Wednesday 22 June 2011

Five of the best - Circuses in Film

After watching The Last Circus trailer far too many times, and getting far too excited in the process, I couldn't help but cast my mind back to other films set in and around the circus. Here is a list of some of the best and hopefully some recommendations that you haven't encountered:

The Unknown - Most horror fans are familiar with Tod Browning's highly influential tale of deformed circus acts that was banned for over 30 years in the UK, the cult classic known as freaks. However, five years before Freaks, he directed Lon Chaney in an equally disturbing story of an armless knife thrower and his unrequited desire for a glamorous assistant that is infatuated with the circus' strong man. Forget Water for Elephants, the macabre love triangle in The Unknown portrays the dark and disturbing side of the circus like no other, with a gripping storyline and haunting finale that will remain with you for a long time to come. With a running time of just 49 mins, this is well worth tracking down if you are lucky enough get hold of a copy.

The Circus - Charlie Chaplin is one of my favourite directors, and it is a testament to his skill as both a director and actor that his films have stood the test of time. The Circus follows one of silent cinemas most iconic characters - the tramp - as he finds work and lusts after the owner's acrobatic daughter whilst encountering a number of perilous situations that are guaranteed to induce laughter. The themes of love and jealousy are as prevalent in The Circus as in The Unknown, and it is perhaps the grandeur of the setting and the variety of the people involved that has made life in the circus such a perfect backdrop for tales of romance and betrayal. Unlike The Unknown, this is suitable for all ages, and will easily entertain those who decide to seek out this classic comedy.

La Strada - One of Federico Fellini's more accessible films, La Strada follows the adventures of a girl who is sold to a travelling strongman by her mother, and endures a number of hardships along the way. Unlike his art house films, whose meandering plots and obscure symbolism can confound the casual viewer, La Strada is a joy to watch, and despite the often dark undertones that propel the plot forward, there are moments of touching humour throughout as our protagonist Gelsomina meets and falls for a clown known simply as The Fool. This film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957 and is an essential watch for anyone with a passing interest in world cinema.

Wings Of Desire - Another film for World Cinema fans, this German classic is a beautifully shot film that follows an angel whose uncontrollable desire for a circus acrobat leaves him longing to become human. Shot in stark monochrome for the majority of the story, the addition of colour to key scenes heightens their impact and enhances the aura of mystery that surrounds the angels. This was remade as City of Angels in 1998 but I have stuck with the original and doubt that I will ever find the time or even want to watch the remake. Correct me if I'm wrong but I imagine that Wings of Desire is far superior to the English language version, and those who have not seen the original should definitely give it a shot.

Santa Sangre - I'll finish how I started with another classic horror film, and one that I imagine is closest in both style and theme to The Last Circus. Jodorowsky's first and only foray into the world of horror is just as bizarre and experimental as his more famous works El Topo and The Holy Mountain, whilst being far more macabre and gruesome, with the circus providing the perfect backdrop for his twisted imagination that straddles the fine line between genius and mad man. We follow the life of a young circus performer and his family through a series of flashbacks before he escapes from a mental institution and seeks vengeance for his brutal upbringing. I imagine that Santa Sangre was one of the key influences behind The Last Circus and we can only hope that it is as bold and daring as this gruesome tale of revenge.

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