The Greatest Showman (2017)

The thing about The Greatest Showman is that it is exactly what it promises to be. When you watch the trailer:

You see bright colours, stunts, dancing, singing, flash and bang. It’s pure spectacle. And when you get to understand the content of the film, that it’s about Phineas Taylor Barnum, the greatest showman who ever lived – an entertainer and sometimes conman who understands that people come to his museum of oddities and curiosities and his circus show “for the pleasure of being hoodwinked” – you’ll begin to understand that this content will inform the form of your cinematic experience. You know it’s going to be more spectacle, more cotton candy than substance.

But does that mean you shouldn’t watch this film? No. Emphatically, and absolutely, not.

Why? Because it’s good entertainment!

The soundtrack is a little bombastic but befitting of the narrative and it’s definitely something you can easily bob your head to. The costumes are fancy and flashy, and beautiful to look at. I don’t see what about the film gives such offence that critics feel they have to slam it.

Sure, it’s not a breakthrough in anything and it definitely elides the darker side of the circus business – is it exploitation of society’s unfortunates? Or does it give these societal outcasts somewhere to call home and to belong?

Reading up a little bit on P.T. Barnum, I found that newspaper reviewers were quick to point out that the film glosses over Barnum’s first attraction of displaying aged slave Joice Heth whom he claimed was over 160 years old and ‘mammy’ to George Washington. This was of course all hogwash.

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After renting her from her owner for $1000 and bringing her on tour around the country, Barnum never deigned to give Joice a penny of the profits. Worse still, Joice was sick when she began the tour and when she passed on, Barnum turned the autopsy of her body into a sideshow attraction. When the doctor who performed the autopsy pronounced the body as no more than 80 years old, Barnum went on to invent the first celebrity death hoax by suggesting that Joice was still happy and alive elsewhere and the body surely was not hers at all.

 

The Greatest Showman is also definitely not as gritty as Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932), which admittedly is what I thought it would be when I first heard they were gonna do a P. T. Barnum story. As Mark Kermode points out in his review of the film, it kind of very glibly passes over making any kind of real commentary on the fraught identity politics and commercial exploitation that must’ve been rife in the circus business in a couple of throwaway one-liners.

However, I strongly believe it’s not fair to judge a film based on what it never intended to be. Not every film has to provide social commentary and not every film is obligated to.

Sometimes films just wanna have fun. And this is definitely the season for it.

In a sense, if you wanna elevate the film, you could say it is exemplary of what Tom Gunning calls a “cinema of attractions” that has since “[gone] underground both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (e.g. musicals) than in others” (57).

This cinema of attractions is one that emphasises “subject[ing] the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact'” (Eisenstein qtd. in Gunning 59), and a “direct stimulation” that bypasses the need for creating a coherent diegesis, and for audiences to accrue any kind of acculturation in the traditional arts (59) in order to feel emotionally and mentally engaged.

This is popular entertainment in its truest form – something that hits you right in the gut and isn’t mediated by years of education or fine-tuning of your palate. So if the narrative framing of the film appears a little trite, if it lacks a little grit, and a little truth or realism, it’s only because, as George Méliès reminds us:

The ‘fable,’ or ‘tale,’ [is] only consider[ed] at the end… the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since [it is used] merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks,’ or for a nicely arranged tableau (qtd. in Gunning 57).

And whether you want to call it stunts, vaudeville acts, attractions or spectacle The Greatest Showman has it in spades.

 

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

What is it with sequel titles this year? John Wick: Chapter 2, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2… it’s like there are just too many sequels to name. That being said 2017 seems to be the year of good sequels. Split (2017) which is positioned in the same universe as M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) got great reviews, The Lego Batman Movie which is a follow up to 2014’s surprise success The Lego Movie seems to be getting rave reviews, and of course, there’s John Wick: Chapter 2.

When analysing a film, one of the things I try to look out for is the scene that is included in excess of what is absolutely necessary for narrative development and progress. And the opening shot of the John Wick sequel provided just such a filmic moment. A black and white clip of a scooter stunt projected on the side of a building apropos of nothing preceding a pan downwards to a motorcycle skidding on a road. The two sequences obviously mirrored each other and spelled out the film’s thesis and lineage in one fell swoop.

The black and white clip recalls the era of early films from the 1900s before even Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, where vaudeville danger acts were the source of most of the silver screen’s inspiration. What John Wick: Chapter 2 tries to remind the viewer then is that these spectacle-intensive single reel films are the precursor to the modern day action film. The fact that the film opens with a car chase scene further supports this claim because, you know that saying, “cut to the chase”? That came from roughly the same film era. People just wanted to cut to the chase, the meat of the film, the part where all the action was – the most intense scene, and the most exciting one that would keep the audiences hooked and on the edge of their seats.

Thus, the sequel serves to remind us that when watching a John Wick film, one is well and truly a spectator spectating a series of spectacles. The structure of both films are fairly similar and could almost be called episodic with simple motivations moving characters from one action-packed sequence to the next. This is not unlike how George Melies used to make his trick films and early feature length films:

As for the scenario, the ‘fable,’ of the ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks,’ for a nicely arranged tableau.

– George Melies qtd. in Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attraction”

When seen in this light, it would explain a little bit why the momentum of the opening act in the John Wick sequel seemed to stutter a little when they tried to insert a recap of the first film.

That being said, the opening act was surely a homage to the action film genre and the franchise’s first installment that was the sleeper hit of 2014 that has since been hailed as one of the best action films in recent years. This is clearly felt from the range of shots and filming techniques presented in the opening sequence to remind the viewer of how far film has progressed in its strategies and effects used to capture and present spectacle.

In the early days of film, stunts and performers’ skill could only be captured through the use of long shots and long takes. But proceeding from the long shot in the black and white projection, we see that the camera is moved closer and closer to the action where audiences are no longer positioned on the outside as spectators but on the inside as participants.For instance, the placement of the camera alongside John Wick’s Dodge Charger as it races along as part of the car chase sequence allows audiences to participate in the thrill and the exhilaration of moving  alongside a speeding car.

The long shots and long takes are still present, but are reserved for complicated auto stunts and when John Wick (Keanu Reeves) kicks ass. The mobile camera is used to accentuate action sequences and follow along the trajectory of a punch, like when Wick delivers a finishing blow, to capture the impact of the hit. And if I’m not wrong, there was a scene where a bike flips towards the camera that looked like it was a CGI shot.

And just like that, the opening sequence becomes a catalogue of action film camera techniques. But because of the ascension of the narrative film and the banishment of the cinema of attractions that was forced to go to ground and coexist as an embedded component of certain genres of the narrative film (eg. musical, horror, fantasy, science fiction, action), the opening spectacle also had to give way to more narrative impulses. In a neat segue from spectacle to narrative, character psychology is reinjected once again into the film using the car and the contents of its glove compartment.

Thus Wick’s Dodge Charger becomes both the vehicle for action and narrative drive. And by the end of the opening act, you feel like you’ve been issued an invitation to come along for one hell of a ride.

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Gunning, Tom. “Cinema of Attractions.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Eds. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: British Film Institute, 1990. 56-62.