How do We Look at ‘Being Elmo’ in Light of the Allegations Against Kevin Clash?
A year and a half ago, at the Silverdocs documentary film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, I sat down in a packed theater for one of the most anticipated docs playing that week: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. I’ll admit to choosing that screening at least partially out of nostalgia for Seasame Street. Ultimately, I found it to be nice enough little film, but far too hagiographic towards its central character, Kevin Clash. It’s not that thoroughly good people can’t make for interesting subjects of documentaries, but the movie just felt overly worshipful. The way it presents Clash, he seems to live in a conflict-free world where there is nothing but sunshine and Muppets.
After the screening, Clash himself was part of the panel discussion, alongside the director, Constance Marks. As a special treat, Clash pulled out his Elmo puppet and played with some of the children in the audience. It was adorable. It also isn’t at all creepy in retrospect, since the crimes of which Clash has been accused of in the last few months aren’t pedophiliac in nature. But the movie now lingers in my head, that shiny-happy image of Clash grappling with one of a man who takes sexual advantage of teenage boys.
I confess at this point to not have followed the various developments in this new story all that closely, due to an extreme disinterest in gossip around celebrities’ personal lives. I understand that there are now three men who are alleging that Clash had sex with them when they were under the age of consent, and that some of the more sordid details of said alleged sexual contact are being told. I don’t care about any of that. I won’t speculate as to whether Clash is innocent or guilty (although, frankly, the presence of multiple accusers doesn’t bode well). That’s none of my business. But as a passionate viewer of documentaries, I want to explore what these events mean for Being Elmo.
What is a documentary? My preferred description was given by Pare Lorentz, who defined a documentary as “a factual film that is dramatic.” It’s important to establish such a definition, because the lay person often thinks of docs as strictly informational. But that view is too constrictive, and doesn’t allow for the full range of wonderful nonfiction cinema. By those parameters, Being Elmo is an unquestionable failure, because it “missed” such a large fact about its main character. But we aren’t subscribing to that view. This isn’t journalism – it’s art.
What if you isolate Being Elmo from its real world context, and take it solely on its own merits? You might think it would be impossible to do such a thing, but we watch plenty of older works now with no real awareness of the contexts in which they were made. A hundred years from now, someone might watch Being Elmo, think, “Well, that’s nice,” and move on. Or, given the way that information technology continues to progress, more likely, they’ll be able to immediately do further research and discover the rest of the story. Or perhaps there will be an update made to the doc at some point, or even a sequel, á la Paradise Lost? My point here is that Being Elmo is still well-made, all other considerations aside. If it were a piece of fiction, the discussion over whether or not it is good would end there.
But it is a documentary, and thus the truth is in play here. So is it all a lie? I wouldn’t say so – even if these allegations prove to be true, like I stated above, this film doesn’t deal with anything pertaining to Clash’s possible actions. It focuses on his life, how he rose from poverty in Baltimore to creating a beloved television icon. It shows his immense skill in puppet craft, and how well he interacts with children. If he did have sex with those young men? Then that fact doesn’t change any of these things that the movie is about. He still pulled himself up from nothing, he’s still a brilliant puppeteer, and he’s still great with kids.
Oddly enough, Being Elmo‘s lightness, which I counted as a strike against it, may have been its saving grace on this count. It isn’t non-factual about Clash’s conduct with teenage boys because it refuses to delve into any part of the side of his life that includes that conduct. The film simply isn’t interested in that aspect of him. So should it have been? Should Constance Marks have asked those questions, or investigated that background? Was she obligated to, as a documentary director?
PBS blogger Tom Roston asks similar questions here, and comes to the conclusion that it’s alright for a doc to leave such things about its subject unexplored, as long as it makes clear that it is presenting only part of the truth, and not the whole truth about the subject. Marks didn’t have to dig up all the dirt on Clash, but, Roston appears to be arguing, she should have made clear that her work was not authoritative on all aspects of Clash’s life.
I would disagree a bit in this area, in that I don’t think the movie has any pretense of being wholly authoritative, and I also don’t think that a doc should have to outright state such a thing in any case. To do so would be a capitulation to the people stuck in the narrow “all docs are journalism” view. People should realize that when they watch a documentary, they are watching a subjective interpretation of events and facts, arranged in such a way as to make them dramatic (come to think of it, I might like that even better as a definition).
So where does that leave us? Roston says that it Being Elmo is an incomplete portrait, and I agree with that. As he points out, even before these allegations came to light, I felt that the doc was more concerned with feting Clash than with seriously looking at him as a person. But that’s the thing – the doc was flawed on this count even before these new developments.
So should this new information really change the way we view the film?
The answer is that, all things considered, it actually shouldn’t. But it doesn’t matter. Because the fact is that it will. No one will ever view Being Elmo the same way again, because the objective aspects are overridden by emotion. And really, that’s probably the way it should be.
This isn’t the end of this story, and it probably isn’t the end of Being Elmo‘s story, either. Context is crucial for a film, but contexts also change. There’s the faint possibility that Clash will be revealed as completely innocent. There’s the all but foregone conclusion that another documentary will be made about Clash, possibly by the same people behind Being Elmo. Any number of things could happen. They don’t change the essential quality of Being Elmo (which is that it’s nice but nothing special), but they will continue to shape how the movie is processed by audiences going forward.
As it is, Being Elmo functions as a perfect encapsulation of how most people viewed Kevin Clash before these new twists in his story. And in that way, it has value. The great thing about documentaries, even merely okay ones, is that they can tell you so much about what certain people thought about a certain subject at a certain point of time. But really, all movies, good and bad, can do this. That’s one of the great things about them.