The Greatest Shows on Earth (2014)


The second opening event of the night really was an event. The Sheffield City Hall was the perfect venue for a celebration of Fairgrounds and Shows, with the fine folk from The Invisible Circus putting on a wonderful show before the screening.

The Greatest Shows on Earth, is a fantastic archive journey through the history of Circuses, sideshows and fairgrounds. The film is directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, in conjunction with Orri Dýrason of Sigur Rós and Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, a member of the Icelandic Pagan Church. It is produced by Sheffield Doc/Fest Directors Mark Atkin and Heather Croall. The crew were given exclusive access to the many hours of footage in the University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive, and the film they’ve constructed is a wonderful homage to generations of itinerant performers and attractions. This film was then given to Sigur Rós to score.

Erlingsson has built the film around a number of sequences broken down fairly loosely into themes, we are shown initially the performers preparing as the Circuses are built, big tops erected, clowns applying makeup. The film moves through the circus experience from beginning to end, each of the performers given their time to shine – the dancing ladies, the strippers. Then come the daredevils, the human cannonballs and the high divers. Then the animals. Tamers stand off against lions and tigers and elephants perform with acrobats and each other. Each segment, from the set up to the tittilation to the danger to the tension to the comedy follows on from the previous ones beautifully smoothly. The quality and variety of the footage is remarkable, and by the time we get to the clowns we have witnessed, as closely as is possible today, the full glory of a circus that in a generation’s time will only exist in films such as this.

The relentless musical score carries us through the footage with a sort of bizarrely detached impact. The only real problem I have with the film is that I thought that the music/archive film was to present images and accompanying music in a way that shows the connections between the two that exist on more than merely the rhythmic level. The two should be interlinked in such a way as to not only increase our pleasure of experiencing the film, but also increase our understanding of the archive and its place in the world created by the interplay with the music and indeed the music itself – and, very importantly, the other way around too. Crucially, despite the excellence of both the images and the music, The Greatest Shows on Earth really fails to do this. I found the music and the images, for most of the film to be almost working at cross purposes, and indeed, worse in places, at different purposes altogether. This is not to say that there aren’t moments where it does work though – a sequence showing women dancing falls beautifully into sync and the piece comes together as an emotional whole, though only briefly. The rest of time the music seems only really present to provide basic emotional cues.

With that said it’s really hard to tell what this film wants to be most, a showcase for the footage and its history or a showcase for the music of Sigur Rós, because I’m not entirely certain it can be both. The music in isolation, though, is fantastic, Sigur Rós sounding here very much like early Mogwai, or even Flood – era Boris, that is to say entirely cinematic. Ideal for a soundtrack then, you’d think, and anywhere else you’d be right. However, the images in The Greatest Shows on Earth, despite covering a period of nearly 100 years, are very much tied, fundamentally, to a very specific historic time and place, to a very specific historic people and their society, and all the historic implications this brings. And though much of the early footage is no doubt silent, as we see in the final segment of the film (the only one presented to us with its original audio) there is a power and emotion to the footage that would only ever be obfuscated by the addition of music.

All in all this is a wonderful film. It is a love letter to bygone times, more permissive times. The is a joy and a reverence in the footage and its assembly that is wonderful and provides a glimpse into all the spectacle of the greatest shows themselves. It is just sad that we must, inevitably, view this film as a catalogue of all the wonderful and dangerous and scary things that we are no longer allowed to experience. Whether this is a good thing or not is not for me to say. Tyke may have had a few choice words on the matter however.

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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