Culture Your Ass: “Sawdust and Tinsel”

Written by Barfoot August 17, 2011

   Patrick Barfoot

The nomenclature of Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel” is quite odd. In Sweden it was named “Gycklarnas Afton,” meaning something like “the evening of the clowns.” When released in America, however, it was named “Naked Night,” since international movies were only deemed profitable if they were erotic or contained nudity.  People in the U.S. must have been disappointed with this movie since it contains little to no nudity. In England, it was named “Sawdust and Tinsel.” I think most people believed this to sum up the film best: the shiny artifice yet valueless tinsel and simple rustic practicality of sawdust.

Ingmar Bergman wrote just about every screenplay he directed, although he did not direct every one he wrote. His M.O. of writing screenplays was peculiar in the sense that he would think through the various scenes of his next movie for months at a time. When he felt ready to write, he would lock himself in a room — often a hotel room — and write everything in one sitting. Bergman found writing to be the most tedious and painstaking part of filmmaking.

“Sawdust and Tinsel” follows a nomadic circus troupe traveling through the lower part of Sweden around the turn of our last century.  What’s interesting about this film are the psycho-sexual power struggles. Its central character Albert (the circus owner), his mistress Anne, and his abandoned wife are all caught in a scathingly complex love triangle. Bergman actually wrote this at a time when he himself had just left his wife for another woman — no other than Harriet Anderson, the actress who plays Anne in this film. Bergman’s writing shines through the complexity of their relationships. Albert thinks that Anne has been unfaithful with a local actor. Anne is jealous of Albert’s wife and children; and Albert’s abandoned wife tells him that she is better off since he has left, thus giving Albert no option of ever going back to her.

All of this climaxes, of course, as Albert nearly kills a clown, gets humiliated by an impromptu circus, duels with the very man who cuckolded him, and ends up killing a cute little caged bear (who was, in real life, Canadian).

Watch this movie. It is a great introduction to Ingmar Bergman’s early years. You’ll find that each character has a depth that you’ll likely not see in most modern films. Same goes for the story’s plot as well.

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