Monday, 18 January 2016
Film Review: The Golden Age of Circus: The Show of Shows
If you believe the circus to be a place of weirdness, cruelty, suffering and exploitation; grotesque, shocking, seedy and bizarre... then this collection of old black and white film set to music and edited like a walk through a house of mirrors by Benedikt Erlingsson will meet all your expectations and more - even if you find yourself watching through your fingers with one eye closed in a wince.
As a caption announces at the beginning of this BBC4 Storyville show (view it here), "Contains upsetting scenes."
Well maybe, if you're scared of clowns, believe all circus animals are tortured prisoners, and the human freaks that accompany them are exploited just as fully.
Personally, I loved it.
Mostly. At an hour and a quarter, it's far too long, and some of the sequences are stretched too far. But the commentary-free style, with similar scenes from different circuses on different continents grouped together and intercut like a pop video to the club beats of a band called Sigur Ros is both poetic and hypnotic.
And the grainy, faded images that bombard us are relentlessly striking. To take a few:
A woman dancing wildly with a chair in her mouth.
A toddler standing nervously in front of a knife thrower's board while a woman, perhaps her mother, throws knives around her.
A man wreathed in flames diving from a towering ladder into a pool that's also alight.
Not everything is strictly circus. There are sideshow strippers, vaudeville dancers and rodeo cowboys. But there are connections. Shots of steer wranglers and bucking broncos are cut with a man in a circus ring being thrown from an 'unrideable' mule.
There are animals galore: Half a dozen polar bears on a merry-go-round; elephants dancing in plaid shirts; chimps riding horses; a lion riding a horse.
Those who believe circus animals are cruelly treated will have their beliefs affirmed by these scenes. But that's the way they've been edited and juxtaposed with the music: to shock.
As the music accelerates, more violent barbarism assaults our contemporary sensibilities: toddlers in boxing gloves slugging it out; chimps boxing; women boxing; blindfolded men swinging madly at each other; a boy boxing a kangaroo.
Even the clips of escapologists being bound and hoisted aloft by the ankles - or locked in boxes and set on fire - look more like torture than entertainment.
Did people really applaud and laugh at such cruel spectacles, we're invited to wonder?
But, as I say, that's the way it's been edited: to look like a nightmare. Even the clowns have been set to music and had bits of their act taken out of context in ways that makes them look bizarre and ugly, rather than funny.
A lot of circus people and fans have said they hated it, for that reason. But then, it's wrong to view Erlingsson's film as a documentary. It's a visual poem, a piece of art in its own right that takes real film and filters it through the director's imagination into his own vision of what the circus is or should be. Taken as such, it works, often thrillingly well.
But it's not the circus as people would necessarily have seen it at the time. There are some stunning scenes here of human cannonballs, trapeze artists and high wire walkers. But to see them presented in context and in a truer representation of the circus as a place of dreams and wonder, rather than nightmares and fear, take a look at a DVD called The British Circus 1898 - 1972. Read my review here.