I mentioned a week or so ago in one of my reviews that I was a puppeteer.  Well, over the years, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with many other creative performers such as ventriloquists, magicians, jugglers, and clowns.  Just by interacting with them, I’ve learned quite a bit about their various crafts as well.  For example, with clowns there are certain rules when it comes to how the makeup looks.  Many people wrongly believe that clowns put red all around their mouths, when in reality, red is not supposed to go directly above the performer’s upper lip.  It can curl up on the side, but it doesn’t go directly over.  See, you’ve learned something new today!  Knowing this info, it always makes me cringe a bit to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Macy’s often allows their employees to march in the parade as clowns, and they clearly have no idea how to do the makeup themselves.  So…if that makes me squirm, the opening shots of the 1980 film “Carny,” in which Gary Busey crudely smears clown makeup on his face, just about gave me a heart attack.

Busey plays Frankie, a guy who wears clown makeup and sits in the dunking tank for a traveling carnival.  His buddy Patch (Robbie Robertson) helps run their booth, but he is also the guy who helps keep the carnival running.  He greases the local politicians so they can come to town and do business.  One night, a young lady named Donna (Jodie Foster) comes to the carnival with her hot-head boyfriend, Mickey (Craig Wasson).  As Frankie heckles him, the letter-sweater wearing tough guy just can’t manage to land a pitch that will sink the obnoxious clown.  Meanwhile, Donna watches with an odd curiosity.

Later that night, as Mickey watches the carnival’s strip show, Frankie begins to get friendly with Donna.  He impresses her by guessing her name and age…even her birth month.  The next night, Donna comes back and expresses her desire to get out of town, and into Frankie’s bed.  Before you can say “one of us, one of us” (that’s a “Freaks” reference there campers), she’s on the road with the carnival.  Though, Patch is not all that happy about it.

Donna soon begins to make friends with the various Carnies…ride operators, sideshow oddities, folks who run rigged games, etc.  However, she is frustrated that she doesn’t have a role in the carnival.  She soon gets hired by Mr. Baptiste (Bert Remsen), who runs the strip show.  She is supposed to just dance in the background, no nudity…but Patch tells Baptiste to let her try it.  When she is unexpectedly introduced as the next headliner, but hesitates at removing her top, a riot breaks out among the patrons.

Donna ends up fitting in much better running one of the carnival games.  She is instructed in how to talk seductively to the customers to get them to keep laying down more and more money.  After wooing a bunch of money out of a couple of lesbians, Donna goes to the trailer to tell Patch about the amazing rush she experienced.  Soon, Donna and Patch end up in each other’s arms.  Right at this time, another customer who was taken at some of the games goes crazy and starts tearing up the carnival with his buddies.  While rushing to find Patch, Frankie discovers him with Donna in bed.  Frankie returns to the dunk tank and escalates things by egging on the angry “marks.”  By the time the violence is over, the old-time carny known as “On-Your-Mark” (Elisha Cook Jr.) lies dead. It turns out that the man responsible for the violence works for a sort of southern style gangster who Patch had a run in with earlier.  Now, carnies are out for revenge, the type only carnies can dish out.

This was really Robbie Robertson’s project.  The musician not only stared but also co-produced and co-wrote the story.  The film does have a lot going for it…I admit, the life of a carny is an interesting subject matter.  But, there really isn’t much of a story, it’s really just a series of smaller segments that don’t necessarily all come together or have a real resolution.  The worst such moment is when “On-Your-Mark” ends up dead…I was wondering how do the carnies deal with this.  It happens in front of tons of people…are the authorities called?  It wouldn’t seem like they would want that…but with all those witnesses!?!  How do they deal with the cops?  Is there a carny funeral ritual?  Do they mourn?  None of this was answered, instead they turn to a silly revenge plot that takes its cues from a bad horror movie.  Kind of unsatisfying.

But, like I said, there’s still a lot going for the film.  The world of the carny is intriguing and the cast really sells it, for the most part.  I mean really, can you think of anyone better suited to play a carny than Mr. Gary Busey?  He’s great!  That crazy spark in his eye is perfect for someone who makes their living getting people to dunk him in a water tank.  It also goes without saying the Jodie Foster puts in a great performance.  It’s a layered performance to say the least.  At times she’s the sweetest thing in the world, and other moments sexy and sly, and at other times wickedly managing to play the players.  Robertson…well…meh!?  He’s ok, but seems half asleep through much of the movie.  The guy is a musician, not an actor.  But while we’re on that subject, the score (credited to Alex North) is terrible.  Over-bearing and ridiculous…it’s about as subtle as a steamroller.

Ultimately, I enjoyed “Carny.”  The story leaves a lot to be desired, but the performances and the interesting look at an odd piece of Americana make it worth the price of admission.

6 thoughts on “Carny

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  1. I’m in total agreement with you about the disorganized nature of the story. It doesn’t either really make its mind about what it wants to be: Are we watching a coming of age story? Is this a slice of life?

    As you said, though, it doesn’t matter that much. The atmosphere feels very authentic, and the performances are flat out great. I think it’s a real shame that Robbie Robertson didn’t have more of a career in front of the camera…he had a real knack for it. He must not have gotten the response he wanted for this movie.

    Great review, great site.

  2. Alex North’s kind of an expressionist. Wrong composer for a gritty, quasi documentary experience. I’d have loved a score from him on Nosferatu. (Under The Volcano was a very fitting North score.)

    This movie would have done well to have Robertson’s band play all the musical cues as juke joint groovers. Like the soundtrack to Barfly.

  3. I saw Carny on HBO during the early days of cable, I had a feeling then that it had somewhat of a “late night cult classic feel to it. Seeing it decades later I feel about the same thought the characters and plot could’ve been defeloped a little more. But also I have to also admit; the slim black dancer who had no lines, hardly smiled and didn’t dance intrigued me {wish I could figure out her name and what else she’s done film or stage.} . The movie overall still didn’t disappoint and was able to look at the film with fresh eyes decades later along with quite a few actors whom I recognized and appreciated no matter what film they were in,

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