Recently, I had two consecutive brushes with the circus world. The first one occurred while watching and reflecting upon the Italian Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (2013). The movie's first ten minutes or so are confounding until the film settles into something of a bare-boned somewhat cohesive story. The film's main inspiration is undeniably the works of Fellini, and both La Dolce Vita (1960) and his masterpiece 8 1/2 (1963) are evoked and alluded to, if not shamelessly copied from.
In fact, most of Fellini's work uses the circus as its ideological inspiration. His movies are peopled with a number of odd creatures or freaks that are fodder for absurd situations and outcomes. The circus deals not only with the odd and bizarre, but also has its own brand of awe and magic.
It comes as no surprise that in both 8 1/2 and The Great Beauty we encounter magicians. In the former, the enigmatic magician has telepathic powers and, although blindfolded, knows the purses' contents of audience members. In the latter, the magician manages to make a giraffe disappear in front of the protagonist's eyes.
In both cases, the magicians admit that it is all an illusion or a sham. However, the visible result manages to be still perplexing and affecting. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for cinema and movies in general. The director is the one who plans and creates these vivid illusions, which are a skillful combination and weaving of images, music, and words.
And it is us the awestruck viewers who take in the magic presented on the screen. The most vivid example would be one of the first instances of cinema when people saw a train coming towards them, and they moved and ducked in fear. Or the fact that movies can evoke a whole gamut of emotions and scare us, make us cry or laugh. Yet in movies that take their inspiration from the circus, anything goes and anything can happen, and we are invited to think outside of the box of our ordinary existence and see the world with the curious yet unquestioningly accepting eyes of a child.
Incidentally, one of my all-time favorite films, Wings of Desire (Himmel über Berlin)(1987) has an angel fall in love with a trapeze artist. In fact, during a circus performance, one of the kids addresses the angel quietly seated there. To the dulled eyes of the adults, the angels are not visible, and Wings of Desire underscores the theme of beauty and wonder perceived and seen only by the eyes of the child through the beautiful poem “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke. In the eyes of the child “everything was soulful and, and all souls were one.”
Children become important in these movies. They seem to know the answers or at least they have the correct outlook or philosophy on life; this somehow alludes the adults because they have forgotten all about it. We are so clouded and burdened by the weight of reason that we cannot see the marvel of existence, the very circus occurring in front of our eyes.
Yet the circus is no stranger to cinema. Movies have embraced the circus as a symbol since its heyday; the circus had its own birth or marriage since Chaplin, and it finds its own updated and rejuvenated voice and vision with the continuous works of Baz Luhrmann and its not so distant cousin, the surreal film that characterizes David Lynch's or Terry Gilliam's work, for instance.
The day after seeing The Great Beauty, I actually attended, for the first time, Cirque du Soleil's Totem show. It was not a deliberate succession of choices, that is to have the movie follow by an actual act, but it was enlightening to have the circus represented in its actual “live” and living form. It has been a good number of years since I had been to the circus myself, and it was so much more impressive this time around not only because of the tremendous show, but also due to the fact that my son was watching it with me.
And his jaw was open most of the time. It was out of sight to have these performers suddenly take flight and hover over the stage. There was an awe I had not felt in quite some time, and it was also reinforced by looking at my son's unfettered reactions. Although no live animals were used as the circus of my past - for better or for worse – was wont to do, there were still those essential components of any circus, namely the clowns.
One of Fellini's later movies had that same title, The Clowns (1970). Chaplin's Limelight (1952) showed us a sad clown, one that may still have had love and passion for his art, but felt that others had seemingly outgrown those simple but lasting pleasures. In fact, all these works that are aligned with the circus have dashes of humor. The circus represents not only the extraordinary, but it also stands for joy and laughter.
No scene sums that up better than the final sequence of 8 1/2 in which a tortured Guido finds solace in directing and orchestrating an impromptu circus parade. The underlying message of these films might be a heart-felt invitation to see the circus as a metaphor for life. There is joy that we do not see or perceive because our mind forgets that life is not only a stage on which we act as Shakespeare once observed, but that it is in fact a full-blown circus filled with clowns, acrobats, and yes freaks.