My Dad, the Muppets & Me

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My lifelong love of cinema began with my dad when he took me to see “The Great Muppet Caper” in 1981. I was two years old and already a devoted Muppet fan.

I have wondered whether my memory of this experience is wholly accurate. Can you be a devoted fan of something at two years of age? I recently asked my dad for confirmation. I called him up, catching him before he headed outside to do yard work, and our conversation spanned from comparative meteorology to veterans’ affairs to that time he accidentally swallowed gasoline as a kid. Somewhere along the way, we came to the Muppets.

I asked if it were possible that I could have been two years old when I made him take me to see that movie, wondering if maybe we’d seen a reissue at a later date.

His reply: “Oh, yeah. You loved the Muppets as a little guy. When I’d come home, the first thing you’d do is tell me the Muppets were on. You were so excited you’d run around and around in little circles. That’s why we had to go see that show.” (He said “show” but meant “movie,” one of his adorable colloquialisms.) As to the details of our Muppet caper, he was quite confident.

He must have been excited to take his son to the movies for the first time. He too has been a lifelong movie buff. In the 60’s, he worked as a projectionist in one of the old-time movie palaces. His friends filled the auditorium but paid more attention to their girlfriends than the movies. To them, the theater was an air-conditioned oasis, away from obtrusive parents and the dry heat of California’s Central Valley. But to my dad, it was serious business, and as the hours spent in his projection booth multiplied, he began to develop a sophisticated appreciation of film.

So maybe his love of movies made him jump the gun. My dad seems like a sane person, but only a maniac takes a 2-year-old to a movie theater. Maybe I was very persuasive, or insistent. In any case, off we went to see the new Muppet movie. I imagine my dad buying me popcorn and candy, trying to provide a complete moviegoing experience. I imagine myself wide-eyed, absorbing all the details of the theater, marveling at number of seats and the enormity of the screen. The previews likely included Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” and I no doubt made clear my desire to see that movie next.

Finally, the film itself. “The Great Muppet Caper” opens with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo riding in a hot air balloon as they make knowing comments about the opening credits. (Fozzie: “Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?” Kermit: “Sure. They all have families.”) The magic of this scene is that these three characters are so fully realized in our minds that we don’t think of them as puppets, and therefore we don’t wonder how each of their performers fit into that little basket. Jim Henson and company always slip in these tricks to make you forget that any puppeteers were involved. You simply see the Muppets.

Such tricks work especially well on children. As my dad said, I loved the Muppets so much that I lost all bodily control when their show came on TV. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why they were so special to me, but it had something to do with that magic of their existence. It’s clear that the Muppets are real. They have physical forms of fur and felt and cloth and plastic, and yet, they are unreal and impossible. Children can’t reconcile that contradiction. Their existence is subconsciously attributed to some sort of magic.

But when you kinda believe that the Muppets are real, there is a down side: the scary ones are really scary. Like every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of Uncle Deadly in the background on The Muppet Show, and a chill would shoot up my spine. Sweetums was my biggest fear though. You know him. He’s the shaggy, 9-foot-tall Muppet with the big nose, the mean-looking eyes, the huge mouth, and the sharp teeth.

This brings us back to the movie. After the credits roll, the hot air balloon lands on a busy street and a raucous musical number ensues, replete with car accidents, explosions, and a horrifying shot of Sweetums running toward the camera, growling and grumbling. Typical Muppet stuff, yes, but it was all too much for me to bear. I was overwhelmed. We had barely reached the five-minute mark and I was screaming and crying. My dad had to carry me out of the theater for the benefit of the other patrons.

I wouldn’t be consoled. Not only had I endured the trauma of a 40-foot-tall Sweetums, I’d also missed my chance to see the Muppet movie. My dad promptly figured out a remedy. He took me to Toys“R”Us and let me pick out anything in the store. I selected a puppet. A cuddly, furry creature of indeterminate species, whom we named Beaver-Bear. I felt better, and I had a new friend.

My dad has always been a tough guy, a muscular, ass-kicking, shit-disturber. He was an ex-army paratrooper. And now he had a new son who was terrorized by a puppet musical. Some dads might have taken this as a cue to sign up their son for the first little league team that would take him. Instead, my dad wrote me a letter. He said he knew I wasn’t going to be a tough guy. He said he knew that I would grow up to be sensitive. He said that was okay. He tucked the letter away in the basement for delivery at a later date.

In the intervening years, the letter was lost. He delivered it verbally though, around the time of my 18th birthday, after I came out of the closet. He said he had always wanted me to be me. It was okay.

*  *  *  *  *

Last week, the Museum of the Moving Image screened “The Great Muppet Caper” for its 35th anniversary. The film has a special place in my heart, so I made the journey up to Long Island City to see it. When I arrived in the auditorium, I sent my dad a photo and a message.

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Thanks, dad, for taking me to the movies. Thanks for carrying me out. Thanks for letting me be me.


Here is the opening musical number from “The Great Muppet Caper.” Viewer discretion is advised.

Cruising

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The first time I heard of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (1980) was fifteen years after its release, in “The Celluloid Closet,” an indispensable documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians throughout the history of films. In it, “Cruising” is indicted as a film that encouraged hate crimes and exploited homophobia. It depicts protesters demanding that the filmmakers halt production altogether. Watching this, one feels that it was a seminal moment, when gays and lesbians spoke up and tried to take control of their own image in the media.

Certainly there’s merit to that. However, after finally watching the film, now thirty-five years after its release, I struggled to identify the reason for all the fuss.

“Cruising” tells the story of a cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to find a serial killer who’s been targeting gay men in the underground leather scene of New York City. The nature of his mission requires a certain open-mindedness, but the job also provides a cover that allows him to indulge his curiosities and explore facets of his sexuality that he might have otherwise ignored. This is a fascinating setup, and the complexity of Pacino’s character is remarkable considering that he evolves without the benefit of expository dialogue. His motivations are known only to himself. He has no confidant, so there is never a scene in which he shares his feelings aloud. Nor is there a voiceover to let us know what he’s thinking. Some have complained that this makes his character frustrating and unnecessarily obscure. I disagree. Pacino’s performance communicates everything we need to know about his secret attraction to the leather scene, and his isolation from the audience makes thematic sense. (This works only up to a point. More on that later.)

Watching the film, I noticed a curious amount of ADR and later learned that protesters followed the production and deliberately ruined the audio recordings by making noise on set. But why? What made this film so controversial that activists actually wanted to shut down production? The film is strikingly sympathetic to the gay community. The first scene involves a pair of homophobic cops, but its purpose is not to make us laugh at or be grossed out by gay people, but to feel sympathy for these characters who face constant harassment. (The scene also introduces the theme of repressed sexuality by showing a cop who antagonizes a drag queen but ultimately forces her to go down on him.)

In a way, the real villains in the story are the intolerance toward gay people and the shame that’s imposed on them. That’s what motivates the murders. I suppose that idea is problematic in itself, that an intolerant society can twist gay people into crazed killers, but the film isn’t that simplistic. Yes, the scene that attempts to humanize the killer and assign his motivation feels clunky, but it’s no reason to protest.

cruising 3I think the real objection was that the film shined a light on the dark corners of the community. The Gay Liberation Movement, as it was called at the time, was grasping for mainstream acceptance, and here was a mainstream film that depicted a subset of the community, one that is particularly sexual, fueled with drugs and violence, and altogether unpalatable to grandmothers the world over. But the film goes out of its way to distinguish the leather subculture from the gay community at large, both by having a character say that outright and by introducing a gay character who is not at all involved in the S&M culture.

One can understand why the Gay Liberation Movement of 1980 would have been apprehensive about a film that invited the whole world into the leather bars of the Meatpacking District, but to go so far as to disrupt the production seems to betray an intolerance toward members of their own community. Perhaps these protesters were themselves a fringe group; conservative and hungry for acceptance, terrified of being viewed as perverted sex freaks and willing to go to any lengths to prove how “normal” they were. Of course I’m extrapolating now, but the struggle between the freaks and the assimilationists was real in the early post-Stonewall era.

cruising 2Regardless of the reason, this film was under tremendous scrutiny before it had even been made, and all the controversy succeeded in diluting the story. The scenes between Pacino and his wife could have provided more insight into his character while maintaining his strict secrecy, as in “Brokeback Mountain” when Heath Ledger insists on certain sex positions with his wife and we understand the meaning. Here, we do see that Pacino can’t get it up for his wife, but that fact alone doesn’t have as strong an impact without accompanying scenes showing him fully capable of performing with men. Also, the relationship between the Pacino character and his neighbor is vital to the film’s conclusion, yet senselessly underdeveloped. As a result, the ending falls flat for lack of a convincing setup. By the time it’s over, one gets the feeling that Friedkin was forced to cut several key scenes and then tried to pass off the resulting obscurity as artistic.

“Cruising” was far ahead of its time and suffered, technically and dramatically, as a result. Here is a film that begs for a remake. Surely now, when the media represents the wide spectrum of the gay community, no one would protest a murder mystery set in the milieu of the leather bars.

And yet, this film, despite its flaws, deserves recognition at least for Pacino’s performance as the conflicted undercover cop, for creating sympathetic gay characters long before that was common, and for going where no mainstream film had gone before. Maybe not boldly, but it did go there.