THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppet Movie

22 June, 2019 at 3:31 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: It’s all been building to this: the beginning of it all, if you don’t count, y’know, the TV show and the talk show appearances and the general omnipresence. This was huge. And it was. Box Office Mojo doesn’t have the opening weekend numbers for The Muppet Movie, but it does list the overall gross at $65.2 million in 1979 money, which adjusts to $234 million today, kicking the revival success of The Muppets at a comparatively mere $101.8 million into a cocked hat. It was wildly successful financially, and continues to be a massive emotional touchstone for fans and families.

And what’s weird is that it doesn’t even start with the banjo. It feels like it should. The DVD does. The Blu-ray does. The Blu-Ray’s “Intermission” feature does. It’s hard to imagine that this iconic picking wasn’t something that pre-grabs an audience and transports them back to memories of this film, but was once an eight-bar intro to an unknown quantity. And its even weirder that the film takes forever to get there, with a truly extended bookend sequence, that’s incredibly slowly paced and does little that’s iconic, with two exceptions: Kermit’s dialogue to Robin (“It’s sort of approximately how it happened…” and the fact that the theatre screening seats that were designed to hide Muppeteers beneath them have now become the standard for cinemas.

Statler and Waldorf puppets at the Museum of the Moving ImageHowever, it would be remiss of me not to point out that The Muppet Movie does open with an absolute goddamn public service: it not only names Staler and Waldorf — names I can’t remember not knowing, but which seem to be largely opaque to much of the general public… a comprehensive text search of transcripts of current podcasts as well as conversations around me at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Jim Henson exhibit would reveal that hardly anyone knows that “those two old Muppets in the balcony” even have names — but also tells us which is which, something even I have trouble remembering on occasion. The film then very leisurely introduces the various personnages with a series of small in-character moments. The whole thing is very unhurried, maybe even deleteriously so. So it’s a welcome gag that Animal and the various Muppets (while displaying the worst cinema-going etiquette ever… something that they apparently were wont to continue thirty-two years later) get impatient for the film to begin and bully Kermit into starting the film without thanking everyone involved. (A joke, of course, continued in Muppet Caper‘s credits, as well — as I’ve previously mentioned — as in Bloom County in 1982.)

So it’s a full four and a half minutes before the banjo strings do their thing and our heartstrings do ours. The credits are interesting, in that the song begins as voice-over and then becomes a diagetic performance, and the transition is surprising. For someone who hasn’t seen the film before, the helicopter shot transitions to a crane dolly in a swamp, and gradually — and then quickly — zooms in on a frog on a log playing music. For those of us rewatching the film, we’re expecting Kermit to appear, as the shot of him playing the banjo has become indelible, so it’s surprising how hard he is to see. I look and look and I’m waiting for movement to catch my eye, and I’m always surprised where Kermit ends up appearing on the screen. He’s not centered in the shot, and he’s not singing to camera. He’s in his own world, looking up and off, and completely unconcerned with being observed.

In fact, the key moments of the song are those of introspection, and the establishment of the visual and audio trope of dualism. As much as the film is a road movie, it also maps pretty well on to the Hero’s Journey, and the eventual “Long dark night of the soul” happens where Kermit has to talk with himself and reconcile his responsibility to others and to him. That second self, that reflection, is in conversion with Kermit here, with some lyrics actually performed in an echoey externalized conversation.

KERMIT: Have you heard voices?

The overlay of Campbell’s myth cycle doesn’t perfectly work — there’s no reconciliation with the Goddess, or even a meeting with one, as much as Miss Piggy might violently argue to the contrary and the ultimate magical assistance that comes from the combination of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s growth pills and Animal’s appetites doesn’t really come out of a return favor from a Bettelheim magical helper — but it remains the best predictor of a second-to-third act transition in storytelling. And it’s certainly why Kermit ultimately decides to have his showdown with Doc Hopper: he’s reached his apotheotic truth that he has promised himself that he will try to make “millions of people happy” or die in the attempt. And what more laudable goal could there be in life or entertainment?

The film also trades many times on the meta-textual reference to the fact that this is a movie that knows that it’s a movie. When Kermit and Fozzie are being savaged by the assortment of exotic roughs in the El Sleazo, and Kermit is thrown into the player piano, he talks directly to the audience, causing Paul Williams to either also look directly at the viewer (or to wonder who the hell Kermit is talking to, it’s hard to tell). Later, Fozzie apologizes to the audience for wanting to recap the whole story right before Kermit hands a copy of the screenplay to Dr. Teeth.

Much like how Gonzo and Rizzo are both in Scrooge’s London and simultaneously outside the story, The Electric Mayhem seem to exist on the bleeding edge of reality and narrative, painting the Studebaker the exact color to blend in with a colorful billboard, and arriving in the desert because the screenplay told them to. It would otherwise be an unbelievable coincidence, but is instead a piece of clever, self-aware lampshading.

I know in a post-Whedon world, lampshading looks like the refuge of the lazy and self-congratulatory, of writers who can’t be bothered to twist their screenplay around reality and instead just tell the audience that, yes, they’re archly aware of the flaws as well. That we’re all in this little slice of mediocrity together. But this film is much, much older than TVTropes, and the early trope seems gleeful rather than jaded. I rediscovered this movie in college after having watched it many times as a child, and “meta” hadn’t made its way into the terminology yet. We knew we couldn’t quite use the phrase “post-modern” anymore, as there had surely been a couple literary movements between Modernism and the new turn of the century, and actively deconstructed fiction was once again on the rise. So films like this, like A Hard Day’s Night, that toyed with the question of what was real, but in a playful way — unlike the dismal, paranoid Matrix/Fight Club zeitgeist that was about to emerge — really caught my fancy.

FLOYD AND JANICE: Yeah, even Santa Claus believes in you.

The Electric Mayhem also had the virtue of singing the song that — to use the phrase now drilled into my head by Punch Up The Jam — slaps the hardest. “Can You Picture That” is fun, energetic, and does an excellent job of pastiching the kind of lyrics made popular by the kinds of song like “I am the Walrus” or “The Windmills of my Mind”: free association with a wink and a dash of pretension. The lyrics don’t have any business being funny while simultaneously containing clever gems of actual wisdom, but the song basically works on all levels.

I have more problems with “Never Before and Never Again”, the song that contextualizes the Kermit/Piggy romance for the ages. Firstly, the song has the tempo of treacle. The intro, with its swelling strings and glissanding piano may only be a standard eight bars, but as Piggy sighs with rapture, I sigh with dismay. The New York Times singled out “Never Before” for particular praise in their original 1979 review, finding the montage of romantic tropes to be “[o]ne of the movie’s funniest sequences”. However, I can only find three jokes: Kermit is dwarfed by Piggy, so her passion overmatches his, physically; the line at the heart of the song that their love is so, so much that there are leftovers available for everyone else; and Frank Oz can’t quite pull off the high notes. Otherwise, it’s not enough of a divergence from traditional romantic ballads to be satirical; it’s over the top, but not that much more than gauzy, soft-focus videos made sincerely for Romance Compilation album advertisements. So the main joke really has to be Oz’s delivery.

That’s hard cheese on Oz. Of the three main sentimental songs (Rainbow Connection, Going to go Back There Someday, and The Magic Store), two are voiced by Henson, and of the two main comic songs (Movin’ Right Along, and You Can’t Live With ‘Em), both are Henson songs, with him even singing a duet with himself in the latter. The remaining three songs are pretty much straight tunes (Can You Picture That, Never Before, and America the Beautiful), the main joke being that Oz is singing two of them in a scratchy voice that wobbles around the pitch. Maybe because he’s not a great singer, or maybe because he’s doing voices? “America the Beautiful” gets a lifetime pass from me because of the simply honesty of Fozzie singing the “bum-bum-bm-bahmp!” bit along with the instruments. But one would hope that the writing of a key song in a script and soundtrack had more to hang it on than “Our beloved co-Muppeteer has to reach for the falsetto.”

FOZZIE: God shed His grace on thee... bum-bum-bum-buhm!

There’s plenty of tiny details that are interesting from a modern perspective. Speaking of Fozzie singing “America the Beautiful”, I’m a little surprised that Kermit telling Robin they shouldn’t stand up for it hasn’t been memed by Black Lives Matter, but then again, it’s a little weird to count the number of Confederate flags held by background extras at the Bogen County Fair (which, if it’s the same Bogen County at the TV movie with Jaclyn Smith, is in Texas, or perhaps it’s in Ohio… the geography and pathway of this road movie are a little hard to map). But perhaps one of the strangest is veteran character actor Charles Durning’s portrayal of Doc Hopper, or — as I like to think of him — Truman Capote As Bond Villain.

It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch, but consider the evidence. He is able to, within mere moments of being shown Kermit through the window of the El Sleazo, set up a detour barricade on their likely route and program all the televisions in a closed appliance store to show his advertisement at the touch of a remote control. Later, despite the fact that Kermit and Fozzie are driving in circles and seem to zig-zag between both Rhode Island and Saskatchewan on their way from Louisiana to California, he’s able to intercept their route and have Max paint a mock-up billboard prior to their arrival. He knows both a hitman who specializes specifically in executing frogs and a crazed Nazi scientist. And is having a soft, squeaky voice and wearing white suits while having a life-long dream of owning a thousand frog-leg restaurants any weirder of a motivation for a Bond villain than being based on a combination of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch?

Durning does an excellent job of playing oleaginous, and his moment of introspection at the end, where he considers whether his dream is really more important than Kermit’s is performed to the hilt. Austin Pendleton had already started to make himself instantly recognizable in films like What’s Up, Doc? and the remake of The Front Page and he similarly plays the sinking realization of the reality of “millions of frogs on tiny crutches” with genuine naivité and empathy. In fact, most of the performers interact with both the Muppets and the script with the simple conviction that becomes the staple of the franchise: that the Muppets are real people too. While you do have Steve Martin doing his smarmy best to steal every iota of screen time in tiny shorts and Mel Brooks is completely off the chain, most everyone else does a pretty good job of winningly fitting in with the general demeanor of the proceedings. Richard Pryor taking Gonzo and Camilla’s relationship in stride — anything for a sale, his tone of voice tells us — is a particular favorite.

Speaking of, the Celebrity Human Score for The Muppet Movie is all up on the poster, giving an idea that the studio was either worried about audiences trusting in the star-power of the fabric-based leading roles, or that they understood that so much of the appeal of The Muppet Show was the human/Muppet interactions, that they wanted to let viewers know they would still have lots of that particular frisson. And the direction of the actors to be real in the scene, to interact with the Muppets as they would with a genuine person, helped establish the reality of the Muppets in the world. When the Blu-Ray of The Muppet Movie came out in 2013, it included footage of camera tests of Henson and Oz improvising scenes in real-world locations. The story at the time (which gets reblogged on Wow, Click Here! sites with some regularity) was that this footage was used to convince producers that seeing the Muppets in verité scenarios outside the Muppet theatre would work.

And that’s perhaps the greatest legacy of the film. Because not only have we gone on to multiple instances of feature films exploring variations on the simple truth that we do want to see the Muppets in the world at large, but we don’t just want rehashed vaudeville jokes: we want pathos as well. We want the heartfelt moment of Kermit arguing with himself and being simple and vulnerable in front of Doc Hopper. We want the utterly surprising moment of Gonzo — who may be a wingless turkey, but who knows at this point — longing for the freedom and unexpected majesty of flight. We want to understand how Kermit might have a lifelong fear of his feelings for Piggy, who jilts him for the possibility of appearing in an ad campaign. And we want the sickening, vertiginous feeling that something’s gone wrong, right before a rainbow shows up, like a promise that everything will work out in the end. And we would run across the country or through decades to try and catch up with those feelings again.

RATING: Life’s like a movie, write your own rating/ Keep believing, don’t be hating/ It’s not perfect, but I guess it’ll do/ Thanks to the lovers… the dreamers… and you.

 

Related links:
An excellent, long feature in the New York Timeson the success and growth of the Muppets just before the release of The Muppet Movie and after the funeral of Edgar Bergen.
Director James Frawley, who just died this January, looked back at the original Muppet Movie production in an interview from 2014.
The Muppet Mindset has an article on the special effects techniques used in the making of the movie.
The Muppet Wikia has a complete scan of an early script to The Muppet Movie, with links to a Tough Pigs article talking about the differences and development.
Dan Evans pointed out this article on the making of “The Rainbow Connection” published for the anniversary.
SlashFilm has their own take on the eight Muppet feature films.
Matt McC has a pretty great processing of the “Muppet movies are fictional” trope through the vehicle of trying to explain to his daughter if Gonzo really is an alien.

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