Films about filmmakers making films are filmmakers’ favorite kind of films to make. Why? Because people who make movies know the inherent metaphors and obvious allegories that go hand-in-hand with the process of moviemaking. The problem is, this can feel like either “inside baseball” or pretentiousness when presented to people who don’t “get” the guts of this art.
The Circus Animals is writer/director Nicholas Clift Bateman’s first film, and it plays like it. Narratively jumbled and wildly unfocused, it is the best kind of messy movie: laced with the promise of better things to come. The Circus Animals is a movie that’s almost too personal, like a secret not meant for you but overheard, or a glimpse into someone else’s dreams and memories. And that is almost as rewarding as it is frustrating.
Bateman plays “The Actor,” a character who floats back into his friends’ lives after a pronounced absence. His presence coincides with the creation of a new film he is working on with his friends, which requires the assistance of “The Director” (Francis Cabatac), “The Actress” (Katie O. Solomon) and a host of others. “The Actress” and “The Director” have perhaps the most complicated relationship, with something like romance developing betwixt the two, something made thoroughly more complex when “The Actor” and “The Actress” have to engage in “acting” that involves more kissing than clothes. The tense exchange between the trio is easily the film’s best scene and strikes to the core of the film’s purpose.
As evidenced by the presence of and the intermittent voice over narration from “The Documentary Girl” (Taylor Sloey), this is a movie about remembering defining moments more than anything else. The problem is, these aren’t our defining moments but those of a total stranger. Walt Whitman called poetry “emotion recollected in tranquility.” In that sense, The Circus Animals is less a movie and more a poem. It’s not a poem that rhymes, not one that follows a pattern or structure, but it’s one where the feeling is clearly conveyed. The personal passion is evident in every frame, hazy glance and strained sound, even if the story about frustrated filmmakers struggling to make a frustrating film can be, um, frustrating.
No, this is not breaking new ground. No, characters are neither unique nor consistently presented. Yes, the overall feel of the film is that of an adept student’s production. But you know what? There’s something here. Between the clever score, compelling visual scheme that masks any funding drawbacks and some truly sincere moments of romance between The Director and The Actress, The Circus Animals demonstrates an aptitude that makes Bateman worth watching.
The key to being a great filmmaker is learning balance. Not like gymnastics or tight-rope walking, okay maybe a little of the latter, but more learning to negotiate the personal and the public. Essentially, you have to be able to create something that means something to you while presenting something others can relate to and understand. The Circus Animals is irritating in its intentional obtuseness and maddening in its inconsistencies. But it is unquestionably sincere, and remarkably honest. That means looking forward to what comes next for a writer/director who hobbled together a film out of baling wire and dreams is perfectly reasonable.