SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953)

(a “humiliation” film review by Timothy J. Verret)

I never imagined that I would want to write a film review of any Ingmar Bergman film wherein I would not write a review for the entirety of the film but simply from just the opening (YouTube video above), but this is where I’m going with this film review of Ingmar Bergman’s SAWDUST AND TINSEL. The choice I am making here is because the opening of SAWDUST AND TINSEL encapsulates the entirety of the film that explores the scope of one human condition: Humiliation.

At the beginning of SAWDUST AND TINSEL, we see horses on the horizon carrying circus people, circus animals, and circus props. They are traveling from one town to another, and then the camera brings us two men seemingly bored on this journey, leading one of the men to tell the other man an entertaining story about a clown named Frost and his wife, Alma. Frost’s wife, Alma, is walking on a beach alone when she encounters a regiment of men shooting off long cannons. These long cannons represent not only the regimented men….well, regimenting….but also and more symbolically the sexual “long”ing of these same men. The men begin to entice Alma, and she entices them most assuredly in return. A young boy runs to tell Frost what his wife is up to. Frost goes with young boy to find Alma, who is out in the water frolicking with some of these regimented men. Then, humiliation begins: Frost takes off his clown clothes revealing his undergarments, covering his back and front (humiliation) as he goes into the water to save Alma from further humiliating herself. The young boy who led Frost to this scenario steals Frost’s clown clothes so Frost will stay exposed in his undergarments, possibly revealing more back and front than before now that he’ll be holding onto Alma (humiliation). Frost brings Alma to shore as all the men are laughing at them both (double humiliation). Frost walks with Alma in his arms along a horizon very similar to the one present at the beginning of the film (this horizon walk parallels the walking of Jesus Christ carrying The Cross to Calvary). As Frost is carrying Alma, he falls (humiliation) and can hardly get up with Alma pressing down on him (more humiliation). Then, Alma yells at the men for humiliating her and her husband, Frost. When the story is over, the man telling the story says they all yelled back at Alma that it is was her who brought this on (humiliation) and that they actually were the ones who lifted up Frost, as the camera cuts to showing Frost’s face in white-frost closeup with white clown-faced anguish (humiliation). And as if none of this was humiliation enough, later in SAWDUST AND TINSEL (sorry, I had to go there), Bergman gives us this shot that is the catastrophic epitome of humiliation:

You might think this is Frost holding the gun to his head to kill himself (humiliation), but that hand is from someone else holding the gun to Frost’s head (still humiliation). All of this to say that Ingmar Bergman is at his best when he probes and dissects the human condition, and he probes and dissects the human condition of humiliation in SAWDUST AND TINSEL. It’s the human condition of how we humiliate one another, how this humiliation stays with us and changes us, and how we bide our time until the next humiliation appears. And the fact that Bergman films SAWDUST AND TINSEL in a circus, for me anyway, takes humiliation to a whole other level. Circuses that travel with circus people humiliate their circus people through buffoonery and clown antics. Circuses that travel with circus animals humiliate circus animals by forcing them to perform against their innermost nature to be wild and free. Circuses that travel with circus props humiliate their audiences who watch the humiliation of their circus people and animals with these props. Under or NOT under the Big Top of the circus, humiliation is unfortunately a human condition residing in all of us. We humiliate another, often unaware of doing this, every time we hate another, every time we dominate another, and every time we put another over there while we are over here laughing at them. Bergman totally gets this line of humiliation because he is an artist and thus knows humiliation resides often at the core of an artist, i.e., an artist is humiliated simply on the grounds that he or she IS an artist. This is why so many of Bergman films, whether about a circus or not, always seem to have that one character who is an artist (actor, writer, circus performer, etc.) with Bergman’s personal and all-consuming artistic message of “how do I create in reality (humiliation) when all I really want to create in is fantasy (NOT humiliation)?” For an artist, there is never an easy answer to this question and often enough, the question goes unanswered. All an artist knows is that he or she needs to create from fantasy (NOT humiliation) that unfortunately can not come by any other way than to create with reality (humiliation).

At this point of the film review of SAWDUST AND TINSEL, I am aching to go further from this opening mentioned above to talk about a woman who sexually cheats on the man she loves (humiliation), about this man, just the same, cheating on this woman with his previous wife nonsexually (humiliation for all three) and about when the man finds out the woman cheated on him, just the same, instead of processing this humiliation inside of himself, he takes out his humiliation on the circus bear by shooting the poor soul. Saying probably way more than I initially intended with this film review, I will stop here because I don’t want to humiliate you in any way, whereby I “force” you to see this film. You might have some interest in seeing SAWDUST AND TINSEL for the probing and dissection of the human condition of humiliation but, if you have never been humiliated in your life, why would you even want to watch a film all about humiliation? I seem to be betting that you ARE human and you have been humiliated in your life and thus will desire to see what Bergman has to say about all this. I, however, promise not to hold a gun to your head like done to Frost in this film, because I desire not to humiliate anyone, human or nonhuman animal, in my life. This desire got further solidified after watching SAWDUST AND TINSEL because of the brilliancy and bravery in which Ingmar Bergman consistently and constantly explores any and all human conditions in his films, and Ingmar Bergman never disappoints on this front (or, better yet, on our insides) and doesn’t disappoint on this front (or Frost) of humiliation in SAWDUST AND TINSEL.

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