Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Water For Elephants" -- I Have Questions, Call Me Dumbo

When Water for Elephants is Netflixable, I think I will take another look, even though I have little interest in seeing it again, but it left me with so many questions. I tried to follow along, perhaps there is still much about the mysterious world of sawdust, spangles, and S&M that I do not yet understand. Here are some of my questions and confusions:

* Clumsy scripting? Why is the first issue to be raised that of elder abuse (the older Jacob disoriented on the Circus Vargas lot, grousing about uncaring children and the senior home in which he lives), or is this cameo intended to subliminally prepare us for the issue of elephant abuse that lies ahead?

* Fabulous product placement for Circus Vargas! Cheers to the Nelson & Katya Quiroga-Tabares, assuming they did not have to pay a fortune (usually the case) for images of their posters vividly prominent in opening scenes. Maybe the show, in return for use of its setting and facilities, landed the lavish exposure. Whatever, that draggy opening scene gave me early doubts, and what followed did not allay my doubts. Why is the subject of circus life so botched up and misrepresented in so many second-rate films? Why?

* Am I to understand that red-lighting (yes, I know about it) was done on a mass scale? Now, that's new. I thought only now and then, a bad apple causing trouble or daring to ask to be paid at the wrong time might be accidentally bumped off the end of the train. No? In Water, our effervescent circus owner August periodically rids the ranks in almost Hitleresque fashion. Whew!

* Battering the heads of young boys trying to sidewall into the girlie show annex, not a tad harsh? Maybe it was just the Three Stooges-type sound effects, which sounded strong enough to effect on-the-spot lobotomies.

* Who might the character of August have been based on? Ben Davenport? He comes to mind, even though I can't believe he would carry on like August, except, of course, maybe when a lone bad apple needed the red light.

* Now, as for the young idealistic Jacob getting forced into the role of elephant trainer. Can a guy really learn the trunks overnight? This puzzled me the most. I can't recall him getting any instruction other than how to administer a bull hook against an errant elephant.

* As for the voice commands in the foreign tongue that produced exquisite compliance from elephant Rosie, incredible? I know there was a Gunther Gebel Williams who shouted out voice commands, although I always kind of assumed he had help from assistants closer to the pachyderms working bull hooks (excuse me, PETA people, for dropping those two words that bring out your warm loving side). If Water is historically accurate, that means, as I see it, that all anybody has to do is stand by the ring curb, pronounce the words loudly, and Rosie will perform precisely and perfectly on cue. Oh, the magic of circus -- even I could be elephant king for a day!

* The elephant as the star attraction who saves the show by bringing back crowds? Sorry, but this tired old circus cliche needs to be permanently retired. Did Gargantua save Ringling in 1938? In fact, can anybody name any act that ever really "saved" a circus? (other than, of course, The Great Sebastian)

* The way Benzini Bros. performers move in slow motion, it made me wonder if maybe Cirque du Soleil had a unit on the road touring the dust bowl for pennies in 1931? And as for the more contemporary music, I am having a hard time finding it in my Rudy Valley collection. The work of another thirties crooner, perhaps?

* Owner-dictator August, evilly envious of the Ringling boys (ok, a very funny running gag), seems to claim that he too is running a grift-free show, or did I miss something? Considering his rather brusk operating procedures, I was disappointed not to see a full scale Hey, rube! converging onto the lot. What a climax that might have produced. More convincing, I think, than the stagy escape of animals from the menagerie, which reminded me, however superficially, of the final scenes in Day of the Locust -- or (you name your favorite disaster flick).

* About Benzini's tough boss, am I too assume that circus owners in the past were as sadistic as this riveting monster? Heck, he makes Charlton Heston in The Greatest Show on Earth look as edgy as Mr. Rogers.

* In fact, has any circus owner ever possessed such sinister charisma? Or, at least, so entertaining a sense of humor?

* Why the tent being brought down by law enforcement cutting the guy ropes? This is a new one to me.

* At the end of the film, we are back at Circus Vargas, and it appears that Jacob has landed a volunteer job taking tickets. How touching it would have been to actually see him doing the job. And maybe seeing August rushing the lot in a drunken rage and getting red-lighted off the next Amtrak train out of town.

* Finally, a poignant regret. Know what I feel? A great sadness for a film that could have been great. Why oh why another missed cinematic opportunity?


Alan Cabal said...

I haven't seen the movie, but when I read the book, I thought August was loosely based on Adam Forepaugh.

Showbiz David said...

Forepaugh? Gentlemanly Adam? I need to enroll in a remedial circus course. And I HAVE to read that book, if it's not over 300 pages.