Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wild Strawberries and Woody Allen

"You know so much, and you don't know anything."

In a haunting dream, seventy-eight year-old Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) is confronted with this piece of wisdom by a lost love, as his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), drives him to a ceremony where he is being presented with an honorary award in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957), one of the most moving films I have ever seen.

How fitting that I first took in a viewing of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Bunuel), a social satire which engaged me on a purely intellectual level, only to follow it with Wild Strawberries, a film that caught me off-guard, and floored me completely - my emotional response to the movie was something I surely hadn't suspected.

Bergman's film takes a close look at Borg, a proudly intellectual professor of science who is described by everyone, including his son and daughter-in-law, as cold and void of any emotional attachment. He decides to take a reflective drive from Stockholm, Sweden to Lund University, where he will be receiving his honorary award. Accompanied by Marianne and a trio of happy-go-lucky youngsters headed to Italy, his journey becomes a painful examination of his past, and in his reflective dreams we see how his intellectual superiority spared him from real, meaningful relationships with other human beings.

"He's on such a terribly high level, and I feel so worthless," says Sara, a cousin who Borg almost marries before she opts to marry his brother, Sigfrid, instead. Borg has no interest in taking joy out of the small things in life, such as eating from a patch of wild strawberries near the backwoods of his childhood home, and Sigfrid is the perfect alternative - a lewd man's man.

Borg's punishment - for knowing all of the answers, for understanding other human beings more than they understand themselves, for constantly engaging in intellectual activities and tossing aside simple pleasures - is loneliness. His wife is dead, his son despises him, and his very elderly mother seems even colder than Borg himself. As the professor arrives at the end of his life, he is disillusioned and haunted by his empty past. Yes, he is being awarded for his intellectual achievements, but where is the love? His son, Evald, has grown into an even colder version of his father, and the happy-go-lucky trio, who at first appear mildly annoying, ultimately represent the sort of joyous carelessness that Borg secretly envies.

In short, Wild Strawberries is an examination of that special breed of men who are so obsessed with their own intellectual abilities that they often defer from social situations, preferring to be alone with themselves and bask in their own brilliance. And, eventually, that is exactly where they are at the end of their lives - alone, with themselves.

Borg finds redemption in the finale of Wild Strawberries. "If I have been feeling worried or sad during the day, I have a habit of recalling scenes from childhood to calm me. So it was this evening," says Borg as he shuts his weary eyes. We are treated to his own portion of nostalgia, a topic I explored in some detail in last evening's post.

The film left such an impression on me because the internal struggle between the intellectual self and the emotional self is a topic that I have been writing about for a long time - in fact, due to my incredible reaction to Wild Strawberries, I will soon post a series of articles I have written in recent years about loneliness, alienation, and the struggle mentioned above. How does one resist conformation and promote individuality and yet keep away from total alienation and loneliness? Borg only began asking this question in the final chapters of his long, cold life; hopefully, by exploring the issue now, I can spare myself a cold future.

By the way, it's no wonder Woody Allen gets his inspiration from Ingmar Bergman. His films are, more or less, comedic explorations of Bergman's fascinating thematic ideas. Tomorrow night I am going to see Allen's Annie Hall (1977), one of my all-time favorite films, at the legendary Paramount Theatre downtown, as part of their 2009 Summer Film Series.

I've seen many classic movies at the Paramount, including incredible 70 MM prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean), as well as The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola), The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut), Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961, Blake Edwards). Needless to say, it is one of the finest theaters in Central Texas, and offers rich cinematic experiences of classic films during the summer.

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