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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Saturday, August 10, 2013

My Unfinished Thoughts on THE CUBE


Promotional ad for THE CUBE
If you're a devoted fan of Jim Henson, like I am, then you're probably familiar with, or at the very least have heard about one of his earliest television ventures, a special entitled THE CUBE.

For those who aren't as familiar with Henson's work outside of the Muppets, THE CUBE was an "experimental" television special for NBC in early 1969, that really put the "mental" in "experimental"; in a nutshell, the hour-long special was about a man trapped inside a containment known simply as "the cube".

Again, that's basically the plot in a nutshell, you have to really see this thing in order to really get an idea of just what's it about... that, and it also helps to read some summaries for a better understanding. THE CUBE focuses on a man, simply identified as "The Man in The Cube", played by character actor Richard "Dick" Schaal, who is imprisoned inside a cubical room that's composed of grids of white rectangles, he has no idea why he's in there, but he desperately wants to get out, even though apparently he can't.

I managed to finally see this special, in its entirety, earlier in the week, thanks to a posting on YouTube (excerpts have been available on the official Jim Henson Company YouTube channel for quite some time), it's really interesting to see one of Jim's rare earlier works, and one of his even rarer works that feature absolutely no puppetry whatsoever. One thing to start of with, is that this special seemed quite ahead of its time - there's actually quite a bit of swearing throughout the special... now, I know there's a number of people out there who have this idea of Jim Henson being a saintly fellow who would never allow such obscenities in his work, but that's a bit of a stretch (let us not forget this little verse from the "Happiness Hotel" song - "Still the management is cheerful, though the whole joint's gone to hell") - I'm not surprised so much that there's swearing in a Henson production, I'm just surprised he got away with it in 1969, when Practices and Standards were still observed, and such language really wasn't the norm until the early 1970s, when shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY came into vogue and paved the way for edgier television.

But, I digress, I find this special to be highly disturbing. I don't mean that it's disturbing to watch, but rather, the whole story itself is disturbing... both Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl (who not surprisingly co-wrote the special) really captured human anxiety really well: you feel just as frustrated and confused as the Man does whenever he's continually visited by an array of really bizarre and eccentric characters, ranging from an unnamed owner/manager and a maintenence worker named Arnie who provide him with advice that is of no help to him whatsoever, to Gestapo officers who place him under arrest, to hippy musicians who sing about containment and death, to a black man who dislikes the cube for how "white" it is, to a young woman who transform into an old hag while ragging about not trusting people, to an escaped prisoner of another cube who had obviously become institutionalized to his own cube (though he turned out to be an actor hired by the aforementioned unnamed manager) to even a monk whose spiritual advice offers no guidence at. All the while, the Man grows more and more desperate to get out of the cube, and like feeling his frustration and confusion, you also feel his desperation, and as much as he wants to get out of the cube, that's how much you want him to get out of the cube.

Behind-the-scenes, with Jim directing. Note co-writer Jerry Juhl in the background.
So, what exactly is this special all about? It's kind of explained in the twisted ending of the special, of which I won't spoil, but if you read summaries and descriptions of the special (remember when I suggested you do that?), the underlying message of the special is that apparently, The Man in The Cube isn't really trapped at all, he just THINKS that he is... in other words, he's not trapped in reality, he's trapped in his mind. Like I said, this really puts "mental" in experimental.

Both Jerry Nelson and Jerry Juhl make onscreen cameos in the special as well.

Check it out for yourself, and see what you think of it:

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