Sunday, August 25, 2013

Under the Big Top

As a former professional juggler, stories about the circus are always interesting to me. I never toured with a big tent circus, only with little performing troupes. Some of my friends used to tour with big circuses, and they would all say the same thing, "God, the politics!" And this book, by writer Bruce Feiler, completely backs that up. He took a job as a clown with the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. circus for a season, and carefully interviewed every act. The book gives a magnificent picture of the realities of the circus, the incredibly hard work and challenging conditions, and the politics natural in what is effectively a small travelling village. One thing that I had never realized -- the backstage arrangement of personal trailers is generally set up the same in each venue, so that it really is like a little neighborhood that is always laid out the same way, even though the neighborhood is in a different city each week. At times, the book gets a little full of itself, and I got the sense that the author, realizing that his book had the structure of Moby Dick, hoped to make it equally weighty. I can't say it is that weighty, but I will admit that I teared up at the end, and that I was quite pleased to learn so much about touring with a large American circus without having to do all the work!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Zero Hour!

This is a pretty straightforward 1957 suspense film, with a somewhat ridiculous plot. See, this former WWII pilot named Ted Striker ends up on a commercial airline flight during a storm, and due to an unexpected mass poisoning on board to everyone who chose the fish for dinner, both pilots are unconscious and he has to OH MY GOD THIS IS EXACTLY THE PLOT OF AIRPLANE!

First, I want you to check out how EXACTLY this is the same movie as Airplane!

I must have seen Airplane! maybe ten times, and I had no inkling that it was so directly satirizing this obscure movie. When Airplane! came out, it was a revelation. The world had never before seen a film that had so many gags per minute. Mel Brooks has talked about how it changed everything for comedy movies -- post-Airplane!, the pressure to cram in more comedy per second became intense, and if you didn't, your movie looked old-fashioned and out-of-date. When Airplane! came out, it was truly a wonder -- how could they have such structure, and be so zany? It was unlike anything I'd ever seen. Now the secret is obvious -- they were able to have both insanity and structure by completely borrowing the structure from Zero Hour! I don't think this diminishes the film in any way, but it gives some hint to what makes for good comedy.

Interestingly, I made a similar discover about another, similar film: Mel Brooks' 1974 film, Young Frankenstein. Again, I had assumed that this comic masterpiece was a completely original take on the 1931 Frankenstein. I was shocked to sit down and watch the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and realize that Young Frankenstein is very much a satire of that much lesser known film, in which a man afflicted with lycanthropy seeks out Doctor Frankenstein's castle, with a hope of curing himself. Sure, there's no Wolf Man stuff in Young Frankenstein, but the rest is all there. Some of the dialog, much like Zero Hour! / Airplane! is also a direct lift into Young Frankenstein. Also notice this... Airplane! came out 23 years after Zero Hour!, and Young Frankenstein came out 28 years after Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Maybe that's just coincidence, but it would seem that there is a certain amount of comedy magic in making a strong parody of something that is 25 years behind you. That seems to be the same formula that both Happy Days and That 70's Show used.

I know -- this makes me seem nuts, and I probably think about this stuff too much. But I like to think this happened: In 1966, Woody Allen made What's Up, Tiger Lily, where he overdubbed a Japanese film. Mel Brooks saw it, and said, "That's kind of funny, but it could be much stronger", and reached back to the 40's to grab Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and used it to create Young Frankenstein. Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker surely loved that film, and thought back to their childhood about the ridiculous Zero Hour!, and used that to make Airplane!

Creative process is a secret thing -- but every time I tease out someone else's, it gives me more confidence about my own.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jugglers Galore

This is a book to get lost in. I found it at the recent IJA festival, where the author, Paul Bachman, was curating an incredible collection of historical juggling props, photos, and paraphernalia. Paul self-published it via, and the result is a handsome hardbound volume with a charming homemade feel. The paper is soft, almost a kind of pulp paper, but it shows the pictures nicely, and doesn't have that slick, chemical feel that so many art books have. Instead it is light and pleasure to hold and flip through. Personally, it has reinvigorated my interest in plate spinning and balancing -- a branch of juggling that has fallen somewhat out of the limelight. I feel certain it is the kind of book that one day a child will discover on a grandparent's bookshelf, and be lost looking through the hundreds of amazing pictures, emerging hours later, changed forever, the dream of juggling permanently imprinted on their soul.