Thursday 12 May 2016

Little Big Top (2006)

Director: Ward Roberts
Writer: Ward Roberts
Star: Sid Haig
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Opening at Hallowe’en with Sid Haig in facepaint again, folks must have known precisely what to expect from Little Big Top in 2006 and they’d all have been completely wrong. He’d played Captain Spaulding for Rob Zombie twice, firstly in House of 1000 Corpses and then in The Devil’s Rejects, but the third time to the well was a brief animated segment in The Haunted World of El Superbeasto not this feature. And, well, that’s kind of the point. When I asked Sid to pick two films from his career for me to review at Apocalypse Later, he picked two from 2006 and it’s not too difficult to see why. My kids know him from his modern day grindhouse flicks for Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie and others, while I know him from older Roger Corman pictures, many under the direction of Jack Hill, shot in the Philippines and/or with Pam Grier. In between, he’d retired, fed up of being typecast as the random heavies we’ve seen him play in no end of TV shows, nine in Mission: Impossible alone, different parts for different episodes but otherwise the same.

He came back because Tarantino wrote a good part for him in Jackie Brown and he’d regretted turning down the Marcellus Wallace role in Pulp Fiction. However, he was picky and for eight years only played parts for Tarantino and Zombie. Two more horror flicks later and then this, the only time I’ve seen him play the lead in 25 features and the only straight drama of the bunch. No wonder it came quickly to his mind! He’s not only the lead, he’s the emphatic lead, nobody else with their name before the title card and few with roles that warrant even a co-starring credit. Richard Riehle, otherwise the most obvious actor in the film, underplays his role notably, as if not to steal a single moment from Haig. I’m very happy to see all of this, especially because it’s also the debut feature for Ward Roberts, a young filmmaker who I know from more recent, even more ambitious, movies for Drexel Box Productions: Lo (as an actor) and Dust Up (as writer/director). Travis Betz, who plays a clown here, did the same jobs the other way round.
So I was all over this as soon as Haig, playing an aging third generation clown called Seymour Smiles, counts his aches after leaping off a freight train in his home town of Peru, Indiana, regarded as the ‘Circus Capital of the World’. It really is, by the way. It used to be the winter headquarters for circuses like Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It still hosts the International Circus Hall of Fame, as well as the only manufacturer of steam-powered calliopes worldwide. The Peru Amateur Circus still takes over the town for the third week of July, just as it does in this picture, and almost everyone we see is a Peru local. That means that the circus performers are real, the folk manning the circus offices are real and the lady at Broadway Liquors is no doubt real too. Roberts was even born in Peru, suggesting that his story may have grown from personal experience. I wonder if he has a circus background himself. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that he’d performed for the Peru Amateur Circus as a child.

Of course, circuses are all about making people happy (unless you’re one of the growing number of coulrophobics who freak out if they even catch sight of a clown) but that’s not what we see here. Seymour Smiles appears to be poorly named, because his face is sorely in need of a smile and it looks like it hasn’t seen one in many a year. His first stop, as he walks through Peru to his family’s boarded-up house, is for beer, cigarettes and beef jerky and it’s only the latter that gets dropped off his shopping list when money starts to run out. There’s no electricity or running water at home and he makes no attempt to get either switched on; he pees on a bush in the front yard and cooks bacon in a large fireplace. He falls asleep with lit cigarettes in his mouth and his shoes in the fire, so it’s almost surprising that he makes it through the film alive. Given that he appears to be drinking himself into oblivion, we can safely assume that he doesn’t want to make it. Why, we have no idea, but we’ve all heard the old Pagliacci joke.
If Bob hadn’t shown up, in the form of Richard Riehle, perhaps this old clown would have fallen asleep on the porch one night and never woken up. Bob wants to hire him though. He’s a legend, you see. He’s also the son of another legend, Sonny Smiles, and the grandson of a third, Miles O Smiles. Of course, you have big shoes to fill when your ancestors are clowns. Bob is the director of the Peru Amateur Circus and the sextet of clowns he has aren’t up to snuff. Seymour gets a grand out of him and complete autonomy, though it doesn’t work out quite how Bob might have expected. He hasn’t seen what we’ve seen, the slowly decaying grump shot often at a distance to emphasise how far he’s gone from what he used to be. The lively circus music that the soundtrack gifts to us is almost cruel and taunting because Seymour completely doesn’t want to know. There are only rare moments, like when he first walks into the circus arena to see a bunch of kids on the trapeze, when his face lights up and he briefly comes back to life.

If any of those Hallowe’en audiences were expecting another Captain Spaulding, they would have been sorely disappointed, but it would be easy to misinterpret the film far beyond that. For a film that features a clown teaching other clowns to be funny, there’s a shortage of laughs here. It’s no comedy, that’s for sure, but there are few light-hearted moments to be found, especially during the first half of the film. We might read it as a feelgood movie, which it sort of is, but it takes a long while to start feeling good and it gets distracted from that frequently. What it really aims to be is a character study, not only of a clown who’s forgotten why he’s a clown but of his home town too, the ‘Circus Capital of the World’, and perhaps even the industry that it recognises. Circuses used to be much bigger deals, back before pop culture made us believe that clowns are scary, so Peru may be feeling the pinch just as Seymour is. It’s no stretch to see him as representing the art of the circus needing to find itself again to be able to move forward.
Haig is everything here, not only because he gives such a deep performance but because the film seems determined to underline him at the expense of pretty much everything and everyone else. Richard Riehle and Hollis Resnik flit in and out of the story with their own dramas unseen unless they involve Seymour. Even when they do get screen time, it’s to either firm him up or pull him down; he’s always the point of their scenes rather than them. When he starts to work with Bob’s clowns, he forbids them to speak so they can’t introduce themselves; it’s his show and they’re merely minor players in it. Only later do they get opportunities, but even then they’re as much for Seymour as they are for themselves. Of the entire cast, it’s only Mel England who manages to make it out of the background because, even though he’s helping Seymour too, he really doesn’t care about circuses or clowns, just the ability to slack off work because now Seymour’s doing it. He works best as a contrast when Seymour starts to get sober.

What we get out of this picture is very much going to depend about how much we care. Our protagonist, who is rarely off screen, is an antisocial alcoholic, hardly the most enticing character. We’re given little background to help us understand why he is how he is. We just watch him refusing to do anything about it and projecting his troubles onto others around him. While Haig does a fine job of showing inner torment, that’s not enough to automatically generate sympathy. We’re more likely to support someone who wants to change than someone who’s apparently content to pickle himself from the inside out. There’s one scene where I’m not convinced he doesn’t botch a suicide attempt, by lying down on the wrong train tracks. Highly paid Hollywood scriptwriters would give Seymour hope early on, but I like the approach Roberts took of making that wait. He may lose some viewers partway through but those who stay will appreciate the depth of despair more acutely. There’s a lot of fall here without much rise.
Roberts does use some cinematic tricks to keep us engaged, such as including many shots of characters talking to the camera. They aren’t breaking the fourth wall, but they’re including us in whatever they’re doing or saying to make sure we’re aren’t going to go anywhere. While Haig gets a lot more opportunity to act than he does to talk, there’s some great dialogue here. The last third of the story carries a lot of interest generated from an apparently throwaway comment; one clown, knowing that facepaint design is traditionally inherited, suggests to Seymour that, ‘It’s kind of a bummer not being able to decide your own face.’ My favourite line comes after a staff member tells him that he’s a professional, tellingly because he had taken a long while to show it, and he replies, ‘No, ma’am. I used to be but I think I’m finally an amateur.’ It’s an important line in a number of ways, highlighting how much he’s changed because of the people around him and, as hard as it is for him to admit it, because he does care; he’d merely forgotten.

Little Big Top certainly has its flaws and some of its successes could be seen as flaws by less dedicated audiences. It takes a while to get moving and longer to get anywhere we recognise. It refuses to let us into Seymour’s background, just his present, and we get even less for anyone else, even when we think we might. Seymour watches a young lady called Jenna, who’s trying to master the backward somersault on the trapeze, often enough that we expect there to be meaning in it but there isn’t beyond him wanting someone to succeed hard enough that he eventually sets himself on the path to do it too. Seymour is also notably unlikeable for a large proportion of the film. It’s no spoiler to suggest that he does get past that but it takes him a long time to do it, maybe longer than less-indie minded audiences will want to wait. But those of us who do will appreciate Haig as a lead actor, playing someone who isn’t wild and wacky and isn’t another of those heavies that he retired to avoid. Clearly he appreciated the opportunity too.

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