Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Knowing Elmo: When There’s More to a Person Than His Documentary

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How well must a documentary filmmaker know his or her subject?

This question isn’t always asked, as it might be of a book biographer, but I couldn’t help myself when I began hearing news about Kevin Clash over the past couple of weeks. Clash, the creative genius behind the lovable Sesame Street puppet Elmo, resigned a few days ago after accusations he’d engaged in sexual conduct with minors. Clash has called the allegations “false and defamatory.”

At Doc Soup, we care about such things only because we care intensely about the craft of making documentaries. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, the wildly popular 2011 documentary, practically canonized Clash for his coming from modest means to being a puppet savant. But having heard unsubstantiated bits of catty gossip about Clash long ago, I watched Being Elmo with skepticism — well before the scandal broke — and I wondered at the time if the film had painted too rosy a portrait. What choices did Constance Marks, the director, make in creating that portrait? How well did she really know him?

I have no idea about the veracity of the allegations against Clash, or whether Marks knew anything about them. (I tried to get in touch with her to find out, but couldn’t get through, so I’d welcome her response to the questions…) It brings to mind The Kid Stays In The Picture, that brilliant biopic of Robert Evans, the famous Hollywood producer. Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, the film cleverly begins with curtains being drawn, then the quote, “There are three sides to every story: yours… mine… and the truth.” We then are able to appreciate a biography fully informed that it’s just a story, but not the whole truth. We can make of it what we want, but we know it’s not the full story on Evans.

Clash, being a performer himself, could have received similar treatment. We meet the man behind the puppet, but who’s the man behind the man? Marks didn’t go there. Of course, no news in this case is going to detract from the joy and happiness that Clash has brought to millions of children, or the accomplishments of Being Elmo. His story is still a remarkable one. But it’s a story more complicated than the film suggests. The events of recent days should be a warning shot to documentary biographers to consider a disclaimer or a knowing wink that a film is only a snapshot of a person, and not necessarily an open book.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Ladylibrarian

    I appreciate the post because I’ve been asking the same questions myself lately. You state, “We meet the man behind the puppet, but who’s the man behind the man? Marks didn’t go there.” I was also entranced with what Marks revealed as Clash’s brilliance: that he understands that animation is all about replicating real human movement. The sexual allegations of the man behind Elmo have only heightened the enigma of how someone so introverted created a nearly human being so communicative about love.

  • Linguist

    No documentary can relate a person’s entire history, nor should it. “Being Elmo” accomplished what it was set out to accomplish, as far as I can tell: Tell us the story of Kevin Clash’s journey to becoming the puppeteer of one of the most successful Muppets of all time. It wasn’t a tell-all of Kevin’s life or allegations thereof. Whatever may or may not be true of Clash’s private life takes nothing away from his professional career or the validity of “Being Elmo.”

    As far as the comment below regarding the “enigma” of how an introvert could so keenly communicate about love – Seriously? Being an introvert has exactly nothing to do with being able to love and/or communicate about love.

  • David Van Taylor

    I haven’t seen “Being Elmo” (sorry!). But it is certainly true that any film can’t and shouldn’t do everything on a topic, whether it’s a portrait or not.
    Otherwise your film will have no, shall we say, point of view.

    I wonder whether the filmmakers of “Being Elmo” knew anything about his aspect of Clash’s life, and chose not to include it, or whether they just didn’t know. Either is perfectly legitimate and understandable in my view.

    Of course sometimes the failure to confront a certain aspect of a story can seem at the time and in retrospect to be a missed opportunity–to tell a more interesting and deeper story. Though I *loved* Man on Wire, I was left with the feeling that they wanted to gloss as lightly as possible over what a self-centered jerk Phillipe Pettit could be; his betrayal of his comrades at the last gave a glimpse into a deeper portrait, but was quickly left behind in what seemed an attempt to have a more uplifting ending.

    I guess I’m saying that there’s no blanket rules here. I’m glad Tom you’ve raised the question, but it has no simple answer …

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