Matthew Bunkell from the Picturehouse Customer Service team previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays film.
The Show Of Shows: 100 Years Of Vaudeville (12A)
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson. Iceland, UK 2015. 72 mins.
With a flicker of film grain begins Benedikt Erlingsson’s graceful and haunting documentary about itinerant circus folk, The Show of Shows. A half-clown daubs a smile; guy lines are hammered into the ground with precise timing. Finally the tent is erected, its poles reaching towards the skies before crowds file in, ready to be wowed by this heaving, homogenised clockwork community.
Having struck gold with his directorial debut feature, the mordant drama Of Horses And Men, Erlingsson follows it up with a hypnotic and sometimes challenging look at circus performers. Through footage retrieved from the National Fairground Archive and meticulously pieced together into a dreamy, dialogue-free narrative, The Show Of Shows conjures dense and elemental tales of the men, women and animals who astounded the population in the early 20th century.
Not unlike the pages of a time-worn picture book, these striking vignettes reveal a story of days gone by, when the stage was a place for our darkest fears, and for daring individuals ready to defy death and, even worse, dullness. Erlingsson’s time capsule catches the bigger picture without losing intimacy – every crease on a face, every stain on a costume is a clue to an enigma.
However, to imply that this film is solely about its visuals is to understate the focus and emotion generated by the score. Through ambient synths and brooding bass tones, conjured by two members of Iceland’s Sigur Rós, the ever-present tension ebbs and flows, and punctuates the acts on the screen to euphoric effect.
Erlingsson asks us to approach these feats of amazement with the same awe as the spectators of the time – fearing the fall of the tightrope walker, thrilled by the burlesque titillations of the female dancers, and incredulous at the sight of seven polar bears pirouetting atop a mechanised structure. However, our contemporary eyes cannot overlook the deeply flawed and sometimes morally reprehensible conditions faced by humans and non-humans alike. This hypnotic film makes no apologies as it mixes images of disturbing and outdated cruelty with nostalgic yearning.
The Show Of Shows demonstrates that its subjects are as relevant today as they were in their prime.
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