The Sideshow used to be an American institution. Just about every
traveling circus would have one and most of America would be exposed to
them each and every year. The small time circus has all but vanished
however, and with it the Sideshow. Or has it? The film American
Carny looks at some people who are trying to keep Sideshow acts and
traditions alive. Through interviews and filmed performances, the
film examines the state of off-beat live performances in America and discovers
that the Sideshow isn't quite dead yet.
Though Sideshow acts used to be ubiquitous in America, today they are
truly rare. Where Coney Island used to have several competing Sideshow
theaters, at the time of this movie's production there was only one (and
it may no longer be around.) This film doesn't trace the Sideshow's
demise; instead it focuses on what's left. A lion's share of
the film is devoted to Tim Robbins, a performer and Sideshow producer.
It's through him that the history of the Sideshow is related and he explains
just what a Sideshow is. There's also copious footage of his act
including eating glass, letting an animal trap snap shut on his hand, swallowing
swords, eating fire, and pounding nails into his nasal cavity. Robbins
is a sort of Renaissance Carny, able to do it all with style and flair.
There are also interviews and clips from the acts of several other performers
including Jennifer Miller, "The Woman with a Beard" (she doesn't like the
term 'bearded-woman'), Harley Newman "The Professional Lunatic" who lays
on a bed of only four nails, and Chris McDaniel who puts on a one-man Wild
West Show. The most bizarre and outrageous performer is easily The
Great Nippulini, a man who has pierced nipples and will attach and lift
things with them. Things such as an anvil and an engine block.
Truly a case of 'you have to see it to believe it.'
Through the film viewers get to see not only the acts, but the performers
themselves off stage where they talk about their lives and why they choose
to do this for a living. It doesn't seem like an easy way to make
a living, and all of the performers seemed naturally drawn to the stage.
The movie itself is a nice overview of the state of Sideshow acts today,
and it convincingly makes its argument that this is a unique style of entertainment
that should be preserved and remembered. The movie does have a lack
of focus at times and seems to meander randomly through the subject though.
At one point Tim Robbins' wife is introduced and the pair explains how
they met, how he proposed and even includes movies taken at the wedding.
While it was a nice story and the wedding sounded like a blast (the first
half consisted of performances by friends of the bride and groom including
an appearance by Penn Jillette) I couldn't help wondering what any of that
had to do with the rest of the movie.
The stereo soundtrack fit the movie well. This was basically all
dialog so there wasn't much use of the soundstage but the voices were clear
and easy to hear and the background music had a fair amount of dynamic
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image was pretty average for a low
budget documentary. The picture was generally soft and the colors
weren't as vibrant as they could be. There were also several digital
defects that marred the presentation including aliasing, blocking, and
posterization. None of these ruined the film, but they did make it
less appealing. This isn't a horrible looking movie, just average.
This disc also has a short 5-minute featurette on the scoring of the
film, as well as a bonus short, Slasher Flick. The short concerns
a man watching a horror film on TV where the lines between reality and
movies merge. I wasn't that impressed and the thought the twist ending
was very predicatable.
Anyone who is interested in the American Sideshow and its status today
should run out and grab a copy of this movie. Interesting, gross,
funny, shocking and entertaining, the film is a lot like a Sideshow itself.