It’s not every day you can see real-life footage of monkeys riding ponies or elephants in pajamas, let alone a bear driving a car or riding a bicycle.
One trend I’m seeing in documentaries lately is making entire films out of archival materials. Sometimes the result is admirable, usually when the director uses the archival materials to tell an engaging story (Asif Kapadia’s 2010 Senna comes immediately to mind), and sometimes it seems more like a splicing together of materials because they exist, but without giving much thought to what you want audiences to get from the film. Unfortunately, Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show of Shows falls into the latter category. Some of the material contained within, including archival materials related to circuses and other types of public entertainments (vaudeville, rodeos, dance performances), is fascinating, but overall, the film seems more like a collection of stuff than an object created with purpose.
Erlingsson does highlight some thematic groupings— a series of clips from elephant acts, from high-dive acts, from monkey acts—but similar materials are salted throughout the documentary, as well. I have to admit it’s not every day you can see real-life footage of monkeys riding ponies or elephants in pajamas, let alone a bear driving a car or riding a bicycle, but such clips are more amusing when they’re presented in brief bursts, not as part of a 76-minute film made up of similar materials. Sometimes you can see a relationship between two clips (I can just hear film students explaining how one “comments on” another), but in truth, with so much juxtaposition of related materials plus the human tendency to read meaning into everything, it would be more surprising if connections were entirely absent.
Much of the footage used in this film comes from the National Fairground Archives at the University of Sheffield, with clips from many other sources cut in, as well. It feels like the kind of looping film you sometimes see in museum installations, where you can come in at any point and leave at any point since there’s no narrative involved. It’s interesting enough to watch for a bit, particularly if you’re interested in circuses or more broadly in popular culture (and for many, I’m sure this film will provide a stroll down memory lane), but it may also leave you wishing Erlingsson had done a little more with the wealth of materials at his disposal.
The clips are deliberately provided without context—no narration or title cards—although now and then a date pops up in the background, and sometimes you can guess the era by the clothing and vehicles. The soundtrack, by Sigur Rós members Jón Pór Birgisson, Georg Hólm, and Orrir Páll D´yarson plus Khartan Dagur Holm, coupled with the lack of story line, produces a somewhat hypnotic effect. It’s not an unpleasant film to watch, but not terribly compelling either; overall, I’d call it more of a collage than an essay. | Sarah Boslaugh