by Stephen Sparks
The Muppet Movie was filmed in 1978 and released the following year. This was nearly a decade before legendary French auteur Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer was translated into English, rendering doubtful the pervasive, if little known, rumors that Kermit, who not only starred in but also directed the Muppets’ first feature length film, consulted Bresson’s notes during production. As any Muppet aficionado knows, Miss Piggy’s command of French is somewhat dubious1 and it is therefore unlikely that Kermit had the work translated for his personal edification by his overbearing love interest.
Nevertheless, Kermit’s working notes for The Muppet Movie, felicitously discovered by this author while capturing field recordings of Emmet Otter’s jug band in a swamp in the Deep South, reveals that Kermit was intimately familiar with Bresson’s book, quoting it at length—often in playful disagreement, pitting the pragmatic and anxious to please Amphibian-American mind against the more theoretical French version. (To characterize this battle of minds as Frog vs. Frog would be a joke in bad taste… So, naturally, it has to be made.) Just as often, however, we see Kermit using Bresson’s insights as hopping-off points for his own unique philosophy of filmmaking.
How Bresson’s notes came into Kermit’s possession will for now remain a mystery, but one less remarkable than the revelations apparent on each leaf of Kermit’s logbook. Like Bresson’s, Kermit’s meditations reveal the workings of a lightning quick and penetrating intelligence, one prone as much to gnomic utterance as to the delightfully aphoristic aside.2 Kermit’s grasp of his fellow Muppets’ characters, both in their individual and universal aspects, reveals a capacious mind, one seemingly at odds with the apparent simplicity—some might say gullibility—of the frog’s on-screen persona.
In addition to his grappling with Bresson’s stringent aesthetic principles, Kermit also confronts head-on in these pages pressing existential issues. In fact, quoted on the front flap of the notebook is Camus’ dictum: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” (Just beneath this is a line by Dostoevsky written in another hand, one can easily surmise the hoof responsible that reads: “On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering.”) It would be indecorous to say that the turbulent late 1970s brought Kermit to the brink of a crisis, but the previously unrippled surface of his personality seems to have been broken by some unknown event or series of events. Speculation proves idle given the scant biographical details of that era—even his memoir, the Kierkegaardianly titled Before You Leap, glosses over these years with sunny affirmations—but the fact remains that throughout the notebook Kermit quotes a steady diet of deep (and sometimes murky) thinkers: Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Simone Weil, and E.M. Cioran, among others.
Even without the backdrop of this recently discovered trove of writing,The Muppet Movie is, I believe, one of the pillars of 20th century comedy. Sadly, though perhaps inevitably given its subtlety, the film’s true greatness has yet to be recognized by all. It is my hope in offering a selection of Kermit’s jottings that the complexity of the film will become apparent to critics, who will surely begin to recognize the ambitions of its director. The Muppet Movie, like all truly great art, focuses myriad points of anguished thought and feeling into a single beam of light—in this case, literally—to demonstrate, with a simplicity that belies its depth, its own magnificence.
I also hope that for the general reader the following passages, which only skip across the surface of Kermit’s profound reflections like a pebble over a pond, lend themselves to thoughtful meditation. In the event that the reader only takes away a single thing, let it be that Kermit, in so ably convincing viewers of his plainness when so much depth lurks behind his unblinking eyes, is one of the greatest actors of his generation.3
[Editor’s note: for reasons of clarity, I have retained Bresson’s notes, in black, and follow them with Kermit’s, in green. Other selections have been attributed.]
The ejaculatory force of the eye. [Sheesh, this is a family movie.]
model Muppet. Enclosed in his mysterious appearance. [Enclosed in felt and cotton.] He has brought home to him all of him that was outside. He is there, behind that forehead, those cheeks. [The animating principle a hand.]
A Muppet. His actual being external. Internal, alien.
What our eyes and ears require is not the realistic persona but the real person.
A Muppet does not exist without the “real person.” (Does a Muppet exist once the hand is removed? Questions of the soul.)
BONDS HANDS THAT BEINGS AND THINGS ARE WAITING FOR, IN ORDER TO LIVE.
A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously. – Camus
Draw from your models the proof that they exist with their oddities and their enigmas. [What, exactly, is Gonzo? Should we feel comfortable with his love of Camilla the Chicken?]
I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously? – Cioran
Model. Two mobile eyes in a mobile head, itself on a mobile body. [EDIT: Muppet. Two immobile eyes on a mobile head, itself on half of a semi-mobile body.
How to wink without eyelids?
No intellectual or cerebral mechanism. Simply a mechanism.
Animal as this mechanism.
Fozzie as this mechanism.
Gonzo as this mechanism.
Model. “All face.” [But also, for this movie, arms and legs.] 4
It is from being constrained to a mechanical regularity, it is from a mechanism that emotion will be born. To understand this, think of certain great pianists.
Rowlf. Tickles the ivory but elicits no laughter.
YOUR MODELS MUST NOT FEEL THEY ARE DRAMATIC.
PIGGY ALWAYS FEELS DRAMATIC.
A Muppet cannot attain the real. The Muppet must alter reality.
Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence. [This is a head-scratcher.]
To your models: “Don’t think what you’re saying, don’t think what you’re doing.” And also: “Don’t think about what you say, don’t think about what you do.” [On 2nd thought: no need to clutter up things by mentioning this. This is not a concern.]
Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way. & Empty the pond to get the
I have crossed the seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have followed the source of rivers towards their source or plunged into forests, always making for other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and I could never turn back any more than a record can spin in reverse. And all that was leading me where? To this very moment… – Sartre
What is the rainbow connection, anyway?
“All of us under its spell. We know that it’s probably magic.”
Ambiguity, illusion. Vision quest in the desert, a splitting of selves. Which is real? The hand or the being it animates?
Not artful, but agile. [A frog is, if anything, agile. Artful, on the other hand…]
The other hand: does it exist?
Models mechanized externally, internally free. “The constant, the eternal beneath the accidental.” [Mechanized internally, externally free.]
All those effects you can get from repetition (of an image, of a sound). [… Or a running gag.]
Voice and face
They have formed together and have grown used to each other. [Swedish Chef.]
The noises must become music. [Although sometimes the music is just noises.]
On their faces nothing willful. [Check.]
The sight of movement gives happiness: horse, athlete, bird.
The road as mirror—two-dimensional—of the screen. Roll across it. But let it contain hidden depths.
How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at bottom! When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the Anura community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a frog among frogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow frog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair. [Ed. note: this passage, by Kafka, was amended by Kermit.]
In every art there is a diabolical principle which acts against it and tries to demolish it. [Doc Hopper’s pursuit—disguised as a pursuit of wealth—really an embodiment of this diabolical principle.]
The real is not dramatic.
Obviously, this guy’s never met Piggy.
Eat a live frog in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. – Twain. [This holds true as well for the poor frog who was eaten.]
In all, Kermit’s tattered and waterlogged notebook holds ninety pages, densely packed front and back. Some passages I have bypassed out of discretion: these private musings, unfit for my purposes here. Other notes are abstract or too speculative and are therefore of little interest to a general audience. Kermit also jotted down rough outlines of jokes5, working notes for gags, predictions, lists, even a few recipes. At present, here in the pages of Bright Wall/Dark Room, it is my hope that this tantalizing glimpse into the mind of one of our great actor/directors will begin the long overdue reconsideration of the place of The Muppet Movie in the pantheon of American comedy movies.
1See The Muppet Show, episode 510 for verification.
2This view is not mine alone. In an article published in the Telegraph in February 2012, Kermit was described as “an intellectual and raconteur, propounding a philosophy of all that is important and beautiful in this life, the metaphorical swamp.”
3Technically speaking, the average lifespan of a frog is about ten years, which means that Kermit, who made his first appearance in 1955, could therefore be considered one of the greatest actors of the last six generations.
4The Muppet Movie marked the first time a Muppet’s lower extremities were displayed.
5“What is green and smells like pork?” he asks, leaving the question unanswered.
Stephen Sparks lives in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared inTin House, 3:AM Magazine, and the LA Review of Books.