manhattan is weaker than The Great Muppet Caper. And, while this came out after Jim's passing, Muppets from Space had some decent and hilarious bits, even tho they sort of ruined the magic of Gonzo. But pepe is a great muppet.

Telosandcontext said...

I am utterly head-over-heels with this perspective.

So much of our lives is a desperate attempt to find other people with whom we click, around whom we want to be, in whom we see ourselves; and while I absolutely do NOT subscribe to a gnostic theology as a means of explaining reality, it's the perfect way to approach our metaphors for it. And what better source of this metaphor than a children's movie about fantastical creatures in the real world? Beautiful.

And btw. Muppets Take Manhattan is a "line in the sand movie". It is the best of the series and to think otherwise is to be one of THEM.

plok said...

Wow. Sara.

Can't very well keep mum after that. Geoff, it is a gorgeous conceit you make here, really delightful and I'd like to see more in this playful vein from you...it's the bit about the "recognizing" that grabs me...and not to go tremendously off-topic, but somewhere in here is a resonant note with my beloved post-Crisis DC Universe, where we the readers knew about the "pre-Crisis" universe, but Superman and Batman etc. did not.

But, who cares about that?!

Back to the Muppets. Sara, you clearly care about the Jim Henson group more than any of us...hell, I would like to care about it as as much as you apparently do...

Would you be amenable to doing a couple of posts about the lesser-known "Muppet Movies" that most people probably haven't seen? I mean like the, what'sitcalled, the Meistersinger of Bremen, the Frog Prince (one that looms very large in my memory, and is it not the first singing of "It's Not Easy Being Green"?), and...

And...?

This is maybe not in my wheelhouse, but it is in my "how was I so lucky to be born at this time"-house. I know my mother thanked God for Jim Henson's Muppets every day when I was between the ages of three and six...

...And, she thanked God for Julia Child too, but lemme tellya that's a whole different story.

Anyone else want to hear Sara talk about art, sculpture, and what she thinks about Jim Henson? COUNT ONE YES VOTE HERE. Cripes, fellows.

James said...

Another yes vote here, and Pepe is great.

sara d. reiss said...

@Plok -- thanks! I do care a lot about Jim Henson. It wasn't just The Muppet Movie, Sesame Street was huge in my house -- we have like every record they ever recorded, and I do mean LP -- and it wasn't until very recently that I realized how deeply I was affected by Jim Henson, most especially as an artist.

I'd be game to break down his other works, although I'm not as familiar with some things as with other. For instance, I was (and I think I kinda remain) TERRIFIED by the Dark Crystal as well as the Storyteller series, but I was absolutely obsessed with Fraggle Rock. I own the first season of Fraggle Rock and can get my hands on The Frog Prince (a family favorite). There are actually some more obscure works I've been curious to watch -- or rewatch, like Emet Otter's Jugband Christmas -- so I'll talk it over with grandmaster Geoff and see what he'd be willing to let me do.

Pallas said...

". So Big Bird's appearance fits geoff's bill: he was recognized and invited."

That's a real stretch, and Geoff wasn't even claiming that being invited was the criteria. (Humans that come along don't count, apparently)

Wikipedia says the exchange is:

Fozzie: [to Big Bird] Hey there! Wanna lift?
Big Bird: Oh, no thanks. I'm on my way to New York City to try to break into public television.

If being a costume maker for the show doesn't count, i would think being offered a lift doesn't either.

Jason said...

A regular Jim Henson blog series by Sara would definitely be sweet.

Have y'all seen that Christmas special they did years ago where the Sesame Street folks, Muppet Show folks and Fraggle Rock folks all got mashed together in one giant extravaganza? (And they even crammed the Muppet Babies in there at one point, as I recall.)

It has a great exchange between Fozzie and Ernie and Burt, where Fozzie is trying to ask them normal questions like, "So, did you have trouble finding the cabin?" And they say, "Cabin! That starts with C!" And Fozzie says, yeah, do you want something to drink? "Drink! That starts with D!" And finally Fozzie says, "What are you guys doing?" And Ernie says, "Where we come from, this is considered small talk."

CLASSIC!

Also, how do we feel about Muppet Treasure Island? I think that one is on a par with "From Space" as a really solid, amusing and entertaining post-Henson Muppet movie.

Geoff Klock said...

Pallas: You wrote "And why does the rainbow have to represent Jim Henson, instead of just something vague like imagination or following your dreams?" I totally did say it represented Imagination. That is a fair point about them being celebrities, and I will admit that some of this post is a bit of a stretch. Stretching is good harmless fun, and can lead to healthy good thoughts.

Jason -- I have no idea how the Dr Teeth thing fits in. That is a great line though,

Pallas -- that is a great quote about family guy and Warner Bros. Oh, and I seriously dont think you should read Grant Morrison's Animal Man in which he figures Wilie E Coyote as an eternally suffering christ figure. You would HATE that.

Richard -- HEY SCOTT, you are always looking for weird and fun pairs of movies for your class. I think the Muppet Movie and 8 1/2 is PERFECT for you. Thank Richard.

CT -- Gnosticism is not exactly a belief -- it is more of a collection of various heretical stuff. And everyone is right -- this does not work perfectly.

Lazysmurf -- I did not mean to say that that reading was wrong, just that the gnostic one is also related -- they have created a gnostic community

Sara -- agreed about Muppets in Space, though I hated the fact that they gave Gonzo and origin.

Plok -- elsewhere, you wanted to know why more wives and girlfriends do not post on blogs. one reason I have found it that women get some very aggressive trolls in comments. That said, yes I would love to see sara do that. I got her a ton of muppet stuff for her birthday so she cant say she does not have access to the material.

Jason -- CLASSIC.

Soferet Avielah Barclay said...

Judaism teaches that all people contain a spark of G@d, and indeed that all of Creation is in fact being perpetually generated by G@d.

We also have a special blessing which we say each time we see a rainbow. Traditionally we say it in Hebrew, but it English it goes like this:
"Blessed are You, L@rd our G@d, Sovreign over time and space, Who remembers the covenant and is faithful to His promise, and Who keeps His word".

Tablesaw said...

Re the running gag:

Though it feels a bit dated now, the "running gag" is apt for this reading. When characters say that they are "lost," the response is "Have you tried Hare Krishna?" replacing a spatial reading for a spiritual one.

Also, one of the trackbacks to this post has a screencap of the final rainbow shot. It's small, but it's still clear to see that Big Bird does appear at the end of the film bathed in the great rainbow (along with, if I remember correctly, several other Sesame Street muppets that did not appear elsewhere in the film).

Pallas said...

"Also, one of the trackbacks to this post has a screencap of the final rainbow shot. It's small, but it's still clear to see that Big Bird does appear at the end of the film bathed in the great rainbow (along with, if I remember correctly, several other Sesame Street muppets that did not appear elsewhere in the film)."

The end probably has every Jim Henson Muppet, including ones he made for SNL that the regulars never interact with. I would see it as more of a "look at the world Jim Henson has created" moment.

Being a Muppet doesn't mean the characters get along or belong together, as I'm remembering that there were other Frogs in the advertising agency that Kermit didn't belong with in Muppets Take Manhatten, or at the very least he had more in common with the human character when he didn't have amnesia.

The frogs probably still appear in the Muppet montages where all of the puppets fill the sets.