Judge Kristin Munson tried running away to join the circus, but nobody wanted a "Sideburned Lady."
"Don't call me a freak; I'm not worthy of the title."—Todd Robbins
Say what you like about P. T. Barnum; he knew a thing or two about the business of show. Whether cobbling together bits of monkey and fish and calling it a mermaid or planting an elaborate sign reading "This Way to the Egress" in his museum (Curious customers would go through the door, discover "egress" meant "exit," and have to pay to get back in), he knew how to liberate people from their cash and do it with style. When a master showman needs an extra something for his circus he doesn't bring in a new flavor of pop, he comes up with a tent filled with tiny people, tattooed ladies, and two-headed turtles to satisfy the human taste for the bizarre.
Alas, in this age of Ozzfest tours, torture porn, and emo bands, ink-covered contortionists and fire-breathing bearded ladies don't elicit the same sick delight and morbid fascination that they used to. American Carny: True Tales From the Circus Sideshow documents some of today's performers struggling to keep the sideshow act alive and looks back to a time before political correctness made us too ashamed to gawk at medical oddities and when exclamation points instantly made everything exciting!
Facts of the Case
Step right up ladies and gents, step right up! Assembled on this humble disc are some of the most astounding, most astonishing, most stomach-churning acts the modern sideshow has ever seen! Todd Robbins, swallower of swords, eater of glass, and walking sideshow encyclopedia will carry out his catalog of carnival delights with no apparent regard for his personal safety! The Great Nippulini will titillate with his mighty feats of mammary strength while scantily clad ladies play with pointy objects and handle giant snakes for your amusement! It's all true and all yours to view and all for a nominal fee!
My father is a bona-fide circus freak. Not freak in the Tod Browning or actual sideshow sense of the word, but freak in the fanatic way. On their honeymoon my parents went, not to Niagara Falls or the beaches of Waikiki, but to the Ringling Circus Museum. It's quite possible there are more circus-related photos in our family albums than there are of me and my brother's childhood. Unlike you poor souls, my paralyzing childhood fear of clowns had a real and rational basis, something that came in handy during therapy sessions. So when I popped in this brand-new pre-release and hit "play," I wasn't expecting his immediate reaction to be a nap.
Not that I can blame him. Twenty minutes in, about the time Xenobia the "woman with a beard" ("Bearded lady is a title for the sideshow role") started chatting about our "heterosexist society," even my eyes began to glaze over.
American Carny is Basile's first feature-length film and the 99-minute movie lacks the focus that would make it appealing to a wider audience. Going on the topics brought up by the interview subjects, it's a sideshow history lesson, a love song to a dying way of life, and an academic exploration of an art form, but it doesn't feel like it takes its own stance on the matter.
The doc is at its best when hanging around Todd Robbins and his "Carnival Knowledge" show, capturing the various performances and the horrified audience reaction. Walking around with a large stogie, Robbins looks like a 1930s carny caricature, but he's everything you could want in a documentary subject. He's funny, fast on his feet, extremely knowledgeable, and a sideshow unto himself. Over the course of the movie he eats an entire light bulb, swallows a sword of neon tubing, hammers a nail into his nose, walks on glass, and puts his hand in a steel animal trap, to name a few.
Basile doesn't stray far from the standard documentary talking-head interviews and old photographs but he occasionally surprises with a split-screen montage or cartoon interlude. Penny postcards of Coney Island become surreal, animated dreamscapes under his direction and that makes me want to see what he'd do with a scripted movie. The original score is very good, especially the main theme; any movie that lists "musical saw" in its soundtrack credits gets automatic bonus points.
Because it's a low-budget labor of love and because the crew is traveling among boardwalks, amusement parks, and backstage areas, the film and sound quality varies. The picture always looks slightly washed out, like a worn print of a syndicated sitcom and, while there are portions of the movie that were processed to look like period footage, others look like they were actually taped on a personal camcorder. The audio doesn't feel properly equalized; it's not wildly different from scene to scene but it's enough to be annoying. I was constantly fiddling with the remote so everyone could hear (Once I got them to wake up). The DVD box claims a 16x9 transfer but the movie is full-screen. Two of Basile's early shorts—-a silent film and a horror spoof—and some home video of the movie's soundtrack recording session are the disc's extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the boasts of narration by Penn Jillette in the distributor's description, his voice is only in the first thirty seconds of the movie. That's either a poorly informed press-release or some incredibly clever cross-advertising for his Showtime series, as you will be crying Bullshit!
Thankfully not all the interviewed performers intellectualize their job the way that Xenobia does. Most do what they do to entertain or inspire and if their entryway into our hearts and minds is to juggle fire, insert a power drill into their face, lie on a bed of machetes, or lift car parts with their nipples, who are we to judge? It's certainly entertaining.
If you can get past the movie's shaky beginning and unclear theme, Robbins alone is worth the price of admission, although it makes for a misleading movie subtitle. When you watch the updates before the final credits and discover "Carnival Knowledge" isn't an actual sideshow, but an off-Broadway play, you can't help feeling slightly hoodwinked. P. T. Barnum would be proud but you might not be as impressed.
Guilty of playing a few sideshow tricks of its own. This way to the Egress!
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