“Ringling Bros. Circus: the Final Farewell” Documentary Review

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Feld Entertainment proudly presents Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” For nearly a century and a half (146yrs), THE circus was an American institution that began with storied entertainer P.T. Barnum and later bought by John Ringling followed by the Feld family, whom would produce the circus for its last 50yrs. Prior to (what would eventually become known as) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (from hereon out referred to as RBBBC), America did not have a concept of what a traveling live entertainment show was. There was certainly live entertainment prior to RBBBC, but you had to be fortunate enough to live or visit the cities where the shows were. What made the RBBBC unique was the fact it traveled by train to cities nationwide delivering the greatest show on earth to ladies, gentleman, and children of all ages. Much like the US space program indirectly impacted our lives at home, the office, and in the car through the prolific space spinoff technologies, RBBBC’s influences on live and themed entertainment are far reaching. From technical theatre technology to advertising to stunts and beyond. Nearly every live entertainment show can trace elements of its roots back to the circus. Once packing out tents turned arenas, in the last few years of the circus, the numbers began to shrink. And eventually it was decided to make the hard decision to close the circus after its final performance in May 2017. The documentary The Final Farewell chronicles the final performance of the American institution as it invites you to be in awe and wonder of the talent and technology on display that inspired imaginations for nearly 150 years. It airs on AXS-TV on Memorial Day at 8pm EDT. Learn just why this truly was the greatest show on earth, and why the performers and technicians truly felt that it was a community, a town without a zip code that will forever be missed.

Two years ago, RBBBC saw its final performance in Uniondale, NY (NYC area). This was the last time long-standing ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson would say goodbye to the audiences that clapped, cheered, and applauded the experience of being mesmerized by the spectacle of the circus. After nearly 150 years, it was difficult for the cast, crew, and American people to fully comprehend that this was the last time RBBBC’s iconic train would pull into the station to bring the circus to the eager audience. After pioneering the very concept of touring live entertainment, the circus finally came to a close, and with it, the end of an American icon. This documentary, that has been more than two years in the making, provides audiences with an up close and personal look at the timeless magic of the circus through intimate interviews with cast and crew, footage of the final performance, and archival photographs and video.

Documentaries are challenged to make a strong emotional connection with the audience; otherwise, they may fall into talking head or Wikipedia territory. This emotional connection is often accomplished through the use of subtext, a compelling score, artfully crafted images, and a script. A script? Precisely. Perhaps you are under the impression that a documentary is written in post-production, but that is not entirely true. A significant amount of work goes into producing a documentary that will evoke emotion and empathy at will, months or years before the camera shoots the first footage. Much of this work is accomplished through the effective use of a script (or strong outline). The script serves as the map between the idea or origin of the documentary and the destination. I say map because just like a roadmap (even GPS ones), there are opportunities to take an unexpected exit or explore a tourist stop that was not foreseen when the route was first plotted. Unlike the track on the Tomorrowland Speedway, you can veer off course in the event that something catches your eye. Spending a substantive amount of time in the pre-production stage of a doc also allows the director (or producer) to decide what kind of documentary the story should be. There are six types of documentaries: poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative.

  • Poetic: Focus on experiences, images, and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than truth.
  • Expository: Closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” These aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage.
  • Observational: Also known as cinema verite (veritas, Greek for truth), these aim to simply observe the world around them. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.
  • Participatory: While having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. The filmmaker directly influences the major actions of the narrative.
  • Reflexive: Often include the filmmaker within the film; however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject.
  • Performative: An experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. Often called the “Michael Moore” style of doc.

Before you begin to think that this article is all about how to make a documentary–don’t worry–but being familiar with the different style of docs will help to understand my critique of The Final Farewell. At the end of the day, this documentary is highly informative, containing some fantastic footage and interviews. Unfortunately, it lacks direction. The doc framing devices oscillate between a focus on the final show and the rich history of the RBBBC. Individually, both of these approaches to the doc work well; but switching between the two, takes away from the full emotional potential. There are times that it is highly expository but then it switches mid-act to observational and even becomes performative at times. It’s important for a documentary to select one type of doc style, and stick to it, otherwise the audience may lose focus and thus mitigates the desired emotional response from the audience. For those whom worked on or with the circus, there is certainly a nostalgic magic at play in this doc, but I think that some of the magic is lost on those whom did not have a personal connection to the greatest show. Had the documentary chosen to focus on the final show and the issues that led to the hard decision to close the circus after 146 years or chosen to focus on the history and evolution of the circus from its earliest days with P.T. Barnum to the Feld Family, by taking the audience on a journey that ended with the final performance, then I feel that there would have been a stronger emotional connection between the doc and the general audience. Whereas most of the interviews are framed in a traditional manner, there are a handful of recurring interviews wherein the interviewee looks directly at the camera. Any first year film student will tell you that this is never how a documentary interview should be shot unless chosen for artistic reasons that advance the plot. All that said, there are quite a few elements that work very well. There is a powerful documentary in there somewhere, but the lack of direction keeps it from reaching its full potential.

If there is one message that The Final Farewell drives home–and effectively so–is the very real community that existed between the cast (both people and animals) and crew while on and off the tracks. As familiar with the circus as I am, I had no idea that entire families traveled together, that there were schools and even a daycare on board the train. Furthermore, there was a commissary, barber/salon, restaurant and more. All that was missing was a post office. Unlike other traveling shows, including Feld Entertainment’s Disney on Ice, Sesame Street Live, and upcoming Jurassic World Live Tour, these performers went home every night as opposed to staying in hotel after hotel. Crazy, right?!? I found it utterly fascinating. Never thought of the RBBBC families literally having the train be their home for most of the year. For kids who grew up in the circus, this is the only home they ever knew. So, having your only home taken away from you, must have been devastating if not traumatizing. THAT is a story that I would have loved to have heard. It’s this very sense of community that the general audience can empathize with because none of us want to think of our livelihoods, let alone, homes being taken away from us. RBBBC was truly a world in and of itself. Not only was it the greatest show on earth, it was also the greatest home and career that these performers ever knew or perhaps will ever know. According to the many interviews, the feeling of community was strong. To be in Ringling Bros. was considered to be the apex of a career in the performing circus arts. And it is clear that everyone associated with this American institution will miss it.

Although there are dozens of acts in the circus, The Final Farewell focusses on Ringmaster Iverson, big cat trainers, dog trainers, motorbike acrobats, trapeze artists, Paolo, and the iconic clowns. The active embrace of diversity was a constant theme through the interviews. From Iverson winning the role of Ringmaster to became the first African-American to hold the coveted spot in 1998 to the attachment of acts from around the globe to highlight different talents, cultures, and people in ways that were positive, uplifting, and impactful, diversity ran strong. Not mentioned in this doc, RBBBC also broke the glass ceiling when the first female Ringmaster was cast for Circus Extreme (co-running at the same time as Out of this World). So many wonderful opportunities were created for a wide range of talented performers and technicians. Lots of firsts associated with the circus. It is clear from the interviews that everyone absolutely loved working for the circus. And that enthusiasm can be felt at times through the doc. In addition to the interviews, there are dozens of minutes of footage of the spectacular performances, dazzling costumes, and the smiling faces of the audience at the arena. But the footage and interviews are not contained to the show itself, there are many moments that take you to Feld Entertainment Studios to meet the costume and set designers that craft the show experience that the performers bring to life.

One of the items of interest conspicuously missing from the documentary, is any time spent exploring why RBBBC closed. The only reference to one of the reasons for the closure is a comment from Iverson asking the audience if the circus is antiquated. And of course, there is a resounding NO from the audience. A well-written documentary should address any elephants in the room. It’s no secret that RBBBC came under increasing scrutiny from PETA and other animal rights groups in recent years, and that the constant propaganda and petitions had an affect on the audience numbers. In terms of the animal treatment, whereas the earliest versions of the circus in the days of P.T. Barnum did not place extreme pride in animal care, RBBBC took great care in providing a rich and full life for the animal performers. Each and every animal was treated like royalty by their trainers, handlers, and owners. But I feel it was a missed opportunity for this documentary to address the issue of the animals (most prominently the elephants) and how outside forces did have an impact on the audience numbers. It would have been a great opportunity to tell this side of the story that the headlines so often neglected.

Prepare yourself for a documentary that is larger than life as you peek inside the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! If you have been a fan of the circus from the time you were a kit to an adult, then you will find so much to like in this doc-film. I don’t foresee any Emmys for this doc next award season, but it’s still a fascinating exploration of the town without a zip code, the greatest show on earth.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Documentary Film Review

Timely. We need Mister Rogers now more than ever, for we live in dark times. In our world of division, hate, intolerance, and self-centeredness, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, by Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary winner Morgan Neville, is a brilliant, intelligent documentary. This film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans of public television hero Fred Rogers and reminds us that we should shift focus from what divides us to loving others just the way they are and loving ourselves because we need and deserve love, compassion, and acceptance. He truly was the neighbor on and off screen that you and I wish we had next door to us. More than a mere television show for children, Mister Rogers Neighborhood ran deep–deeper than you realized growing up. Mr. Rogers tackled incredibly tough topics in simple, creative ways in order to educate children (and their parents) to exhibit love, kindness, acceptance, understanding, and safety awareness in the world. To make the world a better place, to be a positive influence, and more. Whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Fred Rogers’ life mission was to utilize the power of television to teach us how to be the best neighbor we possibly could be to the world. Discussing and depicting complex subjects for a children’s program like prejudice, racism, ethics, and learning to love and accept someone just the way he or she is, this thought-provoking public television program cuts through the pretense of this world and aims directly for your heart. “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is your honest self” (Fred Rogers).

From February 1968 to August 2001 and nearly 1000 episodes, we were invited into the living room of children’s television icon Fred Rogers. He took us on adventures into the world to learn how things are made, taught us about kindness, love, cooperation, and punctuated each episode with a trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to creatively drive home the message of theme of the day. Even if we haven’t seen an episode since we were kids, I imagine that most of us can still hum the theme song and maybe even sing some of the lyrics. His simple daily routine of putting on his zip-up cardigan and switching out his shoes made such an impression on the words that his cardigan hands in the Smithsonian Institute. Few television personalities have left such a great impression as Fred Rogers. His positive influence on and off camera affected the lives of so many people from the very young to the more established in life. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life and times of Fred Rogers during his timeless show. While you may think he was out of touch with realist–especially the reality we live in today–this documentary proves that he was well-aware of what was going on in the world and knew he had to educate, protect, and inspire children to overcome struggle and grief. Often he’d end the show with statements such as “you make the world a special place by just you being you.” The authentic decency demonstrated by Fed Rogers is so incredibly rare these days, and it’s that rare glimpse of hope that moves those who watch this documentary.

One of the most subversive moments of the documentary is when we watch part of an episode from the first season depicting King Friday the XIII building a wall to keep undesirables out. Now where have we heard that before??? Resisting the malevolent actions of the monarch, the neighborhood of Make-Believe inundates the king with messages of peace, tolerance, acceptance, and kindness. These messages inspire the king to tear down his wall to include everyone in the neighborhood. Certain so-called leaders in our states, country, and world should probably brush up on their Mister Rogers and follow King Friday’s example. Mister Rogers sentiments were not shared by many Americans during this time of civil rights unrest, but the beauty of his show was demonstrating positive progressive ideas that confronted prejudice and hate. Moments like these served as beacon of hope that the children would grow up to be loving, caring adults who desired to cooperate to build a better world. Moreover, Fred Rogers features a similar analogy later on in the series when he invites Officer Clemmons to share a foot pool with him in order to cool off in the hot weather. Perhaps this doesn’t sound radical now, but this was at a time that white Americans bucked against sharing public pools with individuals of color. Even Clemmons’ role as an officer of the law was subversive. He was hesitant at first to play the role because cops were the scariest people in his neighborhood, but he realized the importance of “children of color having a positive role model who looked like them” in the role of one who upholds the law.

The documentary also puts to rest those myths of Mister Rogers involvement in the US Military. Although we wore his zip-up cardigan regularly, it was not to cover up tattoos he got while service in the Department of Defense–he never served in the US military–but he DID serve his country for 31 years through his public television show. You spend quite a bit of time learning about the strong faith of Fred Rogers, and how it was truly the foundation upon which his show was developed. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was all set to enter seminary before he had the idea to produce his famous show. Many of the individuals interviewed during the documentary stated that even though Rogers never identified himself as a Christian, his faith and theology can be felt in his show through the lessons, games, examples, and stories. The guests from Yo Yo Ma to the show’s prop master testify to Mister Rogers’ progressive, inclusive view of Christianity that was overflowing with love and tolerance. He was proud of his faith, and often credited his Christian faith as the inspiration for the scripts he wrote for the show and the songs he composed. His beliefs were found in everything he did on and off screen. Another reverend friend of Rogers stated proudly that Rogers’ ministry through the show touched more lives and made more difference than a traditional evangelist could ever hope to do. Just goes to show it’s not how you identify yourself, but how you live your life and effect others that makes the biggest difference in the world.

Love is at the root of everything. He was doing something profound, deep, doing something that worked on multiple levels at the same time. Racism and prejudice weren’t the only weighty issues Rogers so creatively helped children work through and understand, but he also commented on other tough subjects difficult to discuss in a children’s program in a way that drives points home through kindness. Assassination, death, war, divorce, and diversity were subject matters on the show. The groundbreaking character of Officer Clemmons represented a positive role model in the law enforcement community. He was also the first recurring African-American role on a children’s program. Clemmons often commented on how incredibly encouraging Rogers was. Especially when Clemmons came out as a gay male. At first, Rogers was not sure what to do because of sponsors and even personal convictions and it took a while to talk to Clemmons about this aspect of his personal life and how it effected the show; but Clemmons stated that Rogers was extremely supportive and loved him just the way he was. Although not explicitly stated on the show, Mister Rogers–indirectly anyway–talked about accepting those who love differently than you–love is love as the popular hashtag goes. He often made it a point on the show to be proud of who you are and just the way you are. This was his way of discussing a subject that is still divisive today. But Mister Rogers was demonstrating how friends, family, and neighbors should treat one another before it became more commonplace to discuss.

When PBS was facing the loss of the $20mil funding from the US Government, Rogers testified before Senator Pastore the importance of public television. More than merely testify, he stated the lyrics to a song he wrote for the show. You can watch the testimony by clicking here. Words cannot truly capture the power of his testimony so give it a watch when you have some time. When Pastore demanded that no one else testifying read their statements, Rogers kindly put his “philosophical statement that would take 10mins to read” aside and simply spoke to the senator. He testified to his passion for educating children and contributing to healthy development and that the money spent on educational programming should be thought of as more important than violent “animated bombardment.” Understanding the inner needs of children should be at the forefront of television programming. Fred described his show to the senator as “an expression of care every day to every child to help [them] realize they [they] are unique…you’ve made this day a special day by just you being you.” The testimony is a powerful one that earned the funding for educational programming that was nearly lost.

Do yourself a favor and watch this documentary. Hopefully, it is playing at a theatre near you. Whether you grew up with the show or not, whether you can recall the last time you saw an episode or thought of Fred Rogers, this is a powerful film that is sure to inspire you. You will be changed as a result of this intelligent portrait of a man who left a timeless impression on the lives of millions by just being himself and providing an expression of care to all those who watched.

“Leonardo da Vinci: the Genius in Milan” documentary review

DaVinciGrab your passport and prepare to be whisked away to Leonardo’s Milan. Arts & Architecture in Cinema (AAIC) and Fathom events present a remarkable look into the  genius of Milan. Experience the works and legacy of Leonardo da Vinci like never before–that is, unless you have had the privilege of traveling to Leonardo’s Milan, Florence, Rome, and France. Go beyond the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and witness a rare 4K glimpse into the life and times of the world’s most famous Renaissance man. Combining interviews with Da Vinci scholars along with actors portraying Leonardo’s subjects, pupils, and contemporaries, this film will open your eyes to the Leonardo that you never knew. Although there clearly lacks a story in the traditional or cinematic narrative sense, there IS definitely a story here. Like with art itself, the story is left up to interpretation by the viewer. Perhaps your story interpretation will be one of inspiration or maybe a new clairvoyance into yours or someone else’s life. Either way, there is something for any art or architecture lover.

The first element of the documentary film that I noticed was simply the fact that the entire film is in Italian; albeit apropos, it definitely served as a minor distraction from my ability to concentrate on the stunning visuals in the documentary. Never having traveled abroad before, I was very excited to feel this close to such renown works as The Mona LisaThe Last Supper, and more. The beautiful imagery outshines the highest resolution coffee table art books. That is largely in part due to the giant screen and 4K cameras that were used in this production. Now, I am not accustomed to watching foreign films, so it is entirely possible that what I found to be a distraction is not as distracting for those who watch foreign films. However, it would have been greatly beneficial for the distribution company to have dubbed the the film in English. Granted, it would have lost a degree of authenticity in the true Milan experience, but I would have probably learned a little more than I did. That being said, I still found the documentary film to be full of fascinating information and insight into Leonardo.

One of the predominant themes in the film was the reoccurring message (sometimes direct and other times indirect) that Leonardo did not consider himself a painter; paining is what he did to “pay the bills,” so to speak. Not unlike aspiring visual and performing artists of today, it appears that Leonardo had a day job in order to support his love of dreaming, designing, science, research, and architecture. Yes, even Leonardo was at times sloppy, lazy, and lacked interest in painting. Some of his most famous sketches and paintings are unfinished because he decided to move on. He loved science and engineering more than anything else; and although his flying machine and other inventions have been found to be impossible or impractical, it doesn’t take away from his genius. While we may have referred to Leonardo (as well as many of his contemporaries in the arts and sciences) as a man of the future, the scholars in the film point out that he was a man of the now. However, due to his nearly unparalleled level of curiosity, he indirectly inspired countless artists and scientists to pursue what they love and find interesting.

A man of the present, future, and a man of mystery. Leonardo loved mysteries, enigmas, and puzzles. And no, I am not referring to his code. Just like he was intrigued and mesmerized by natural mysteries or breaking barriers of gravity or even the celestial realm, he left mysteries behind. True, it is due to his reputation as a man of mystery that author Dan Brown developed his Angels and Demons and Da Vinci Code. But it goes way beyond the creative fictitious codes Brown attributed to the Renaissance man. Leonardo wanted to make sure that no one could copy his work. In fact, he kept a very small staff of pupils around him in order to have control over his visions of paintings, frescos, architecture, and engineering. According to the scholars and his contemporaries in the documentary, Leonardo found the inspiration for his enigmas and mirror writing from nature itself. The inclusion of actors portraying historic individuals from Leonardo’s day was an brilliant element in the film. Speaking from a historic point of view but including information from today, the characters were able to help bridge the gap between the world of Leonardo and ours. It added a fantastic dimension to the documentary that greatly enhanced the experiential factor.

Ordinarily, this is where I point out what may prompt you to see the film, but this documentary was a one-night event. That being the case, it is likely that you may have to wait for it to be released on Netflix, RedBox, or on BluRay. But, if you enjoy history, art, and architecture, I encourage you to remain on the lookout for this title to appear in your queue.