Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Cube (1969)

NBC’s Experiment in Television -- broadcast February 23, 1969 -- is as avant garde and challenging a work of art as one is likely to find in the medium.

In fact, it’s difficult to believe that prime-time network television programming from that homogenized era in mass entertainment could have produced something so individual, so singular, and so surreal.

Jim Henson’s The Cube is a fifty-four minute drama that takes place largely inside of one room (the titular cube), and is about nothing less than the nature of reality itself.

In particular, The Cube is the tale of one man (Richard Schaal) who finds himself inside a room-sized cube, and who -- over time -- is confronted with various characters, various escape options, and competing views of reality.

For example, our protagonist is visited by a handy-man, the manager of the “entire establishment,” a scientist, a prospective lover, an escapee, and even a rock band.  He also meets a doctor, and family members that he doesn’t recognize.

Significantly, not one of these individuals appears to understand his burning, desperate desire to leave the cube and get home. No one can help him in any significant way.  

They all come inside the cube to visit him, then turn around and leave…and seal the doors behind them, making him a veritable prisoner. 

No one is trapped. Some people are content to stay,” notes one visitor to the cube. 

But that information -- like so much of the data available to the prisoner -- is woefully limited.  When he attempts to just walk out a door, for example, the protagonist is informed he can’t get out that way. 

He must find his own door if he wishes to depart. 

This is our first clue that the cube isn’t concrete, in some sense, but rather a manifestation of the prisoner’s thoughts, attitudes and philosophies.

Accordingly, throughout the hour, the man inside the cube is repeatedly asked to gaze at his existence inside the white-walled chamber from a variety of different viewpoints.

Is he on a TV show, literally a projected image that others are watching? 

Is he actually dead, and living in some kind of hellish, Kafka-esque after-life? 

Is he experiencing another quantum reality?

Has he had a psychotic break?

The answers aren’t what you might expect, and The Cube, accordingly, is quite disturbing. 

The man in the cube, for instance, is visited by people who claim to be his wife and parents, and call him “Ted.” 

Yet he doesn’t recognize them or remember them. From their example, he might recognize that he is the “object” in their particular “realities,” rather than the subject in his own reality. It’s a powerful disconnect, and at times, a baffling one.

Similarly, it’s important to consider that we never see the man wake up or enter the cube…he is just there when the story starts.  It’s as if he’s always been there.  The first shot of the production is of his head in shadow, as if we are inside his head, his brain.  He steps back, and we are in the cube together.

In other words, we assume -- given our understanding of reality -- that this character has come from another place and become trapped here, in this strange realm, especially because he appears to want to leave so desperately. 

But is this assumption correct? 

Is there, even, a world outside the cube at all?

Well, not if the cube is actually engineered by his mind; and represents his understanding of reality. 

The contextual clues suggest, perhaps, that our protagonist doesn’t have a life at all outside the walls of the cube. All the various and sundry visitors are, therefore, avatars for his warring thoughts; for points of view about the nature of reality.  Sometimes those thoughts are hopeful; sometimes (as in the case of the weird comedy act clowns) they are disturbing.

In this sense, the visitors are not "real" people at all (objects to his subject, as it were), but perhaps manifestations of his thoughts and ideas. 

One of those people talks to him about science; about quantum reality and the “elemental structures” of existence. Another confronts him with the concept of aging, going from beautiful young woman to aging crone in a matter of minutes.  One person asks him, specifically, if “it has ever occurred” to him that he has died and that the cube is “what death is?

When the man protagonist asserts that life in the cube is a nightmare, he is informed that he can “turn it off.”  But later he is told not to “struggle” that death is “nothing.”

So what does it all mean?

I would suggest that the teleplay subtly raises the idea that all of human life is actually a construct, one that we create for ourselves as a kind of self-limiting box. 

Life is a version of the Matrix, essentially, with doors leading to other matrices. Unfortunately, we can't travel through those doors. Instead, we remain trapped in our own Matrix by the limits of our identity, and our own sense of individual perception.  We carry those things with us, no matter what. 

We are ill-equipped to do otherwise.  We are incapable of seeing "reality" through the eyes of another being.

Thus, we are prisoners to our sense of reality and its limits, unable to visualize life outside the confines we construct and so rigorously maintain.

That’s what the cube is: the prison we erect around ourselves. The “visitors” in the cube are those we interact with on a daily basis who come and go through our sense of reality. In the end, however, they can’t stay with us, because reality is as we shape it, and we are the only ones who live inside our version of the cube.

What’s the argument for this interpretation of The Cube?

Well, at one point the prisoner is given a telephone, but we don’t know who he attempts to call, outside the cube, or even whom he remembers, outside it. The only person he can reach is the handy-man, a denizen of another cube.

Consider that we don’t, in our own lives, make telephone calls outside the “walls of reality,” but rather to others within those walls.  So it makes sense here that the protagonist can’t call for help, or assistance from a life outside the reality of the cube. He can only communicate with people inside their own cubes (their own realities, essentially).

Watching The Cube, I was reminded, to a degree, of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit (1944), the existentialist play that was a primary inspiration for the web series I created last decade (The House Between [2007 – 2009]). There, the idea was that Hell is “other people.” 

In The Cube, when you meet some of the visitors in the cube -- all spectacularly unhelpful -- you start to reckon very powerfully with that notion of eternal damnation as time spent with others. 

The Cube seems to have a view of people as spectacularly bad listeners, unable to render assistance because they don’t really understand what you need from them.  Yet again, this interpretation makes sense. No one can give you precisely what you desire, because your reality is your own, and their reality is different. The two don't line up perfectly.

But The Cube goes even deeper than that.  It ultimately comes to suggest that it is not the cube that is unreal, but the person inside it; the person who thought it up to begin with.  

At the end of the story, the protagonist makes a discovery about his very nature that calls into question everything, and makes one understand Jim Henson’s point about reality. We are responsible not only for the world we create around us, but for the identity we project to others as well.  

And that sense of identity is as changeable, as malleable, and ultimately as questionable, as the various and sundry panels of the cube, which move and shift at will, constantly re-shaping the nature of the room.

It’s the final revelation of “strawberry jam,” -- in the words of the teleplay -- that makes this surreal production such nightmare fodder for viewers.  

It’s one thing to imagine one’s self imprisoned, forever in an ever-changing prison shaped like a cube. 

It’s quite another thing, however, to reckon with the possibility that our very reality -- the things that make us who we are -- are as shifting and impermanent as those walls. 

If we can dream up our reality, and imprison ourselves in it, what is to say we didn’t dream up the other things we experience too?

Like consciousness itself.  

Have we -- as dreamers -- conjured ourselves at out of the same insubstantial star dust?

And if death is "nothing," can we un-imagine ourselves and our realities too?  Is that what happens to the man in the cube at the end of this story? Does he realize that he is the weirdest, most complex construct of all, and one that is no more real than the visitors he encounters?

Trippy and strange, The Cube frustrates every attempt to easily understand it, and that’s ultimately the point.  Like the man in the cube, audiences “try on” each new encounter, wondering what the cube might represent.  

Each attempt is a failure, until we reckon with the final twist: the man’s discovery about his own nature.

The ingenuity of this low-budget TV production is remarkable.  The central cube -- the set itself -- is paradoxically one of infinite variability and infinite entrapment. And the people who come into the cube are the most irritating, non-discerning character you have ever encountered.  

They aren’t real people, but two-dimensional symbols of points-of-view, from nihilism and religion to psycho-babble. They are, in short, the “noise” we hear every time we attempt to push our understanding of reality beyond its current configuration.  They are no more real to us than…well, strawberry jam.

Jim Henson is famous and beloved, of course, for giving the world the Muppets. But The Cube reveals an intellect far darker and probing than the one the pop culture has imagined for him. This "experiment" in television is actually a laboratory for understanding the precepts of Phenomenology. 

"Now you know what reality is," one character suggests, near the end of The Cube, but the answer our protagonist gets is such that you may want to close your eyes and conjure up a different reality, one far distant from the confines of this strange "mausoleum."


  1. I'm going to have to check this out.

  2. Very interesting take on this production. You certainly rose to the occasion and showed me yet another way to look at The Cube. Well done! I really wish I could have got to know Jim Henson, even more than I did before I saw this program. Many of the elements in The Cube strongly reminded me of Terry Gilliam's Brazil - but I honestly think The Cube is even more complex and unsettling than that movie. And to think I found it by browsing the Muppet wikipedia and reading the entry on gorilla suits... I'm certainly glad I did!

    It seems to me that although network television was very much about mass market and mass profits there must have been some people in power back then that loved the medium and wanted to put out something they could be proud of on an artistic level at that time.

    By the way, I literally had a nightmare about strawberry jam after watching it!