Men Obsessed: Three New Documentaries Demonstrate the High Price of Excellence

TICKLE ME ELMO: Muppet documentary Being Elmo is far more poignant and clear-eyed than you might think.

TICKLE ME ELMO: Muppet documentary Being Elmo is far more poignant and clear-eyed than you might think.

Everybody knows Elmo. Everybody loves Elmo. (C’mon, even if he gets on your nerves, you can’t really hate him.) But nobody knows anything about the man behind Elmo, or at least they didn’t until filmmaker Constance Marks’ documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteers’ Journey (New Video Group DVD and streaming) came along last year. Thus it probably wouldn’t occur to most that being Elmo is the culmination of a lifetime of work, and a calling that ends up costing as well as rewarding. While Being Elmo is not a heavy film at all, it’s far more poignant and clear-eyed than you might think.

The man behind Elmo—the puppeteering, the high-pitched voice, the child-like personality, everything but the fabric—is Kevin Clash, a round-faced, burly man from Turner’s Station, Md., just outside Baltimore. From an early age, Clash was obsessed with puppets, sewing his own and performing shows for local schoolchildren. It set him apart as a young man, but then, well, he wasn’t like his fellow teens. His focus and dedication won him a spot on a Baltimore-area kid show; before long he came to work with his idol, Muppets creator Jim Henson. Clash eventually picked up a fuzzy red Muppet who had failed to catch on as a character when worked by other puppeteers. Soon Elmo was the Muppet, and in demand all over the world. Clash insisted on performing Elmo at every personal appearance, which, as Being Elmo makes clear, cost him in terms of his home life; in an interview, Clash acknowledges that his 16-year-old daughter e-mailed him to ask that he give up traveling for a while and come home so they could spend some time together at last, before she leaves for college. Marks’ portrait certainly raises the possibility that perhaps the price of being the best at what you do may be everything else you’ve got.

Unlike Elmo, Formula One racing drivers are far from household names in the United States, but not having a lot of context is actually a benefit when watching Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary Senna (Arc Entertainment DVD and streaming). Using ample archival footage and voiceover interviews, Kapadia establishes the vertiginous rise of handsome young Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna from the teenage go-kart circuit to Formula One, where he quickly established himself as a preternatural talent. Senna not only charts his repeated neck-and-neck battles with teammate/archrival Alain Prost for the Formula One championship—a real revelation for nonfans—it also establishes Senna’s personality and how it shaped his career. Though he was not above pro-athlete excess (he successfully hits on leggy blond Brazilian kid-show host Xuxa on live TV) he was close to his family, a devout Christian, and something of a pure spirit—emotional, easily wounded and insulted—in a sport fueled by money and calculating politics. Battered by the vagaries of Formula One and the off-track maneuvering of racing teams, he starts to seem tired, beleaguered. And when a new Formula One car set-up causes a series of crashes during qualifying and practice runs for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the cameras catch his abundant unease; Kapadia doesn’t have to tweak the material too hard to create a sense of foreboding. Senna is one of those sports films that will work just as well if you’re not a fan, and it may even work better that way, in this particular case.

Ferran Adrià appears not to suffer too much for his particular obsession, but that doesn’t mean that his obsession runs any less deep. Adrià is the man behind El Bulli, a now-on-hiatus restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, that was usually considered the best restaurant in the world. Gereon Wetzel’s recent doc El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (Alive Mind DVD and streaming) presents a comprehensive account of just why that is.

The film opens as Adrià closes down the restaurant, as he did every year in the fall, in order to spend the next six months in his test kitchen in Barcelona coming up with the next season’s cuisine. Adrià’s chefs will, say, juice a sweet potato every way they can think of and meticulously record the results in binders. The outcomes of these experiments will be combined and compared with the outcomes of other, often radical experiments (an oil-and-water cocktail for sipping, a sauce that includes melting ice cubes as a key ingredient), and subjected to endless tasting and endless musing. Is this too much like something we’ve done before? Is this the best presentation? What else can we do here? Adrià and his chefs seek more than good flavors; they’re also after surprise, aesthetic frisson, something close to art. They spare no trouble looking for it in the off-season, and even when the restaurant reopens in the spring, they keep tinkering and questioning, tweaking the dishes, changing the order of presentation, always looking for some new way to change food and how we think about it. El Bulli makes no concessions to snappy narrative, progressing with all the methodical diligence that Adrià brings to his work. In the end, you can only marvel at the bill of fare, and this account of its creation.

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