So Emily and I are stuck in traffic on Hillsborough Street., one lousy mile from the State Fair. She’s along for the kicks and I’m here on business, scouring this 150th annual extravaganza for its residue of cinematic possibility. On the ride over from Durham, I’ve been blathering about carnivals and the way that they lend themselves visually and thematically to the movies, from Tod Browning’s The Unknown to Fellini’s La Strada.
Right about now, the only Fellini movie I’m thinking about is 8 1/2–the part at the beginning when Marcello Mastroianni succumbs to panic and climbs out of his car in the middle of a traffic jam. Climbing across the other cars, he eventually floats off into the sky, to the pulsing rhythm of Nino Rota’s score. Just what we need, right now.
An hour later, we’re inside the fair and it’s all cotton candy, funnel cakes and Ferris wheels. Awesome. But first, I need to actually find some of the fair’s cinematic offerings. I leave Emily with the bingo ladies and head for the education building.
Inside, I walk past the rows of beribboned cabbages and celebrated cakes and cookies. This is the classic, homespun agricultural fair, one that for me is definitively evoked in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. But then I see produce that makes me recall more recent movies of a less innocent age. I see freakishly big watermelons, as big as the nuclear bomb that Slim Pickens sailed down to Armageddon in Dr. Strangelove. Then there are the gargantuan, possibly chemically enhanced, sweet potatoes, bigger than the genetically engineered T-Rex eggs in Jurassic Park.
I finally find a homely television screen near some frolicking pigs, playing a video for no one in particular in a one-minute loop. The title seems to be The Puzzling Pregnancy. I watch for a moment, baffled, as the subtitles flash words such as “carbon dioxide,” “waste,” “food,” and “umbilical cord” over a picture of a cow, with arrows pointing this way and that. I watch it again, and I’m still puzzled. I’ll give this film the Truth in Advertising award. Elsewhere in the building, the Selma, N.C., tourism board gets the award for Best Use of a Dancing Snowman in a “Come Visit Our Fair City” Video.
Fortunately, there aren’t any other films, so I rejoin Emily, who has burned through $15 of bingo cards without winning the orange, hideously kitsch-y cat blanket she covets. We spend the rest of the evening looking for cinematic possibilities in the N.C. State Fair. It’s a bit of a disappointment, because the modern carnival has lost almost all of the danger, mystery and sexual perversity that filmmakers–from F.W. Murnau to David Lynch–have traditionally delighted in. The modern fair seems more like throngs of people wishing they were having fun, and less like the sinister and magical other-world that we’ve seen in movies. But, hey, it took us two hours to get here, and we’re going to have some fun.
We’ll continue with the prizes, beginning with the Carnival of Souls Award, named for the 1962 Herk Harvey drive-in classic about a woman who’s killed in a car crash and finds herself in a very strange traveling fair for the undead. This coveted prize goes to Lou Gramm of Foreigner, who’s providing the evening’s entertainment in the saddle-shaped Dorton Arena. (“Cool, but it would be even cooler if it was Journey,” says Emily, who regards the early 1980s with the fascination of a mortician. I hesitate before telling her that Foreigner was one of America’s most popular bands when I was last at the N.C. State Fair.)
Named for the Hitchcock thriller that features an out-of-control carousel, the Strangers on a Train Award for Worst Carnival Ride goes to…Demon World! The only thing out of control on this pathetic contraption are our howls of outrage as we realize that our rickety little tour behind the structure’s sheet metal facade–all 50 seconds of it–is all the ride we’re gonna get.
The next award is The Third Man Moment, for pithiest historical/political observation in a theme park. In this Graham Greene-penned classic from 1950 set in a Vienna amusement park, Orson Welles instructs Joseph Cotton on the relative merits of Italian autocracy and Swiss democracy, using a cuckoo clock as an illustrative example. Today, while walking through a Raleigh carnival, Emily provides her own geopolitical assessment: “I mean, look at this–it’s three acres of cultural bankruptcy.”
After this unfortunate display of honesty, Emily’s mood improves considerably when she starts demonstrating her inner Annie Oakley with water gun, air rifle, crossbow and gopher mallet, thus garnering us a whole menagerie of stuffed animals. Toward the end of the evening we stand in a long line for the Freakout, scowling at the line cutters who are doubling our wait time. I notice that just about everyone at the fair–every slack-jawed punk in a baseball cap, every overweight family and every gaggle of kids talking simultaneously into their cell phones–looks like a freak if you look at them hard and unforgivingly enough.
So it’s time for the Freaks Award, named for the 1932 Tod Browning circus classic. Emily and I train our Diane Arbus eyes on everyone around us. Wow! The Freaks Award goes to … everybody!
After an hour of freakspotting, we finally get on the Freakout. And, I must admit, it’s well worth the wait.