Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (Constance Marks, 2011) So, you're a kid. You grow up watching "Sesame Street" and (face it) the real reason you watch it isn't for the educational benefits, it's for The Muppets.  You fixate on the felt fellas and you wonder (once you realize something's going on beyond frame) "How do they do that?" How do you project personality through the hands and the cloth and create the simulation of life?  How do some puppeteers break through and perfect that illusion, while others get by on cute faces and elaborate cloth sculpture?  And for that matter, how does any actor—with or without a familiar riding them—do that?  By projecting personality through the trappings, just as differing actors produce different results through the exact same make-up and costume.  The same goes for voice-acting, too; nobody who's tried to add vocal range to characters once voiced by Mel Blanc can hold a candle to him and are immediately exposed as...different.  Not to get too philosophical here (I mean, we're talking about a documentary about Muppets here) but can "soul" be distinguished no matter how it's disguised?

The answer must be "yes" or else the difference wouldn't be so obvious.  And to prove the point, The Muppets have struggled, after Jim Henson's death and Frank Oz's career advancements, to re-find the "souls" of their characters, finally emerging with a slightly sassier variation of themselves.*  But just as characters evolve over story arcs, so do the people portraying them.  Puppets only fade, and cartoon characters are photographed eternally, but the people behind them advance in years, and at some point retire and leave the characters (because...they're jobs) behind.  And the kids who were first exposed to their creations grow up with their DNA mutated, brains twisted with experience to their movements and characters, and, if they're very, very lucky or obsessed, they may even take on those characters as second generational spawn.  So, the characters begin anew.

Or, perhaps the phrase should be "born again."  Born again, as new souls invigorate the old ones, while the outward appearance remains the same.  

So, the kid who grows up watching "Sesame Street" puts 2+2 together and sums up that Jim Henson is the guy behind (or underneath?  Inside?) "The Muppets" and begins to study everything the man has done in the past, tracing Henson's  growth from sock in hands with split ping-pong ball eyes to the more complex constructions.  The kid says "I can do this!" and so, the lining of Dad's good coat becomes the skin of a character which the kid has enough talent and personality to fill up.

That's really what this documentary—filmed rather perfunctorily, and one would even say artlessly—is all about.  The kid is Kevin Clash, and his inspiration that fueled his great talent, pays off big time for him, when a discarded character (known as "Baby Monster") is literally thrown into his lap by a frustrated "Muppeteer" ("I can't do anything with this guy" is the line), and in his hands (hand?), becomes one of the iconic characters of The Street, surpassing Big Bird and Cookie Monster and all the regulars in popularity.  Lucky.  But, it's luck fueled with inspiration and great talent and heart...and in a performance, that's only a few BTH's away from rocket-fuel.  

Being Elmo is a good show, full of Muppet history, hero worship (on both sides of it), the fulfillment of dreams, and building them anew.  Klass' interviews, spoken straight into the camera (just as the Muppets do), are full of amazement, gratitude, and giving, and the cost of it all is only briefly alluded to.  One can't help but think that the embodiment (if you will) of Elmo probably doesn't see a dime of the money generated from the merchandising of the character he's created.  Oh, sure, he probably has a job for life as an executive at Sesame's "Street" and Workshop, writing, producing, directing, but the hours must be long.  His commitments are many, and the toll it exacts from his family is in stark, ironic contrast to the attention he pays to his millions of fans...just by "Being Elmo."  Glad to see him get to emerge in front of the camera.

Clash's Elmo clashes with Ricky Gervias-The Outtakes
One of the reasons "Elmo" is so popular is Clash's cheeky charm that keeps
the character from getting too treacly—in the grand Muppet tradition.

* I have to reinforce that I'm talking about the creators and not the puppets?  Okay, just checking...

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