Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey, continued...


      A small herd of ag-college boys mills around waiting to work. The big red and yellow tent has returned from repairs in Italy in sections, so it must be laced together from scratch. But there's no tent boss yet to organize the workers. It's going to be tough to set up in time for the first show.
   We lurch around with our gear, attached to each other by cables, our footwork unpracticed. Bill does camera. I do sound. Everyone thinks we're The News. Through my headphones I hear the relentless jackhammering of the tent stakes, and "What Channel? What Channel are you from?"

Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal
Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal
Travels with Tarzan: A Documentary Odyssey. By Robin Rosenthal

   We soon see we could make a film just about Setup. Tarzan does a kind of ballet with his trucks, motioning them into precise positions on the empty field -- his stage. The stakes go in, the towers go up, the canvas rises, the tent poles are shoved into place. It's timeless -- the circus comes to town. Everybody's in a great mood in spite of the pressure of showtime. They love this beautiful tent. Joe Bauer adopts the role of tour guide, bragging in his heavy Swiss-German accent, "A tent to make is like a good suit, and the best cutting is in Italy." He says he will call a meeting to introduce us and explain what we are doing. This never happens. Therefore, everybody thinks we want a soundbite. They don't understand that we're going to be with them for a solid month. People rush into their trailers, emerging with fistfuls of photos they thrust at the lens, as if the showbiz version of themselves in the photograph is more real than the person standing in front of us.
   Another Swiss-German, tiger trainer Othmar Vohringer, is wrestling cages of Siberian white tigers out of their truck. Down the truck ramp, his young groom, Mike, is startled when the winch cable lets out suddenly and one of the heavy cages lurches toward him. Othmar insists there's nothing wrong with the "vinch." There's loads of bumping and snarling and cursing. But charismatic Othmar is thoroughly relaxed in front of the camera. Later, sharpening his knives over a table crammed with rooster saddles and bloody, charcoal-blackened beef, Othmar tells us that before he could join the circus, his father said he had to learn the family business -- butchering. While he cuts the tigers' meat, we get a great long interview, just the way we like it -- somebody actually doing something instead of posing stiffly for the camera. Bill has forgotten his lens tissues in the van, and the sun is pointing into the lens, aggravating the dirt spots, but we're too excited to stop. Bill keeps wiping the lens with his shirt sleeve. We may have found one of our main characters already.

   Our intention is to make a cinéma-vérité-style documentary in which we'll capture the feeling of life on the road with this contemporary traveling tent circus. We want an intimate look at the members of this community, and hope that over time the personal stories of a handful of major characters will emerge. We plan to be on the lot from morning until night in every town on this Midwestern leg of the tour, right up until they cross into Canada. After exploring the idea of renting a mini motor home so we could stay on the lot, we have opted for motels to be certain we'll have electricity when we need it for our equipment. Also, we think we may occasionally need to put some distance between ourselves and our subjects.
   We quickly fall in love with everyone -- the hot dog guy, the drivers, the grooms, the tent crew, the performers, and the ruling families, the Zerbinis and the Bauers. If they're willing to let us follow them around, we're willing to shoot.
   Othmar spends countless hours talking to us about animal training, animal-rights issues, history and politics, and lets us tape several instructive practice sessions. Bauer scion Joe Jr., the Ringmaster, always knows where the camera is. Billy and Mark, the motorcycle daredevils, open their trailer and their lives to us unconditionally.
   We also get to know three families of Russian performers who are on the tour this season. A father and son from Kazakstan, acrobats Nurbol and Almas, perform both a hand-balancing act and a pole routine. Luba Tchepiakova and her husband, Kim, carry on her family's circus-act tradition, in which Siberian brown bears ride Russian draft horses. The Karimas have three acts: Pavel and his partner, Vassili, do an awesome hand-balancing routine "at the apex of the big top." Pavel's wife Natalia, disguised as a limp rag doll, pops out of a samovar and is spun and twisted into impossible positions in their traditional Russian Doll act. Teenage daughter Olga, the family's translator, has a solo aerial act.
   The only performer we have trouble getting near is Tarzan's flame-haired daughter, Patricia Zerbini. Before we met her, Patty was described to us as the son Tarzan never had. Not only is she a well-respected big-cat and elephant trainer, but she can drive a semi, weld, do basic truck repair and execute a neat split between the heads of two lumbering beasts. She is raising her two boys alone after the death of her husband in a Ringling train derailment just a couple of years earlier. She has an edge you could cut meat with. When I point my microphone down into a first-day conversation between her and Othmar, I'm on the receiving end of a snarl scarier than the tigers'. In the first couple of towns she ropes off the outer perimeters of the elephants' area, and then stays inside so we can't get near her. We don't want to piss her off because we know that one complaint to Daddy and we're history. So we respect her boundaries and resign ourselves to the idea that she might not feature much in the documentary.
   What a shame. Her elephant act is awesome. No matter how many times we shoot it, we still get chills when the elephants thunder by, so close we can feel the wind off their backs, their thuds shaking our tripod, Patty running around inside their circle Balanchine-style. But if we don't have a character, the act won't mean as much.


   It's our last day on what we think is our only shoot. We've seen Othmar's groom lose a bit of finger to a tiger. We've ridden along with Tarzan in the steel truck, piled high with the underpinnings for the seats and bleachers, hearing about the comedy lion-and-tiger act he's famous for, and about the time he needed 500 stitches. We've watched Olga slip from the rings. We've shot in the rain. We've crippled our camera shooting through a horrendous dust storm in Hayes, Kan. Now it's snowing.
   We have emerged from a foraging expedition to the local Wal-Mart wearing twin blue-and-orange "Fighting Illini" caps, the only cold-weather gear we could find among the spring merchandise. The circus crew and performers who now feel intimate enough to poke fun, nickname us "The Smurfs." We're wearing these hats, and Patricia Zerbini has finally consented to be interviewed. She has seen us interviewing other performers and now, we figure, she realizes they could steal the show.
   The problem is, the camera doesn't work anymore. We've been in and out of local cable stations, cajoling kind engineers to clean its heads. But now it's beyond head cleaning. Too much wind. Too much dirt. We think the audio might still be good.
   So we decide to go for it, thinking maybe we can use Patty's audio with other images we've got of her. First she insists on the elephant tent, where it's too dark and the heat blower is making far too much noise to get clean sound. That's okay, it turns out. Here she gives us the top layer only, the rote stuff she'd say to any local-newspaper guy. We suggest going inside her motor coach. It's warm and surprisingly girl-like in there. Patty thaws. She gives us a few real glimpses of herself, which, of course, with the broken camera, we are not really getting. We could kill ourselves for having shot in that dust storm.



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