In the ring

Benedikt Erlingsson on The Show Of Shows: 100 Years Of Vaudeville, Circuses And Carnivals.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Benedikt Erlingsson shoots Anne-Katrin Titze: "I am very grateful to Frédéric Boyer and the festival to come up with this idea."
Benedikt Erlingsson shoots Anne-Katrin Titze: "I am very grateful to Frédéric Boyer and the festival to come up with this idea." Photo: Benedikt Erlingsson

In Of Horses And Men director Benedikt Erlingsson's The Show Of Shows: 100 Years Of Vaudeville, Circuses And Carnivals (Storyville), the tents go up, as he follows in the footprints of Michelangelo Frammartino's Alberi, Tsai Ming-liang's Journey To The West and Celia Rowlson-Hall's Ma into the MoMA PS1 VW Dome.

Producers Margrét Jónasdóttir and Mark Atkins
Producers Margrét Jónasdóttir and Mark Atkins Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Björk collaborators Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason of Sigur Rós, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Vincent Lindon in Stéphane Brizé's The Measure Of A Man, Leonardo DiCaprio in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant and Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson's Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne, Christopher Walken on theatre, A Woman At War with Lars von Trier's Melancholia producer Marianne Slot, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, working with the BBC, Vanessa Toulmin, Margrét Jónasdóttir and Mark Atkin, the Acting Director of Sheffield Doc/Fest, were juggled in my conversation with Benedikt before his Tribeca Film Festival première.

The Show Of Shows, a highlight of this year's festival, is entirely made up of archival footage, featuring circus, carnival and vaudeville acts from the 19th and 20th centuries. No voiceover or intertitle guides us, the music sounds contemporary, and clusters of themes are loosely tied to each other. Erlingsson works with ten thematic interlocking angles. We glimpse rehearsals behind the scenes.

Makeup clown at MoMA PS1 VW Dome in The Show Of Shows: "So we start with a feel-good behind-the-scenes …"
Makeup clown at MoMA PS1 VW Dome in The Show Of Shows: "So we start with a feel-good behind-the-scenes …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Then come the dancers, belly and tap and everything in-between. The third chapter has acrobats shot out of cannons or jumping from high places into pre-Esther Williams pools. Four is for the girls, dressed in semi-transparent body stockings or less, "American Striptease" reads the sign behind one of them. The animal section, central to the circus and in this film, is the most devastating one to watch. Every shot of an animal performing here makes you see how much they hate it. The section goes on and on and with every lion condemned to ride on a horse in circles and each polar bear going up and down the seesaw, the message becomes more urgent. People hitting each other in faux knight festivals and boxing matches for toddlers feel almost like a relief.

Acrobats and trapeze artists are fantastic to behold in the strongest flock of acts saved for the finale. 100 Years of Vaudeville, Circuses and Carnivals ends with the faces of the audiences, young and old, up to a century apart. We can marvel about humanity and despair about it. Or we can become proactive and ban animal acts in circuses. Those should go the way juggling with babies on the edge of a skyscraper for amusement went.

Trapeze artists in The Show Of Shows: " Full of skill and craftsmanship and humour and love."
Trapeze artists in The Show Of Shows: " Full of skill and craftsmanship and humour and love."

Yesterday, May 1, 2016 was the last day elephants will perform in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We ended our conversation about Of Horses And Men with you saying you like "to kill your movie stars." There are many stars in The Show Of Shows.

Benedikt Erlingsson: Some of them really killed themselves just shortly afterwards. Some of the great artists, both lion tamers and tightrope walkers, had a tragic end of their life, performing. It's a life-threatening occupation.

AKT: Tell me how it began, how you got involved with the archive.

BE: It was a gift. It was an accidental happening that I was introduced to the archive through my producer Margrét Jónasdóttir. Vanessa Toulmin, who is a professor at Sheffield University, she is responsible for the Archive of Fairground and Circuses and had been very protective of it. And with Mark Atkins and BBC and Margrét, they talked her into letting me see it.

Benedikt Erlingsson on the road to MoMA PS1
Benedikt Erlingsson on the road to MoMA PS1 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

From there on I got an idea. It was 16 hours of material that I looked at. And from there on we started and, of course, I collected more material. So really the idea comes from that material, looking at this incredible archive.

AKT: Which was just used for academic studies before, as a research library?

BE: Yes, she was collecting this. Vanessa comes also from the circus and fairground business in a way, so she had a fetish for this. For me everything came out of this material and I think you can make many films out of this. This is my take on it.

AKT: For the structure - I thought there were ten clusters.

BE: Yeah, something like that.

AKT: Ten sequences, interlocking angles. The first one: tents go up, behind the scenes, you are introducing us. Then come the dancers …

Circus tiger in The Show Of Shows: "We are poetic but we are very brutal …"
Circus tiger in The Show Of Shows: "We are poetic but we are very brutal …"

BE: You can say the overall structure of the film or the dramaturgy is, of course, very manipulative. It's deceiving. I'm lying a lot to tell the truth. So we start with a feel-good behind-the-scenes, introducing the people and the dance. And then we go into the second part of drama and danger and abuse.

AKT: People being shot out of cannons, jumping off high places - that comes after the dance. You are building up …

BE: Then come the animal sequences.

AKT: Before the animals come the girls.

BE: Yeah, women on display. Then we go into the animals, the elephants and animals playing human, and then we end with the beauty and the craftsmanship of the acrobats. We end with the payoff of the audience so that we can all go happy out of the cinema.

But of course in that sense, the film is really a showbiz film. But the aim is to reveal something about the paradox of us as human beings. It must tell something about us and what we like.

Concerned circus watcher in The Show Of Shows: "The aim is to reveal something about the paradox of us as human beings."
Concerned circus watcher in The Show Of Shows: "The aim is to reveal something about the paradox of us as human beings."

AKT: It shows the denied facets of humanity. It shows the abject, I felt, in many places. Especially in the core of the film with the animals. Lions, tigers, elephants and polar bears - it's heartbreaking.

BE: It is heartbreaking, at the same time we are beautiful beings. We are poetic but we are very brutal and very grim and abusive. We are abusing animals, we are abusing ourselves, we are abusing our children.

AKT: I liked a particular segue. After that very very strong animal sequence where you can see how much they, the animals, hate what they have to do and how stupid it is that they have to do this - after that you have the toddlers boxing. It almost feels like a relief! It's just human babies …

BE: Kicking each other! Exactly. The knockout. How you combine that together, it's a manipulative thing, it's intellectual cutting. When I was thinking about this sequence - what is it essentially that we like with a fight, with boxing? What are we waiting for? In a way, we are waiting for the knockout, the kind of death. And when we don't get the knockout, the audience is always a little bit disappointed. Even though the winner was their man.

Boxing toddlers in The Show Of Shows: "In a way, we are waiting for the knockout …"
Boxing toddlers in The Show Of Shows: "In a way, we are waiting for the knockout …"

AKT: I think you are going to like Vincent Lindon's performance in The Measure of a Man.

BE: This is a very brutal picture of us. At the same time …

AKT: We are acrobats flying through the air.

BE: Full of skill and craftsmanship and humor and love. We want to entertain children and touch each other with poetry.

AKT: The structure you are talking about is running in the MoMA PS1 VW Dome in a loop. That makes it a very different experience for audiences who will come in at different places in the film and not see your structure as planned.

BE: I think it's a very beautiful idea to present this film. I am very grateful to Frédéric Boyer and the festival to come up with this idea. For me it goes down to the Middle Ages, this experience of theatre. You can go in and out and buy some peanuts and beer. There is this freedom, like in the circus. It suits this film. Also that it's in a dome, an arena, there's a ring. I'm really excited.

The Show Of Shows will be traveling to Copenhagen, Nantes and Transylvania.

Coming up - Benedikt Erlingsson on working with the composers, being a storyteller, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, filming in Iceland and Bulgaria for A Woman At War and more.

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