Thursday, 9 July 2015

A Tale of Sand Review (Jim Henson, Ramon Perez)

Prior to reading A Tale of Sand, my knowledge of Jim Henson began and ended with The Muppets. It turns out that before he made his name with that show he was an avant-garde filmmaker who produced a couple of award-winning short films, Time Piece and The Cube, before writing the script for a feature, A Tale of Sand, with his collaborator Jerry Juhl.

The screenplay was never produced despite numerous revisions and the script lay hidden in Henson’s many belongings for years after his death. Then it was rediscovered and artist Ramon Perez was commissioned to adapt the script into a comic - and here we are!

On the surface, A Tale of Sand is a surrealist piece about a man running from another man wearing an eye-patch and a Van Dyke who seemingly wants to kill him. Why, we don’t know, but forward motion is everything and the man runs from the other across a desert. It’s also nearly a silent comic with dialogue appearing sporadically - the visuals inform the reader’s perception of the story. 

The first time I read this, I wasn’t that impressed. It was kooky, weird, arty - whatever. Then I re-read it the next day and… oooh! I get it! Yeah, ok that’s clever! There’s a lot more going on beneath the surface here. Readers who think about what’s happening symbolically rather than literally - this is surrealism, guys! - will get the most out of it. And Perez’s art, with Ian Herring’s colours, is outstanding. It’s definitely an interesting comic that’s worth checking out.

Ok, spoilers here on out because I’m gonna talk about what I think the comic is trying to say.

A Tale of Sand is a metaphorical expression of the film-making/creative process as experienced by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.

The man - some reviewers are calling him “Mac” but I’ve read this twice and I don’t recall him actually being named - is at a party seemingly being thrown for him (that’s how the film business is represented).

The sheriff (or studio head) in charge of the town (or studio), gives the man a cigarette (or opportunity/film) and tells him to run (make the movie) and they’ll give him a ten minute head start before they come after him (meaning at the start of filming, he’ll have full control, but that’ll change as the production moves on).

The sheriff tells him “If you don’t panic, you have a real chance of making it” which is self-explanatory and then also says “Don’t trust the map”. This is after pointing to a location on it that he should be running towards, meaning the script is apt to change while he’s running (or shooting the film).

The man starts off with an array of objects: a giant key (representing the initial idea), a bunch of flowers, a bag, and assorted items (the other ideas to go into the movie). Slowly, over the course of his journey (or production) he loses them all, either through compromise or he realises they just won’t work. The oddities and pitfalls he encounters throughout the desert are the metaphorical dangers any production faces.

Throughout the comic, there are references to the variety you’ll see in Hollywood studios - a football team and a group of stereotypical Arabs appear and try to capture the man - and there’s a nod to the way being a director makes you god of a small world (the way the man can flick a switch on a rock and make the world dark or light). Perceptions of time, space and beauty can be warped - the magic of film - so it’s not all bad and there are moments of wonder and pleasure dotted here and there. 

There are two-faced backstabbers who’ll pretend to be your friend and throw you to the wolves, lovers who’ll drop you when you’re down, and there’s always another director waiting in the wings to take over the production from you at the first sign of trouble - or un-co-operation. The man repeatedly tries to have his cigarette lit (take his opportunity, find satisfaction with his project, realise his ideas) but repeatedly fails through outside interference (the studio stepping in).

Ultimately the man with the eye patch and the Van Dyke reveals himself to be the man himself, meaning your own worst enemy is yourself, and the woman turns out to be the man as well, meaning the stories we pretend to tell about other people are really stories about ourselves. That first bit is a bit corny but it fits in with the overall theme of the book.

Eventually the man gets to light his cigarette and enjoy it, the party is in full swing once again, the sheriff welcomes him back. The shoot is complete so now post-production begins - a whole new nightmare!

When reading surrealistic stories, never accept them at face value and instead think about what the author(s) are trying to convey. Taking this story literally stops you from enjoying the pleasure of interpretation and thought that is the flipside of reading. Yes, stories are there to primarily entertain, but aren’t they made better with audience participation? And interpretation is at the heart of A Tale of Sand, a story begun with Henson and Juhl with their own vision, adapted by Perez who gave it his own spin, and then presented to the audience for their own ideas. And while I think this is about Henson/Juhl’s feelings about the film business, that’s just my interpretation. Other readers could find different themes in it – it’s all valid!

In the preface, Henson calls this a surrealist comedy-drama and the only real failing is the total lack of comedy in the script. I’m not sure where the comedy was unless it was absurdist nature of the imagery alone. You can’t really critique this as not having any real characters or story because it’s not really aiming for those things - different comics aspire to different effects.

Ramon Perez’s art can’t be understated - it’s easily the selling point of this comic despite Henson being the name everyone will recognise. It’s fluid, flowing, beautiful, whimsical, and a hundred other words that don’t quite do it justice. Couple that with Ian Herring’s perfect colours and it’s easy to see why Marvel hired them as the art team for Jeff Lemire’s All-New Hawkeye, a title now synonymous with great art thanks to David Aja and his art team’s work. And they’re certainly up to the standard set by Aja/Matt Hollingsworth too! 

So long as you enjoy surrealistic flights of fancy that’ll ask you to meet it halfway because it won’t tell you exactly what it’s about itself, you’ll get a lot out of A Tale of Sand. The script reveals Jim Henson as a deeper, more creatively complex artist than the one who found success with a frog puppet called Kermit. It is a quick read but that doesn’t mean it should be as quickly considered.

A Tale of Sand

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