The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center brings two winners to the Island this weekend. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story describes the evolution of the eight-foot, yellow-feathered children’s TV puppet and the man who brought him to life. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Director Thomas Vinterberg lightens up 19th century author Thomas Hardy’s fate-laden novel into a more modern romantic story.
The brightly colored Big Bird documentary demonstrates that Sesame Street’s most iconic puppet is as much the creation of Mr. Spinney as it is of the legendary Sesame Street puppeteer Jim Henson. When Mr. Spinney saw his first puppet show as a child, he discovered his life’s ambition. With help from his artistic mother, he created his own puppets, and staged puppet shows while growing up.
A troubled relationship with his father led the aspiring puppeteer to join the U.S. Air Force, but after four years in the military, he returned to his more favored calling, and worked on the Boston children’s TV show Bozo the Clown. Mr. Spinney next landed in New York at the Children’s Television Workshop’s Sesame Street, led by Mr. Hensen. What will entertain and interest the viewer about I Am Big Bird is its description of a career that was often fraught with obstacles and disappointments, despite the sweetness of the character and its creator. Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker succeed in capturing the authentic person behind Big Bird. Mr. Spinney imbued the puppet with the imagination of an overgrown child. He had an instinct for creating a child’s point of view in both the yellow-feathered bird and his other signature Sesame Street character, Oscar the Grouch.
It’s celebration of the pastoral world of 19th century rural England, exquisitely rendered by cinematographer Charlotte Ruus Christensen, that plays a major role in the newest cinematic version of Far from the Madding Crowd. At a time when concern about the environment has reached heightened levels, it is a reminder of a more idyllic time in the natural world. Bathsheba Everdene, played by Carey Mulligan, starts as an impoverished young woman helping out at her aunt’s farm, who then inherits her own much more substantial spread.
Although the origin of her first name (her last name has been paid forward by Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games) is an apparent toss-away the heroine can’t explain, it’s interesting to think about the echoes of its Biblical source in the context of the film. The Biblical Bathsheba became King David’s wife after he seduced and impregnated her, then in effect arranged for the death of her first husband. Seduction plays into the romantic choices made by the cinematic Bathsheba as well.
Far from the Madding Crowd’s heroine is a radical version of womanhood by 19th century standards. Assertively independent, she makes it clear very quickly that she has no desire for a husband, although three men come forward to ask for her hand, and the thrust of the story is what she will decide about their offers. Ms. Mulligan’s version of Bathsheba turns her into a flirtatious, somewhat fickle and indecisive young woman, struggling to make her way in a man’s world, smiling one second, smirking another.
Mr. Vinterberg has kept many of the sudden, melodramatic twists of events in Bathsheba’s life, and keeps the pace moving swiftly. He soft-pedals the class issues underlying the tale as told by the novelist, and focuses instead on how, one after another, her suitors do their best to win her over. If this latest cinematic version of Far from the Madding Crowd — John Schlesinger’s 1967 version starred Julie Christie — is “Hardy light,” it remains an entertaining and plenty satisfying tale.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, Thursday, May 28, 7:30 pm; Friday, May 29, and Sunday, May 31, 4 pm.
Far from the Madding Crowd, Friday, May 29, Saturday, May 30, and Sunday, May 31, 7:30 pm; Sunday, May 31, 4 pm.
All films at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information, see mvfilmsociety.com.