Sunday 29 October 2017

Movie Review: Carny (1980)

A drama set in the world of a small-time touring carnivals, Carny lacks plot but is rich in characters and mood.

Frankie (Gary Busey) and Patch (Robbie Robertson) are members of The Great American Carnival. Frankie plays The Mighty Bozo, a dunk-tank antagonist, while Patch collects the money and helps run the business. The carnival includes the typical assortment of rides, rigged pay-per-play games, a strip show and several sideshows exploiting various physical conditions, with scams aplenty to maximize profit. One evening bored teenager Donna (Jodie Foster) attends with her boyfriend Mickey (Craig Wasson). She quickly establishes a connection with Frankie, runs away from home and joins the carnival.

As the ramshackle tour moves from town to town, Donna comes between Frankie and Patch. She tries to make herself useful by joining the strip show, a trial that goes awry. At every small town Patch has to bribe the right officials to ignore the carnival's more sordid corners. When he tangles with an exceptionally oily businessman demanding more than the usual payout, the consequences are severe.

Directed by Robert Kaylor, better known as a documentarian, Carny is co-written and co-produced by Robertson, much better known as The Band's lead guitarist and main songwriter. And this non-traditional partnership is largely responsible for a unique look and feel. Carny defies any easy categorizations, and is a movie to be experienced rather than analyzed.

Despite the 1980 release date Carny owes more to the 1970s in being character driven, soaking up atmosphere and proceeding with blissful disregard for conventional narrative structures. Kaylor allows his cameras to roam, always finding the more interesting perspectives and capturing the pathetic nighttime energy of a touring event scrapping for survival. There is nothing glamorous about this neon-drenched life on the road, except that it is a life on the road, where what happened yesterday can be disregarded because something else will happen somewhere else today.

At the core of the non-events is a ten year mostly unspoken friendship between Frankie and Patch, the barely-in-control-brawn and the calm-and-collected brains, Frankie in the cage generating fury and Patch outside exploiting the anger. The one theme of the film is the struggle to maintain a functional connection between two men when a woman arrives on the scene, with the added tension of Donna being - maybe - just on the right side of 18, and a runaway.

Gary Busey has rarely been better - or more fearsome. The opening sequence of Frankie applying face makeup to transform into The Mighty Bozo is hypnotizing, and Busey's manic energy in the cage jumps off the screen. Robbie Robertson is an ideal counterbalance, tall, lanky, almost too laid back as he thinks through every situation. Jodie Foster's Donna is a perfect disruptive presence as she tries to find her place into the carnival's routine, the young woman's burgeoning sexuality so much fuel on an already unstable fire.

In addition to Wasson, the supporting cast includes Elisha Cook Jr. as the resident grizzled veteran, Meg Foster as the game maiden who unleashes Donna's inner tiger, Kenneth McMillan, and Fred Ward.

Carny glides towards a climax where the carnival also bares its teeth as a house of horrors. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and then a different set of rules apply.

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