There was a time when lion-trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams was a regular on the Tonight Show and received flattering portraits in Sports Illustrated. Today, media appraisal of circus people falls somewhere on the spectrum between Benito Mussolini and Jack the Ripper. You can sort of see the shift of attitude in Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s circus-focused feature length clip package culled from the National Fairground Archives in the freshly liberated Great Britain. Get your sad clown face on for Erlingsson’s The Show of Shows (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.
It will be Sigur Rós fans who will most enjoy Show, thanks to the trance-ish electro score co-composed by band-members Georg Holm and Orri Páll Dýarson along with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Kjartan Dagur Holm, rather than circus folk. Just about everyone else will quickly start to drift as the thematically divided mastercut of vintage circus and carny footage starts to wash over them.
However, Erlingsson’s sort of cheats right from the start with a section devoted to dancers. Snake dancers maybe, but ballroom dancers? Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. He avoids the exploitative side shows (but Tod Browning’s cult classic Freaks also screened at this year’s Fantasia, so we’re covered), while casting a somewhat politically correct idea on the animal training acts.
Granted, there are some crazy (and sometimes acceptably amusing) visuals in Show. To some extent, it summons hazy memories of a simpler era, when lions were expected to earn their keep by letting chipper young woman stick their empty heads in the beasts’ mouths, rather than just unproductively laze about their natural habitat. However, the film’s tone of hipster detachment will likely satisfy neither the nostalgic or the morally apoplectic.
During this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Show of Shows screened one day as a looped installation, which is probably a better way of presenting it. You can definitely pop in for twenty minutes and get most of what there is to engage with in the film. Still, the dark aural palette scored by Holm et al gives the film the feeling of a deep bottom. Editor David Alexander Corno also stiches it together in a manner that flows smoothly and logically.