June 30, 2009

Bergman vs. Fellini: Rematch of the Gladiators

I met my project deadline a couple of hours early; it’s 97 degrees outside, six degrees cooler than yesterday; I’m shutting the blinds and putting on Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, followed by Fellini’s Variety Lights. Two early b/w films by masters, both of them about young women who fall in with troupes of third-rate traveling entertainers.

My verdict: Bergman by a mile.

The Fellini is a charming, involving (largely because of its starry-eyed brunette ingenue, Carla del Poggio, and her rival for love, Giulietta Masina) tragicomedy about performers deluding themselves in work and love, and about the squalid and ritzy sides of Rome, which Fellini always describes with such zest and affection. The themes are true and almost too recognizable –- there’s a fair amount of All About Eve, some of The Blue Angel, a lot of smile-making ethnographic portraiture, and pleasure in the beauty of ugliness –- and we finish the movie feeling tenderness for characters who, whether they’ve won or lost in worldly terms, are traveling on a train they’ll never get off.

Visually, the film, which Fellini only co-directed, but conceived and co-wrote, is apprentice work: it’s almost all straight montage, very little camera movement, and what there is seeming tentative, studenty, no hint of the extravagant, comically startling swoops and pans of the mature Fellini.

Sawdust and Tinsel is on a whole other level of art. The fact that it’s considered one of the director’s minor works, made before his breakthrough with Smiles of a Summer Night, is a comment in itself. Most other directors would die happy if they made one film of this quality.

Many of the themes of Variety Lights are visible here too: a traveling performing company is a wonderful metaphor for life’s journey of pretense and attempted escape. Once again there’s a magnetically sexy young female lead (Harriet Andersson) and an aging manager clinging to false hopes despite repeated betrayal.

But there’s a profound understanding here which is manifest in the treatment of the characters. The manager isn’t just a foolish would-be lover; he’s torn in every direction, clinging to a love he knows is shabby, jealousy rejecting her, bullying and being beaten at his own game; itching to escape his circus, trying to sabotage it, ultimately accepting his small portion of life with a grudgingness that can’t quite conceal blessedness. Every look in his eye reveals a thought-out complexity. The young woman is not just grasping or faintly conflicted; she’s kind and unkind, haughty and humiliated, and her mistakes come from fighting for her life. The triangular relationship with the manager’s wife isn’t schematic; details and subtleties, ambivalences, give it actuality and dimension. (Is it that Swedes are just more serious, that Swedish actors are better?)

Sawdust and Tinsel is stylistically masterful by any standard. Already there are the beautiful landscapes of The Seventh Seal, with slow-moving horse-drawn wagons enlivening the sharp ridge under the gray sky. The film progresses by means of set pieces, such as a Felliniesque (before Fellini was doing it) seaside striptease before an entire company of soldiers by an aging sexpot, shot silent-movie-style, which comic interlude rises to the pity and awe of tragedy when her husband, in full clown costume, comes to rescue her. The ending keeps us guessing among a few obvious alternatives, but it combines them in a way that evokes the “Ahh” of the just-right. These performers’ journey is touched by the numinous. It’s in their faces and in the airy chiaroscuro surrounding their wagons and their silhouetted walking figures.

Amazingly, this film received bad reviews when it was released in 1953; one prominent Swedish critic called it "a piece of vomit."

In the little interview that’s a special feature on the DVD, Bergman says, “It’s a good movie”; he says he has a soft spot for it. If you’ve made Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers afterward, I guess that’s a fair assessment.