A common mission of documentary makers is to bring us to an unknown world, and to look to the strangest of topics must be so reassuring for them. Unfortunately, Juan C. Lopez’s film on modern freakshows, which premiered at Tromadance 2008, is content to mull over the subject without shaping a narrative. The film’s content wants to become a story, as it focuses on the history and influences of sideshows, leading up to the modern variants found at the odd corners of the USA. Yet Lopez finds whatever he can on the topic without unifying his footage into a film.
“Sideshow Still Alive” begins on an interesting note, with carny expert James Taylor of Shocked and Amazed magazine relating the emergence of sideshows from “cabinets of the bizarre” – i.e., private collections in Europe of artifacts brought back from overseas – and “dime museums,” a source of cheap, informal diversion in the late 19th century. Taylor has a wealth of knowledge and is quite a raconteur on the subject. But by using him throughout the first 15 minutes, Lopez unjustly makes an interesting man appear boring.
From here on, Lopez strings together various talking heads, many of them veterans of the biz, before eventually getting to the modern performers, a cast of self-made and self-proclaimed freaks. Here we encounter the Jim Rose Sideshow, which was instrumental in reviving interest in the mid-90s after touring on Lollapalooza in 1992 and with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails in 1994. The original sideshows featured people born disfigured who would pose for audiences and perhaps sing or strum a guitar; moderns like the Rose Sideshow feature anatomically normal goth kids who can pull off repulsive bodily stunts, like objects piercing skin or going from mouth to nose (long balloons, a meat hook), or liquids that go to stomach and then back. (Your lunch will do the same.) When I saw Rose’s troupe in 1992 at Lollapalooza, a sea of kids who thought they were freaky shrieked and laughed at the spectacle, then probably went home feeling like poseurs.
The members of the modern sideshows in this film must feel so isolated that contortion or self-mutilation is a calling. While it’s commendable to see a piece of Americana living on, the modern “freaks” willingly align themselves to the disfigured unfortunates who were forced into yesteryear’s sideshow, a kind of cruel orphanage for adults. Psychological exploration of the modern participants would make for riveting material. Yet Lopez doesn’t appear to see any irony in his subject, and seems content with the cursory accounts from his interviewees.
But, as with a crash on the freeway, we have a hard time looking away – and like rubberneckers in a backup, we pause our lives to investigate such inane madness. Even with some painfully amateurish footage – it appears that Lopez borrowed material from other young fanatics – “Sideshow Still Alive” manages to snare us. Viewers in the target audience may very well have a party. I think I’ve had my fill.