Friday, March 30, 2012

Man or Muppet?

I don’t watch movies, despite having a son who is a filmmaker and movie maven.  When I do see one, too much of it runs around in my head for too long, knocking out other things that might be more valuable.  Of course, what I choose instead usually isn’t more valuable than movies, and is sometimes less.  Ah well. But why add to the problem?

We saw the new Muppet movie for the second time, again with the granddaughter, who already knows the words to most of the songs.  Years ago there was a phrase used to disparage musicians or writers “He has begun to imitate himself.”  I have heard it applied to TV shows as well. Thinking about that, I’ll bet that’s the art that most quickly imitates itself. You find a seam to mine and don’t leave until it runs out.

This new movie is the Muppets imitating themselves, not only as a plot device – Let’s put on a show to raise money to save the theater! – but in the unending inside jokes.  Everything is in the form of. You already like Fozzie. This is what Fozzie says that you like. Fozzie says it. Songs are reprised from early Muppet incarnations.

And I do like it.  It was great to hear more Swedish Chef.  I left wanting more Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, just doing their usual schtick. I sang along with “Rainbow Connection,” even though I disliked it when it first “The  Muppet Movie”

The irony is that the Academy Award winning – “Man or Muppet?” is a pretty good poetic summary of the problem.

I reflect on my reflection
And I ask myself the question
What’s the right direction to go
I don’t know
Am I a Man or a Muppet?

If you use Jason Segel as a synecdoche for the whole Muppet enterprise, the line “I reflect on my reflection” takes on a different meaning, doesn’t it?  The Muppets became famous for doing things no one else would do, or could get away with. It made them laugh-out-loud funny. Now they are famous for having been famous, doing the same old thing, most of it more charming than funny. The plot device of needing a star, any old star, is another giveaway. We don’t want any surprises here, no sudden moves.  Significantly, the parts that are funny are the few new things, such as the completely over-the-top power ballad, wrestling with an identity crisis. No other video is going to be able to do that straight anymore. “Party For One” is watchable mostly because Amy Adams is easy to look at. 

We should first judge a work of art not for what we want it to be, but for what it tries to be. Goethe’s Three Questions. It is clear that everyone involved knew that nostalgia, not humor, was the gig:  Check the lyrics to “Pictures In My Head.” The movie opens with the childhood of Gary and Walter, with the Muppet Show coming in pretty quickly. They did it very well – they have been moving in the “Muppet Movie: Awwww (No New Stuff)” direction since the 90’s, so even nostalgia is familiar territory for them now. (Cf, “A Muppet Christmas,” 2008) They’ve even done this plot before, in 2002, in “A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie.” A small touch, which I think is revealing.  In that movie, the holder of the mortgage on the theater who had to be paid by deadline was Rachel Bitterman – a bit more subtle name than Tex Richman.

Thus my objection is not that it isn’t well done – it’s brilliantly done, and they got exactly what they were aiming for. I just wish they hadn’t, because it’s not the Muppets.  The Muppets were, believe it or not, a bit edgy in the 70’s.  The push had just started to reduce television violence because of its supposed bad effect on children.  They put on an unashamedly violent show, blowing things up and “hitting live creatures.” (Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones – my favorites).  Ethnic stereotypes had become unacceptable in polite company – they reveled in the Swedish Chef and the Zuchini Brothers and brought them back.  Cheech Marin playing the maracas in violently-colored silks!  People would cover their eyes and say “They are only getting away with this because they are puppets.” Miss Piggy’s surfing between independent woman and simpering girliness was right on the hot-button issue then, an intentional make-fun-of-everyone mix. Kermit’s “It Isn’t Easy Being Green” was considered offensive by some black people* when it first played, as if prejudice was being trivialised. (Then Diana Ross sang it and everyone calmed down.)  The attitude was “We’ll be cute, and we’ll kick them artfully.  They won’t dare complain.” (See also Sam the Eagle, toothless hillbillies.)

With each passing decade, the Muppets have rounded off the corners until they are the mildest of mild.  It’s no longer The Muppets. I don’t know who these guys are wearing muppet clothes.  Maybe they should have let Tex Richman dig after all.

Caveat:  I did just read the Tom Stoppard line in “The Real Thing,” that you have arrived when people start complaining that they liked your earlier stuff better. I may be guilty of that here.

*Or more likely, white people being oversensitive on black people’s account.  I no longer recall, having read it in a Sesame Street criticism from the 70’s.


james said...

The use-of-stereotype aspect hadn't occurred to me. When I saw the show someone commented that you couldn't get human actors to show that much emotion--understatement and irony were the style. Only puppets could get away with being "Shakespearean."

Maybe my memory is rusty, but the show did seem like a cheerful uninhibited oasis.

I don't mean that everything else was bad--I was quite fond of "Barney Miller," for example.

I've come to associate "edgy" with "I can't get attention with quality so I'm going to try to shock instead." It's a red flag in a review. That's a personal quirk, but I wonder how many I share it with.

Dubbahdee said...

I was a teenager when the Muppets hit their stride in the 70s. I thought it fantastically fun and very adult. Not in the sense of adult meaning containing sexual themes. Rather in the sense that the humor was both broad and subtle - tweaking convention and lobbing hand grenades at stereotypes while hugging them close.

I recall when I realized they were "rounding off the corners." In my mind, I characterized that as the show succumbing to the temptation to become a children's show rather than an adult show. This seems a common problem for animated programs (cartoons) and puppets. If it isn't live action, it MUST be for children. So we lose the "edginess" and start softening things up to make is more palatable for kids (or their mental concept of kids). Your saying that the Muppets is now a merely self-referential shadow is right on.

Compare this to Looney Tunes. Into the 80s the original 1940s and 1950s episodes were playing regularly on Saturday mornings. They are so layered with satire and commentary on themes from those times and yet they kept playing them because they are just so darned funny. Much of the meaning completely escaped me as a child but I think I had some vague sense that their was more to it than I was getting. As if I were being let in on an adult joke. That, I think, may have been a huge part of their appeal. They were funny in ways that I couldn't get, but knew was there.

But when they started making Bugs Bunny cartoons for kids, the whole thing just went to poop. When the audience included adults, it was great for everyone. When they began writing for a non-adult audience, it was the doom of the program.

Same with Muppets I think. Death by cuteness.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

If I recall, the Flintstones and Top Cat animation series in the early 60's were billed as "adult cartoons" - i.e., a tad more sophisticated in their humor and delivery than the slap-stick fare from Saturday mornings. I wonder if that helped paved the way for later show like the Muppets?

Texan99 said...

I watch a lot of old TV shows in syndication. When I see the original season, the characters have a much stronger flavor, are more distinct from each other, and have more unsympathetic qualities sprinkled in. After three or four years, it's as if each character got his own following, along with the clout to force the screenwriters to round off his corners and make him a nicer guy, and very much like all of the other characters. Then, too, of course, in any TV series or long-running set of movie sequels, the scriptwriters usually just run out of ideas and become more bland and stereotyped.