Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.
—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926
Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.
—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’
In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.
I love the circus. In fact watching it as a small child is one of my earliest memories. But this is not a film about the circus I saw. Or in fact, the circuses (circuii?) of the recent years. No this documentary is a striking recollection of the circuses of old, a time when circuses were one of the primary sources of entertainment and film was still in its birthing phases. Although there is more modern footage smattered in, coloured home videos and the like so it’s not entirely stuck in the timeless ‘old’ period of cinema.
The Show of Shows is presented as just that, an arrangement of the most astonishing clips in a parallel re-enactment of a circus show, where a ringleader in his time introduced the show to the crowd, he now introduces it to us, decades, perhaps even centuries after his original announcement. And what a show it becomes. Humans are excellent at two things, those things being forgetting and risk taking. We are excellent at forgetting just how our viciousness and penchant for cruelty could express itself before hand, and we are excellent at taking unnecessary risks, that no animal driven by its instinct of self-preservation would ever dare to take.
You find all of this and more, in The Show of Shows. Any preconceived notions of this being a quaint, delightful little curio quickly fall to bits, as the relatively perfunctory opening gives way to stranger and seedier delights, a view from a window closed long ago. Because very soon, the film shows which has been long abolished. Humans as a collective are not bad at remembering, but individually, when our experience comes forth, we consistently fail to remember past transgressions, how deplorable they were or how those affected suffered, and how much of an impact they had. This film very much brings that to light again, in quite a visceral way, as for the first time in my life, I’ve seen real footage of animals kept in cages, made to dance, to ride motorcycles, to eat at a table dressed in human clothes and more.
Perhaps, since I am young, this might not be new to many of you. But to anyone of my age who hasn’t sifted through disorganised troves of both public domain and private collection film material, as the director Benedikt Erlingsson has done, this film is a genuine startling and haunting introduction to the role that a circus played. Because I too am guilty of said forgetfulness. I knew about the issue of animal cruelty, one still being fought today in areas of England at least, but I can never say I knew it as I do now, watching elephants be whipped and polar bears made to stand on pyramids, and monkeys and bears riding bicycles and motorcycles. And for me it is eye-opening, both in its cultural dissonance (I after all have been raised to care for animals and treat them as independent, equal partners in the ecosystem of life, except of course when I want some chicken) and the raw fascination and exhilaration that must have been experienced by those crowds so long ago of watching a man, or Man himself, dominate the animal kingdom in such a total way. To watch a man actually fight a lion, to wrangle a bull with his bare hands.
These disturbing vignettes are more than just factual reporting. Accompanied by an absolutely haunting soundtrack done by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, the film opens a portal into a world inaccessible to our current world. It is a legitimate transportation vehicle, as it shows the past in a supercut of what it really was, a neo-documentary if you could venture that far, in its essence of constructing an informative and emotional piece of film out of previously disparate unconnected elements. There’s clips from dozens of circuses, all throughout time and location, different cities and people and acts.
And yet they share common elements. Each section is marked by a reel changing, and the ‘reel’ on woman helps to show the slowly ever-increasing open sexualisation of women, as they go from stilted conservative beauty pageants to risqué strip teases to full-blown erotic nudity. The reel on animals helps to show the commonality of it all, that bears on bicycles was normal, or interesting then, but is absolutely shocking now. Usually the march of progress works the other way round, as we build more and more upon the foundations laid before us, we grow out of their trappings, new innovations become old, and we take them increasingly for granted. The digitalisation of cinema for example, ten years ago was a vibrant and hard to grasp debate, whereas now is completely bog standard and its developments are what we are interested in now.
So in this sense, its amazing to be wowed by the old, to be encompassed by it by fusing it with the new (the Sigur Rós soundtrack), as we watch a mother place her babe in front of a knife throwing board, a father throwing his baby around on his hands balancing him with masterful precision, even the acts no longer possible in our society, the bear riding a unicycle, the big cats on see-saws, the monkey’s acrobatic transitions to moving motorcycles. And the magnificence of the skill of the technicians, the acrobats who move so gracefully. The trainers who exhibit complete control over their animals who could easily kill them. The clowns, who’s rubber bodies and practical jokes juxtaposed against their off duty moments. And then finally, as the film ends, we’re shown us. The audience, the crowd, who watch in awe, in fear, in terror or laughter.
Whether the acts are morally sound is irrelevant to the film. They happened, and we watch them, in all their goodness and badness. It’s downright tough to watch at some points, but there’s a reason for it. It shows us acts which were common, the horror we feel out of its time. This is the ‘Golden Age’ of the Circus, and this is all of it. It’s a tribute to the best and worst of human impulses. And its potency lies in its realness and its paradoxes. Humans can be kind, or cruel. Banal or evil or good. But they can be both at the same time, because what can be good in one period is bad the next.I’m not really one for relativism, but it does operate to a certain degree in society. And we need artifacts like this to remind us of it. Otherwise we’ll forget.
At 00:26 of the trailer, a man dives from a water tower.
Maybe in 100 years, they’ll include this clip paralleled alongside it.