sawdust and tinsel (1953)

Sawdust and Tinsel brings us the spectacle and the crowd, the private embarrassments played as fodder for public entertainment, and of course the vengeance that can be wrought on a lover with the mildest of efforts. Bergman opens his tale with an illustrative example; a moment of open liberation, of physical, not sexual, exhibition that becomes ensnared in life’s complexities only to result in sorrow and humiliation. The story plays like a Felliniesque nightmare with all the trappings of an expressionist dream yet we are meant to read this as a tale of reality. The rest of the film plays as such. The performers, who at their heart yearn to be desired, to parade before the crowd, begin to see cracks and splinters in their facade. The deeply hidden layer of truth is underneath, like the peeling paper on a billboard, of the clown and his fragile ego, the ringmaster and his human past. Our circus troupe, wanting, above all, to outrun its own existence, to live as the avatars of their chosen archetype and never live as the human being underneath ever again. In those opening moments, the men in uniform laugh mockingly as the clown sheds his own uniform, underneath we find a man hopelessly destroyed as he attempts to maintain dignity. For all in this troupe live in a state of permanent temporary occupation, which is to say that their life in the circus suffices for today but they don’t identify with it enough to see it in their tomorrow. Each of our players ready to hang it up and find their place in a world they sought to escape. The life of the performer, pursued to get away from the crushing normalcy of it all, now suddenly tastes sour by comparison.

Our characters question their existence, their profession and their partners in the craft, love and life. Andersson, as beautiful as ever, moves in strides of mesmerizing posture and affectation, the low class on a spectrum of walking/talking spectacles that sell tickets to their antics, unaware of what she is and wondering what she could be in the eyes of respectability. As Bjornstrand’s theater director puts it, “We make art, you make artifice”. The perception that their kind enjoys a lowly existence while constant comparisons are drawn to the imagined gold treatment of circus performers in America, who need only parade into town and announce their presence before they are treated as great artists in the midst of the people. The imagination is the world outside their known universe, the imagined life we could lead if only we’d played our hand differently, or been dealt a different one altogether. Our ring master wondering about life as a sedentary family man, would his life suddenly become fulfilling? He pretends not to notice as a theater performer hits on his wife, he breaks character during the evening’s big top performance to attempt to exact revenge on the man who slept with her. The performances can no longer hold the human being underneath, can no longer suffice for a life separated from the possibilities of all lives we could potentially lead. Adherence to a craft can sometimes feel like being chained to a role we did not choose; even our clown cannot bear it after a while. Searching for the salvation, in this case monetary salvation through a necklace, in order to leave the circus and gain her complete independence, Andersson’s character violates her role as wife (or ‘breaks character’ if you like). Bergman has understood modern life in one fell swoop. All are performing, all are working, but the moment they might get their chance to stop and move on they will take it, because the escape is all they ever wanted in the first place. The dark truth of a life in role-playing, pretending, while constantly and secretively yearning and searching for your escape is where the film finds its power.

Sawdust and Tinsel sees Bergman dealing with the flesh and blood underneath the archetype, and the embodiment of archetype. When you take on your role in life, you are no longer the person who entered the role, you are the role. You are the clown, and you are now a part of a legacy of all clowns that have existed through time. When you are the clown your life does not matter, your history and your cares are not the cares of the clown and therefore are not your cares while you embody the clown. The need for this role is pervasive in the human mind, and the need to shed it when the role becomes a burden is also great. Bergman envisions a life of thin loyalties that would buckle and break at the slightest weight upon them. Devotion to a lover, devotion to a craft and our fear that we might lose what we devote ourselves to vanishes at a moment’ s friction in the relationship. Our performers are as vessels waiting to be filled with the air of desire. How easily we can feel small in the eyes of another and beg to be reinstated, how instantly we can snap back into our self that is alone, that survives and rebuff them. In the end the clown, now after hours and out of character, tells us of desiring to shrink smaller and smaller until he can crawl back into the womb and sleep, soundly and peacefully. In Sawdust and Tinsel, all life is but a role in a harsh and cruel reality. We live out each day and in our deepest imagination, dream of leaving it. And in our dreams we take many forms but all are the same in fact; to leave our role to crawl back to the memory of the life before we lived.