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Is Katharina Gruzei’s ‘Cinéma Variété’
the Scariest Short Film Ever Made?
Cinéma Variété, commissioned by Crossing Europe Film Festival, is a masterpiece.
From Krusty to Twisty, from Ronald McDonald to Doink, pop culture has given us its fair share of clowns over the years—the latest of which is a new version of Pennywise, the evil demon at the dark heart of It, first adapted as a miniseries from Stephen King’s novel in 1990 and now due for a remake by True Detective director Cary Fukunaga.
Pranksters, punks, insane posses: clowns are etched into our childhoods with face paint, water guns and a ceaseless pursuit of chaos. Though its methods appear to be manifold (anarchy, always anarchy), the clown’s strategy is relatively simple: to prey upon the weak, the miserable, the terrified-of-being-a-spoilsport and the petrified-not-to-partake, in order to distract everyone else into complicit laughter and the heartening sense that a party might not be so dreadful after all. Why so serious, a clown might ask a grumpy granddad determined not to entertain the happy-go-lucky maniac threatening to throw a bucket of glitter over him. And all the victim sees is an adult man rendered unrecognisable by makeup holding someone to ransom with a pail of gunge.
It’s the eternal smile, the outrageous attire and the cheekily persistent mischief that make clowns, at the very least, very weird indeed. Behind the duplicitous entertainer, imagine a defeated entrepreneur: a self-employed businessman who has to make a living in the world like everyone else, but whose own personality in making that living is forever left behind, at the door, in the wings. When the world tells you one thing—poverty, insecurity, ruin—a clown must tell you another. It’s Tony Soprano likening himself to the ‘sad clown’, it’s Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La Strada, it’s a washed-up kids’ entertainer imprisoned by the Nazis in The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ famously unreleased 1972 drama.
There isn’t a braver face than a clown’s. Nor is there, for the same reasons, a more terrifying one. Because a clown’s face is less autonomous than elective, less individual than a social and historical construct: there’s someone behind it, of course, but the ‘behind’ never comes into question, so that the person without makeup is merely contributing to a collective sense of Il Pagliacci. Similar to all the different fellas stuffing pillows up their shirts in search of a seasonal wage as Santa, think of all the different Ronald McDonalds there are in the world—and how each one will make pittance from a top-dollar corporation. Clowns are the façade made flesh, then. They’re the character turned real, the fiction-cum-fact.
This is the crux of a clown’s creepiness: the mischief, the anarchy, is only the start of it, and it isn’t long before all those unruly wisecracks make way for darker intents, when the ear-to-ear grin becomes the avatar of a murder spree. Coulrophobia—the unofficial term for a fear of clowns—has been a dialectical development: artists and entertainers have built upon the tensions arising from individual personality and social performance, which in turn has no doubt contributed to so many people being scared stiff by a man in a colourful wig, daft pants and giant shoes.
Katharina Gruzei is one such artist. The Austrian’s latest work, Cinéma Variété, is the result of a commission by Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, Austria, to make a trailer for this year’s edition. Because Gruzei’s film also played before every screening at the festival, by the time I came to view my first film I’d already seen a masterpiece—and went on to see it another 15 times across five days. The film, in which a clown is seen performing on stage, lasts a mere 60 seconds—and yet every time I watch it there’s something new to see, feel, be truly weirded out by.
"I shot the footage on a little user camera in high-speed mode of 300 frames per second, so the movement is 12 times slower than usual." Katharina Gruzei
I’ve never been a coulrophobe. I find clowns merely boring at worst and grating at best. While I can laugh at the likes of Lee Evans and Brian Conley because they’re so unceasingly juvenile they don’t give me any option but to laugh at them, a clown brings another layer to the performance, one that could by others be taken as an open offer to enter into a participatory dialogue with the performer, but which I take to be a cover-up: any old clown can be a clown, in short—whereas there was only ever one Norman Wisdom.
But the clown in Gruzei’s film is someone and something different entirely. The artist shot her footage during a 2012 performance of German-based Circus Roncalli. Spotlit and filmed against a black void, the clown addresses an unseen audience to the left of camera, before turning to face Gruzei or someone near her. He’s a hotchpotch of anachronisms: the blue party hat, the turquoise garb, the gold medallion, the microphone adorning his cheek. The clown begins to walk towards us, passing through a shadow that, for a moment, drowns him in darkness completely. He emerges out of it, uncannily, with a more unadulterated grin than ever.
All of this is in slow motion, so that every physical movement becomes some nightmarishly prolonged stunt exacerbated by the flickering light. “I shot the footage on a little user camera in high-speed mode of 300 frames per second, so the movement is 12 times slower than usual,” Gruzei tells me. “When I was invited to create a trailer I came up with the idea to use a very reduced single shot. Most trailers try to tell a short story with lots of quick shots and a bunch of cuts. I was interested in trying out the contrary: to slow down and reduce and see what is happening—also with the perception of time and duration.”
The result is indeed terrifying, and the effect is compounded by the equally sluggish sound design, which the director worked on with sound artist Fump. A minor key dawdles, distorted, creating an expectant air before shifting into an even more resonant though less musical register. “The sound plays a very important role,” says Gruzei. “The moment when the clown steps through the shadow is like a portal that causes the figure to mutate.”
Portal’s a fitting choice of word, it seems. Seen in a cinema, the black backdrop of the film doubles as an extension of the cinema’s own darkness, so that the clown can entrance two audiences at once—across two different portals, if you like. But there’s also something rooted here to a clown’s fundamental nature as key-holder to other realms, which makes him an appropriate leading character for a festival trailer. “The clown is an opening figure as well as a figure of transition: from the commercials to the movies.”
The circus of light? Gruzei goes on: “I shot about 20 minutes in the circus and it was hard to select 35 seconds from it. The first decision was to choose the figure of the clown because for me the clown has a very cinematic appearance… I chose this specific part because I found the body movements weirdly interesting and I totally fell for the shadow that falls on the clown’s face. The shade literally erases the clown’s face for a little while by dipping it into black. I thought together with the flickering this is a nice formal reference to cinema itself, which is based on light and darkness.”
The clown turns to either side of his audience, still walking towards us—making others complicit, inviting them to participate in whatever carnage is about to ensue. His toddler grin, his baby-like onesie, the lace bib. Indeed, there’s a childish quality to all of this, to the absolute delight the clown expresses—delight in his own demonic penchant for mayhem. Nothing’s more unpredictable than a baby who views others as toys to play with. And whether you’re watching Cinéma Variété for the first time or the fiftieth, its nightmare holds you rapt.
published in Grolsch Filmworks 6.5.2015
all rights reserved © Katharina Gruzei