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 range.
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.