TICKLED Besides being a moving portrait of an unheralded artist, Being Elmo is a subtle glimpse into issues of race, media, and culture.
The Independent Film Festival of Boston — now in its ninth year, and the most exciting film event in town, if not in New England — opens this week with two outstanding documentaries about two very independent and inspiring individuals. Not to mention a bit peculiar. Here's a look at those two films. (We'll have much more coverage of the festival in next week's issue.)
Chances are, you haven't been all that curious about the person behind the pilly red fabric of Sesame Street's Elmo — unless you wanted to thank him for unleashing a squeaky-voiced phenomenon that has seduced pre-schoolers across America with its "Tickle Me" action figure. But filmmaker Constance Marks had the wherewithal to look into the story, and the resulting documentary, BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY (2011; screens April 27 at 7:30 pm at the Somerville Theatre, with the director, Kevin Clash, and Elmo in attendance), makes for a satisfying festival opener. It's a moving portrait of an unheralded artist and a subtle glimpse into issues of race, media, and culture.
At first glance, Kevin Clash seems an unlikely source of Elmo's guileless (if sometimes treacly) expressions of unqualified love. A burly, middle-aged African-American, he's been obsessed with puppetry since he was a kid growing up in a tough part of Baltimore. As he recalls, he had to run through the gang turfs between school and home before finding refuge in PBS programs like Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street.
Such shows offered a world he wanted to re-create himself, and he studied the puppet figures to figure out how to design his own. Mocked by his peers, but supported by his parents, he persevered in his vocation and while still in high school earned a spot on a local TV show. From there, he went on to the big time in New York with Captain Kangaroo and finally, his dream: Sesame Street. After creating and voicing a variety of muppet characters, he reinvented the discarded Elmo. This was an overwhelming success, perhaps because he embodied the sweetness, creative ebullience, and empathy needed to instill an object made of foam rubber and fleece with a soul. You need only watch the effect Clash and Elmo have on a Make-a-Wish child to believe in their magic.
Rajesh, the title subject of Philip Cox's THE BENGALI DETECTIVE (2011; screens April 28 at 7 pm at the Somerville Theatre), shares some of Clash's — and Elmo's — innocence and optimism. In Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where the local police can't cope with the surging crime rate, PI firms like Rajesh's "Always" detective agency are who you're going to call. Or so Rajesh would like to believe.