Distinctive Icelandic helmer Benedikt Erlingsson (“Of Horses and Men”) delivers a cinematic delight with “The Show of Shows,” an expertly curated non-dialogue montage of archival footage showcasing all the appeals and quirks of more than a century of circus and vaudeville acts on celluloid. Edited by David Alexander Corno with a terrific understanding of theme and rhythm, helped immeasurably by Sigur Ros’ specially composed score, “Show” acknowledges the darker side of such spectacles while recognizing the collegiality and talent of performers, along with the excitement of spectators. Though commissioned by BBC Storyville, this big-top docu belongs on the big screen.
Britain’s National Fairground Archive was the crucial source of footage for “Show,” which mixes Super-8 home movies, classic Edison films, amateur footage and any other kind of moving-picture material from the beginning of cinema through the 1960s to celebrate as well as quietly comment on the fascination with vaudeville, circuses and carnivals. While in one sense non-narrative, the documentary uses a carefully constructed narrative arc which seeks to remove the usual perception of circuses as loci for dysfunction and creepiness, while also obliquely criticizing the troubling objectification of animals and children in these spectacles.
Opening with home movies of circus families setting up for the performance is a beautiful way of demystifying a milieu better known through countless big-top movies as sites of infighting and cruelty. These aren’t freaks — in fact, Erlingsson hasn’t used any footage with deformities — but rather families working together in the business of putting on a show. Superlative match cuts transition viewers from watching audiences arrive to the first of the acts: dancers. Loie Fuller imitators, Edison’s Annabelle, Apache dancers, hoochie girls, strippers: They’re all here, slyly jumbling our pleasure in watching talented performers with the sensations of the prurient gaze.
Beauty queens with swaying hips give way to acrobats, escape artists and human cannonballs. A woman knife thrower sends her blades of death winging through the air toward her young child, doing duty as mother’s helper. Later, footage of boxing 4-year-olds makes one wonder: Who were the people who paid to watch such things? What thrills did they receive looking at a vertiginous balancing act featuring a man and his infant on top of a skyscraper girder?
One of the reasons “The Show of Shows” is such a success is that while it celebrates this pre-boob-tube era when entertainment was found outside the home, the documentary subtly reminds modern viewers that although they may feel uncomfortable watching such scenes, we need to ask what there was about such spectacles that attracted a paying public. How has our relationship to childhood, let alone performance, changed?
An even greater leap is required when it comes to the animal acts: Erlingsson includes images of lionesses riding on horseback, polar bears on seesaws, dressed-up elephants, a violin-playing baboon. We watch with deep discomfort, reinforced by music that becomes pointedly more discordant and loud. No voiceover is needed; the commentary is there in the editing, in the music and in our heads, extended into scenes of cattle roundups and bucking broncos at the rodeo. Why for centuries did people find the sight of animals forced to do unnatural things so thrilling? And frankly, notwithstanding our unease with such scenes today, can we honestly claim to no longer find such images fascinating?
Clowns (not too many), contortionists and daredevils complete the picture, which ends with the sensation of having partly demythologized the stereotype of circuses as a closed community of difference. But only partly: After all, we still go to carnivals and the like, even in this TV-addicted age, and we still want a show like we’ve never seen before. Erlingsson’s selection of archival material is truly impressive, though his ability to assemble them in a way that tells a deeper story is even more notable. Sigur Ros’ evocative compositions understand their function in not competing with the images, instead assisting in telling their story.