This past weekend I saw two movies that couldn’t be more unlike each other and yet are equally as good: 1966’s Gambit (starring Michael Caine and Shirly Maclaine) and 2011’s Being Elmo (starring Elmo and all the cooler-than-you humans who make the Muppets come alive). Both movies got me thinking in substantial ways about creativity and storytelling and how important it is to always ask more of our entertainment.
I think of my mind space as precious real estate. I don’t want your Saw movies and gorefests and pornos coming in and junking up the place with trash and rotted out couches. I want to put things on my mind’s front yard that are pleasing, things of worth and value. Call me old-fashioned, but art is not intrinsically valuable to me. I think art’s greatest value is both in how well it is done and how much it improves life.
Let’s take Being Elmo first. Elmo is after my time. I always found him annoying and kick-in-the-faceable. But the little dude works. Kids love him and, with time, I’ve come to appreciate the character as well. Being Elmo is the story of Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash–a 53-year old black man who grew up in Baltimore. Yeah, I was surprised too.
Kevin inspires me. From an early age he knew what he wanted to do with his life and he’s done it. That’s amazing. How many get to say that? With Elmo, he’s found the purest expression of his art, and through that art he has found the purest expression of the purest, finest emotion: love. Elmo is love. That’s Kevin’s guiding principle: Elmo is love.
And Kevin is brilliant. It’s a magic trick, what he does. Even when Elmo is hugging sick children who want to meet Elmo as a last wish, there’s Kevin. The kids can see him, but their attention is on Elmo. They don’t care about Kevin. That’s magic. So his art is the whole package: it is very good and it is very valuable.
Gambit is an underseen gem of a film with enough twists and turns to rank it among the very best of heist films, but its biggest surprise is that its biggest twist occurs in the first half hour. And it’s genius. Flat out. It’s genius.
The original poster for the film even featured the tagline, “Go ahead and tell the end, but please don’t tell the beginning!” And they meant that. The beginning blew me away. Jaw dropping moment that I won’t ruin here but whose implications reverberate all the way through to the end of the movie when the sweet message at the core of the film becomes obvious.
That’s the kind of creativity I want–so good that it astonishes. Elmo, who I once derided, now astonishes me. Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine and the writers of Gambit astonish me. And I thank them for that. This past weekend, I was shown new horizons of what it is possible to achieve creatively and there’s nothing more inspiring than that.
Both Gambit and Being Elmo are currently available on Netflix Streaming, though Gambit expires on 2/29/12. Hurry.