There’s been plenty of movies about circuses. I’ve even been to an actual circus, albeit back in the last century. The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus may not have set up their tents on Long Island, at least that I know of.
But they did take their version of The Greatest Show on Earth to Madison Square Garden. right in the heart of New York City.
Aside from seeing a live circus, I’ve managed to take in a few circus films. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) heads the list.
Next would be Trapeze (1956), and the smallest of the three,
and oldest would be Marx Bros. At The Circus (1939).
Even though I’ve already departed Minneapolis, and the Twin Cities Film Fest, today we have some bonus coverage. The Last Great Circus Flyer is a documentary about Miguel Vazquez, who certainly can be called the last great circus flyer.
I met the film’s director Phil Weyland at the fest. He had been given my name by Anahita Ahrar (above), of Mediahrar, a PR firm.
Because this came up rather quickly, there was a conflict in scheduling, and I would not be able to attend the screening in person. Weyland agreed to send me a screener, and so – even after being back in Sarasota, for a few days – I can sill review the film.
This documentary is not only about Miguel and the Flying Vasquez family, it is also about the heyday of the circus as a popular family entertainment. Sadly, the circus has become pretty much of a side-show these days. Replaced of course by the flying super heroes of today’s movies. While watching people actually fly in the air even for just a few seconds, can be thrilling, there’s really no comparison to the films out these days.
Then there was another of the circus’ drawing cards – the animals. Seals, big cats, and elephants are not animals you see casually in your neighborhoods. You went to a zoo, or you went to a circus to see big-time acts featuring animals. But that too has come under fire. And this is another reason why the ‘Circus’ has slipped even further down the entertainment ladder.
But Weyland’s film is not really about the loss of the circus as a force in entertainment. Instead it is about how Miguel Vazquez stood not only the circus world on its head, but he made news that hit the front page of the New York Times, and he was a featured news piece on Tom Brokaw‘s TV show.
Miguel Angel Vazquez became the first trapeze artist to complete a quadruple somersault or jump. That meant he’d swing on his trapeze, and at the other end his catcher would swing on his trapeze. Here’s what the quad entailed. At the highest arc of his swing, Miguel would release the bar and somersault backwards FOUR times, then arrive at a point in the air where he and his brother could clasp hands and arms completing the catch. Then in the next downward arc, Miguel would be released in air, he’d turn, and if the timing was right – he’d meet the arriving trapeze, the one he’d just left which had continued swinging on its own.
At the time, no other trapeze act had done more than a ‘triple’. Literally, you have to see it to believe it, then see it again, in slow motion, to confirm.
Phil Weyland takes us back in time, to see Miguel’s act, and via archival footage , we see earlier acts. Miguel’s family has a long tradition in the circus. Multiple generations in fact. Even his wife was a trapeze artist, his brother was his catcher, and some of Miguel’s children are still carrying on the tradition.
You’ll hear from Miguel’s family and his own children, you’ll watch grueling practice sessions, and you’ll get plenty of looks at everything that is involved from costumes, to the complexity of the rigging, you’ll hear about the injuries and deaths, and the exhilarating joy that Miguel and his team get when they’re on their game and succeed.
The thing of it is, that even after completing many quads, the necessity for perfect timing is such, that being off, even a fraction of a second can cause them to miss. Within in Miguel’s lifetime, there was never a time when they worked without nets. But the speed when you release from a fast-moving trapeze, can be very rapid, so even as you might fall down into the netting, you could still get injured as you might not be in the required position or space.
This film was at just under 2 hours and was shot in many locations from California to Florida. Practice locations, places where they began training, and other locations like a trapeze school. At times you will be breathless from watching this flying, and yet – you’re going to gain a sense of why they do it, how they do it, and what a life in the circus means to them. We will see interviews with other former high trapeze artists, as well as discussion points from circus historians.
Weyland’s work is to be truly admired. There’s even a sequence shot with a helmet cam which gives you, the viewers, a first person’s perspective and it will amaze you. I’m calling this documentary a first class effort, and recommending this to you.