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Movie Tuesday: Clowns and carnivals

Five films that prominently feature circus imagery and ideas

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This past weekend saw the release of Todd Phillips’s Joker, a gritty and downbeat drama about Batman’s archnemesis before he found his calling as a supervillain. Large portions of the film concern the title character—known here as Arthur Fleck—as he works a day job as clown for hire and tries his hand at stand-up comedy at night. Joaquin Phoenix is powerful as the mentally unstable Arthur, and he proves himself surprisingly adept at clowning as well; it’s a highly physical performance that ranks among the actor’s best work.

Joker also continues a long line of films that make use of clowning and/or circus imagery. Indeed one might say that circuses are integral to the development of cinema, since they were an antecedent to the sort of spectacular entertainment that cinema provides. Plenty of movies have dealt explicitly with carnivals—like Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus and F.W. Murnau’s now-lost 4 Devils (both 1928)—while many others have traded in circus imagery to heighten their sense of spectacle. When it comes to the latter, the films of Federico Fellini are probably what most cinephiles think of first; for the great Italian director, movies and circuses were inextricably linked. Robert Altman ended his Brewster McCloud (1970) with a scene that brought out all the actors as circus performers, a move that speaks to Altman’s Felliniesque view of life as one big carnival. The great Indian director Raj Kapoor made clowning the subject of his magnum opus, Mera Naam Joker (also 1970), a passion project several years in the making that bankrupted its maker and that features some of the best depictions of circuses I’ve ever seen in a film.

Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies where clowns and/or carnivals feature prominently in the work.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh
  • Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Lon Chaney's performance transcends a cliched plot about unrequited love in this 1928 melodrama (one of Chaney's biggest hits) directed by Herbert Brenon and shot by master cinematographer James Wong Howe. A gifted clown on his way to the top (Chaney) adopts an abandoned little girl; as she grows into a gamine (13-year-old Loretta Young), he struggles with new feelings of ardor for her. Sadly, the fourth reel of the film has been lost; happily, the emotional impact of Chaney's art has survived. —Andrea Gronvall

La Strada
  • La Strada

La Strada Early mush (1956) from the master, Federico Fellini. The story—about a circus strong man (Anthony Quinn) and the doe-eyed waif who loves him—is an allegory, so you can leave as soon as you figure it out. It won't take very long. Costarring Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart. —Dave Kehr

Parade
  • Parade

Parade Jacques Tati's last film (1974)—his least-known work, shot mostly on videotape for Swedish television—is seldom shown, but it's a far greater achievement than most accounts would lead you to expect. Ostensibly nothing more than a series of circus and music-hall acts (including several of Tati's most famous pantomimes) hosted by Tati and performed for an ordinary family audience, it is in fact a powerful testament that further develops the radical formal and social ideas of his masterpiece Playtime in more modest terms without sacrificing any of that work's revolutionary implications. It's literally impossible to determine when one "act" ends and another one begins, because of a complex process of displaced emphasis and a graceful dovetailing of details; it's equally impossible to tell from the brilliant and deceptively simple mise en scene how much is straight documentary and how much contrived fiction. All this proceeds so naturally and effortlessly that one might misread the film as nothing more than minor light entertainment (although it certainly succeeds on that level). But Tati is clearly after much more—a vision of spectacle, of dexterity versus awkwardness, of seeing versus being seen that carries the filmmaker's anti-elitism to the point of dissolving all distinctions between stars and stargazers, performers and spectators, accomplished acrobats and children at play. It's a sign of this film's greatness that the enormous sadness that accompanies the final leave-taking of the circus interior is a good deal more than the conclusion of an unpretentious evening's entertainment; it's a sublime and awesome coda to the career of one of this century's greatest artists. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Quick Change A delightful “small” picture in an era when such things are no longer supposed to exist, this quirky comedy follows the adventures of a trio of bank robbers (Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid) who pull off an ingenious job but then find it difficult to get out of New York City; Jason Robards plays the police chief who is alternately hot and not so hot on their trail. Based on a novel by Jay Cronley, the screenplay by Howard Franklin, codirected by Franklin and Murray (both making directorial debuts), manages to live up to the demands of a thriller without sacrificing character to frenetic pacing, and the film exudes a kind of sweetness that never threatens to become either sticky or synthetic. All the lead actors are funny and creative while keeping their characters life-size (to my taste, this is Murray's best work), and they're given a very pleasant backup by Bob Elliott (of the former radio team Bob and Ray), Philip Bosco, Phil Hartman, Kathryn Grody, and Tony Shalhoub, among others (1990). —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
  • Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control This 1997 documentary is Errol Morris's best film, a clear advance on Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and A Brief History of Time. It alternates interviews with four unconnected individuals: a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat specialist, and a robot scientist. The result is more a poem than a documentary, made coherent by Morris's formal precision: he links found footage with the interviews, black and white with color, in a dreamlike continuity that invites the viewer to trace his or her own connections. It's not at all difficult to watch, as the premise might suggest; in fact it's beautiful as well as moving, an achievement of synthesis that announces Morris's arrival as a master. —Jonathan Rosenbaum  v

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Director: Jacques Tati

Cast: Jacques Tati

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