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.

“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.”) 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.

NYC Film Guide: March 2015 (Part 2)

more snow 😐

The snow has returned to NYC and I’m back with the second half of Things to See in March. Again, check out the Film Guide for a full list of old movies playing in NYC, but here are some more highlights…

The most important film screening this month is obviously “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) at my beloved Nitehawk Cinema. It’s part of their “Lil’ Terrors” series, which also includes “Ghoulies” (1984) and “Critters” (1986).

“Gremlins 2” was a long time coming. Its predecessor was released to enormous success, but director Joe Dante apparently had no interest in making a sequel. After six years of cajoling from Warner Bros, and a promise that he could do whatever crazy thing he wanted, he finally relented.

The end product certainly has the feeling of a film untouched by nervous studio executive hands. One doubts that the gremlins’ Busby Berkeley production number would have even been filmed if the studio had had any say. The unhinged madness is what makes this movie so special though.

That, and it features one of the best puppets ever built for the movies. I mean it. Any list of great puppets is incomplete without the Brain Gremlin.

The Brain Gremlin, "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990)

The Brain Gremlin, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990)

On the surface he looks like any other of his kin, but both in the story and as a puppet, he has one major difference: his ability to speak intelligently. The next time you see this movie, and by all means go to the midnight screening at the Nitehawk, pay attention to his lip articulation. This puppet’s mouth achieves two things that lesser puppets often struggle with: variety of movement and speed. That is, he can move his lips and mouth in a seemingly endless combination of ways, much like a human mouth, and he can do so very quickly, which is crucial to realizing an intelligent, verbose character.

The result is a puppet that delivers a believable performance. I would argue it does so even better than a modern CGI character could because it has the added benefit of being on set, of interacting with the environment and the actors. Its physical reality enhances its believability. That’s not to say all puppets outperform CGI characters, but this one is sophisticated enough to do so.

This month you can see another classic sequel of the early 90s, “Batman Returns” (1992), playing at IFC Center. What a different world were the nineteen-nineties, when this was considered mainstream summer blockbuster superhero fare. It now seems more closely related to the Batman TV show from the 60s than to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Director Tim Burton delivered the humor and campiness from the 60s but painted them with darker tones. The result is a Batman movie that captures the moodiness of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, but is still a fun adventure instead of a loud, depressing ordeal.

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Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Batman Returns” (1992)

My next three picks are all fun adventures too, so maybe I’m biased.

Sundays mornings at Film Forum always have a touch of whimsy, thanks to Film Forum Jr., their ongoing series of kid-friendly screenings. But don’t expect insipid saccharine “kid movies.” This series is for budding film lovers, not easily traumatized crybabies or their overly protective parents. Last year I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) here. Sure, an Indiana Jones adventure seems appropriate for little kids, but this is the one where God melted those Nazis’ faces.

Formerly at Film Forum Jr.

Formerly at Film Forum Jr.

This month at Film Forum Jr., little cinephiles will be treated to two fine examples of screenplay construction. Foremost is a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s “Back to the Future” (1985). They may be a little weirded out by Lea Thompson accidentally trying to have sex with her son, but they’ll get over it. From its novel premise to classic characters and brisk pacing, this screenplay, by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, earned its place in many a Screenwriting 101 course.

“Chicken Run” (2000) is also playing at Film Forum Jr. this month. A more traditional kids movie in the sense that it’s animated, but one of the first things that happens is the (offscreen) beheading of a minor character. This isn’t notable for its gruesomeness; it provides a real sense of peril and a strong motivation for the main character. And a motivated main character, even if she’s a chicken, is the foundation of a strong screenplay.

Michael J. Fox, "Back to the Future" (1985)

Michael J. Fox, “Back to the Future” (1985)

And speaking of strongly motivated characters in peril, we trek to Queens for one of my favorite Hitchcock films, “North by Northwest” (1959) at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s screening in their series Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences, and the lineage connecting Cary Grant’s suave ad man to John Hamm’s is clear. They’re in the same profession at the same time, both models of coolness under pressure, both love drinking in the daytime, and they’re both ensnared in webs of mistaken, or stolen, identity.

The surface differences between the two men illustrate the different tones of Mad Men and “North by Northwest.” Where Don Draper is severe and broody, Roger Thornhill is quippy and sarcastic. That’s because Hitchcock wasn’t making a serious drama. Although considered one of the greatest directors of all time, he never aimed to make “important” movies. He wanted to entertain. “North by Northwest” is funny, exciting, and sexy – everything you want from a night at the movies.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, "North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, “North by Northwest (1959)

I always leave “North by Northwest” wanting to take a cross-country train ride and meet a mysterious blond while sipping martinis in the dining car. Then I remember that train rides are dull and the dining cars only serve food wrapped in plastic.

Ah, the magic of the movies.