The trend for mining archive film footage and syncing the edited work with a modern soundtrack has thrown up some enjoyable documentaries about 20th Century society in the past couple of years (see here and here, for example). The latest, Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows: The Golden Age Of Circus, is another collage piece containing lots of interesting archive footage, this time of travelling big top circuses and vaudeville acts, as the title suggests. It’s structured around a series of themes (clowns, animals, dancing, etc.), and each chapter has its own piece of music, composed and performed by members of Sigur Rós, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and an Icelandic orchestra. Understandably Erlingsson relies on footage from the first half of the 20th Century, primarily because the distance from today makes it all the more fascinating to our eyes—in the years that have passed public taste has changed, circuses have become less popular, animal welfare has grown as a pressing concern and health and safety law has put paid to the sight of a human being fired out of a giant cannon. The assembled footage often shocks as a result: your heart may be in your mouth during the risky high-wire acts and you may even flinch when presented with a freakshow performer, but it’s the clips of toddlers being forced to box or animals that have been trained to perform unnatural tasks that are more upsetting. Thankfully in the majority of places forcing bears to drive clown cars or making elephants balance on thin beams is now frowned upon, while cajoling crying kids into pugilism for the entertainment of adults is likewise a thing of the past in civilised society, but it’s hard to turn away from this old footage even if you find it abhorrent. Gradually, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that we’re not seeing the full picture: obviously the majority of existing footage is of acts performing in the ring, so there’s comparatively few clips here exploring daily life for members of travelling circuses, which would presumably detail the cramped cages the animals had to live in or the brutal training techniques they were exposed to. Anyway, in terms of the footage that was available, it’s clear that Erlingsson and his Editor David Alexander Corno have trawled through hundreds of hours’ worth in creating this work, and their selections are always interesting; viewers can gaze upon the rapt faces that once made up circus audiences, women performing stripteases when it was a relatively new form of entertainment, countless graceful trapeze artists and tightrope walkers, and much more. The atmospheric music is an added bonus, although it’s the footage you’ll remember.
Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson.
Editing: Benedikt Erlingsson, David Alexander Corno.
Music: Orri P. Dyrason, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Georg Holm, Kjartan Dagur Holm.
Running Time: 74 minutes.