Film

CinemaDope: Strings Attached

The man behind a Muppet

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Thursday, December 29, 2011
Photo Courtesy of Scott McDermott
Elmo and Kevin Clash in Being Elmo

I grew up in the 1970s and '80s, so Sesame Street holds a special place in my heart. Not just for its iconic characters—Oscar the Grouch, Count von Count and Grover were just the tip of Jim Henson's fuzzy iceberg—but for its warmth, its gentleness, and (ironic for a show so centered on puppets) its earnest, essential, humanity. People may natter on about the troubling effects of television on our youth, but Sesame Street was gold, and it made you want to be on the side of the good.

Eventually I grew too old for Sesame Street, or thought I did. (I suspect I'll be back as soon as my first child is born.) But unlike almost all the other television shows of my youth, Sesame Street never gave up. After I left it behind, it kept up with the times, expanding its mission and broadening its reach—international versions have aired in Russia, Turkey, and many other nations—but never turned its back on its core mission.

Today, the face of Sesame Street is a furry red monster named Elmo. His popularity has eclipsed some old favorites, and fans of Big Bird and Bert and Ernie have been known to call the newcomer the "little red menace."

Surprisingly, the puppet has been around for decades, flying under the radar until puppeteer Kevin Clash brought Elmo's personality to life in the mid-1980s. An immediate hit, he has gone on to be a sort of ambassador for Sesame Street, appearing on television in everything from Oprah to The West Wing. In 2002—in what was surely a first—the puppet testified before Congress, pressing government for more funding for school music programs.

Being Elmo, now screening at Amherst Cinema, is the story of the man who gave Elmo life. Clash, who began building puppets at age 10, first came to Sesame Street from Baltimore in the late 1970s, doing intermittent puppetry work until coming aboard full-time in the early '80s. He also has an extensive filmography outside of his work as Elmo, but these days he is largely a one-puppet man.

Watching Clash work makes one realize how odd an art his puppetry is: it's at once incredibly intimate—the puppeteer is right there, manipulating limbs, one arm buried in the puppet—and yet strangely removed; the character is so fully formed via voice and mannerism that the man who invented him practically disappears. The reaction of children is telling: in close-up performance, when they can clearly see what's happening, their reaction to Elmo is often the same as if Clash were standing 10 feet away.

That magic affects Clash, as well, and his story is folded into the larger story of the Jim Henson Workshop and Sesame Street culture in general. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and enriched by archival footage and interviews with Henson and Sesame Street co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney, Being Elmo is a reminder that it's still possible—as Cooney once said—to "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them."

*

Also this week: If you're feeling a lack of star power in your life, head to Cinemark for a gander at the almost comically overstuffed cast of New Year's Eve. The Garry Marshall (Runaway Bride) romantic comedy, about the intertwined fates of a band of New Yorkers, features, among others: Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Robert De Niro, Jon Bon Jovi, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Abigail Breslin, Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hilary Swank, Matthew Broderick, John Lithgow, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Ashton Kutcher and—it is New Year's, after all—Ryan Seacrest.

Don't worry about the story; instead, bring a Bingo card.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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