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Deep and Simple Documentaries

If you’re like me, the word “documentary” may unlock memories of trying to sit still for hours on a hard classroom floor, praying for a 16 mm projector to malfunction so that you and the rest of your fourth grade class won’t have to watch reel #3 of “The Netherlands: A People Versus the Sea.” However, the pioneers of the modern feature length documentary–from its fly-on-the-wall roots in the works of D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, The War Room) to the weirdness of Errol Morris’ interview montages (Vernon, Florida; Gates of Heaven), to the guerilla tactics of Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine)–prove that the time for checking our baggage about the form is long past due.  So in honor of National Documentary Month (aka “Doc-tober”), here are two recent documentaries guaranteed to shatter your preconceived notions of their respective subjects.

In Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, filmmaker Constance Marks reveals the man behind Elmo.  My notions of who this may have been were fuzzy at best (ha!), but Kevin Clash was definitely not what I had in mind.  As a child growing up in Turners Station, a working class African American neighborhood near Baltimore, Clash was discovered one day to have crafted a nearly ready-for-prime-time muppet out of his father’s winter coat on the sly, after which neither he, nor his parents, shied away from his destiny as a master puppeteer.  The film chronicles Clash’s mother personally seeking out the guidance of Kermit Love, whose legendary felt and foam creations became Jim Henson’s most famous characters, and depicts a teenage Clash remaining true to his passion for puppetry in the face of jibes from perplexed classmates.  Interestingly, the movie explains that the Elmo of today exists only due to Clash’s rescuing him from the Sesame Street slush pile; Clash recreated the character of Elmo (replacing a raspy, tough guy voice with his now famous falsetto) after he was discarded by another, uninspired puppeteer.  Clash attributes Elmo’s unprecedented fame to the visualization he uses to guide the puppet, remarking that Elmo’s character is animated as an expression of one simple idea: love.  As the movie concludes, Clash comes full circle, mentoring a new young prodigy who has sought out the world famous puppeteer for guidance.

Benjamin Wagner’s 2010 documentary Mister Rogers and Me describes the life-changing experience of briefly living next door to America’s most famous neighbor himself, children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers.  Wagner was a twenty-something MTV producer when he came to stay for several weeks at his mother’s Nantucket residence and discovered Mr. Rogers, a long-time resident of the island, living in a nearby beach house.  As they became acquainted, Rogers passed on a message to Wagner and told him to share it with the world: “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”  Wagner’s film attempts to illustrate how Rogers lived this maxim, telling the story of his life and work, often through interviews with those upon whose lives he had a great impact, such as journalists Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, and Tim Madigan, and Dr. Susan Linn, founder of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

One preconceived notion I had about both movies turns out to be true:  it’s impossible to learn what makes Elmo and Mr. Rogers tick without a serious infestation of warm fuzzies, even for viewers who bring, as I did, a measure of typical adult cynicism.  But you can always call the exterminator in the morning.  The beauty of Being Elmo and Mister Rogers and Me lies in their power to recapture the guileless appreciation we once had for these two American icons of childhood.  It is a testament to the documentary form that both filmmakers chose to forego the inherent cuteness of their subjects to reveal them plainly in movies made about adults, for adults. -  Dan Coleman, Collection Development

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