Saturday, October 22, 2011
Reverend's Reviews: Elmo and the Electric Car
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, which opens this weekend in New York and November 4 in Los Angeles before expanding nationally, is a totally enjoyable documentary as sweet-natured as Elmo himself. It primarily explores the life of Elmo's operator and spokesman, Kevin Clash, but also features the Muppets' late creator Jim Henson as well as commentators Frank Oz and Rosie O'Donnell, plus Whoopi Goldberg as narrator.
Inspired by Henson, Clash began making his own puppets while still a boy growing up in Baltimore. He was teased by his siblings and schoolmates for his eccentric hobby, but Clash had the last laugh when he was hired right out of high school to perform on a local TV series. This led to gigs on Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster. Clash worked with Muppets designer Kermit Love on Coaster, and Love eventually introduced Clash to Henson.
Clash recounts how thrilled he was when Henson subsequently offered him a job on his and Oz's revolutionary big-screen epic The Dark Crystal, as well as how conflicted he felt when Clash couldn't take the cut in pay he would have if he left his two popular TV shows to work on the film. By 1985, though, Clash's series had both been cancelled and he was all too happy to accept Henson's invitation to work on Labyrinth.
Destiny united Clash with Elmo once another Muppet performer, Richard L. Hunt, couldn't figure out what to do with their workshop's latest creation. Following Oz's advice to "find one special hook" for each character, Clash decided Elmo should personify love. Elmo's voice and propensity to hug and kiss whomever he meets quickly emerged. The rest is history.
Clash and Being Elmo are absolutely inspiring. The film becomes unexpectedly moving when Clash fulfills a terminally-ill child's wish to meet Elmo, and also when Clash speaks about his struggle to be a good father to his daughter given the demands of Elmo's success. Previously unseen footage included from Jim Henson's private memorial service likewise doesn't fail to touch viewers.
I was riveted by Chris Paine's expose Who Killed the Electric Car? while watching it at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Using a murder-investigation approach, Paine revealed that the nearly 5,000 initial models of an environmentally-safe, exceptionally fuel-efficient electric car were recalled by their manufacturers. Most of them were destroyed, while others were left to rust in a remote area outside a Phoenix suburb. A perceived loss of profits, not safety concerns, was the motivation behind the publicly well received cars' demise.
Five years later, sales of more recent models of electric cars are surging and Paine is back with a new documentary: Revenge of the Electric Car, opening today in LA and NYC. Though not as engrossing as the first film, Revenge pulls back the cover on the major car manufacturers' more recent efforts to create and sell electric cars without hurting their financial bottom line. These include Tesla Motors, Nissan and GM, and their CEOs (Elon Musk, Carlos Ghosn and Bob Lutz, respectively) are observed and interviewed in depth about both their past missteps and current strategies.
As Paine states in his latest film's press notes, "Sometimes change, like a train in the old West, gets stopped dead in its tracks... so it's a rare privilege to be able to tell the story of how sometimes change has too much momentum to be stopped." His documentaries have certainly made me a believer in the electric car. Now if they'll just get a little more affordable for us middle-class folks, that will be real progress.
Being Elmo: B+
Revenge of the Electric Car: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.