While Jim Henson is most recognized as a puppetry genius, there were a few occasions when he’d leave his characters behind in order to try something completely different. And when I say different, I mean seriously different!
One such foray into the ‘what-the-hell’ area of his psyche, Jim and long-time colleague, writer Jerry Juhl, fleshed out a script for The Cube. Produced for the NBC’s Experiment in Television project in 1969, Jim was almost adamantly as passionate about this project as he was with Time Piece (another project I’ll try to make sense of in due course). Jim was determined to be seen as an overall artist and creator than just a successful puppeteer. It’s rather interesting to watch The Man in The Cube struggling to make sense of his situation when the director behind the camera is trying to attempt the same thing himself.
In Jim Henson: The Biography, there’s a quote from Jim that describes The Cube as an ‘original, surrealistic, comedy,’ that, ‘dramatizes the complex, baffling problems of reality verses illusion’. What Jim called ‘dramatizing’, I call ‘completely ripping apart the concepts of reality and illusion in order to piece them back together in the form of an existential headache.’
The Plot and Confusion of It All
Is there even a plot?
The main story-line of The Cube is about an ordinary adult man somehow ‘waking up’ inside a giant cube-shaped cell. He seems to have no idea of who he is and where he comes from, all he can be sure of that he exists-or does he? As The Man struggles to get his head around what is going on, these strange people, who are no more than the archetypes they represent, make their way in and out of the Cube. They tell the man that he can get out of the Cube if he really wants to, but somehow The Man remains inside. I wouldn’t call this a plot, so much as a series of examples and situations stringed loosely together.
In the very first minute, there is already a question that needs to be answered: why on earth isn’t this guy screaming for help? He just woke up in what is essentially a prison cell with no windows or door. His memories seem to have been wiped, so he has no sense of self, yet he knows that he shouldn’t be in there. Instead, he wanders around in a daze looking like he’s simply being mildly inconvenienced by being placed there. What was Jim and Jerry trying to say here? Perhaps The Man isn’t panicking because the Cube represents a human’s life, a very neat and squared space of time in which chaos can ensue. The Man isn’t freaking out because the Cube is simply what the Cube is- it is what it is and there’s no point in questioning it because it is there to be what it is.
Just because he isn’t panicking, doesn’t mean The Man won’t try to work out how to break out of it. Right as he complains that there isn’t even a seat, in bursts Arnie with a stool for him. Ted barely finishes expressing his relief that he isn’t alone when Arnie slams the impromptu door he created closed. Then The Man tries to push it open, it’s as if the opening never existed. From here that process is repeated: the strange people barge into the Cube, the Man demands answers, the people impart stories and wisdom that would make The Riddler scratch his head in confusion then walk back out of existence.
Each and every one represents a different aspect of the life The Man should be living. Just to make it easier, I’ll break it down by each intrusion and try to determine what they are meant to mean:
The Family: My best guess is that they are supposed to represent the family portion of The American Dream so prevalent in the 60’s.
The Manager: Perhaps ‘Mr. Thomas’ is the idea of the boss in whatever workplace The Man was supposed to be employed in. Just as Mr. Thomas oversees ‘the establishment’, a boss does tend to dictate how someone’s life is run, even outside of the workplace. He causes a lot of the doubt and conflict that the Man endures.
The European N.P.D (and the Tied up Dr Kingsley): Perhaps influenced by the Cold War, these characters seem to represent the paranoia, sense of justice and guilt that one may feel throughout their lifetime. The Man ends up in hand-cuffs, seemingly having his ‘hands tied’ when it comes to fixing a situation which is out of his hands.
Interior Decorator: Miss. Biggs plays around with the pointless beautification of one’s life as well as the eternal search for beauty where it simply isn’t.
The Guitar Player and the Band: The song is so freakin’ delightful. ‘You’ll never get out til your dead’ is pretty much self-explanatory!
Watson: Every now and again, you’ll come across screaming, loud and clear warnings about your future if you take a certain path. Watson is the human embodiment of that. You can’t always escape your mistakes. Watson became so attached to his Cube that soon there was nothing else that made him feel safe- he gave into the Cube. Never give into the Cube!
Jack the Actor: Wait, so Watson was simply a character? What is real?
The Temptress: Lust and Sex can be a bit of a distraction, can’t it?
The Doctors: By this point, I really have no idea- something to do with the body.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
By the halfway point, it is suddenly quite blatantly pointed out that this whole situation is a TV experiment. The whole situation is so ludicrous that The Man can’t fathom it being a hallucination, so he asks to know more about it being a television show. And just to make this whole thing even more dandily screwed up- Mr. Thomas proceeds to show The Man the how it all supposedly ‘ends’, Is this Jim trying to say that our lives are pre-recorded and that we simply edit and add things in as we go? No matter what, getting out of the Cube doesn’t seem to be an option.
Funkadelic 70’s Guy: Racism and the ignorance that came with being a white man at the time. The Man should be grateful that he at least has somewhere to be, even if it isn’t quite what he wants. At this point, The Man is starting to crack as he realises that the Cube is the only neutral thing in his life.
After Party: Projecting a fake persona is sometimes the only defence mechanism someone has at their disposal. We all want to be seen in a certain way. The Man seemed to be in denial of this.
The Psychologist: Everything is anything because it’s everything. If you can’t understand how the universe works, then what is the point of living in it? Can The Man grasp that? I can’t. I really can’t.
The Sugar-coat: What is a lie? Who can you trust? To be paranoid is to have an ugly personality which leads to an ugly life.
At this point, The Man is well on his way to having a complete and utter breakdown. Now he won’t even leave the Cube out of fear that he may be tricked in some way. He has officially trapped himself into the ideology of the Cube, as we all seem to do with the expectations placed upon us.
The Gorillas: Oh for fucks sake! I think my mind is about to snap too!
The Comedians (?): I know it’s meant to say something about needing to find the funny side of life, but at this point, I’m about two more destroyed synapses away from a nervous breakdown.
Kid on Tricycle: Because making a kid chant something in a creepy fashion is very reassuring.
The Guru Guy: Okay, first of all- LOOK IT’S JERRY NELSON! Secondly, I can’t be too sure what he was meant to being to the table. There’s some more existential talk and then something about relying on a deity. Religion? Having faith?
The Funeral and the Gun: At this point, I’m too busy trying to remember if my hands are real or just a social construct.
The Perfectly Executed Prank: The perfect way to describe life.
The Man has finally cracked. Everyone and everything finally breaks down into something that makes sense because it makes no sense at all. The Man understands that now and makes his way out of the Cube, and into the office of the warden. It appears that he was in an asylum-type situation and now he knows exactly what reality is. If he cuts himself- he bleeds…..strawberry jam? The office fades back into the Cube and there he stays. Forever.
In what I can most accurately describe as a ’50 Minute Mind-Fuck’, Jim Henson manages to make sense of what reality is by establishing that it makes no sense of all- which is accurate. Reality is a construct of the mind. Science can figure out how the universe works, but it will only ever be a foundation on which we all lay out our own interpretation of life. We are all The Man, deliriously confused, from the time we are born to the time we die. We are all stuck inside our very own Cube and will just have to make the best of the situation.
The Best Response to Criticism I Have Ever Read
From the general tone of this article, I think you can grasp exactly how I feel about The Cube- Compromised, but very impressed with the concept.
In California after the show first aired, there was a ‘critic’ only known as Mr. Dionne who made his disgust with The Cube known by complaining that, ‘the most disciplined attention I could give The Cube was a belch from the grave of Marcus Aurelius, occasioned, I might add, by the dead weight of its own dust caving in on itself.’
Jim, using his keen eye for sensibility and modesty, came up with the following respectable response:
Dear Mr. Dionne,
What the fuck are you talking about?
Ah, such poetry! Such tactfulness that man was blessed with!
Muppet Enthusiast, Film Lover, Book Adorer. No one original, but (hopefully) providing brand new perspectives for the world to process. Currently a Bachelor of Arts undergraduate at Deakin University.