FOX NEWS GETS IT RIGHT: THE MUPPETS ARE COMMIES! THAT’S WHY WE LOVE THEM!
Fox news came out and called “The Muppets” communist, leading well-meaning liberals to scramble to defend the Muppets against such a slanderous attack. Um, sorry to break it to you, liberals, but Fox News is sometimes right: the Muppets have always been commies. That’s what we love about them. In fact we love communist principles in all our heroic movies, we just don’t know it, because we have no idea what communism is in this country. The Muppets act as a horizontal, democratic ‘people’ with no clear hierarchy. Despite Kermit’s central role, he is always deferring to others’ ideas, commands, needs, etc. Let’s call him Subcommandante Kermit. We’ll go into more detail below but the principles are the same as Iron Man, V for Vendetta, Fight Club, Batman Returns, X-Men First Class, and the Star Wars saga: distrust of the market as arbiter of what people need and get; distrust of rich men; prizing communal over individual work and art; the critique of USA hyper-individualism, an emphasis on embodied being, not disembodied morals, and of course the problematizing of the public/private divide (along with other sectors and genres).
I read an incredibly lame Rolling Stone review of “The Muppets” saying it didn’t have the magic of the Muppets, because among other things, it’s embarrassing to pander to today’s kids by putting in Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” (they said “Forget You”, which is all you need to know about them). Huh? The Muppets always riffed on the popular music of the day. That kind of oversight is an example of the nostalgic way we tend to view art.
The real magic of the muppets has nothing to do with how familiar the song is or the allusions. It can be summed up in one phrase: a lack of cynicism. In fact, the villain (a capitalist pig, as all meaningful movie villains are) says of the sell-out Mooppet Vegas version: “It’s a hard, cynical band, for a hard, cynical time”. Indeed, he summed up most television and film, kids offerings included (the trailer for the latest Chipmunks movie left me so nauseated I almost couldn’t stay for the Muppets. Thank goodness for marijuana). What’s cynical? Low ambitions. Trying what works instead of what SHOULD work. Trying what’s good instead instead of what (you think or surveys say) people want. Wait, isn’t that undemocratic, not giving people what they want? Only if you consider consumerism a fundamental human right and an expression of what people truly want. Anti-cynicism is opening not with Lady Gaga or some jokey old metal song but Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. Anti-cynicism is, as with Moulin Rouge using colors that only exist in children’s films that deny the reality of the world, but here they exist not to deny the reality but to make this reality. (Before his comrades lift him out of the private sector Kermit laments “my green is turning gray”, and sure enough the poser sell-out Kermit in the Moopets is gray in color).
Make this reality…or surreality. After all, the Muppets are always up front about how impossible it is what they do (another communist trait—belief in the ‘impossible’). Their Muppet Show would make sense if it stuck to the show itself—of course puppets can move around and feel things like that when manipulated during a puppet show. But the show always took us backstage as well, as if to say all of life is a puppet show: stop worrying about who’s real and who’s a Muppet, and just pick a goddamn awesome character and play your heart out. (“Anyone who ever played a part/Wouldn’t turn around and hate it” – Lou Reed). Or as animal puts it: “Show!!! Show!! Show!!!!” (leaping into a television screen). For this to work it must be honest. Perhaps the best thing about the muppets is how resolutely unreal they are (that doesn’t mean untrue of course). I made a similar argument for why Tim Burton’s Batman films are so superior to the Nolan brothers’. Magical realism is the rule of the day (in a time before it was in in the USA).
The wider purpose of this lack of realism in great art is always the same: to remind us that the magic is in the ideas, principles, the praxis of a life well-lived. The principles of physics and space-time are irrelevant, and space-time itself as we know it is a neoliberal production (cf. Henri Lefebvre (paper forthcoming on this to link to!). It doesn’t matter how Gary and Mary got to L.A. from middle America in 30 minutes (“we traveled by map!”, i.e. quoting John Williams Indiana Jones music and mimicking the map travel of all four Indie films. To me it’s a sly poke at how we like our heroes to have no boring middle time between feats). What matters is never the plot. Only the theme. This is partly because we are often arrogant about what makes a good plot, caught up in the sensibility of our time (um, Punch Teacher?) and not the sensibility of our timelessness. (“It’s lonely out in space/ On such a timeless flight” – Bernie Taupin, “Rocket Man”)
It’s also partly to remind us that at our best, we aren’t so much ‘merely human’. We are, as the song goes, either a Muppet of a man or a very manly Muppet. To me the Muppets echo Nietzsche in the subtlety of balancing a celebration of all of humanity’s foibles and sins (so as not to live in denial) while affirming that we are only truly admirable when we’re not us. Yes, that’s right self-help gurus, being yourself is a horribly mediocre ambition. Being ‘even better than the real thing’, as U2 argued during their ZooTV tour, is where it’s at. (Zoo Tv and Muppets run together often in this simultaneous exposure and uncynical embrace of the artificial: “You’re my hero, you’re on my watch”, says Walter to Kermit, showing his fan watch. It is an instance of fan collecting redeemed as true care: you’re on my watch; I will not let you fall into this rich man’s hermit trap of private sector blues and fear of the market artistic defeatism. The moral of the Muppet is—if you’re going to be good at something, follow that thread of talent and spirit to its apotheosis. Animal must never be calm, and Rowlf must never be excited. This isn’t a ‘lack of balance’. The balance is in the group as a whole, it’s not in each person. Thus each person is stupendously, powerfully different, and yet all health and effectiveness, all happiness and virtue is only achieved in the community as a whole. The riddle of communism. Deflating American style individualism without trampling on the spirit of each individual.
There are signs of this fierce refusal to be anything other than the most bombastic and unflinching persona everywhere—while Jason Segal’s character Gary grows taller, and his Mom marks heights off on the wall, Muppet Walter lines up eagerly to find that he is always the same size. Of course. He’s a Muppet—he was made that way. Like all Muppets, his tongue is perfect pink cartoon-shaped heart—a popheart not a human heart. Thus he will ride a tandem bike with his brother and sing about both pedaling…but his feet won’t reach. Thus he will brush teeth with his brother though he has no teeth. The Muppets have always reminded us that they are more our spirit animals than ‘real’ people. At the same, time there is a marked materiality to the Muppets. They are not animated, classically or with computers. They are physical beings, and one of the reasons it’s so thrilling and hilarious when they recklessly through their bodies about is they’re actual bodies, hitting actual fences and walls.
Which is why the plot of this film is so much more compelling than that of the others. In the 2nd best film, the first “Muppet Movie”, the danger is of selling out. Here the stakes are higher—the danger is of giving up in a market-driven individualist world where the Muppets are irrelevant now that we all love ‘Punch Teacher’ (the wonderful obviousness of the capitalism critique is one reason people as dumb as the Republicans picked up on it. “Punch Teacher” is the most popular show in a culture devaluing free public education like never before, and the villain is named Tex Richman. Yes, rich men are indeed the villains). In such a world the Muppets are reduced to taking on the trappings and ideologies of American hyperindividualism. Kermit has retreated into a gated mansion with an electric fence and unaccountable ‘privacy’. Animal is in a self-help circle, forbidden to drum and made to utter ‘in control’ as a sad mantra (I’ll be honest—that made me cry, to see the one I relate to reduced by a self-help culture I’ve often been considered crazy for railing against. Like Animal, I grew up petting what I was supposed to eat, and vice versa. Smashing what I was supposed to kiss, and vice versa…)
Is it lost, the magic innocence and passion of the muppets? (Kermit in “Pictures in my Head”: “Would anyone watch or care/Or did something break we can’t repair?”) Yes and no. The film does achieve and surpass the magic of earlier Muppet efforts, but not by means of mere copycat techniques. There is always the sad acknowledgment here and there of what is lost forever, from the decrepit Electric Mayhem bus to the celebrities unwilling to help. For all the allusions to contemporary pop phenomena that Rolling Stone idiotically attributed to ‘missing the point’, the spirit is there (here I think other languages work better: Geist or esprit perhaps). That spirit is the bold and often clueless embrace of the Muppets’ communal and individual values and ambitions. In one scene Mary’s students say ‘noooo’ when they hear it’s spring break, and ‘yeaaa!” when she says don’t worry in two weeks we get to study again. This isn’t cynical irony—this is my memory of school, and it’s a reclaiming a legitimate belief in the curiosity of children, placing the blame not on ‘culture’ but the ‘Punch Teacher’ political oppression of public resources and spaces. Again, the magic is in the energy and spirit. In the songwriting and raw material immediacy of the puppet performances.
How is the film communist, you ask? First, I know I will be treated to the trite, used-up commentary that any piece of art made through the capitalist art machine can’t be communist, and I will say once again: nonsense. That’s like saying that under a repressive regime where dancing is not allowed there are no dancers. Just because Henson and co. go through this machine doesn’t diminish the power of the message. The same goes for Michael Moore’s films, The Wachowskis’ films (particularly V for Vendetta, and Speed Racer), Fight Club, Che, etc. I could care less if a kid bought a Che Guevara shirt at Hot Topic. That face is still good to see on the street.
On to all the leftist propaganda. First of all, the Muppets do everything together, from cleaning up their theater (no hierarchy of labor here) and performing in it. In the opening song, “Life’s a Happy Song”, our heroine laments that it’s not just ‘me and him, but ‘me and him and him’. Sounds like a nice polyamorous triad to me, but the mainstream audience is conditioned to wait for our hero to learn his lesson and return to the capital-affirming confines of the nuclear family, safely demarcated from the community at large. Instead, during the reprise of the song, the entire gang including the two lovers sings “and you and you and you and you and YOU!” (Us beyond the third wall that the Muppets are perpetually demolishing). To solidify Mary’s uptake into the commune instead of the smalltown marriage, when Gary finally proposes her response is a Muppet’s: mah nah mah nah, doo doo doodoodoo. Speaking of the entire gang singing—the muppets tend to sing in unison rather than harmony, and they sing in their own voices, unlike the modulated idiots on the radio today. And Animal plays the drums even on ballads without any acknowledgment for the ‘tasteful’ non ‘busy’ tradition of drumming to rock ballads. When he finally gives up the self-help nonsense and becomes (greater than) himself again, he slams into the “Rainbow connection” finale like it’s a Black Sabbath song. The villain makes a point when he gets a hold of the Muppet theater to insist it’s PRIVATE PROPERTY, including the Muppet name (now his), and they should get out. The response and finale acknowledges the zeitgeist of this year of revolution and occupation, as the Muppets and their supporters (false dichotomy: in the Muppet world we’re all in the show of life ) occupy Hollywood Boulevard and shut it down for their poly/commie dance number, which includes lots of older and bigger actors instead of the usual fit dancers.
I could rail on of course about the unmitigated eccentricity of ‘for all ages’ characters in a time when that usually means the relentless pursuit of ‘relevancy’, which is a euphemism for ignoring the long past and the future that could be. Gonzo is either polyamorous or polygamous, with his loving family of chickens (all cuddling together with him in the rafters). Mushrooms make a conspicuous presence all of the film (hmm…) Markers of the decade are inconsistent (what’s with the fifties Greyhound bus and the small town America?) You can add your own favorite bits of muppet weirdness in the comments.
I leave you with the most important question of the film: “Do you think we’re working for the bad guy?” (If only cops and soldiers would ask themselves that more often.)
And I dedicate this blog to “the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”