Cryptic This Way Comes
by Pam Casellas, The West Australian - Perth
(December 15, 2004)
If, after the first half-hour of the ABC's summer
highlight Carnivale, you find yourself deeply
confused, take heart: according to one of its
stars, Clancy Brown, you will have understood
more than you realise.
As the six episodes unfold,
all will become clear.
Brown plays a character
called Brother Justin Crowe, a preacher, in
this dense and swirling production which won
five Emmys - all of them in creative categories
and none for simple accessibility - and is at
times breathtaking in its beauty.
Set in dirt poor America
of the 1930s, it follows a travelling carnival,
the carnie, and its people, particularly a young
man called Ben and Brown's evangelical Brother
Brown says he found the
production mesmerising. Quite unlike anything
he had done before. "And for it to be done
on television, where everything usually fits
a formula, is amazing," he said by car
phone from Los Angeles.
"It's a beautiful
production, gorgeous. Certainly it challenges
people but the result is worth it.
"As you watch it,
the significance of the events is never revealed.
That happens later."
Carnivale is a classic
battle of good against evil. Hero Ben is just
a lad whose family is defeated by the adversity
of life in the Dust Bowl. He is on his own,
having just buried his mother when the carnie
comes into his life.
The wonderful melange
of characters is at first bewildering to him
- Samson the dwarf, the little person, who runs
the shown with deceptive cunning and guile,
Lodz the blind man, the strong man Gabriel and
his "barker" mother Ruthie, Lila,
the bearded lady, Gecko the lizard man and Sofie,
the daughter of Apollonia, the tarot reader
who is comatose and speaks through her daughter.
Ben resists them, as
he resists evidence he has powers that set him
apart, powers which have destined him to follow
a certain path. Across the country, in California,
Brother Justin is facing a similar dilemma as
he is forced to recognise his own difference.
Brown says he was captivated
by the script from the moment he saw it. "Scripts
like this are notable and historic," he
said. "They take you away from your comfort
zone. You have to find new and different ways
in which to work.
"I was always confident,
particularly after seeing the rushes, that the
audience would grasp it."
There was a great attraction
about playing Brother Justin. "He had long
had inklings of his greatness," Brown said.
But as a preacher he had been trained to be
humble. Accepting that he was not, and learning
to use that power, was a conflict Brown enjoyed.
For Brown, whose eclectic
curriculum vitae includes the multi-Oscar winning
The Shawshank Redemption, Pet Cemetery and Superman,
rural America was familiar territory. He was
born and raised in small-town Ohio, where his
family still live and run the local newspaper.
Carnivale comes from
the American HBO network, regarded as the home
of very different television. It produced Angels
in America, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under,
all examples of breaking the mould that television
But this one is something
else. Creator Daniel Knauf, who admits to being
a fan both of Tolkien and Dickens, loves the
thought of an epic. The first draft of Carnivale
was a screenplay because he thought there was
no way this epic could be confined to a small
And anyway, how could
he have pitched such a series to a producer?
"I guess the flip answer is that it is
The Grapes of Wrath meets David Lynch."
Certainly there is a Twin Peak-ish element there.
He'd always been fascinated
by the travelling carnivals. "I love the
fact that these things come into every town
and it's sort of a universal experience,"
Brown said. "And there's a danger to it
and a romantic quality about it, and a seediness
that always thrilled me.
"I've always been
a fan of epic storytelling and the whole idea
of mythologising something. This is a young
country, so about the only thing we've mythologised
is the West. The idea of digging into our history
and using it as a template to do some epic storytelling
seemed like a good idea."
There is no doubt this
is an epic tale and, as Clancy Brown promises,
it does become clearer as each episode unfolds.
There is no doubt either that it is a brilliant,
multi-layered and visually quite stunning production
full of characters so deftly drawn they leap
from the screen.
There is no doubt that
it is daunting. But the best advice is Brown's
- let it wash over you, don't try to understand
every moment. Let young Ben, played so beautifully
by Nick Stahl, draw you into the carnie as he
is drawn into it, this truly mysterious, vaguely
threatening world which welcomes outsiders with
deep suspicion and even resentment.
Samson is played by Michael
J. Anderson, already a veteran of Twin Peaks
and the more recent Mulholland Drive. Quirkily,
his life before falling into the movies was
as a NASA computer programmer and member of
the Challenger ground crew.
His Samson is a fraud
and a conman, the silver-tongued spruiker who
can separate a punter from his money in a flash.
He's seen strange things, has Samson, but mostly
he's seen a lot of life.
The period of Carnivale
was an active one for prophets of good and evil.
The world seemed to be falling apart, with dust
and pestilence at every turn. And while there
are pockets of emerging technology - the radio
has arrived - the world still turns on superstition
That is what is at the
heart of Carnivale, wrapped gloriously in this
colourful tale both of well-worn magic acts
and the inexplicable, the battle to survive
in this dusty world and to make sense of that
Just don't feel you have
to understand every word just yet.