It isn't easy for the mind to wander while watching a Cirque du Soleil show under the big top, or grand chapiteau, as the Quebec-based, avant-garde circus calls its signature blue and yellow tent. There's just too much to look at and listen to at every moment: elaborate lights that are a show in themselves; original music, set in the structure of a dream narrative; surreal costumes and makeup; and an international parade of contortionists, clowns, trapeze artists, jugglers, strongmen, acrobats and other performers of acts too eccentric to label.
Afterward, though, when the endorphin high has worn off, the question might just cross the mind of how such a multimillion-dollar organization -- formed in 1984 as a troupe of street performers but now crisscrosses the globe with multiple, simultaneous touring shows, as well as several ones in residency at places such as Walt Disney World -- pays for itself. Not by ticket prices alone, I can guarantee you that. Or even by selling its logo-wear in the gift shops that accompany each show.
One way, of course, is by selling audience members the take-home version of the show they just saw, along with the back catalogue of performances they might have missed. Okay, so watching a DVD version of "Varekai," the latest Cirque extravaganza to pass through town, may not be the same thing as seeing it live -- and trust me, it ain't even close -- but it's still pretty gosh-darn amazing.
Now out in a 12-disc box set, "Cirque du Soleil: The Anniversary Collection" (G, Sony, $135.95) collects a dozen of Cirque's shows, including its sophomore outing, "La Magie Continue" (1986), and "Midnight Sun," a one-night-only performance in Montreal last year celebrating the circus's 20th birthday.
There's always a little something missing when you watch a recorded version of a live performance. With Cirque du Soleil, you lose not just the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, but something akin to magic. The makers of these slickly shot films, which include behind-the-scenes and making-of extras, are refreshingly frank about that. Still, there are enough genuine thrills -- along with close-up and slo-mo camera work that allow you to savor the performances in a way that's not possible live -- to give armchair Cirque-heads more than enough reason to laugh, gasp and gape in slack-jawed wonder.
'Food' for Thought
From the cage-rattling independent studio that put out such documentaries as "Outfoxed" (about the politics of the Fox News channel) and "Uncovered" (about the administration's case for going to war in Iraq and the media's role in promoting that agenda), comes a new, and equally worthwhile, DVD title. After all, "The Future of Food" (Unrated, Cinema Libre) is about, as one of writer-director Deborah Koons's interviewees says, one of the most "intimate" things we do: eating.
Is it a horror story? Hardly. The sober and well-documented investigation of genetically engineered (or transgenic) foodstuffs stays away from wild claims. Although there are mentions of possible human allergic reactions to eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and to rats, which seem to have developed immune-system problems after eating biotech potatoes, there are no tales of, say, hideous death after eating a corn chip made from Starlink corn, the infamous product developed in a laboratory to contain its own "natural" insecticide.
The movie's main point, and one it makes exceedingly well, is not that GMOs are deadly but that we just don't know how dangerous they are -- or, thanks to the anti-labeling corporate lobby, even what products they're in.
Biotech companies may try to spin GMO research as a solution to world hunger, but as another interviewee points out, starvation is the result of a problem with access to food, not production.
According to the film, there is, of course, a villain in all this. The biotech corporation Monsanto, and its various subsidiaries, comes across as a greedy, shortsighted giant concerned less with the consumer's needs than with its own profits.
As a company spokesman is quoted as saying, in this excerpt from a 1998 New York Times article: "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job."
And that callous disregard is scary enough.