Though most modern entertainment is dispensed in sleek digital packages, there remain a courageous few for whom entertainment means swallowing swords, exhaling fire, and performing vaudevillian feats and burlesque treats that delight and traumatize. For the last 13 years, the New York-based Bindlestiff Family Cirkus has been traveling coast to coast doing just that.
But even circus folk can’t literally live on peanuts (it takes $75,000 a month to keep the show on the road), and in a new online documentary/reality show aptly titled The Bindlestiffs, we get a behind-the-red-curtain look at how a real-life independent circus survives.
The Bindlestiffs is a ten-episode web series from Modern Myth Cinema, a production company headed by M.J Loheed (veteran producer and editor of broadcast reality shows – Ace of Cakes, what!). The show’s cinematography is strikingly impressive, particularly in the first episode during the vibrant and cinematic beauty shots of the stars demonstrating their fearsome talents. Loheed explains that the series combines “professionally shot material with home video from The Bindlestiffs themselves…I really wanted to tell a story that was going untold.”
The story as introduced by the first few episodes centers around the proprietors and stars of the show, Keith Nelson (AKA Kinko the Clown) and Stephanie Monseu.
They’re presented as a couple that’s passionate about each other and what they do, even as Stephanie professes to quitting the show “twice a year, every year”. It’s a bit like if the Osbournes had been shot when Ozzy was still actually biting the heads off bats.
The ten minute episodes ensure plenty of time to get to know the duo and their tightly knit troupe, but the length is also the biggest problem. Ten minutes translates to roughly 2.6 hours in internet time, and we of the short attention span set are quickly wishing for tighter cuts of interviews, less setup, and more awesome cirkus footage.
The second episode focuses on Stephanie and her day job as a high wire motorcyclist (!), and while it certainly establishes her as an appealing badass (folks who enjoy ladies who crack whips and fix choppers will be pleased), there’s an abundance of b-roll where a few shots could have sufficed. Add to this a few audio glitches, and you get the sense that these problems are the result of time constraints, and will hopefully improve as the production progresses.
Ultimately the theme of The Bindlestiffs is “the show behind the show”; the grit behind the spectacle of the cirkus itself, the tough and loving human beings behind the lunatic stage personalities, and the chaos behind the scenes of the series itself; the second episode is abruptly interrupted with black title cards explaining that their shoot at a motorcycle show was cut short by, guess what, motorcycle noise.
This kind of candor establishes a hook frequently missing from the polished, mainstream reality shows; reality. It’s easier to see yourself in the trials and tribulations of the Bindlestiffs than with the space aliens of Top Model or the crazy crap on Bravo, and the fact that you can actually relate to the troupe’s experiences makes their achievements all the more impressive.
Upcoming episodes (due every Friday) will find the Bindlestiffs threatened with eviction from their Brooklyn loft and a “Kinko for President” campaign which is both a publicity stunt and an actual bid for the US Presidency (will Kinko be the Ralph Nader of 2008?). It’s cool to see a docu-drama on the web that’s not a parody, and manages to be entertaining without abusing the subjects.
Plus sword-swallowing. That’s a big draw.