No circus is a good circus if elephants are part of the show, says a bluntly effective new HBO documentary.
“An Apology to Elephants,” directed by Amy Schatz, written by Jane Wagner and narrated by Lily Tomlin, makes a strong and poignant case against the use of the great beasts for our entertainment.
The argument -- with its disturbing and familiar evidence of hooked poles and cattle prods -- has been made before, but the 75-minute “Apology” neatly capsulizes the issue and recounts a grim history that predates even the public electrocution of Coney Island’s Topsy the Elephant in 1903.
“The elephant act hasn’t changed much over the past century,” Tomlin says, with black-and-white footage showing circus elephants balancing on improbably small pedestals, peddling tricycles and bobbing their heads in some parody of a bow.
“I remember the happy feelings of seeing elephants perform as a kid,” she adds, and wondering “how can they possibly get them to do all those tricks.”
The answer, she’d learn, isn’t pretty. Bullhooks -- long poles with metal hooks -- dig and poke into sensitive areas of the animal’s ears and face.
“They live in fear,” says Jeff Kinzley, the elephant manager of the Oakland Zoo. “That’s why they stay cooperative.”
Zoos, “Apology” suggests, are necessary to protect elephants raised in captivity. The Oakland Zoo, with a 6.5-acre “elephant farm,” is regarded with praise.
“You can fix a zoo,” says Pat Derby, co-founder of an elephant sanctuary in California. (Derby died earlier this year; the film is dedicated to her). “You can’t fix a circus.”
The documentary could benefit from responses from circus owners or even circus enthusiasts; there are none here.
Instead, “Apology” follows through on its title. Veterinarians are consulted, “eco-activists” (Wagner’s phrase) are shown picketing outside arenas and the impact of ivory poachers and deforestation on elephant populations is examined.
“Apology” also sketches the once-dismal lives of several former circus elephants on the Derby ranch.
Wagner’s script refrains from cute anthropomorphism, but takes note of the animals’ capacity for bonding with one another as well as their grieving, disturbed and disturbing reactions to the cruelties inflicted upon them.
“An Apology to Elephants” airs tonight on HBO at 7 p.m. New York time. Rating: ****
Optimism is scarce in “The Retirement Gamble,” Frontline’s look at the life stage once known as the golden years.
“I’m a survivor,” says one retiree, “and if I have to downsize to living in a tent, I will.”
That passes for hopeful these days.
Correspondent Martin Smith wades through the almost indecipherable fine print of his own retirement plan in an effort to grasp what lies ahead.
“Over the past couple of decades,” Smith narrates, “we’ve handed over more than $10 trillion of our retirement money to the financial services industry.
“They’ve built a pretty good business out of it, but how well is it working for you and me?”
Not well, Frontline suggests.
The documentary includes interviews with various middle-income workers whose post-career lives are tenuous at best. Half of Americans, Frontline reports, say they can’t afford to save anything for retirement, and one-third have “next to no” savings.
Management fees charged by financial advisers come under particular scrutiny. “It doesn’t take a genius to know that the bigger the profit of the management company, the smaller the profits that investors get,” says John Bogle, founder and retired CEO of the Vanguard Group.
Bogle favors investing in diversified portfolios of low-cost, unmanaged index funds rather than the riskier actively managed funds. Even a seemingly small management fee of 2 percent on a mutual fund, he says, can add up to big bucks over a working life.
Frontline’s Smith fact-checks Bogle’s claims, and confirms that an investment of $100,000 can shrink by $63,000 over 50 years with that 2 percent fee.
“I will keep working,” Smith concludes.
“The Retirement Gamble” airs Tuesday, April 23, on “Frontline” at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2
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(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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