Monday, December 12, 2011

The Last Circus

Ho boy.  I've seen some strange movies in my day.  David Lynch made Naomi Watts run away from two ten-inch tall elderly tourists.  Bill Plympton had a comedian tear himself to pieces to roars of laughter.  Hideaki Anno made "Evangelion".  I've seen David Cronenberg's typewriters, and his television sets, and his classrooms.  Trust me, weirdness is nothing new to me.  But today... I got a really weird movie.  About clowns.

If you're afraid of clowns, this will be the greatest movie ever made for you.

"The Last Circus" is a Spanish-language movie that has just recently been released on DVD in the US with English subtitles.  Its original title was "Balada trista de trompeta", or "Sad Trumpet Ballad", which was changed for no reason at all.  Personally I would have called the movie "Killer Klowns from Fascist Spain", but then again, I've seen this other movie 500 hundred times, so my mind might be a bit warped.  The plot begins with a deranged love triangle between a loser sad clown, a beautiful trapeze artist who changes her haircut in every scene, and a sadist happy clown.  Then things get darker and more absurd.  And darker.  And darker.  And more absurd.  Until suddenly the movie has gone so far off the rails that basically anything at all can happen.  Oh, and then it gets even more insane.

Up until roughly the point where the movie goes completely nuts, I would have called "The Last Circus" one of the best movies I've ever seen.  Clearly the movie was rapidly building up tension and emotion to some of breaking point... which comes at just about the halfway point.  Then everything gets so violent, everybody turns into such grotesque creatures of pure madness, that I basically have no idea what I'm watching anymore.  Was there a plot at some point?  This is a movie that could have ended in absolutely any way, with just about anything happening, and it wouldn't have seemed out of place, because nothing is in place.  "Off the rails" is the wrong term, because this movie goes so far beyond any concept of rails that mentioning "The Last Circus" in the same sentence as rails is an insult to rails.  Its intense, and actually, a lot of fun.

"The Last Circus" starts off in the Spanish Civil War.  There's a boy and his dad, who is a clown.  Everybody is happily doing clown stuff in the circus, when suddenly Communist rebels take over the circus and conscript all the performers into the war.  So Papa Clown grabs a machete is led into battle, and slaughters a whole bunch of people.  The Fascists under Franco wind up winning the war, so Papa Clown is captured, and is forced into slave labor to work in a mine building a giant stone cross.  The clown's son, Javier, wants to become a clown, but Papa Clown has gone a bit nuts in the years of imprisonment, and tells him to get revenge.  So Baby Clown bombs the mine, tries to save his dad, fails, tears out the eye of an evil Fascist colonel, and flees the scene forever.  That's just the backstory.

Now the movie really starts.  Baby Clown has grown up to be a fat loser protagonist in the 1970s, and is a sad clown just joining a new circus.  Ruling the circus is not the owner, but the happy clown, a drunk angry man named Sergio.  Sergio is likes to beat up and have sex with Natalia, the gorgeous masochistic trapeze artist.  Javier and Natalia wind up dating being Sergio's back, which is not good because Sergio is actually completely insane.  The inevitable happens, and Sergio beats the living shit out of Javier.  Then more inevitable happens when Javier loses his shit, tears up Sergio's face and almost kills him, and flees into the woods.  Then all at once the movie's plot explodes, and the second half of the movie is utterly and completely mad.  Nobody on Earth would ever act the way these characters do, no matter how crazy.  You got self-mutilation, rampages with machine guns in the street, huge gun battles, and increasing absurdity to the point that the movie turns into some kind of dark comedy... or something.  I have no idea what happened to this movie.

Imagine a roller coaster, you ride it, it goes up and down the hills, through a few loops, its all fun, but you can trace the path and understand its all a safe construct designed to thrill you.  Then imagine that halfway through the roller, the track you're riding on explodes, and your train car turns into a dragon, and you fly off to Saturn to boogie with space aliens.  Then your spine pops out of your back and rapes your brain.  That's what watching "The Last Circus" is like.

Its not like "The Last Circus" was ever grounded.  You got Spanish Fascism, clown imagery, kinky violent sex, and not a small recurring theme of horror.  The second scene has a clown in a dress swinging a machete on a battlefield, I was ready for a unique strange movie... but I wasn't quite prepared for... whatever the second half of this movie was.  Definitely the first half is a lot better because the scenes are subtle and serious and intense.  You know, the script makes sense and the actors are acting.  At some point during the first half I had to pause the movie and admit to myself that this was probably one of the best movies I had ever seen.  I was enraptured in a sense of pure cinematic magic, the kind of filmmaking genius you only get to see rarely in movies like "Drive".  Then the second half is so over the top and ridiculous on every single sense of that word.  It started intriguing and disturbing, then blew up into such a level of preposterous horror that really, you can't help but laugh.  Are you supposed to be laughing at this movie?  Was this supposed to be a metaphor for something?  Do I need to be a Spaniard to get "The Last Circus"?

Here's my theory:  the screenwriter finished half the movie, was satisfied with a good day's work, and went to bed.  Then his twelve-year-old son snuck into his room, and as a joke, wrote up the most insane ending to the movie he could think of, just letting himself go and making more and more bizarre things.  The screenwriter woke up, saw the finished draft, had a good laugh, and decided that since his work was done anyway, he might as well send this insane script in to the studio.

My own critical sense here is completely upsidedown, I don't think I can ever really make a judgment on "The Last Circus".  Its an experience without equal, I feel.  The second half of the movie is really silly and bizarre, but its also super creepy and has plenty of movies that haunt you well after the movie has passed.  Is it a tragedy or a comedy?  What the Hell did I just watch?

"The Last Circus" in the second half of the movie features a deer walking in the woods towards one of the protagonists.  Since this movie has gotten so unpredictable, I didn't know if the character was going to have a stirring moment of connection with nature, or if they were going to slaughter and eat the deer, or if they were going to bend over and let the deer fuck them.  Anything at all could have happened.  There are a lot of movies with that kind of random unpredictability, but not a lot with a story as strong and compelling as "The Last Circus".  Even at its most insane, you still care.  So in the end, I guess I'll have to go positive on this one.  Watch "The Last Circus".  You'll never see anything like it.


  1. On a scale of madness going from Little House on the Prairie to FLCL, how weird is this movie?

  2. Nicholas: I saw this movie last week. It somehow surpassed the awesomeness of FLCL. At least on some level that show made sense on some insane epic level. This movie didn't.

    -The 1 & only Uzuki

  3. Wow, and how does it compare to the last two episodes of Evangelion?

  4. I actually saw this movie, and it was utterly brilliant until the point when Javier goes all Fight Club and burns himself with lye, and then it just went downhill. The second half of the movie is nothing, compared to the first.


  5. Nicholas: The last two episodes of Evangelion are visually wierder, but if your high enough they make sense. The second part of this movie didn't.

    -The 1 & only Uzuki

  6. FLCL was a comedy. It was weird and manic and all over the place, but its intention was clear: to make you laugh. Evangelion's last episodes had a clear intention as well: be as pretentious and overbearing and confusing as possible so the audience doesn't notice that Gainax ran out of money.

    I have no idea what this movie was trying to be. Its fascinating for that very reason.