In an act of alchemy thoroughly appropriate to his subject matter, Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson manages to be both clear and misty-eyed about the traditions of the circus and vaudeville in new archive documentary The Show of Shows (2015). After the interlocking segments of his wonderful feature debut Of Horses and Men, Erlingsson crafts a paean to a dying form of entertainment, fusing together carefully gathered footage of a variety of performances into several themed sections.
Despite avoiding narration, the film captures a sense of heart-swelling wonder in one instant and reminds us of the darker aspects in the next. This is brilliantly assisted by an original score from Georg Holm and Orri Páll Dýrason of Sigur Rós, in collaboration with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Kjartan Dagur Holm. The music perfectly complements the visuals, ranging from a metronomic anticipation as big tops are raised and clowns don their make-up through to trance-inducing beats overlayed over boisterous dancers.
The accompaniment is used both as emphasis and subversion, however. At one point, the rhythms of their drums build tension during a sequence of death-defying acts only for the action to segue into images of voluptuous, scantily clad women being paraded like porto-glamour models. Where the music would perhaps be expected to shift, it does not, denying the audience the release of pressure that such images might otherwise suggest as a nylon stocking is cast into an enrapt crowd. Juxtapositions and transitions are the key elements of a documentary of this nature, acting alongside the music to provide context in lieu of voiceover. Erlingsson and editor Davíð Alexander Corno employ them with precision, leaping throughout time from one gymnast to another in a split-second’s match-cut. Equally, they can shift from the pulsating spectacle of a human risking their life in the ring with a dangerous animal, to the reality of a broken creature lashing out at a trainer in fear and desperation.
The memory of the director’s empathetic examination of the relationship between people and horses in his first film only colours this element of the work with added depth. Still, while there is condemnation, there is also a pervading nostalgia that culminates in a sequence of eyes glued to the stage in admiration, anxiety and awe. The lack of dialogue allows the viewer to be fully enveloped by what they are seeing and hearing and while at times this may become repetitive or want for a clear trajectory, it then produces a hypnotic scene in which two clowns fight in exploding clouds of coloured powder. The sight of two children boxing is alarming, but the horror of a child crying after being hit is punctuated by two others having a whale of a time. The Show of Shows draws important attention to the failings of circuses and their ilk when judged with modern sensibilities but equally underlines the beautiful joy of being allowed to marvel.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson