I don’t generally review books in this space, preferring to keep my editorializing and rambling separate from the analysis of the books. I don’t really know why the firewall between the two spaces makes me more comfortable but I’m not sure it matters. Nonetheless, I found myself having read a book that (a) isn’t entirely meant for kids and (b) doesn’t merit review so much as an observation about why the project never found any takers in Hollywood when it was written.
The book in question is a graphic novel adaptation of a screenplay by Jim Henson called A Tale of Sand. It is beautifully presented in full, rich color with an elastic band to hold the hardcover closed. Illustrator Ramon Perez has managed to find a sweet spot in the illustrations that feel very much of the era in which the script was written (the 1960s) without feeling stodgy or old. Set in the American Southwest, there are many surreal elements that echo the campy TV show Wild, Wild West while at the same time hinting at the absurdity and tension of Vietnam era.
The story, essentially, has a man – Mac in the script – stumble into a western town that’s in full on celebration mode. The Sheriff finds Mac and gives him refuge in his office only moments before Mac is to leave. Leave where, and to do what, Mac isn’t told, but he’s given a backpack and a ten minute head start. At the gun Mac goes running, though without understanding why, until he is caught up by a party who is hunting him down. Primary to the party are Patch, a cruel rogue with an eyepatch, and a woman simply known as The Blonde. It becomes clear to Mac that if he is to survive he must stay ahead of and outwit Patch, and the odd assortment of items in the backpack are there to help.
With that as the lead-in, everything that follows is a collection of absurd escapes until the final scene where Mac stumbles to a conclusion most readers will have figured out long before Mac does. Questions along the way: is Patch really Mac’s alter ego, his desire hunting him down, pushing him to succeed? Is The Blonde an ideal of the unobtainable, a fickle femme fatal, or merely eye candy? And given the cyclical nature of the story does Henson suggest that we are always running away from the same things we run toward, or was he merely tacking on a cute “gotcha” at the end?
Henson was only a few years away from the wild success that would grow from Sesame Street. He’d begin experimenting with film, away from anything Muppet-related, and picked up an Oscar nomination in 1966 for his short Time Piece. Stretching out with the long-form feature film, Tale of Sand was the sort of film that would have predated but fit in nicely among the late-60s countercultre films to come, like Psych-Out, The Ruling Class, O’ Lucky Man, Putney Swope, or even Easy Rider. Which is to say that it would have been of its time and probably not very successful.
Because it has no plot.
Its got a great starting gimmick, sure. The “ticking clock” is a time-honored classic. But if you’re going to put someone on the run, so that they’re running for their life, eventually we have to learn what it is they are really running from and we have to care about whether they’re going to succeed. It’s generally accepted that an audience with go with a film for the first 20 to 30 minutes without question, but by the time that first plot point is supposed to kick in things better start tying together. We don’t need a huge backstory or a complicated scene where the character spells it all out for us, but we have to be engaged by more than action.
And even as I’m saying this I’m trying to fight it. Who says? Why do our stories need these structures and emotional attachments? Can’t we tell a story of escalating circumstances that culminates in a moment of enlightenment, for the reader/viewer if not for the main character? Well, let’s see.
At the end of a story, what do we expect? We expect to be rewarded. Every storytelling requires a tacit contract between the teller and the listener, essentially a promise is made to deliver something in exchange for the time taken. When a book or movie fails on that promise we feel cheated of our time and energy. You can put a price on it if you want but there’s more than money involved and we make these transactions all the time. When someone is relating what happened during the day, when someone tells a joke, a blog post, a tweet, all of these social contracts have something to offer in exchange for their time.
Over time, storytelling has conditioned us to expect certain things from the narrative. We expect a sympathetic hero, one who has a goal or desire that must be fulfilled. That heroine must go through a seemingly rigorous set of trials by which we are concerned when they do not succeed and rejoice when they do. In the end, the heroes must obtain their goal or desire (or the replacement desire discovered along the way) in order for us to feel satisfied by the story. Storytelling has conditioned us to “know” the correct ending in a way that masks the truth: everything in between was a contrivance to reach the obvious conclusion. Without these conventions we would become disoriented, confused, and perhaps even hostile to the finished narrative’s failure to deliver on the expectation we created in out minds, whether explicit or implied at the beginning of the story.
So lets go back to Tale of Sand. Mac enters town and we, like he, are confused and disoriented. Very quickly, i the same dizzying manner in which we enter a new job, Mac is literally sent packing and on the run. We care and are concerned and it seems the contract is in place, because we want to know why Mac is doing this and we really want him to succeed. But along the way there are absurdities – the backpack contains a record player and sound effects record of a bomb that, on impact, has the same deadly effect as the real thing. We stop seeing Mac’s world as real and begin looking for clues, something to latch on to. Our hope is that there is an emotional through-line, something Mac needs to solve internally or through interaction with others that will clue us in.
But there is nothing.
Then, as we get closer to the end, we begin to suspect something we really, truly hope doesn’t happen. But it does, and it is the cinematic equivalent of “…and then I woke up.” We’re hoping against this because there is a cheat involved in the dream story, a swindle of both our time and the investment we placed in the telling, because had we known in advance we would have approached the story differently. We wouldn’t have been as forgiving of the deus ex machina involved at every turn (despite the fact that ALL fiction has the hand of its creator directing everything) and we might not have put up with the story for as long as we did.
In short, it’s easy to see why so many studios passed on Tale of Sand. As a story it’s got a great “What If?’ but only manages to deliver a solid “So What?” But you know what the weirdest thing is?
I still like it.
I like it because Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl tried to do something different. They set out to deliver something visually unique and, had they filmed it anything like the way it’s portrayed in the adaptation, they would have delivered. I like it because I can see so much potential within the story frame. True, its plotlessness allows everyone to read into it whatever they wish, but I see the most elaborate storyboard for a TV series never produced here. If each absurd section had its own segment, allowing for characters to articulate what they’re thinking and demonstrating motives, I think by the end you’d have something akin to Lost, or perhaps going back to its era, The Prisoner.
I am grateful that the Henson Company has decided to share some of Jim Henson’s woodsheddings. It’s a fun peek into a fertile mind, one that is sorely missed.