Friday, 11 December 2015

Verbal acrobatics: "Grazing the Sky"

In last week's The Show of Shows, the filmmaker Benedikt Erlingsson presented the business of the travelling sideshow as, though often marvellous and a sight to behold, essentially a thing of the past. Horacio Alcala's new documentary Grazing the Sky ponders the following: who are those people who, in the year of our father 2015, are still running away to join the circus? And are there still circuses to run away and join? If the answer to the latter question turns out, inevitably, to be yes, then it's clear that those circuses have smartened up their act(s): the wilder, more jawdropping elements that Erlingsson's compendium exhibited have been shrugged off as a new generation of limber, fresh-faced sorts, bearing performance-art degrees from their nearest circus school, show up seeking sanctuary beneath the big top. Where once the circus was considered a last resort, now it seems it's become a viable career option.

Whether Alcala's film succeeds in bottling the essence of modern circus, as appears to be its aim, is another matter. Even without more of those horrible, sullying reality TV-like interactions that have crept into the modern documentary - scenes awkwardly performed by non-actors invited to restage aspects of their lives in conversation with other non-actors - the film's tactics would verge on the questionable. When not watching interchangeable Spanish men (thick eyebrows, all-over stubble) putting themselves through one school's self-actualisation exercises ("I find in myself a real insight into the human race"), Alcala keeps inviting his subjects to talk, in the most florid terms, almost exclusively about themselves. Some of this testimony - like that of Antonio, a trapeze artist faced with a long road to recovery after an accident during rehearsals - is enlightening; most of it offers no greater insight into the human race than one would encounter while watching the contestants' VTs on The X Factor.

Everybody, naturally, proves far more eloquent and expressive when left to do their own thing. This fitful film hits something like a groove whenever Alcala carves out a few minutes here and there to showcase his subjects in the act of climbing poles, or spinning inside giant hula hoops; those Spaniards suddenly become much more interesting during their combo tumbling-trapeze act, where they escape a bloodied lip, black eye or worse by the seat of their worryingly tight pants. Grazing the Sky might have been approached as a series of turns - or twists, or spins; a tribute to bodies in perpetual motion, and their similarly morphing artform - were it not for the trying stretches of waffle, faux-poetry and dissemblance that's been inserted between them. As it is, you'd be better off with the Erlingsson spectacle, which retains a far clearer sense of what those of us in the audience might actually want from a big night out - not least a little less conversation, a little more action.

Grazing the Sky opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on January 25th. 

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