March 30, 2013

BEING ELMO Is Retroactively Creepy

"I knew that Elmo should represent love.  Just kissing and hugging."
Some things once you see them, simply cannot be unseen.  This is the malady that afflicts Being Elmo, the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash and his rise to fame as the man behind the incredibly popular Sesame Street character, Elmo.

In case you're unaware, Clash is currently engaged in three separate lawsuits alleging charges of sexual abuse with underage children.  In fact, a fourth case was filed just last week claiming that Clash had a chauffeur pick up a 16 year old boy in Pennsylvania and drive him to New York for "crystal meth fueled sex parties."  (As my lawyer brother-in-law pointed out, "Transporting across state lines?  That's fed time...")  Clash's attorney has filed a motion to have the suits thrown out on grounds that the statute of limitations has passed, but it seems unlikely to be granted.  Since these accusations were first made last year, Clash has stepped down from his role on Sesame Street both as a performer and as a producer.  The veracity of these claims remains to be determined (if it ever can be, conclusively), although it's probably telling that Clash hasn't actually denied the charges and is instead trying to get the cases tossed on a technicality.  Either way it's a real shame, as the guy's story is pretty amazing.

Clash found a talent for puppetry early on, and started constructing his own puppets and putting on neighborhood shows in his backyard and at parties as a Baltimore teenager.  His parents were extremely supportive, even when he would use their own clothing for puppet-building material.  His mother fostered his talents, putting young Kevin in touch with the man who created puppets for Jim Henson, the Santa Claus-looking Kermit Love.  After spending some time performing on a local cable show, Clash eventually moved on to work for one his childhood heroes, Captain Kangaroo.  From there he garnered the attention of Henson himself, becoming the first black member of Henson's stable of puppeteers.  Clash almost worked on Dark Crystal (his Captain Kangaroo commitments took precedence) before getting hired for both Labyrinth and Sesame Street.

Clash was actually the second man to give life to Elmo.  The furry red monster had never really gained much traction in his early caveman-esque iteration, but when the original puppeteer got bored and let Clash take over, the character immediately and dramatically changed.  Clash wanted Elmo to represent love and affection, something that most all children naturally crave from adults.  Elmo could fill that constant desire from the kids watching, a flurry of hugs for those who need it most.  Unfortunately, this is also where the movie takes a really unfortunate turn for today's viewers.  When it was released, critics praised Clash and his story as sweet and heartfelt, an innocent tale about the power of pure love in a cynical time.  Unfortunately that innocence has been lost in the wake of sexual abuse charges and every time Clash is in the room with a child, it's hard not to feel creeped out.  The image that really sticks out is the pose Clash takes on when controlling Elmo.  He's ducked down, looking off to the side and talking in that high pitched voice while hugging and kissing a kid through his puppet surrogate.  It's incredibly dissociative, like his actions are being controlled by a completely separate persona.  As a performer I absolutely understand the practical reasons for this sort of physicality, and as a puppeteer it's not only no big deal, it's a mark of professionalism.  But in light of the recent allegations, it looks downright disturbing.

Regardless of the outcome of future legal proceedings, the whole thing is just flat out depressing.  Clash was friends with Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the rock stars of modern day puppetry.  Clash even performed (as Elmo) at Henson's funeral, one of the saddest events I've ever seen. (Seriously, watch Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green."  Then go get some tissues.)  I'm a HUGE Muppet fan, and Clash's talent is not only undeniable, it's awe-inspiring.  His ability to bring life to a pile of felt and fur is nothing short of riveting.  Hell, sometimes he's teaching other puppeteers using just his hand and even that looks pretty damn lifelike.  I wish I had the chance to watch this movie when it was released, before the man's reputation was forever tarnished.  It would have been a far more uplifting experience.

Unfortunately, some things simply cannot be unseen.

Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
Director: Constance Marks
Starring: Kevin Clash, Jim Henson, Kermit Love, Whoopi Goldberg
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

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