Documentaries are among the most deceptive of cinematic genres, shaping the reality presented based on what the camera chooses to show (and not), how the scenes are edited, and how the music, dialogue, and interviews meld together to produce a narrative with rising and falling action in place of real life. While documentaries tend to come close to the truth, they can never quite arrive it. But they can produce a version of it, and when a documentarian begins interfering in the lives of his subjects and his crew to shape the narrative to fit his desires—however well-meaning—real people can get hurt. This is the central issue of The Ringmaster, a small, fascinating, and disturbing documentary that begins with onion rings and ends with a subject’s mental and emotional breakdown.
The Ringmaster starts out as a documentary by producer/director Zachary Capp, a former gambler who uses an inheritance from his grandfather to start working on a documentary about onion rings. The film rapidly morphs into a story about specific onion rings, those made by Larry Lang, a Minnesotan fry cook whose family owned a beloved hometown restaurant until it was destroyed by a fire. Lang now earns his living working at a local saloon, making “the world’s best onion rings.” While Zach’s idea seems a perfectly sound one, it soon becomes clear that Larry doesn’t want to be the subject of a documentary. But as Zach pursues his happy ending, the story slowly transforms into a multi-year odyssey involving a defunct speedway, the Raiders football team, and the Las Vegas strip, with the camera crew beginning to turn the cameras on Zach himself.
The Ringmaster is an uncomfortable story about a filmmaker getting too close to the lives of his subjects, to the point that he may actually be causing them harm. There are points where it almost seems that Zach has ulterior motives in pushing Larry to make his onion rings famous, but that’s undercut by Zach’s apparent good will and the fact that he seems to be losing money in his pursuit of the documentary. So this isn’t so much about an unscrupulous filmmaker deliberately manipulating a person for his own gain, but about trying to force a story (and a person) into a shape that just won’t fit.
It’s distressing at times to watch the machinations, especially as Larry is so obviously uncomfortable in front of the camera. Zach is trying to turn Larry into a hero, rising above the destruction of his family restaurant on the strength of some pretty spectacular onion rings, but he ignores the fact that Larry seems fairly happy with his life to begin with: he has a steady job doing something he enjoys, and while he’ll never be famous, he also doesn’t appear to want to be. As the film spirals out of control, mostly due to Zach’s unwillingness to simply let it be, the victim in the center of the spiral is certainly Larry. But once the cameras turn further on Zach, it becomes clear that this is a story more about his obsessiveness than anything else, as he even (belatedly) admits.
While fascinating, The Ringmaster edges a little too close to exploitation for my liking. Despite some late shifts in perspective, Larry is still the central focus. As he begins to break down, the exploitative nature of his relationship with Zach and the other crew members takes clearer shape. This isn’t to say that anyone involved was intending to exploit him when this all began, but that’s certainly how it comes off. There’s no doubt that his onion rings are probably amazing – and, to be honest, I was somewhat hoping that the story would end with Larry getting a franchising deal so that we could all enjoy them – but that’s not worth putting him through hell. The film becomes a somewhat uncomfortable slice of life, a combination of documentary and quixotic adventure that’s fascinating and more than a little distressing.
At the same time, there’s certainly something to be said about good will. Zachary Capp and his crew have that in spades. The Ringmaster does manage to be hopeful while questioning just how far a filmmaker should go to get the outcome he wants (hint: not this far). And while there’s little in the thematics that clearly question the documentary form itself, films like The Ringmaster do highlight one of the central issues of filmmaking in general, and documentary in particular: just how much truth can one film show, and whose truth is it?
The Ringmaster is now available on Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, and others.