Life’s like a movie, make your ending, keep believing, keep pretending…
As Tyler Cowen was talking about in the last post, humans are inexorably drawn to stories. I even like to think of every sentence as a story. It stars a subject which verbs something. And in my childhood there were two stories that loomed mightily above all the others. Star Wars and The Muppet Movie. As a wildly imaginative ham of a loner who loved being alone and writing stories, watching TV and movies, and longing to express himself as an actor, The Muppet Movie was a dangerous story to be exposed to.
What’s so interesting about The Muppet Movie is that it is a deeply paradoxical movie. It is a quest movie about a pro-social introvert who craves fame because he wants to make millions of people happy. He is surrounded by predominantly creatures who have an unrestrained naturalness of self-expression that is constantly overwhelming him. Kermit breaks with all sorts of standard dichotomies between the introvert and the extrovert. He was one of us extroverted introverts. One of those people who oscillates between a desire to throw himself out there and express himself to all the world and wanting to pull back and retreat a bit from whatever love comes flowing back at him from the world. It’s not easy being Kermit. He’s smart, conscientious, warmhearted, and a natural showman—and yet also fundamentally shy, reserved, and cautious at his core.
He is a hero on a quest for glory, but he’s not a fighter. He doesn’t slay his enemies, he pleas for them to do the right thing. His desire for fame is for the opportunity to touch others, not to aggrandize himself. He is a quintessential embodiment of the paradoxical American obsession with both egalitarianism and fame. Of course, now thanks to the explosion of social media, we live in an era in which everybody is famous—and so nobody is.
You’re not supposed to admit to wanting to be famous. You risk revealing yourself to be a narcissist if you do. But Kermit is unapologetic about wanting to be famous. And the vicarious triumph young kids experience through Kermit is of becoming famous with him. You see why I said at the start that it’s a dangerous movie! Kermit is the most unabashed seller of the least realistic of all the American dreams—the ones that you can be famous famous (not just Facebook famous). That’s a big expectation to put into little heads. All this unrestrained believing in myself that has me expressing myself with abandon to whoever will watch me or read me, whether in a classroom or on the internet, Kermit made me do it. Okay, maybe he didn’t make me do it. My mom’s a ham too, I got a lot of it from her. But Kermit was more than happy to throw gasoline on the fire.
But even though it’s a dangerous story that Kermit sold, one which can set people up for disappointment when they try to live it out, I think Kermit’s heart was in the right place. Because balancing that aching yearning for fame was an overwhelming inclusiveness and other-directedness. It’s the most pro-social form of narcissism possible that the muppets represented. Every misfit Kermit could pick up along the way had a place in the show. He modeled the essence of democracy, wherein every weirdo can let his or her own freak flag fly without being constrained by a hegemonic order, without the down side of mob conformist rule whereby the average penalize all deviants whether great or small. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra put the stifling mindset of conformist culture perfectly when he summed it up: “Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse”.
And the new muppets movie (The Muppets) captures, pays tribute to, and recreates that essence of Kermit’s message that even the misfits can be famous. That we all have something to give. The movie is written and directed by people who obviously grew up on the muppets and who for the first time since Jim Henson’s death we have a muppet movie which has revived his gloriously meta and exquisitely ironic sense of humor.
A recent generation learned irony from The Simpsons, I’m convinced I learned it from the muppets. It cracks me up that FOX News got up in arms about the muppets making a capitalist, and specifically an oil man, into the movie’s villain and sending anti-capitalist messages to kids, and interpreted this as the latest in a long trend. What it really was was part and parcel of a film that dispensed with pretensions and underhandedness and deconstructed its own story as it was telling it. It was an exercise in teaching kids about glaringly lazy tropes by poking fun at them—just the way the original muppet adventures were. Jim Henson was not only about teaching kids how to read on Sesame Street, he was about teaching them how to read between the lines on The Muppet Show, where the kids were constantly brought back stage in more ways than one to see what was really going on. The FOX drones saw the movie and it spelled out the formula of movie making clearly enough that even they could understand it. But, they weren’t quick enough to get the irony and meta-commentary meant to be grasped by children.
But I digress, the film is so successful because it tells the story of a muppet named Walter who grows up feeling like an outcast to the world outside his brother. Nobody looks like him. Everybody laughs at him. He sees The Muppet Show and it tells him there are others like him. He grows up idolizing Kermit and the whole muppet crew. This is the first muppet movie made by and for all of us loner misfits who the original Jim Henson muppet movies spoke to so immediately.
In the original muppet movie, our quest was with Kermit to fame and fortune. Now our quest, through Walter, is to approach Kermit as an ideal and a famous hero. Our question is can we finally join Kermit, now that we’re all grown up. He made it decades ago. He’s an international superstar. He’s gentler and more magnanimous than ever. He is the model of benevolent power—even in his temporary has-been status. And he never wavers in assuming every one’s got a talent, everyone’s got something to chip in, everyone’s got a place. In the end of the movie our new hero, Walter, takes pride of place in the center. Jim Henson is dead, it’s now Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Nicholas Stoller, James Bobin, who are following Kermit’s inspiration and recreating his magic. And all the misfits of the world are sent the message that we can too.
This movie was the most joyous I have seen in a long time. I laughed, cried, and reconnected with a character who has been a part of me my whole life, and who I have identified with more than any other at many times in my life. I’m so grateful that someone who felt the same way—enough to raise the question of whether he is even a man or is actually a muppet—got to make this movie.