Bird Watching – Constance Marks’s “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”
Though there was a resurgence of vocal Muppet devotion with the release of last year’s film The Muppets, one can’t really call that a “comeback.” Pretty much everyone I know has always loved the whole spectrum of Jim Henson’s creations, and millions upon millions of children have grown up and continue to grow up watching the original Sesame Street and its multiple international versions. Heck, I still like to watch Sesame Street sometimes. There is pure joy and sincerity in just about every Muppet production, and that draws people in.
Even with this Muppet love, beyond admiring the general vision of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, I had never thought much about the actual career of puppeteering, what might draw someone to it, or the way a puppeteer would relate to his or her tools—foam and fur creations that can be made into fully formed characters by those possessing the right combination of will and skill. Through her documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, filmmaker Constance Marks lets the viewer in on this creative process, by telling the story of Kevin Clash. He’s the man behind one of the most famous Muppets of all time, the furry red monster who just wants to learn about things and hug everyone.
Now, having been an actual member of the Sesame Street target audience during the late 1980s, I was a Grover girl through-and-through. (When time machines are invented, five-year-old Brandi will be glad to wax poetic to you about the masterpiece of literature that is the book Grover Sleeps Over.) But I would never deny the appeal of Elmo. It’s summed up well by Clash, as he describes modifying the character that wasn’t working (Elmo originally had a gruff voice and a caveman-like presence): “I knew that Elmo should represent love.” That is Elmo. There is love in everything that Elmo does, and children respond to that. Only someone who also feels for the craft on that level could sustain a character like Elmo.
Clash was interested in puppetry from a young age, and the film shows us, through interviews and photos, the drive he possessed to figure out how it was all done and to do it himself. Beyond the warm-and-fuzzy Muppet factor, this element of the film is what was most compelling to me. So often, creative processes are portrayed through depictions of tortured painters and drunken writers. But my experience as a creative person, collaborating on various projects with many different people, is that most of us make stuff because making stuff is fun. Sure, it’s hard work and can be frustrating. But the rewards are amazing, and the motivation needn’t be an inner demon that needs exorcised in order for work to have purpose.
Looking behind the scenes of an operation such as this, which relies on a certain amount of disbelief and magic to succeed, could be dangerous. The beauty here is that seeing the nuts and bolts process—the making of a Muppet, down to opening an expansive drawer of potential eyes or turning it inside out to sew a seam with the “Henson stitch”—only enhances the magic of the moment when a puppeteer brings that creation to life. Tiny glimpses into the more ambitious, technical side of the Henson operation, such as moments on the set of The Dark Crystal, with puppeteers on stilts and climbing inside of elaborate creatures, or a description of a particularly difficult-to-film sequence on Labyrinth, left me wishing for more such footage. If there is a vision of a story, it seems there is a way to create it through puppetry.
In the way of many good stories, knowing that it all works out doesn’t diminish the emotional highs and lows of Kevin Clash’s journey. We root for him as he misses or grasps various opportunities along the way, and then as he grapples with balancing family life and a demanding career once success hits. Other interviewees gush about his natural talent, but Clash himself remains humble, more interested in discussing the craft and the genius of his predecessors than anything else. As he reaches a point where he’s passing on his knowledge and his access to the marvelous Sesame Street workshop to other children with a passion for puppeteering, just as he was once, little doubt is left as to the importance of this art form that brings so much happiness to so many.
Being Elmo was a hit on the festival circuit, and is now finding its way to its deserved broader audience in a variety of ways: it’s streaming on Netflix, airing as a part of PBS’s Independent Lens series (re-airing in the Seattle area on April 7th at 2:30 AM on KCTS), and available for DVD purchase. I highly recommend it for a look at the gratification that can come from combining true imagination and hard work, and I look forward to seeing more of both Kevin Clash’s and Constance Marks’s work in the future.