Michael Graupmann

It’s easy BEING ELMO

March 19th, 2011 at 5:30 pm by under Uncategorized

SXSW ’11 is drawing to a close Saturday evening, but I think I can happily close this book early after seeing the documentary BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY today at noon.

I am a huge Muppets fan and have followed Jim Henson’s career since I learned how to get to Sesame Street as a toddler. Bert and Ernie were always my favorite duo, but I was a devoted Kermit fan past the point of being cool in high school. (Turns out, the Muppets never went out of style though.)

But I was too old for the Elmo craze of the 90s, when Tickle Me Elmo dolls were the Holy Grail of Christmas toys and Sesame Street went digital and multi-cultural. He was cute and all, but he wasn’t my favorite by any stretch of the imagination. He was post-Henson Glory Days, in my opinion.

Still, my love of everything Muppety brought me in to BEING ELMO, an unobtrusive participant in the SXSW Film line-up. It’s the last day of the Film Festival and Music has stolen all the attention away from this gem of a movie showing at the Paramount. No fan-fare, not even a sold-out show, I was able to find a seat and relax to take it all in.

I had no idea I would start crying ten minutes into the movie, and continue off-and-on for the remainder of the movie. Man, this movie seriously snuck up on me.

Writers Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein tell a straight-forward tale of Elmo’s rise to fame thanks to the man who gave him a voice. Telling his story is none other than Whoopi Goldberg, (who I can only dream of one day narrating my life). Combining old TV spots with home videos and recent interviews, Shane and Weinstein tell a complete picture of a man that truly has a story of a journey worth hearing.

Kevin Clash is the subject of the documentary, the puppeteer that is, in fact, being Elmo on a daily basis. He is currently one of the primary driving forces behind PBS’s longest-running educational television series as an executive producer, a director and a star. In fact, his invention of the character of Elmo revitalized the franchise and saved Sesame Street from inevitable cancellation. Along with his fellow Street puppeteers (who were once his childhood idols), Clash is keeping Jim Henson’s legacy alive today.

But Clash’s childhood was not one of privilege, and seeing how far he rose is where his story achieves documentary-worthy status. Raised in the rough edges of Baltimore, MD, the African-American Clash was ridiculed by his peers and siblings for “playing with dolls” all the time. Only his parents really supported him in his creative endeavors. They encouraged him to keep building and developing his skills, recognizing their son was a prodigy of puppetry.

Clash began performing puppet shows for his siblings, for the neighborhood, for hospitals and eventually on-air at Baltimore’s CBS affiliate. His big breakthough came in high school when Clash visited the Muppet Factory in New York during a school field trip. There, a key figure in the franchise (hysterically named Kermit) took him under his wing and taught him the necessary steps to become a Muppet-level puppeteer.

Soon, Clash began performing alongside Captain Kangaroo and later on the set of Jim Henson’s movie Labyrinth. (Remember the song and dance scene with the dancing demons that can toss their eyeballs in the air and swallow them? That was his big break!) Henson noticed Clash’s ability and invited him to join the Sesame Street gang at the age of 25. Without hesitation, Clash moved in and never looked back.

It wasn’t until another puppeteer created Elmo and discarded the little red guy out of frustration that Clash truly made a name for himself. Imbuing Elmo with the heart and curiosity and love that his parents had shown him, Clash developed Elmo’s character to be young and naive and trusting and hopeful to reflect the children watching at home. Of course it was a success and you know how huge the character became in our cultural zeitgeist. But it was the efforts of a shy, lonely genius that brought this lovable monster into so many people’s lives.

Today, Clash appears everywhere with Elmo on his arm. He’s met the President, Oprah Winfrey and even appeared at the Oscars. Meeting Elmo has also become the most requested wish from the children at the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and Clash is able to make them smile the same way he did with his puppets back in the hospitals as a child.

People around the world know who Elmo is even without knowing who the quiet man is behind the puppet. Everyone should get to hear this man’s story, however, for the inspiration it provides to anyone struggling with a passion. And every parent should see this to know how to properly support your children in their endeavors.

Like I said, I could not stop crying throughout this movie. And I do not cry at movies. So make sure you’re ready to be inspired and with the right audience. Whether you’re a big fan of Elmo or just the Muppets in general, you are going to fall in love with this movie.

You can now count me as one of the believers.


You’ve gotta Tell Your Friends!

March 18th, 2011 at 9:52 am by under Uncategorized

Comedy is hard, but it gets a little easier when you’ve got friends.

And that’s how Tell Your Friends! got started a few years back, when comedian Liam McEneaney wanted to do comedy his way with his friends. Today he and his comedy pals meet once a week in a small underground club in Brooklyn to work their stand-up and music in front of an intimate audience of 50 or so people. And the environment they’ve created is so great that they made a concert movie documenting their friends making great comedy so those of us outside of Brooklyn can finally see it too!

The cast of Tell Your Friends!

The movie is called Tell Your Friends! The Concert Movie! and it features out-of-control comedy sets by McEneaney (who hosts the night), Christian Finnegan, Rob Paravonian, Leo Allen, Reggie Watts and comedy team Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal. Plus, interspersed throughout the show are interviews about alternative comedy with Colin Quinn, Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, Paul F. Tompkins, Wyatt Cenac and Jim Gaffigan. Yowza.

The line-up of comedians is enough reason to see the film, but the excitement comes from knowing that an important moment of comedy history is being preserved on film. Finnegan, Schaal and Watts are on the fast track to becoming major breakout stars already, and it would be no surprise to see the rest of the TYF! crew join them when this movie gets major distribution.

If you have the opportunity to see the movie, do it. For fans of intimate performance and creative approaches to comedy (which you all are, duh), this movie will be right up your alley. If you live in New York and you haven’t gone to the Bell House to check this out live, you’re missing out. And If you have a million dollars to invest into a new project, you should contact McEneaney and make it happen.

Last night’s SXSW premiere was also it’s only screening here in town. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, with enough support, you’ll find this intimate little film in a theater near you. Or maybe on a legal downloading website near you. Because those are near to everyone with computers. Which would be you if you’re reading this. (Hi.)

Alright, enough reading. Now GO TELL YOUR FRIENDS!


Seriously. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

March 17th, 2011 at 9:49 am by under Uncategorized

Conan O’Brien wasn’t there last night, but his giant head and signature floppy red hair filled the Paramount Theatre last night during the second screening of CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP.

Documenting the two-month gap between his departure from NBC’s The Tonight Show to TBS’s self-titled show, the documentary is a very well-edited snapshot of a celebrity dealing with profound professional loss. The genre has been captured on film before, but director Rodman Flender found a wonderful subject in O’Brien because of his charisma and eternal well of humor.

There are a number of contradictions that make the film engaging from beginning to end. There is the voyeuristic thrill of watching a celebrity sort out their emotions this intimately, but Conan is never deluding himself that he isn’t angry or hurt. He speaks very candidly about working through these emotions, and his humor is often twinged with bitterness.  But it’s inspiring to see how he funnels his anger and frustration into a monumental sold-out 44-date national comedy tour. Unfortunately, his desperation to be in front of an audience pushes him way past his levels of personal, familial and physical comfort. It is clear, as the title of the film suggests: Conan O’Brien truly CAN’T stop working.

The movie never takes a dark turn or over-glorifies Conan’s martyrdom by NBC. Conan never slips into alcoholism or assaults a fan. (Although it is fascinating to hear an exhausted O’Brien openly despise greeting fans after each night’s show.) It helps that Flender has a demonstrated sense of humor as well in the edited jumps between Conan’s monologues and hysterical cuts from the tour. The best jokes of the movie come from O’Brien’s and side-kick Andy Richter’s non-sequiturs when they travel from city to city. In reality, O’Brien is a genuine, hard-working, self-depricating funnyman just trying to do his job.

Fans of O’Brien will undoubtedly love this documentary for its warmth and its intimacy as well as the chance to see what happened to him between his nightly shows. Fans of comedy in general will appreciate that O’Brien and his crew are naturally funny in real life situations. Those looking for more dramatic moments of celebrity scandal and breakdown will be entirely disappointed.

Oh, and fans of his hair will be richly rewarded. It’s higher than ever. Almost like an indicator that he’s back on top.


SXSW Comedy gets better each year

March 15th, 2011 at 10:33 pm by under Uncategorized

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A lot of SXSW folks overlook the giant stars of comedy that visit Austin every year during the first week of the festival. But the SXSW organizers have gotten very clever with their promotion of some of the best and most creative comics in the industry by way of including them in the Interactive portion of the festival.

For example, a number of big names record special episodes of their comedy podcasts in front of SXSW audiences. Scott Aukerman’s popular show Comedy Death Ray, for example, recorded an episode featuring an extended interview with Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens at Esther’s Follies on Sunday. Earlier that day, comedic actor Michael Ian Black joined an Interactive panel about comedy and online politics.

Saturday, comedian Doug Benson expertly combined the Film and Interactive approach in his live podcast of his show, Doug Loves Movies. Benson invited audience members to participate in the podcast by offering their opinions, responses and applause to his reviews of recent movies.

But of course stand-up is the bread and butter of most comics, and the last five nights of SXSW boasted incredible talents, alone and in themed groups. Daily Show commentator John Oliver performed two consecutive sold-out shows of his solo stand-up humor on Monday night. And Tuesday night’s Talk Nerdy to Me was a show consisting of self deprecating stand-up by Chris Hardwicke, Doug Benson, Eugene Norman and Thomas Lennon.

And not to be outdone, Lennon and former State comedy team members Robert Ben Garant and Michael Ian Black appeared earlier that day on behalf of Will Ferrell’s wildly popular website Funny or Die on the Next Stage in the Convention Center’s Trade Show. They debuted new SXSW-specific videos and helped explain the difference between Funny or Die’s rabid cult following and an actual cult.

Tuesday’s Talk Nerdy to Me showcase is the last official SXSW Comedy act in this year’s lineup, although a few comedians will be sticking around for surprise shows during the Music festival. Several of these stars appear in films that will continue showing during the Film portion, which goes until the 20th. Podcasts of each evening will also be available in the coming weeks.


Dining in the Digital Age

March 14th, 2011 at 11:24 am by under Uncategorized

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The Interactive portion of SXSW continued Sunday featuring some of the biggest names in leading IT and social media companies providing expert knowledge for real world application.

In Saturday’s Dining in the Digital Age panel, for example, representatives of Groupon, UrbanSpoon and Facebook answered questions and offered opinions about the usage of social media for improving the dining experience.

Seattle restaurant owner Mark Canlis shared the social media campaign that dramatically raised his 60 year-old restaurant’s profile overnight as well as the continued efforts he uses in his restaurants every evening.

Most surprising, Canlis described how he reads diners’ opinions of his restaurant as immediately as Twitter posts their reviews. And if the diner is still in the restaurant, he is able to respond immediately as well. If a diner is displeased, for example, Canlis is able to correct their order to fix a mistake.

Michael Shim of Groupon talked about how online rating systems and purchasing metrics of deal buyers will help these online companies market better to consumers and improve dining experiences for everyone involved. The more consumers relay their experience to others during and after they dine,  the better equipped companies like UrbanSpoon and Groupon can tailor their recommendations.

Facebook has built a new user experience tool to help with this process as well. The more frequently diners check in at a location and tag their party in photos, the more Facebook knows to recommend similar locations in ads placed on the right side of the feed page.

For some, this may seem like Big Brother is joining us for dinner, but as each of the panelists agree, it is all to make the dining experience more enjoyable.


Page One: Inside the New York Times

March 12th, 2011 at 4:58 pm by under Uncategorized

Is the New York Times really dying? What does it take for a newspaper to stay relevant in the new media age?

These questions are unraveled in the compelling and timely documentary Page One, which premiered Friday night at the Vimeo Theatre as part of SXSW.

The film, by promising director Andrew Rossi, focuses on the changing nature of the news business through the lens of the dominant newspaper still fighting to stay apace with online news sources like Gawker and The Huffington Post. The NYT faces the same challenges as other flailing print media outlets, and their approaches to reporting news have had to evolve tremendously in a short amount of time.

Page One does a phenomenal job documenting the recent WikiLeaks scandal, using it as a perfect artifact for demonstrating the differences between today’s reporting and reporting in the days of Watergate.

The staff of the Times’ Media bullpen are the ideal mix of classic and new-generation newsmen (yes, unfortunately they’re ALL men in every instance), and they’re creativity and realism paint a wonderfully reflexive picture of writers documenting the history of their own demise.

The quick hour and a half film expertly moves at a rapid pace that matches its subject matter. You’ll realize how and why we will always hold print newspapers in nostalgic regard even far beyond their practical usage.


Keynote Address: Marissa Mayer of Google

March 11th, 2011 at 4:18 pm by under Uncategorized

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Vice President of Creative Affairs at Google, Inc., Marissa Mayer,  speaks to a packed house in the Austin Convention Center Friday.

Mayer was the keynote speaker for the largest panel in the day’s  Interactive portion of SXSW.

Among the subjects discussed were Google’s rise to success and plans for further expansion of programs like Google Maps. Mayer also addressed being a woman in a largely male-dominated field.

Other keynote speakers for SXSW Interactive included Jason Calcacanis from Mahalo.com and Clay Shirky of ITP/NYU.


Yarn bomb

March 11th, 2011 at 1:48 pm by under Uncategorized

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Yoga balls and giant letters covered in hand-crotcheted yarn. By artist Magda Sayeg of the Austin group Knitta, Please.

Decorating the Interactive panels green room at SXSW. Courtesy of Austin PR company INK.


Are we having fun yet??

March 11th, 2011 at 10:36 am by under Uncategorized

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The doors are open at the Austin Convention Center for SXSW, and the registration lines are out the doors.

Of course.

Because there are thousands of out-of-towners flooding into our great city to see the bands, celebrities, technology and movies that start at 2pm today.

It’s officially on. Get excited. And then wait your turn in line.


Austin shines in SXSW’s “Otis Under Sky”

March 8th, 2011 at 4:29 pm by under Uncategorized

You’ve driven by that street a million times. Or unknowingly passed that island in the middle of Lady Bird Lake. But you’ve never noticed how green the hills are on a summer day in front of the Long Center. Or how downtown’s skyscrapers look like skeletal fingers rising up out of the ground.

Luckily, this is how Austin director Anlo Sepulveda sees the world: as a complex series of achingly beautiful moments that go otherwise unnoticed. In his view, the shadows cast from a moving train or how a white sheet billows in the wind can say more than ten pages of scripted dialogue.

It is with this tranquil approach that Sepulveda made OTIS UNDER SKY, an undeniably Austin-centric independent film about two loners finding friendship that will premiere this March at the world-renowned South by Southwest Film Festival.

As a selection in the Lone Star States category of the Film Festival, OTIS UNDER SKY will play at the Long Center’s Rollins Theatre on Sunday, March 13th as well as on the big screen at the thousand-seat Paramount Theatre on Friday, March 18th.

“We had no idea this film would get so much attention,” said Sepulveda at his home. “We got the call from South by Southwest, and we couldn’t be more excited. This is huge.”

More like a series of complimentary art pieces connected by human interaction, OTIS UNDER SKY is Sepulveda’s love letter to the city that he lives in with his daughter and wife/producer, Mandi Sepulveda.

“I was pregnant the whole time we were filming Otis,” she recalls, jokingly. “It was the middle of summer, we were outside for several hours at a time, and I was holding a boom mic for some of the scenes. Bystanders would sometimes offer to help me out, not wanting to watch the pregnant lady sweat so much.”

The cast of the movie also shares strong Austin ties. Anis Mojgani, who plays the titular character, is an internationally-recognized spoken word poet who resides in Austin when he’s not touring the country. Mojgani’s wide eyes and quiet sense of wonder perfectly capture Otis’s simultaneous curiosity and distrust of this world that does not make it easy on sensitive, orphaned loners.

Otis senses a kindred spirit in a stranger, Ursula, embodied by the impressive Roberta Colindrez, and they spend a too-short period feeling less alone while together. Colindrez is a graduate from Texas State’s acting program and has since gone on to perform with the Neo-Futurists in New York City.

The major character in OTIS UNDER SKY, however, is the city of Austin itself. Set largely on the South and East sides of the city, the film captures Austin through new eyes. Familiar streets like Cesar Chavez and South Congress are cleverly anthropomorphized with the locally-produced soundtrack and camera angles. And part of the joy in the movie is juxtaposing your own memories in to the street corners and locales as Otis and Ursula do the same.

OTIS UNDER SKY is a melancholy piece, beautiful in its quiet contemplation and implied hopefulness for each one of us. But every Austinite will delight in seeing their city so masterfully displayed on the big screen.