Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Life's like a movie, write your own ending: An appreciation of The Muppet Movie

Last week I watched The Muppet Movie – the 1970s classic of iconic songs and gloriously corny jokes – at the Dryden Theatre.

The timing of this screening now seems more poignant after learning that Jim Henson died 26 years ago yesterday. In fact, three of the five main Muppet performers are now gone, and so are the vast majority of the 1970s celebrity cameos in this film. To quote a Far Side cartoon, “We’re getting’ old, Jake.”

The Muppet Movie is one of my favorite films and another influence on Saberfrog, and seeing it on the big screen in 35mm was something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. I don’t remember watching this film a huge number of times on video, but I don’t think I needed to, so deep was its influence.

I know that this film taught me the concept of puns and wordplay, since I needed the double meanings of “fork in the road” and “drinks are on the house” explained to me. It’s the earliest depiction of a romantic date that I can remember seeing as a kid. I also think that the scene where Rowlf the Dog discusses the joys of solitary bachelorhood made an impression on me – it’s the spoken intro to a musical duet with Kermit, so it was included on the soundtrack LP and was thus the dialogue I was able to hear repeatedly in the days before we had a VCR.

I have long credited/blamed (delete as appropriate) the influence of Star Wars in inspiring my younger self to become a filmmaker. But The Muppet Movie now seems like a more obvious influence, since it is explicitly the story of a backwoods boy going on a cross-country journey to enter show business. Although Kermit’s initial goal seems to be to become a performer, when Kermit actually reaches Hollywood he is shown directing a film based on his own experiences.

(This emphasis on filmmaking rather than performing seems to be further emphasized in the film’s wraparound story of the Muppets gathering at a Hollywood screening room to watch the completed film. It’s now striking to me that the very first shot of the movie is the sculpture above the studio entrance, showing a stereotypical Hollywood director balancing the world on his fingertip.)

Kermit’s saga begins when a wandering Hollywood agent (played by Dom DeLuise) overhears Kermit happily singing and playing the now-famous song “Rainbow Connection”, and thus encourages Kermit to go to Hollywood to audition. Our hero’s journey seems to be influenced by The Wizard of Oz (with its similarly-themed song “Over the Rainbow”) and I couldn’t help but notice something that both films share with Henson’s later film The Dark Crystal: The protagonist sets off alone, with no mentor or allies or safety net, and must build a family of comrades over the course of the adventure.

At first, Kermit experiences the Joseph Campbell-approved Refusal of the Call. But what seems to finally motivate Kermit to set off on this journey is the thought of making “millions of people happy”.

Rewatching this film as an adult, the innocence of that goal really hit me. Kermit is pursuing the selfless goal of being an entertainer, rather than the arguably deeper, but more self-centered, goal of being an artist. And when the villainous businessman Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) wants to exploit Kermit’s talents, Kermit ultimately confronts him by explaining that – unlike Hopper – Kermit is pursuing a goal that “gets better the more people you share it with.” So under this wacky, whimsical, light-hearted comedy is a theme about the importance of friendship and community, something that the more calculating Hopper lacks.

My earliest filmmaking efforts were motivated purely by the desire to entertain. But by the time I was old enough to go to film school, there was a growing cynicism and a growing backlash against Hollywood blockbusters, and against the very idea of “entertainment”. Anger, disgruntlement and ennui had become more fashionable. Entertainment was for stupid, shallow people who couldn’t accept the reality that everything was awful. And anyone who didn’t get with that program was made to feel like a sheep or a sellout.

I tried to resist that mentality for a long time. But in recent years I have observed mainstream commercial films becoming more formulaic, and more reliant on existing properties rather than springing from the imagination of a visionary like Jim Henson. I’ve also gotten bummed out by the constant din of Internet culture, where the most hostile and close-minded people so often seem to have the power to overpower every discussion.

I have recoiled against all this by overdosing on screenings of experimental films – they may be confusing or disturbing or sometimes even dull, but they stem from the subconscious of someone who is determined to walk his or her own solitary path, regardless of what other people think.

So rewatching The Muppet Movie as an adult was like coming home after waging a long and difficult war. It didn’t reduce me to tears (as I thought it might), but I had to sit in my car for a little while after the screening. I had to process what I had seen. I had to dwell on the difference between what I originally learned from that film as a child, and what kind of adult I have become.

I’ve had many triumphs and good experiences. But I’ve also had many moments of frustration, and many experiences that have left me more inclined to become closed-off and separatist.

The Muppet Movie is a reminder of the importance of optimism, innocence, and pursuing your dreams. Both “Rainbow Connection” and Gonzo’s later lament “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” have lyrics about pursuing something that is intangible or hard to explain.

The film is also a reminder that you can be irreverent without being cynical. The Muppet Movie does not shy away from depicting the hazards and pitfalls of adult life, and in fact there are some gags (such as those involving mild depictions of sexuality or alcohol use) that I suspect might upset some people if used in a kid’s film today. Doc Hopper starts out as a silly and cartoony villain, but becomes a more serious and violent threat over the course of the film.

Yet The Muppet Movie does not treat these adult-world hazards as excuses to give up or to be nihilistic. The point of the movie seems to be that idealism can and should triumph against these darker forces.

Two scenes in particular have always haunted me. One is when Kermit and friends are stranded in the desert, and Kermit wanders off alone to deal with his thoughts. He has a conversation with himself (literally – there is another Kermit that he talks to, and I needed the symbolism of this explained to me as a kid) and has to convince himself that he would have been unhappy if he hadn’t pursued this dream, and that the friends who’ve been traveling with were following the dream, not him.

The other is when (spoiler) Kermit finally reaches Hollywood and tells a studio head that he wants to be “rich and famous”. This has long struck me as an ambiguous ending, since Kermit expresses his goal more selfishly at this climax than he did at the beginning, when he simply wanted to make “millions of people happy”. The irony seems to be made more deliberate by the casting of Hollywood’s most infamous fallen angel – Orson Welles – as the studio head.

And on this viewing, I noticed that Kermit and friends essentially bully their way past the studio head’s secretary (Cloris Leachman) instead of simply going to the audition that the agent told Kermit about at the start of the movie. It’s an unexpected change of character for Kermit, especially so soon after scolding the villain for his lack of empathy.

I realize this is a G-rated family comedy whose plot is just a rough clothesline to hang gags on, and that I may be looking too hard for existential meaning in what are probably just story glitches that another script draft could have fixed. But The Muppet Movie had a huge impact on me as a kid, so it will always seem to me to be a work of Talmudic significance.

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