Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Circus accidents

The Wallendas and the queer melancholy that trails behind the circus performer seem to be a recurring obsession. I hate circuses. As a child I hated them, and was thought odd. It was that smell, the smell of shit and failed animals. Living in a small town, the circuses I saw were moth-eaten and tawdry, which is perhaps what it's all about anyway. Elephants tied up. Lions waiting for a lunge that never happens. Mean alcoholic clowns. Oh, the clowns especially - they are a nightmare.

There is YouTube footage of Karl Wallenda falling to his death from a tightrope suspended between two high-rises in Rio de Janiero or somewhere, I mean the real thing - it couldn't be faked, he falls. It's the end for him. And his grandson or great-grandson Nik Wallenda keeps on trying for it. One wonders at the symbolism. Trying for a fall, or, like a compulsive gambler, going on and on until he loses everything.  Craven cowards that we are, we still risk death each time we walk out the door. Or don't walk out the door. We don't test it, don't push the risk, unless you count too many sour-cream-and-onion chips or hours spent sitting in a chair.

"Fails" are great tests, tests of character I mean, and most of us fail them. It's just too painful, everybody watching. Everybody has their own particular bag of fails. Mine is my writing. After years and years of refining my craft, publishing hundreds of book reviews and thousands of newspaper columns, my dream "came true" and I published a novel - then two - then three - and then - they didn't sell. Nobody told me, you see, that the novels had to SELL, because part of the dream for every writer I know is automatic Fame and Fortune. Surely this just happens all by itself?


It's sad, and infuriating sometimes, but it's not going to happen for me - the movie version, I mean, because luck just does not stick to me. Like Peter Pan's shadow, it keeps coming unstuck just as I start to get somewhere.  Real trauma is something quite else, and I am able to put this aside and enjoy my life to a degree I never thought possible a few years ago. So is the fail entirely a fail?

Nothing can take away from me the bizarre and ongoing discovery, the process, the burrowing in. Now that I have YouTube and Wikipedia and cool things like that, it's unending. It's labyrinthine, and more odd than the human condition itself, which I both love and loathe. I am drawn to those on the fringes, because I have bloody well given up on being acceptable to anyone but myself (so there), even while seeing that other people's oddness, like mine, might be offputting. As Steinbeck used to say, it's shrimp ice cream.

I saw someone's blog the other day - God, it was beautiful and elegant, like the rooftop penthouse of some gleamingly expensive apartment building in Manhattan, all sort of skyline-y, and the entries were all so gracefully ordered. It just had Professional written all over it. The screaming harridan in me, the rotten mother I carry around in my head, began yammering, "WHY CAN'T YOU BE MORE LIKE YOUR SISTER?", or words to that effect. In other words - your blog sucks, Margaret, stop pretending, start writing like a grownup and maybe THEN you will sell a few copies.

Oh really?

29 rather than 24?

I might as well do whatever the hell I want. Yes, and while still admiring someone else's truly stunning masterpiece of a blog, full of beautifully polished entries on topics of major interest, instead of quirky things on circus accidents and other stuff that usually involves making a lot of gifs.

You shouldn't go on YouTube late at night and watch circus accidents.  It's not fun for all ages. It's not fun for anyone. You'll find falls and wipeouts and awful cat maulings (serves them goddamn right, I'm for the cats). You'll find some where you're not sure the person even survived. After one particularly awful motorcycle crash, the emcee pleads in a nakedly urgent voice that if there is a doctor in the house, PLEASE, come forward NOW. "This is not part of the show." Then he dismisses the crowd, who are almost completely silent.

Is it something Roman about us, a colosseum leftover, something untamed, do we like a thrill, do we like to watch a thrill, THEIR thrill, or do we secretly hope in the most shameful part of ourselves that something in fact will go terribly wrong? For in a circus, it's hard for things to go just a little bit wrong.

Then there is the sideshow. These still exist in the small backwoods circuses that probably operate on the fringes of the law, though they supposedly emphasize feats of strength or daring rather than freakish characteristics. If we see someone walking on his hands now, our response is  likely to be, "Wow, that's pretty amazing," marvelling at the fact that his disability really isn't very disabling after all. But back then. . . back then, when "abnormal" children were generally not allowed to draw their first breath, when people afflicted with "madness" were "put away" so we wouldn't have to see them, the freak show must have been a visceral nightmare.

This is two or three seconds of Todd Browning's 1932 masterpiece, Freaks. For years I avoided it because I was put off by the title (which makes better sense once you've seen it - it's more of a quote, something screamed at the performers by the prima donna aerialist) and was a little frightened of the whole concept because it starred REAL circus performers, "human oddities" - but then one day curiosity got the better of me.

When you see Freaks, you enter a strange world. Fully half an hour was edited out, or censored out, so as rich and strange as it already is, it might once have been much more rich and strange. You have to see it more than once to really appreciate the fact that it's about a community, a very tight-knit one where there is solidarity and protectiveness and intense loyalty to one another. All the things we're lousy at in today's fragmentary society. There's oddball humor, scenes which are not so much meant to shock as to inspire a headshaking wonder, and - as with most great movies, up to and including Gone with the Wind - a love triangle.

I could do a whole post on Freaks, in fact I might at some point, and I was not even aware until just now that my recent viewing of it on TCM probably triggered this whole awful doomed circus search. Unlikely as this seems, the movie isn't "dark" or "disturbing" or "macabre" - none of those terms apply, as most of the troupe are good-humoured and seem to enjoy their work and each other. I will say though that it is plenty weird and a little crazy, demonstrating an over-the-top exuberance unfettered by any bounds of propriety. Only the ending turns dark, terribly dark, and only because somebody dared to mess with one of their own.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look