Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sawdust and Tinsel

Recently, I noticed two articles about the new Criterion Collection DVD of Bergman's 1953 Sawdust and Tinsel.

First, there was the
review in Slant Magazine:

Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were both attracted to the metaphoric image of the circus, though the meanings the clowns and trapeze artists held for the two art-house heavyweights could scarcely be more different. While Fellini in La Strada envisioned the circus as a gaudy yet all-embracing setting for the fundamental comedy of the human condition, Bergman in Sawdust and Tinsel saw it as a mocking version of the theater stage that would become his recurring motif, a place where, costumes and makeup notwithstanding, people and their emotions are at their most exposed. When American distributors released Sawdust and Tinsel under the title The Naked Night to suggest Euro bawdiness, they fortuitously hit the movie's theme: The ruthless stripping of the characters' dreams and illusions by Bergman's increasingly invasive camera.

But I really enjoyed the in-depth analysis at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. Leo Goldsmith mentioned that Bergman wrote the screenplay "in a burst of unusually profound misanthropy," which was rooted in guilt over his betrayal of his third wife, Gun Hagberg, as well as his new lover and star, Harriet Andersson, on the set of Summer with Monika, "dissatisfaction with their subsequent romance, and the humiliating withdrawal of an offer to work at the Royal Dramatic Theater." And thus, "Bergman set to work on synthesizing all of this guilt, betrayal, and dissatisfaction into the first major work of his career." Of the story, Goldsmith wrote:

There is no overtly triumphant note struck for art in Sawdust and Tinsel, but like nearly all Bergman films, the film is ultimately neither fatalistic nor dour. After all, the circus is a “world of misery, lice, disease,” but it is not the artificial and the manipulative world of Sjuberg’s melodramatic theater with its two-dimensional trees and false knives. Nor is the circus the spare, claustrophobic world of Agda’s shop, that space of ticking clocks, buttons to be sewn, and formal, mirthless children. Even though he desperately attempts to rejoin it, Albert knows that this “normal” life is empty and motionless. It lacks the vitality and perpetual movement of the circus caravan, which he recognizes as teeming with life even in the depths of his drunken, jealous, suicidal rage. In a pre-showtime drinking binge with Frost, Albert threatens to kill “five or six” people, including Frost, Alma, and himself, out of mercy—“It’s a pity people must live on this earth.” But soon he bursts into the open air, and the sound of music and performers rehearsing and singing open his eyes, however momentarily or drunkenly, to the sight of life around him. It is one of those fleeting moments in so many Bergman films – the al fresco lunch in Wild Strawberries, the picnic in The Seventh Seal – in which the intensity of self-scrutiny dims for a moment and some peace is afforded, free of the constrictions of the world or the order that the mind assigns to it. It’s a temporary rest, but not an illusion to rest upon, and soon Albert and Frost drunkenly begin to whip their colleagues into shape. For better or worse, they have a performance to prepare for and there is much work to do...

But essentially, this is the world of all of Bergman’s subsequent masterpieces, fully formed, if more savage on its surface. Like so many Bergman protagonists that follow them, Albert and Anne become ensnared in their illusory fantasies of self-betterment, traps that they have laid for themselves. And in sensing the inescapability of their positions, they finally see no alternative but the perpetual motion of the caravan. At the close of the film, it is morning again, the caravan must move on, and the performers must continue playing their roles as clowns, with no possibility for escape except for alcohol (Frost’s own vice) or death. And so, stuck together in hell, without recourse to vain illusions of betterment or wealth or success, the question that these characters face is one of vulnerability: How do we make ourselves vulnerable again in a world that may well – or perhaps will inevitably – hurt us? Propelled through this circle of desire and dissatisfaction, we are bound to betray others and ourselves, and we face humiliation and cruelty at every turn. Once wounded, how can we again make ourselves vulnerable by reaching out to others? And if we cannot, what other life is there available to us?

2 comments:

mthaslett said...

Keep up the Bergman posts! It really is amazing to compare Bergman and his contemporaries to the best of the best working in film today. Ang Lee is fine. Spike Jonze? Charlie Kaufman? Super. Spielberg? Zemeckis? Cameron? Cronenberg? Masters-- and yet... Who can we compare with Bergman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Fellini, Bunuel, Lean, Tarkovsky, Renoir, Truffaut, Wilder, and so many more old pros who would all have movies released one after the other in their peak years? Not to wax too nostalgic-- but it does appear that professionalism and artistry have a different relationship today than they did a few decades ago?

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much for that. I very much agree with you. I just believe that if the current, antiquated film distribution system gets abolished and it becomes cheap to get films into theaters, we can find that freedom once again in the states, as it felt like we had in the 70's. I've been preparing myself for more Bergman posts, particularly from a screenwriter's perspective. I just need to find the right approach for my audience. I've gone through all of his films again since his death, and I've been thinking a lot about it.

-MM