Sunday, October 23, 2011

Netflix Queue Challenge: Documentary Edition

Things have been busy and I haven't been able to do much writing lately. I stopped right in the middle of the new TV season! I'll get back to that soon, I hope. But look! A new Netflix Queue Challenge post! I actually watched three movies in one week! All of them were documentaries, which is strange because I don't watch a lot of documentaries. One was a fluke, and there were external factors behind the other two.

I don't really know what made me put this in my queue at all, let alone move it to the top. I think it came up in a post somewhere about the Star Wars musical which if you, like me, happen to fit in that Venn diagram overlap of Star Wars nerds and musical theatre nerds, is very funny and charming. Starwoids is neither. It follows a group of nerds (no other way to say it, really; "fans" doesn't cut it) waiting in line first to buy tickets and then to get seats for the first showing of Episode I in Hollywood. While I can appreciate their fandom, I mostly just feel sad for these people. Don't they have anything better to do? I mean, I also saw Episode I on opening night, but I ordered my tickets over the phone and got there maybe an hour early for seats. Also, sitting on the sidewalk for weeks is pretty boring to watch. There are some fun diversions to conventions, and the aforementioned musical, but it's mostly a slog. What kept me watching was anticipating the payoff at the end, when the thing these guys had been waiting for for so long turned out to be a crushing disappointment. But that never happened! They loved the movie! They even check in with them a couple months later and these guys have no regrets. The schadenfreude was half the reason I watched the damn documentary! So very disappointing.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
This isn't actually available on Netflix yet, but I'm counting it because it was in my saved queue. I wound up at a screening of this on Monday night. Obviously this is a movie I would be into. But even if you don't care at all about the Muppets, you should see this movie.

Elmo became the most popular thing in the world long after I stopped watching Sesame Street, and I've always found him incredibly annoying, with his falsetto voice and his referring to himself in the third person and his seeming maybe a little bit stupid and his supplanting Grover as everyone's favorite monster. But even my cold black heart couldn't watch this film cynically. Seeing Elmo with Make-A-Wish kids whose dying wish was to meet him? Watching children interact with Elmo as if he were real, even though there is a large man standing right there with a hand up his butt? It is impossible to stay cynical.

Near the beginning of the movie someone (Frank Oz, maybe?) says "In a good puppet you can see the soul of the puppeteer." So to watch Kevin Clash grow up with this incredible creativity and love of this strange hobby-turned-career, channeling his shyness through puppets, and ultimately creating this insanely popular character on a fluke, is really quite moving. "Elmo is love," someone says, and it's really kind of hard not to like him after that. Also helpful: The handful of outtakes where Elmo gets a little dark. Elmo is love, and also just a bit of Kevin Clash's id.

Without ever getting too explicit about it, this is kind of a movie about the power of arts education, supportive parenting, and mentoring. This kid had an obscure hobby that most people - especially poor people - would never even consider could become a career. He was surrounded by people who let him run with it and professionals who helped him along, and it made him a millionaire. I found that deeply inspiring, and easily applicable to just about any artistic endeavor.

After the screening there was a panel with the actors who play Gordon and Maria (still on the show!), Kevin Clash, and two other Muppeteers, including Fran Brill, who's been around since The Muppet Show. Fran brought Prairie Dawn with her, so we knew she was old school. A woman around my age asked a question about how the show had changed over the years, and she prefaced it with, "I didn't grow up with Elmo, but I remember Prairie Dawn," and without missing a beat Prairie Dawn said "I remember you too," and the whole room kind of melted. At another point in the Q&A, Murray (the other monster on the panel) said something that made Kevin Clash crack up, and while he was unable to speak Elmo turned and looked at him expectantly. Yes, I realize that Elmo doesn't "do" anything, but it was clearly an unconscious move on Clash's part and it really felt like he had a life of his own in that moment. They're all incredibly gifted improv actors too, and watching them work a crowd of adults with those characters was really lovely.

Anyway, the film is just opening in limited release now (Clash and Elmo are doing live appearances at some screenings), and I'm sure it will be on Netflix before long, and you should see it.

Southern Comfort
I'd known about this movie for a long time (it's ten years old) but never had much interest in watching it, until last week when I saw a musical based on it. That's a strange way to come to a documentary, but it worked for Grey Gardens too. Anyway, both the film and the play follow a makeshift family of transsexuals (mostly female-to-male) in the rural south, leading up to the Southern Comfort convention. The main "character" is dying of ovarian and cervical cancer, which would be so heavy handed in a work of fiction, but here is just treated sort of ruefully. Everyone knows that this will be his last SoCo, if he makes it at all. The film is pretty light on plot (it was interesting to see how the musical stayed insanely faithful to certain elements while taking huge liberties with - and completely inventing - others) which makes it a bit slow to watch but also gives it a real slice-of-life feeling. Given the subject and setting, that's almost radical. There's a solid 15 minutes or so at the beginning where if you didn't know what the movie was about, you'd have no idea. The men pass so well, and for a good bit after Robert's girlfriend Lola (who does not) arrives, there's still no explanation of who these people are. I'm not sure if not knowing going in would have made that confusing, or fun to discover, but I do like that it's really on the audience to catch up and figure it out. We're joining this story very much already in progress.

The film deals a lot with prejudice, not just against the transsexuals, but also the audience's prejudices against their community (perhaps I'm being prejudiced in simply making the assumption that the audience of this film is likely to be liberal). Robert and his friends deal with a lot of discrimination, but it's almost all off-screen. We're told about it, and it's heartbreaking, but we mostly only see a world of acceptance. Since my own prejudices had me prepared for nothing but small-mindedness, I was deeply touched to hear Robert's son (who doesn't exist at all in the play, which might be part of why I was surprised) say, "Had I gotten married I would have chosen Mom to be the best man at my wedding."

1 comment:

Sheila said...

There's a clip out there of Ricky Gervais interacting with "Elmo," during breaks in a shoot, and...yeah, it gets a little dark--and Elmo gives as good as he gets, and arguably walks away with the win. I'm 40, so Elmo wasn't part of my Sesame Street experience growing up, but I was in for this movie as soon as I heard about it.

Can't wait till it hits PBS!