Bicycling & Freedom in American Film: The Great Muppet Caper [From BA 42-300]
Seeing the full body of Kermit the Frog in a public setting is a bit like running into your teacher at the grocery store. It’s vaguely interesting and a bit of a thrill, but also: entirely grotesque. The Muppet-in-public suddenly acquires every physical vulnerability a human being has, but without recourse to the coordinated physical movement that gets us safely through our day. In an actual park, it’s obvious that because he’s nothing but felt and ping-pong balls, Kermit will be killed by the first dog that comes along. To put Kermit on a bicycle, then, is to subject him to absolutely certain and immediate injury—the height of irresponsibility.
And yet, in The Great Muppet Caper, ride he does—as does Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang. As in the films of Antonioni, most Muppet movies include a moment in which you wonder: But how did they get that shot? When Kermit and Piggy mount their bicycles and begin to ride through a London park while singing an upbeat ditty titled “Couldn’t We Ride?”, the way in which one has been watching the film to that point cannot continue, because now, in every shot, we are alert to the means of production. Where are the wires, we ask ourselves, the hidden pulleys and rods? Are there very small people at work here? Is the bicycle moving at a proper speed? Is it correctly upright? The entire physics behind bicycle riding becomes so foregrounded in the viewer’s consciousness that one can’t help but realize how devilishly tricky the whole business is. Roughly every single human being over age six has wiped out on a bike—there’s just no way a Muppet should be able to get away with riding at all.
The internet answers all questions, of course: this bike ride comes courtesy of hidden wires, axle-to-axle rods, marionettes, hidden cords, radio controls, and deft editing. And yet this knowledge fails to put the issue to rest. Throughout the Muppet bike ride sequence, iterations of the trick are explored: the camera moves, and angles change. Kermit and Piggy circle in opposite directions, then ride holding hands; Kermit rides with no hands; he stands on the seat, and then does a handstand. We look, in vain, for the strings. Has an airbrush erased them? The park path lies in sun-dappled shade. Is it those shadows that prevent us from detecting the trickery? What the hell is happening here?
Every marionette battles cords, wires, and lines, and every puppet operates under the dictates of a superior power. Strings don’t hold a marionette down so much as they make a marionette a marionette, and a puppet without a hand is just a sock. What is provoked when watching Muppets on bikes, though—beyond the question of why Piggy changes size among the various shots—is really the same unsettling question that dominates our own rides: How is it that bicycles stay up in the first place, for anyone? When we observe the Muppet bicyclist and decide he doesn’t look natural, this is in comparison to a combination of balance, momentum, and spin that was always a bit of a trick. One way to keep from falling, we realize early on, is to speed up. Because the bicycle is a machine that converts centripetal force into levitation, every ride we take is already a bit of a floating special effect.
What resonates at the end of the en masse Muppet ride in The Great Muppet Caper, then, is the spooky feeling that what keeps a bicycle-riding Muppet from falling isn’t really the hidden wires or rods. Part of what keeps the Muppets from falling is the same thing that keeps us from falling: to continue forward on a bicycle, one just continues, forward, on the bicycle.