Monday, April 30, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

One of Sesame Street’s lasting qualities is how its band of puppets channels the spectrum of human personality. Each character has one or two unique behavioral characteristics—and problems to overcome—with which audiences can identify. You have Big Bird’s small ego and casual lack of awareness, Cookie Monster’s compulsive impulsiveness, Oscar’s general crankiness, and so many more. Indeed, we love these characters for their flaws, which are simply stated and yet completely, even painfully relatable. Their deficiencies are the characters’ defining qualities, which in part explains why a character representing pure, unfiltered love was both a surprising yet also inevitable addition to Sesame’s Street’s puppet troop. With a shrill voice and voracious drive to give hugs and kisses, Elmo would become a force that redefined and ultimately transcended Sesame Street. Indeed, the omnipresence of Elmo represented more than simply love, but also the commercial desire to exploit it. Maybe this explains the fiercely divisive response to the character, whose exaltation for children typically translates to irritation for adults.

Constance Marks’ documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is only tangentially concerned with Elmo’s commercially ubiquitous existence. Instead of using the character as a basis, it chronicles the life of the man who brought Elmo to life. The film argues that the love that Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash experienced through his life is the defining quality of Elmo that would inspire and enrapture the imaginations of children the world over. Marks uses pictures and old camera footage to draw an evocative picture of Clash’s life, from his modest upbringing outside Baltimore, to his dedication to creating and operating puppets. Clash achieved success at a young age due in part to good fortune, but mostly from his commitment to the craft of puppetry and the love and support of his family. It’s standard stuff as movie narratives go, but that is about a man whose fame and influence is known to the world only as Elmo makes it unique. Moreover, to see Clash, his family, and colleagues reflect on his unique fame is richly compelling, mostly because these reflections come across as wholly genuine.

Being Elmo is also worthwhile for the story it tells about the world of puppetry in entertainment. It offers a distinctive perspective on the zeitgeist of Jim Henson and the muppet empire to which he gave voice. The anecdotes and behind-the-scenes perspective on this world are captivating, particularly Clash’s relationship with Kermit Love, who designed many of the puppets we know and love today. Love is a magnetic personality; the kind of quiet, but zany fellow who was likely blissfully unaware of his own genius. Another highlight is a brief, but poignant interlude at Jim Henson’s funeral, where Clash and other esteemed Muppet/Sesame Street veterans perform a song in character and on stage. Being Elmo contains a number of these small vignettes fashioning a “legends-in-action” aura that lends nice contrast to the central profile of Clash.

Being Elmo’s achievements may be limited by the focus of its premise, but it is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of a person whose influence stretches across nations and generations but whose face is unknown to nearly all. Even those who resist Elmo may find themselves warming up to puppet after learning about the character's benevolent creator. Its message may be too deliberate, but, like the show that has given us Elmo and countless other memorable characters, Being Elmo inspires because of the simplicity and earnestness with which it delivers that message. (Constance Marks, 2011) ***

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