DVD Review: Sideshow Still Alive

Sideshow Still Alive takes two paths to what it hopes is the same story. One is a thumbnail history of the sideshow, from its origins in drawing rooms full of anatomical curiosities collected by the rich to exhibit for friends--and then to paying customers--to the carnival and the modern, hip freak show. This part of the film is mostly propelled by talking heads and vintage clips, yet it is strangely more compelling than the live action. It provides a somewhat poignant look at those anatomical and mentally challenged oddities who came to be called Freaks, and how, ironically they found a place of acceptance while still being exploited for money.

The bridge into the second path lies in the present day geeks, those repulsive/attractive masochists who eat razors, swallow swords, push power drills into their noses, and drink bile from the stomach of geeks who have regurgitated. The geeks represent that shock and awe that have always been a part of the sideshow. What they contribute to the sideshow is bizarre talent; their bodies are not deformed, they are manipulated to be able to perform outrageous acts. They embody the test of will and stamina that allows us who have not been as willing to test ourselves have a vicarious share in the feat.

Thus establishing a bridge of authenticity to the modern sideshow, the film becomes more problematic. These modern freaks are freaks of a different kind. Born from the ironic and self-aware punk scene, their abnormalities are self-inflicted, having chosen to tattoo their entire bodies, file their teeth into fangs, implant ridges into their foreheads, etc. Interviews with these performers tend to focus more on their explaining why they look the way they do than on any real insight into why they chose the profession. For a group that seems defiant about their choices, they seem overly defensive, to the point of trying to say that earlier sideshow attractions, like them, also chose their lot, that a dwarf has always had the choice to live away from the carnival as more or less a regular person, or to work for the sideshow, choosing to be a freak. Clearly, however, modern acts like Enigma (completely tattooed in blue and white puzzle pieces) could have gone into other lines of work pre-body enhancement; dwarves in the 1930s could not. The psychology of body-manipulation is not explored, nor, really, is the dark side of exploitation of sideshow performers of the past. In the context of the new sideshow, maybe, that would seem to undercut point of the show now being for the hip and jaded.

There are attempts to connect our perverse Jerry Springer/reality TV/forensic dissection culture with the perpetual need for sideshow thrills, though they overlook an obvious example of that. A hundred years ago the strong man of the sideshow was a freak; today he is an ideal. Likewise the painfully skinny girl. That tension between exploitation and entertainment would have been a rich vein to mine, but the film only approaches it to exonerate modern freaks from charges of their own brand of exploitation.

Director Juan C. Lopez tries to keep the pace whimsical, though he lingers over some performances and flies through others. There is also the misstep of a short montage of wounded soldiers, set to carnival music. This happens right after a historian mentions that deformity by war was always a taboo in the sideshow. No one would call a scarred soldier a freak, or ask him to join a show. Lopez seems to want to break that taboo, but it doesn’t work. It deflates an implied narrative that performers are not exploited, that even the pinheads and dwarves and human torsos were performers by choice. This film ultimately tries too hard to make that point, and never makes it.

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