Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Water for Circus Vargas, the Second Screening Around: Give Me Fake Good and Thrilling Circus Over Fake Big Top Disaster Flick

Circus Owner from hell: Christoph Waltz as August powers Water for Elephants.

I wanted to like the film better than when I first saw it in a theater, where I could not hit a pause button and replay to be sure. Since I could in my living room, I'm glad to know that August did not tell his men to red-light vet student Jacob off the train, but "kick him off" at the next station.

Not that I now see August as a nice guy. I see in him the terrific actor (from Inglorious Basterds -- I must check out that flick) who gives Water its most and only intense spine: cruelty to animals and to people.

In fact, the movie is almost relentlessly pessimistic and cruel, forever on the verge of the next August eruption. And when he finally feels the breeze of his wife's sweet eyes for Jacob, all hell breaks lose, and, to that end, the film takes fire.

OK, so The Greatest Show on Earth plotted impossible things too, but by showing Heston throw off the crooked gamers, it was true to history. So why in the world would a circus owner as brutal and barbaric as August NOT have cons working the lot? His envy of the Ringling Brothers and their ethics goads him on, in like manner, to rid the show of the slippery fingered mob. Totally out of character for this king thug. I would love to have seen a real old Hey, Rube! all over the lot in reaction to a towner getting conned.

Most ugly scene of all: Side show men with iron stakes bonking the heads of young kids trying to sidewall in.

Instead of all the historically viable options, this dreary exploitation gives us something that, to my fragile knowledge, has never occurred in recorded circus history: Circus workers themselves throwing open cage wagon doors in the animal tent to let loose the wild ones, a movie aimed at in retaliation, I take it, for August's cruelty to everyone including his own wife.

So, we go from message movie -- sadistic circus owner who, quoting one of his underlings, "shouldn't have the right to be around animals" -- to Hollywood disaster flick when the menagerie is liberated, throwing a tsunami of jungleland vengeance all over the lot.

Circus? Almost nothing. Just snatches of acts. One ring on a railroad show in the 1930s -- are you kidding? Not a single elephant until Rosie arrives ... Are you kidding me again? Topping them all is the idea that Rosie alone(who does things we usually expect to see only in Disney cartons) is going to save the show and give it the pach power to rival Ringling?


What moved me the most this time, a real surprise, was the final scene, back inside the Circus Vargas ticket wagon, with Hal Halbrook as the older Jacob looking back on his years with Marlena and Rosie, both now gone, and wanting to join up, and not "run away with the circus" but "come home."

Boy, how much $ did Vargas have to pay for that prime product placement in the first scene as the camera panned its glorious posters. No wonder last summer in Hollywood, the Vargas show I took in was nearly packed. I've never seen anything close to that in recent one-ring Vargas years.

Some other bits: I did not know elephants could be taught to execute so many movements merely to voice commands. And I still don't believe it. Best of all, and totally fake in my skeptical view, Rosie whacking August with a tent stake is a howler. Although, I loved the scene.

The movie has a terribly superfluous beginning on the Vargas lot, addressing elder abuse and allowing the older Jacob (Hal Halbrook) to set his story in flashback. But all that exposition could have been handled more effectively later into the story when Jacob levels with August about not having finished college; movie should have opened in the dark of night with the lone figure of a young distraught Jacob walking the tracks in limbo, a circus train in the distance coming into view.

Most exciting scene for me was the unloading along the flats, the wagons coming down the runs! Loved the banner lines waving in the breeze, they looked real. (Circus World Museum sure got shorted in the credits, a tiny line at the very end) Why could they not have given us a real rough sounding circus band of the era, I wondered, rather than something approaching Karl King symphonic? Another quibble: The first images of circus acts, in slow misty motion, look more like Cirque du Soleil prepping under a revival tent to bring class to the masses. Excuse me, where did the Great Depression go?

I've not read the book; don't know if I want to. If the movie is true to the book, I'd guess that the book is not well researched, to put it politely.

Water for Elephants is so grim and vicious, so dark and bleak and hopeless, I have no desire to ever see this thing again. And, no "special features" on the DVD; was the cast and crew left just as bewildered and disillusioned as am I?

Here is my greatest circus cinema wish: A movie about John Ringling in the roaring twenties, and then losing power; subplot, the rivalry between Leitzel and the end ring aerialist leading to the latter pushing herself into an affair with Codona. It really happened, kids. There is so much out there under tents of power, magic, intrigue, shame, charisma and corruption to adapt!

End scene: John Ringling a few years later, out of big top power, passed by, sitting in a wheel chair watching a Coles Bros. Circusparade passing him by, tears down his reminiscent eyes.



Michael Newton-Brown said...

Read the book. The nice thing about a book is that you create the reality in your mind. The reality is not created for you by a camera. In my book, the tent was a 3 ringer, as I was not told otherwise, and I do know something about shows of that period.
The film does an OK job, but the book is grittier, and more realistic. And the beginning and end is different.
Read the book.

Showbiz David said...

Okay, I'm going to wait a few years to let the ugly residue of this film exit my soul, and then I'll look for a copy of the book. Thanks.

M.A.D. said...

..I agree with Michael..Read the book..You'll be shocked at how much they "left" out of the movie..It's all Hollywood..LOL..

Showbiz David said...

I hear two "must read!" Have we a third?

Rebecca Ostroff said...

read the book...then you can forgive the shortcomings

Showbiz David said...

Going! ... Going! ... A fourth?

Jim Royal said...

I'm with you on this one, David. As someone who makes a living in this business and cares about it, it is impossible for me to overlook certain things. I think both the book and the movie have done the circus some damage.

Bruce Hawley said...

I was disappointed with the movie as well. However, I strongly recommend that you read the book . . . it's much better! In my opinion, Christoph Waltz did a great job as the villain, but there was no “chemistry” between Reese Witherspoon and Rob Pattinson. I think that if they had the "Old" Jacob (Hal Holbrook) do the narration instead of the “Young” Jacob (Rob Pattinson); included some of the nursing home scenes from the book; and showed more footage of the actual circus acts that they filmed, it would have been a better movie. Also note that the DVD “extras” are only on the Blu-Ray version of the DVD. Check out “Secrets of the Big Top” with Steve Freese (CWM) and Gary Payne (CFA) and “Raising the Tent.” There is a nice "shout out" to the Circus Model Builders in the "Raising the Tent" extra. I liked the “extras” much better than the movie!