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THE CUBE (1969).

Long before the late, great Jim Henson moved to SESAME STREET and created THE MUPPET SHOW, he produced and directed this surreal, 54-minute one-shot for NBC, as part of a program entitled EXPERIMENT IN TELEVISION (and aired on a Sunday afternoon, which shows how much faith the network had in the idea). Strikingly original for its time, with a simple yet enigmatic premise, this b&w 'Monty Python's Twilight Zone' is rarely screened but still fondly remembered by viewers who saw it over 35 years ago. A nameless man (Richard Schaal) suddenly discovers that he's trapped inside a white-walled, 10-foot cubical room. After some initial confusion, he wonders how to escape, as various strangers enter and leave through hidden panels that he's unable to access. Some treat the man like an old friend or family member, others drop hints about his predicament, and furnishings -- a stool, a couch, a bed, and a liquor cabinet -- mysteriously appear and vanish. In addition, the man is seduced by a visiting floozy, an impromptu cocktail party erupts and a disheveled escapee from a neighboring cube joins him (only to abruptly leave, when he becomes homesick for his old cube). Many of his encounters are just plain silly, including Nazi-like stormtroopers searching for a hidden cache of weapons, a long-haired rock band playing him a tune, and even gorillas in tutus. But there are also sudden discussions about the nature of reality, death and identity, with any glimmer of hope quickly dashed. As the man becomes increasingly paranoid and stressed-out, the viewer wonders if this is a prison? A nightmare? Or is it, as one insightful visitor informs him, just a TV-show? Schaal (a '70s sitcom regular, married to Valerie 'RHODA' Harper) plays it straight, as he's pushed to the brink of sanity by everything from a not-very-handy handyman, to a black militant and a monk (Jerry Nelson, who was the voice of The Count, Mumford the Magician and SNL's Scred). Written by Henson and Jerry Juhl (who also penned Henson projects like THE MUPPET MOVIE and EMMET OTTER'S JUG-BAND CHRISTMAS), and with theremin music by legendary recroding pioneer Walter Sear, THE CUBE is strange and baffling, even by modern standards.

Also included on this disc is Jim Henson's Oscar-nominated TIME PIECE (1965), a playfully experimental 8-minute short with photography by Ted Nemeth, who also shot FINNEGANS WAKE (1966) for his abstract-animator/wife Mary Ellen Bute. It's a jazzy, syncopated vision of modern (and occasionally not-so-modern) life, as a man (Henson) wanders, bikes, bounces, and zooms about the city, amidst bits of stop-motion animation, bizarre segues, eating, sex, prison, assembly lines, and even painting an elephant. "Help!"

© 2005 by Steven Puchalski.