Carny - (1980)


Thomas Baum was a very interesting screenwriter that appeared in the late seventies – eighties. He’s mostly known for his nifty Paramount horror thriller The Sender (which he also wrote the novelization for). But his highest profile assignment was the tawdry 1980 carnival drama from Lorimar Carny. The film was based on a story by Phoebe Kaylor, Robert Kaylor (the director) and Robbie Robertson (the star), based somewhat on Robertson’s youth spent traveling around the Midwest and the South with a seedy carnival outfit. Baum was assigned the task of taking Robertson’s recollections and the Kaylors’ ideas and turning them into a coherent story. A task of which he was only half successful. The film served as Gary Busey’s follow up to his Oscar nominated turn as Buddy Holly which positioned him, after a decade of character actor work, as a promising leading man. It also served as musician Robbie Robertson’s dramatic motion picture debut after impressing both audiences and critics in Martin Scorsese’s magnificent concert film The Last Waltz. Most reviews of The Last Waltz mentioned that Robertson’s handsome John Garfield like intensity would be a natural for a motion picture acting career (he also looked a bit like Robert Forster who also got mileage early on in his career due to his Garfield like resemblance). As well as serving as child star Jodie Foster’s first adult lead in a major motion picture.

The story deals with a love triangle set against the world, milieu, and language of hustling, grifting carnies. While life with a traveling circus has been dealt with before, carnival stories have been rather rare. One of the only ones that had been done in the last twenty years before Carny was Elvis’ superior vehicle Roustabout (which we’ve shown many times at The New Beverly). Roustabout is one of Elvis’ most entertaining pictures of that era of Elvis Presley movies. He enters the film on a motorcycle, dressed head to toe in black motorcycle leathers (like Brando in The Wild One). It’s the only film where he gets to demonstrate his Ed Parker taught karate. It includes a small bit part early on with Raquel Welch. And contains the best soundtrack of songs of all of his color movies, including a rarity for Elvis on film, a cover of somebody else’s rock and roll hit, The Coaster’s Little Egypt. And while the carnival includes rides, a midway, carny games, a hoochie coochie tent, and what looks like a small freak show, it was still a family owned and operated wholesome enterprise. Carny shows the seedy side of this bottom feeding rung of entertainment (Tobe Hooper’s film The Funhouse and Dean Koontz’s wildly rewritten novelization covers some of the same ground as Baum’s script and book). The film wants to do for carnies what Ron Sheldon’s Bull Durham did for minor league baseball. Take you on a tour of a world you never knew, and when you exit, you exit an expert. And in this endeavor the film and the novelization isn’t a total failure. Nevertheless, the missed and fumbled opportunities add up to an ultimately unsatisfying experience. Of the two it’s Baum’s version of the book that’s the best. Because Baum is a good writer, and even when the story falters, which is half the time, he understands the milieu and through his prose is able to take you into the atmosphere. Which in a story like this, the atmosphere is everything. To call Robert Kaylor’s direction of the film lousy, is to de facto insult all other directors, because it implies, he directed anything at all. To direct badly, you first have to direct.  When you shoot a glittering-blinking carnival at night you can’t help but come back with visually stimulating footage. But Kaylor constantly avoids the midway, placing dramatic scene after scene inside drab tents and trailers (to watch Kaylor’s non-existent visual scheme is to appreciate anew Tobe Hooper’s filmmaking in regards to his mediocre The Funhouse). The film contains so many isolated head and shoulder close ups of actors framed against blank walls you’d think Oscar Micheaux was a visual consultant. If the film has an authorial voice, it isn’t due to its direction, cinematography, or script (you can tell Baum’s book is a response to the films bastardization of his screenplay). The reason Carny deserves a look isn’t due to anybody behind the camera, but due to the unique combination of manic energy and beyond the beyond naturism that Gary Busey displays in front of it. Believe it or not, the manic hee-hawing buffoon of reality television, was at one time (pre-motorcycle accident), one of the greatest actors of the seventies. Not just a talented journeyman character actor, but an acting giant. And if you don’t believe me, ask other acting giants of the seventies like Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen, and Jeff Bridges, and they’ll tell you. Busey had a gift for a highly theatrical version of naturalism that was unlike any of his peers. And naturally it was unlike anybody else, because it came straight from his soul. In the seventies Busey had a way of saying dialogue that you couldn’t believe any writer could have written it. The only other actor of his era that shared the same combination of naturalism and dynamic intensity was Robert Blake. What most actors pass off as naturalism is usually just awe shucks mumbling. Busey’s unaffected line readings were documentary real, but backed by a dramatic storytelling drive that most naturalistic actors don’t possess. Kaylor’s one moment of directorial achievement, with naturally Busey as its center, is the films opening credits. A close-up of Busey’s character Frankie applying his bozo clown make-up in front of his make-up mirror. Little by little, grease paint stroke by grease paint stroke, the big boned, tombstoned teethed, sweet-faced Oklahoma farm boy turns into the maniacal and malevolent bozo of the midway.

In fact, the entire opening section of the movie, where Jodie Foster’s Donna first visits the carnival as a mark with her idiot hometown boyfriend Mickey (played well by a pre-Body Double Craig Wasson) is hands down the most effective part of the film. One, because Kaylor keeps the action taking place on the midway as opposed to retreating to tents. But the film in this first section does a good job of setting up the dynamic between the three lead characters. Frankie (Busey) the carnival bozo clown, who sits in a cage, seated on a platform, six feet above a tank of water, manically taunting the carnival customers through a fuzzy microphone and blown out speakers with the hateful voice of a lunatic, to get them to purchase baseballs in order to dunk him. His partner in crime Patch (Robbie Robertson), who runs the bozo game, and handles the grift and the payola for the freaks and the carny games with the local authorities. And Donna (Jodie Foster) a local townie mark who visits the show, becomes mesmerized by Frankie’s combination of charm and malevolency and runs away with the carnival as it picks up stakes and moves to the next town. After this opening section the movie never really works again. But you can keep watching due to the presence of Busey and Robertson who make a good team and both are effective in their parts. Foster, however, is surprisingly drab. The Donna of the book is much more vivid (the movie is Frankie’s story, while the books is Donnas). But despite Foster’s dull performance, she makes an impression anyway due to how young she appears. Her character is supposed to be seventeen, but she looks closer to sixteen, giving the sexual-Toby Tyler-shenanigans that follow an authentic naughty vibe.

Where Baum’s book comes into its own is when Donna comes back to the carnival the next day to find Frankie and satisfy her curiosity about this clown that’s gotten into her head (in the book Frankie was in Donna’s dreams all night). Baum’s best section is Frankie’s seduction of the young townie. He takes her to the truck where they keep the stuffed animals they use to lure the marks to the crooked games on the midway. And surrounded by Pink Panthers, Tasmanian Devils, and Yogi Bears, they make love on a pile of Bugs Bunnies and Snoopies. Donna’s not naive, she knows this is where Frankie takes girls, and she’s not yet in love. But she’s fascinated by this roustabout. Especially the fact that the people in her small town, that she’s known all her life, don’t have a clue about who she is on the inside. Where Frankie (through carny con man tricks) knows what she’s going to say before she says it.

The other angle of the novelization that’s superior (for awhile) is the depiction of the love triangle between the three characters. In the movie it’s a crock. You can believe Robertson’s Patch is annoyed by Frankie and Donna’s relationship because it’s cramping his style, getting in the way of them double fucking townies, and most of all displacing him out of the trailer the two men share. But you don’t believe for one minute that Patch actually wants Donna for himself. But in the book Baum emphasizes another angle. Patch is jealous. But not about Donna. Baum even has other carny characters verbalize that it’s Frankie that Patch loves. And it’s not just used as subtextual homoerotic fun and games. You can believe that Patch is a celibate homosexual who lives with Frankie in a de facto marriage. And their double fucking townies is substitute for the sex they can’t or won’t have together.

Unfortunately, by the last third Baum has to get back on track with the film’s disastrous third act. But in way, Baum’s novelization is like one of rigged carny games that he goes to great pains to depict. It dangles rewards in front of you that it has no intention of yielding. But if you don’t invest in the outcome…you can have fun in the participation.


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