Inside the big top

Benedikt Erlingsson on daredevil antics and The Show Of Shows.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Benedikt Erlingsson: "Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, they were circus artists doing their stuff live."
Benedikt Erlingsson: "Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, they were circus artists doing their stuff live." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sigur Rós composers Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason (who worked with Björk), Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant, teaming with Lars von Trier's producer Marianne Slot (Melancholia, Antichrist, Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, Dogville, Nymphomaniac) came up, as Benedikt Erlingsson, director Of Horses And Men (Hross I Oss), spilled the beans on The Show Of Shows: 100 Years Of Vaudeville, Circuses And Carnivals (Storyville).

Frédéric Boyer with Anne-Katrin Titze: "It's what cinema did in the beginning - King Vidor and the Russians - it's exactly editing."
Frédéric Boyer with Anne-Katrin Titze: "It's what cinema did in the beginning - King Vidor and the Russians - it's exactly editing." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Robert Bresson's Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne, Christopher Walken on theatre and Michelangelo Frammartino's Alberi, Celia Rowlson-Hall's Ma, and Journey To The West by Tsai Ming-liang during earlier Tribeca Film Festivals inside PS1 MoMA's VW Dome, passing the Bechdel test and what it takes to be a daredevil were also juggled in my conversation with the director at the Smyth Hotel.

Tribeca Film Festival Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer on The Show Of Shows: "He is using the language of the cinema, which is editing. Editing footage, choosing, curating, cutting."

Anne-Katrin Titze: The films that were at MoMA PS1 in previous years were brilliant. Alberi, Journey To The West, and Celia Rowlson-Hall's Ma, a dance film in the desert - all totally different from yours. Coming in and out at random places of a show is something people experience when watching television. I remember first seeing Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne from the middle onwards. I still like it even better that way.

Benedikt Erlingsson: The audience today is very well educated in that sense. We are snapping all the time between channels. We are bored and we move on to another concept. In that sense, the dramaturgy is also working with that. I've never seen this film from the middle to the middle. I think it's an experiment.

Tightrope walker - MoMA PS1 VW Dome in The Show Of Shows: "They are doing the same, showing men on the edge."
Tightrope walker - MoMA PS1 VW Dome in The Show Of Shows: "They are doing the same, showing men on the edge." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Audiences can also decide on the length of their stay. You come from theatre. I talked to Christopher Walken and he said that the great thing about doing theatre is that you know when it begins and when it ends. It's like an office job. The circus experience in the dome is different.

BE: It also says, this will never end. We are the same and we will always be the same. We are repeating the same patterns. The same daredevil life-endangering acts just in different forms that you see in these mainstream action films. They are doing the same, showing men on the edge.

AKT: What is that clip with the man standing on the edge of a skyscraper balancing a baby?

BE: It's from New York.

AKT: That much I recognised. Do you know any background for it?

BE: No, I don't know much background. This is of course some crazy stuff. I do this with my daughters in the swimming pool, not on a skyscraper.

Balancing a baby - MoMA PS1: "I do this with my daughters in the swimming pool, not on a skyscraper."
Balancing a baby - MoMA PS1: "I do this with my daughters in the swimming pool, not on a skyscraper." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I hope not!

BE: The same thing with the mother who is a knife thrower, throwing knives at this little child! How far are we going to go to entertain, to give the kick, the thrill? I am living from my ideas by being a storyteller. I could be a daredevil artist getting crazy ideas hoping that somebody would pay me for watching it. You were talking about time. When you see a hundred years of this, you start to think we have always been like this.

AKT: I liked that you mix the clips from the different decades together and forego any linear structure.

BE: It becomes an agreement with the audience - it's like jumping between time.

AKT: As far as sound is concerned, you have only one place where we hear the original audio, for the clowns, although they don't speak. Why did you decide to keep the sound there and only there?

BE: Many reasons. You can say it's pure showbiz, to rest ourselves. It's also to change intensity, to create new energy. For me it's also to go into the real atmosphere of the circus, to see the craftsmanship of the clowns. Earth contact, you know. It's a beautiful Soviet Russian clown, very famous in Eastern Europe.

Trapeze artists - MoMA PS1: "The same daredevil life-endangering acts just in different forms ..."
Trapeze artists - MoMA PS1: "The same daredevil life-endangering acts just in different forms ..." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Did you go to the circus as a child?

BE: No. Yes, I went to the circus with my parents in Denmark and I've seen some circuses in my life. Iceland, of course, as an island in the Atlantic with a restriction of importing livestock animals has a problem with the circus. I think in the Thirties, they imported a lion.

AKT: One lion?

BE: One lion. A very sad, depressed lion.

AKT: The one lion of Iceland!

BE: There was an ape once imported to a town on the south coast. There was a greenhouse and he was called The Ape in Hveragerði, the hot spring area. So we went there every summer to buy ice cream and see the ape in the cage. I come from the theatre world. I myself have worked as a clown and I've done some fire eating. I know the element of this and I have my sympathy about that.

That era in Europe when the travelling circus was the big show, it's also very Freudian, or Jungian. It was the way to escape your life to join the circus. To see the circus is like a great psychological theatre. These are the elements of your soul: The lion, the tamer, the daredevil, the beauty, the ugly beast, the clown. You have the archetypes of our beings.

Child enthralled at the circus - MoMA PS1: "I am living from my ideas by being a storyteller."
Child enthralled at the circus - MoMA PS1: "I am living from my ideas by being a storyteller." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: There's a seal, there's a goat, there's a man with the biggest tongue I've ever seen right at the start.

BE: There's a devil and an angel. It's a festival of symbols.

AKT: It's dangerous. Not only because the acrobats could fall or the lion could bite off a person's head. I don't know. Theatre has become a safe place.

BE: We can also say films today are a safe place. Though there is a dinosaur and explosions, we know it's all digital effects. In the beginning - Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, they were circus artists doing their stuff live. And it's a beauty to see this footage uncut, no tampering, no tricks. People are taking the risk for real!

AKT: Tell me about the composers!

BE: The composers were part of the concept from the beginning. They are Icelandic musicians called Sigur Rós. They are big stars. They worked with Björk. Two of them [Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason]. The third one was a guy called Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson - he is the high priest of the Pagan religion in Iceland. A very interesting character.

Trapeze artist - MoMA PS1: "How far are we going to go to entertain, to give the kick, the thrill?"
Trapeze artist - MoMA PS1: "How far are we going to go to entertain, to give the kick, the thrill?" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: A Pagan high priest?

BE: Yeah, the Pagan religion, the old Asatru. Yeah, those three were the musicians doing the music with me.

AKT: One question going back to Of Horses And Men. Leo DiCaprio keeping himself warm inside a horse - did they steal that from you?

BE: Come on, I'm just honoured! I also saw The Revenant and Tarkovsky clips. I was just honoured that they could also use something from my Horses And Men. Of course, this is a common anecdote. In Iceland they have many stories of this. Also the French soldiers of Napoleon did this in the Russian war. So I cannot claim a copyright for it.

AKT: I was joking, but maybe your film functioned as a memory trigger, a reminder for them.

BE: I thought it was beautiful. Also some closeups of horses' eyes in that film. He [Alejandro González Iñárritu] was using great references - me and Tarkovsky! You know, Tarkovsky came to Iceland in '85 or '82. His wife, Larisa, lived in my home. And I met Tarkovsky. Larisa was really sad because her son who was the same age as me was captured in the Soviet Union, he could not emigrate with them to Italy.

When she saw me, I reminded her of him. She was always always taking me and pressing me to her breasts, like "my dear boy." She was always hugging me. So I can say, I have been between the same breasts as Tarkovsky.

On The Show Of Shows in the MoMA PS1 VW Dome: "It becomes an agreement with the audience - it's like jumping between time."
On The Show Of Shows in the MoMA PS1 VW Dome: "It becomes an agreement with the audience - it's like jumping between time." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What's coming up for you?

BE: I am going to make a film that wants to save the world. It's called A Woman at War. I am making this with Marianne Slot, the French-Danish producer who has been working a lot with [Lars von] Trier. It's an environmental action art house thriller. It's about a woman that wants to save the world and she has found a way to do it.

And of course, she becomes enemy of the state by doing so and is hunted. So there are a lot of drones and helicopters and passion and escaping things. The sad thing for the American market is - there are no guns, and no blood and no death. But a lot of passion and love and fighting for humanity.

AKT: Filming in Iceland?

BE: I will film in Iceland and Bulgaria and it will be shot 2017, hopefully.

AKT: And it will pass the Bechdel test?

BE: Absolutely! It's a twin story. The main character, she asks her to sabotage the big industry and big international companies. She is a one woman green brigade but she has a twin sister who is a yoga teacher, who wants to change the world by changing herself. They are a bit like yin and yang. So there are a lot of women talking about a lot of things, except men.

Read what Benedikt Erlingsson had to say on how The Show Of Shows: 100 Years of Vaudeville, Circuses and Carnivals (Storyville) got off the ground.

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