Review: Carny

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Three people warned me off Carny before I went to see it. I went anyway, partly to see Gary Busey and partly because I had a feeling about it. I can’t articulate that feeling any more now that I’ve seen the film than I could before I went to it; but I’m glad I saw it. Not that it’s a really terrific movie—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s easier to list the reasons I didn’t have for liking Carny than the ones I had. Originality, for example: the film is strictly Nashville meets Freaks on Nightmare Alley (but Robertson and Kaylor draw from good sources). Technically, the film is uninventive, and often downright poor (for example, the transparent and awful stunt work in the shot where Elisha Cook is supposed to be run down by a car). The film suffers from uncertain and inappropriately slow pacing, too, brought on mostly by indecision as to which particular subplot should become the main plot, or whether any of them should. Well, it’s the freedom of the documentary filmmaker not to be limited by having to tell a story, and Carny is just the sort of film one might expect a documentary director to make on his first sortie into fictional narrative cinema. Wisely, Kaylor doesn’t abuse his freedom from plot by leaving his film formless. Instead he builds it around character. And—again, as might be expected of a documentarist—in this film, character is inseparable from performance.

The two lead roles are taken by former musicians, both well acquainted with the ambivalent relationship between the performer and his audience. That relationship—based more upon the motivation and expectation of the audience than on the purpose and style of the performer—is reflected in the unsteady armed truce between carnival people (“carnies”) and carnival-goers (“marks”). Sure, folks go to carnivals to be entertained—but what is entertainment and how does it relate to more elemental emotions and desires? With an almost Hitchcockian psychology, Carny relates entertainment to the mark’s need to be frightened, to be insulted, affronted—to be, in short, had. “No clowns around here,” Frankie (Gary Busey) tells Donna (Jodie Foster) when she comments on the clownish makeup he wears in his act as a Bozo who taunts customers with insults to make more money for the dunk-tank act he runs with his partner Patch (Robbie Robertson). “Clowns are funny. I’m scary.” The comment explains the carnival in the same terms as Grand Guignol or the horror film, and at the same time recalls the film’s main-title sequence: Frankie putting on that makeup, and then grimacing like a living death’s-head as a naked lightbulb swings back and forth, playing Mrs. Bates shadowgames on his face. What appears to be an inability to decide whether to portray carnies cynically, realistically, or romantically is actually a legitimate reflection of the ambivalence Kaylor and Robertson see in the carnies: a starry mixture of mercenary exploiter and romantic dropout (there’s a lot of that going around this season: cf. Honeysuckle Rose, Bronco Billy, Urban Cowboy). “You don’t even feel like a mark any more,” Patch tells Donna when he finally accepts her sexually while simultaneously acknowledging her assimilation into the carny community. The remark emphasizes the fact that carnies and marks are different races, while at the same time affirming the possibility that one can become the other: you can get there from here.

In the last shot, when Frankie closes the trailer door, shutting out the world of the carnival, he plunges himself and us into darkness. For some reason I keep remembering the shot, early in the film, in which Frankie is seen lying on the hood of a car, napping. Suddenly the car, though driverless, seems to start moving forward, with the Bozo still supine on its hood. But then we see the trompe l’oeil: the car remains still—it’s the background that’s moving, a long trailer pulling away in the opposite direction. The trick of enjoying Carny is in knowing what to watch.

CARNY
Direction: Robert Kaylor. Screenplay: Thomas Baum, after a story by Phoebe Kaylor, Robert Kaylor and Robbie Robertson. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Production design: William J. Cassidy. Editing: Stuart H Pappé. Second-unit direction: Garth Craven. Music: Alex North; midway music: Robbie Robertson. Production: Robertson.
The players: Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson, Jodie Foster, Kenneth McMillan, Meg Foster, Elisha Cook, Bill McKinney, John Lehne, Bert Remsen, Woodrow Parfrey, Tim Thomerson, Theodore Wilson, Robert DoQui.

© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.