First posted December 23, 2010
Director James Cameron (Titanic; Avatar) joining visions with Cirque du Soleil to put its acrobats in 3D movies. First project, nameless so far, now in production. What to make of it all? Circus action has not always translated well on film. That third dimension just might make it a more viable experience.
Of course, it could also further distance circus art from the grittier realities it once captured. Lately, I'm finding myself being pulled backward in a black and white, very 2D direction, thanks to some old cinema discoveries. They remind us of how far our ring stars have advanced away from old-fashioned sawdust drama, escaping through a maze of fog machines and special effects, masks and trenchant body-movement allusions to Big Themes. These old movies come crudely alive, and yet they celebrate things we are losing.
This evening, I watched an old 1937 flick, Circus Girl. You'll discover in these B movies now and then those acts that once thrilled your Mom and Pop. Heck, that once thrilled me. Circus Girl ends up over a cage teaming with distempered lions; above it, a trapeze flyer in a Suicide Act, billed to swing high, sans net, over the Big Cage, sans net also. Love envy has placed him in this perilous position, as a romantic rival in love with his wife has weakened a rope that will fail and drop him, if all goes as planned, into the jaws of those angry wild animals.
It's worth seeing how he is narrowly saved from the unthinkable. Better watching the evil saboteur taking the tumble instead. Great climax! Trap maneuvers executed by the Escalante Family. One of them, a lone female aerialist, executes stellar moving heel and toe catches on the single bar. In the simplistic realm of this very old movie, yet there are viable elements to recall and think about. Are circuses giving these dynamics up at their own box office peril?
Another cheap low-down second-rate cinema treat worth sending to your Netflix queue is 1966's Circus of Fear. A circle of thieves, one of whom is fatally stabbed during a botched up heist, end up on a circus lot, in the midst of a plot I can hardly remember concerning an assassin. They become embroiled in some wayward backyard intrigue. Around this stuff, a few good acts entertain.
What I vividly recall is a woman strapped to a revolving disc while swords come whizzing through her limbs on the prop. Nothing nearly as subtle or subtly sexxy as that Cordon woman on the Ringling show in the mid-1950s. Retro all the way. A stale blast of fresh air.
For a rare moment (pre PC, pre circus ballet), I could feel an old guiltless boyhood thrill.
Maybe it's time to watch Ring of Fear Again. Closer to the old now disgraced order. Yeah, I know -- basic costumes embroidered with sequins over bodies that look like human bodies. Growling lions and tigers. Daring whip masters unafraid to show anger. Kinky side show freaks flaunting their physical eccentricities. Loud smoky barkers. The gawking crowds, eyes wide open to the hooky yet -- lest we forget -- very real threat of it all.
The world, uncensored. The real world.
Now, if director Cameron and his 3d cameras could turn their focus onto something like that ..