Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ingmar Bergman | Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel)

by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel) / 1953

I was absolutely delighted yesterday after watching Ingmar Bergman’s early (1953) film, Sawdust and Tinsel, a film that in my estimation is quite related to his 1955 masterpiece, Smiles of a Summer Night, even if at least one critic has argued it was that this film had more in common with The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. True, there is something desperate about the dying circus company at the center of this story, and its wagons do visually wind up-hill in a manner that can only call up the ghoulish dancers of death in the medieval-set The Seventh Seal. But Sawdust’s heart is set on love instead of death, and its very mortal characters have aspirations and dreams that are far more open and hopeful than the other darker films. This work, like Smiles and Wild Strawberries belongs clearly with his gentle ruminations of love and aging as opposed to his symbolic-laden discussions of moral values and existential meaning.
      Moreover, the early Bergman work seems to have far more of a relationship to Fellini and even Chaplin that any of his other films. And it is a rather profound questioning of theatrical values that was later posed in both Smiles and the much later Fanny and Alexander: what is art? Can a circus be an artform; is theater superior; is film better yet? Of course, to the bourgeois townsfolk in which this film is played out there are definite hierarchies. These intruding circus folk are simply carnies, no better than gypsies suddenly intruding upon the upright townspeople’s well-maintained lives.

      Even the circus head, Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg) and his current young wife, Anne (Harriet Andersson) seem to want out of their endless wanderings, particularly since Albert’s tent world is on its last legs, with most of their costumes sold in order to survive, and with few animals other than a starving bear and highly overworked horses, some of which are confiscated by the local authorities when the group attempts to perform a circus parade in the manner of America’s celebrations (recreated in films such as Show Boat and Jumbo). Charles Ives even composed a song about such circus parades.
     But this Swedish rag-tag company is on its very last legs, as they arrive in this outlying community in the rain, every last one of them, men and women, struggling against the elements just to raise their tent. They cannot even imagine how they can perform without costumes, without animals, without any true spirit left.
     Silently suffering their complaints, the ringmaster suddenly has a burst of inspiration: he and Anne will go to the nearby theater where a famous director is featuring what appears to be an absolutely mediocre play, titled Betrayal.

   Albert is clearly terrified of the encounter, but Anne dresses up in her only remaining formal dress and wows the aging theater-director, who goes along with the circus-owner’s suggestion they might borrow costumes from the theater’s wardrobe in return for a huge party after the circus event, which, of course, the high-bred theatrical folk will also attend.
     At this meeting, the handsome matinee idol, Frans (Hasse Ekman), also catches a glimpse of the beautiful Anne, and with whom, so he declares, he immediately falls in love. Surely, Anne is allured by the beautiful man, and why shouldn’t she be? He’s closer to her age, he’s—a least superficially—well spoken, a true romantic being. At one point later, he even gently advises her on make-up, suggesting she apply far less of it in order to expose her beautiful face. Who wouldn’t be pleased to have a handsome make-up artist ask you to share his bed—variations of this theme have been played out in nearly every Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical.
    Yet, Anne remains loyal to her lumpy, elderly man. It’s only when she perceives that they are visiting this backwoods town so that he might visit his ex-wife and his three boys, that she rebels.
     Indeed, Albert is plotting to escape circus life by returning to his now quite well-off former wife, who freed from him, has bought several stores in town and made life for her children in a solvent and respectable upbringing. Encountering her restrictive spouse, she not only cooks a breakfast for him, but offers him financial help. But she will not, she insists, allow him to return. For her, his abandonment has made her life better; and, in fact, if you subscribe to her bourgeoise values, she is absolutely right.
     Angry with Albert’s attempt to return “home,” Anne makes her own return to the theater and into the arms of Frans, who, after locking her in and promising her a gift of what he promises is his valuable necklace (another indication that this would-be ladies’ man might also be a closeted gay), he basically rapes her. Visiting a local jeweler, she quickly discovers that the necklace is worthless, and that her attempt to raise funds for the failing circus has been pointless. Not only that, but Albert, returning “home,” watches his wife enter the jewelers, quickly perceiving what has occurred. 

     Accordingly, as one character announces, “Everything now stands still,” as we recognize that events will have to be played out in hellish circles of the circus ring.
      Perceiving Frans in the audience with yet another woman, Albert goes ballistic, particularly when Anne, who performs in an equestrian act, moves forward on her horse. Albert threatens the hierarchy and pretense of the actor. But as an older man—like the clown Frost (Anders Ek) in an earlier scene—Albert is beaten and nearly destroyed in the process of protecting his honor.
      Although Frans has temporarily won this bout, however, we now know that Albert and his ilk are beings of honor, representing a kind of mutual caring and respectability that none of the theater folk nor the town’s church-going folks can ever match. And we know that, without or without makeup, the pretty boy Frans will very soon no longer be able to lure women into his bed, while Albert, who forgives Anne, still has a beautiful and loving woman at his side for, presumably, the rest of his life.
Los Angeles, June 13, 2018

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