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Persona

Wild Strawberries (1957)

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A&F Bergman links: The Virgin Spring(1960); Faith Trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) (1961-1963); Persona (1966); Cries and Whispers (1972); Scenes from a Marriage (1973); Fanny & Alexander (1983). Peter mentions an abundance of other Bergman related threads Here.

The link on our Top 100 page can be changed to this now that I’ve started a thread on the actual film.

Wild Strawberries currently sits at #35 on our Top 100, and while it’s not my favorite Bergman, I'd hate to see it go, as Bergman is so influential in the kind of spirituality I gravitate toward -- I feel like bending the rules if we start enforcing our "three-per-director" idea in the next vote. I know that won't happen. I'm just sayin'.

But I had a very strong reaction to it this time through. It's probably been close to ten years since I last saw it -- that's a guess, without looking in the film journals. I think this is the third time I’ve seen it, and it is definitely the first time the film really moved me.

I’m getting old.

This is the perfect example of a film that's going to grow with you as you age, because in many aspects the film is about aging.

An elder doctor on his way to a ceremony in his honor travels by car with his daughter-in-law who kindly tells him why he’s despised as a cold, calloused old stickler. They meet two sets of travelers which, each, in different ways, compliment the initial conversation the two started earlier. The old man has quite a few moments where he falls into dream-like states, either reflecting on his youth and mistakes made years ago or, in actual dreaming, being judged by his peers now for advancing so far in the community to the neglect of those closest to him. Several of these stages of dream consciousness are unnerving, they are cruel taunts of his guilt and accusation. He seems to understand that even now, all is not lost. That he can do something about the guilt. That he can find redemption from those in his dream who would accuse him of growing old and calloused. The idea that maybe, just maybe, someone can actually change when they see how wrong they are, no matter the age, no matter how far they’ve gone astray, is one small aspect you can admire in the story. I’m sure there are more, but that’s the one that really stands out to me now.

Wild Strawberries hasn’t really grabbed me before the way it did this time. I wonder if it is because I’m at such a different stage of life. I’m 40, hoping I’m in the process of reconciling a marriage, I’m reflecting on a life of the highest of highs and, seriously, the lowest of lows. (If ever there were a person that could make that claim, it is me -- and Tiger Woods, although his low$ are way higher than mine.) I’ve looked at the past two decades in total amazement. They are like looking at two entirely different lives. It makes me excited for the decade that’s ahead, and those that I hope will follow. Thinking of all of this makes me want to grow wiser, better, more in relation with those around me. I think Wild Strawberries plays right into this kind of thinking.

I also saw it just days after my Teaching Pastor gave an unbelievably “cool! Relevant!” –

actually, challenging – sermon on aging. He turned 40 last week, and took the entire service to talk about how he feels God has given a right way for us to grow better as we grow older. It was a motivating teaching using scripture and many great examples that I’ll not soon forget.

I may soon blog about all of this, but I’m solo with the kids this week, I’m moving next week and may not be posting as much for a few weeks. (It took me three days of saving in WORD to get this posted today.) We’ll see what kind of time I can get.

Any other fans of Wild Strawberries? Has the film actually touched you the way it this time did me? Since I’ve seen it before and not received the “warm fuzzies,” I can see either reaction to it.

Bergman, ever the auteur, is all over this thing. But I guess more about that later.

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I reviewed this back in 2006 for the now defunct Movies Matter site, so I've dug out my review and thought I'd post it here:

Wild Strawberries

Ingmar Bergman is so well known for his bleak, melancholy films that one would be forgiven for thinking he had never done anything else. Rarely does anyone talk about his work without mentioning the words “existential angst”.

Yet Wild Strawberries (Smultronstallet) is distinctly different. Produced the same year as The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s most famous film, it counterbalances the heavy tone of that film with its intimacy and poignant humour. Seventh Seal asks the big, universal questions, but finds few answers. Wild Strawberries narrows it’s scope to the life of just one man, and yet realises it so fully that it resonates far more deeply.

Victor Sjostrom gives an astonishing performance as Professor Isak Borg, an aged doctor about to fly off to Lund to collect an honorary degree, representing the crowning glory of his life’s work. Yet, the night before he leaves, he is deeply disturbed by a nightmare, and decides to drive instead.

Borg is accompanied by his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who despises both him and her estranged (and happily childless) husband. Marianne makes little effort to hide her contempt for the elderly Borg whom she sees as the cause of the trouble between her and his son. Borg, for his part, has withdrawn from society in general, and his family in particular. Whilst the film opens with him rationalising his self-imposed isolation., it is far from convincing.

Borg and Marianne are not a long way through their journey when they happen to stop at the cottage where Borg spent the summers of his youth. There he recollects the pain caused by his childhood sweetheart, Sara, who rejected him and married his caddish brother. His reminiscences are brought to an abrupt end by another girl, this time from the present. She is also called Sara. Cleverly, Bergman uses the same actress (Bibi Andersson) for both parts, highlighting the multiple links between the two girls. Like her older counterpart, the Sara from the present is also trying to decide which of two different men she really loves.

Borg’s next dream follows a narrowly avoided car crash. The opposing vehicle belongs to a middle-aged married couple whose car is now in as poor a state of repair as their marriage. Externally, Borg’s vehicle is unscathed, but as this new couple join them the atmosphere inside the car is demolished. Eventually, they are banished from the car, but return in Borg’s dreams where they taunt Borg over the failure of his own marriage.

With the balance inside the car restored other aspects of Borg’s life start to come out. He meets a petrol station owner who thanks Borg for all he had previously done as a doctor in their community. The man gifts him his fuel for free, which comforts the troubled Borg, whilst simultaneously challenging his proud attitude to money and self-sufficiency. His reunion with his mother is similarly moving. Most striking of all is the affection which starts build between him and the others in the car.

And so Borg finally arrives in Lund. Yet curiously, as the ceremony progresses and he steps forward to receive his honour his thoughts are filled not with the glory of his achievement, but with the friendships he has built and revisited that day. He realises that he has allowed Sara’s rejection of him all those years ago to rob him of his chance to really live.

Bergman’s startling black and white cinematography leaves an indelible impression on the viewer, and the transition from the present to the past or the world of Borg’s dreams never feels contrived. This is the film that inspired dozens of Road Movies, yet few of them capture the warmth, poignancy, or startling visual beauty that Bergman produces here.

Hope you like it - I spent flippin' ages trying to find it!

I need to see this again sometime. I had a chance to buy it cheaply on DVD a couple of years back and didn't and have long since regretted it. I think it might be my favourite Bergman that I've seen so far.

Matt

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I just recently saw this as well. All I can say for now, after watching Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries and Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru, is that, while I admire the moving "old man finally wakes up and changes his life before it's too late" story-line, it's slightly uncomfortable to think about. It's an uncomfortable theme because it implies that it's possible to live the whole (or a large majority) of your life asleep, on auto-pilot, essentially spiritually dead and unaware.

Currently age-wise, I'm right in the middle of the "30-40" years of sleep-walking that Borg and Watanabe apparently both did in their lives. I'm not 100% sure, but it certainly looks like a lot of people around me are sleep-walking through their lives and careers. As I'm finally being caught up in a very demanding career of my own, I can easily see myself slipping into autopilot like these guys did, and in fact, seem to occasionally catch myself nodding-off figuratively speaking. I'm guessing Borg and Watanabe are the exceptions to the rule of never actually waking back up again.

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In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse. The distinction was take up by Croce's disciple, the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who argued as follows. In confronting a true work of art it is not my own reactions that interest me, but the meaning and content of the work. I am being presented with experience, uniquely embodied in this particular sensory form. When seeking entertainment, however, I am not interested in the cause but in the effect. Whatever has the right effect on me is right for me, and there is no question of judgment - aesthetic or otherwise.

The point urged by Croce and Collingwood is exaggerated - why cannot I be interested in a work of art for its meaning, and also be entertained by it? We are not amused for the sake of amusement, but for the sake of the joke. Amusement is not opposed to aesthetic interest, since it is already a form of it. It is not surprising, therefore, if, from their exaggerated dismissal of entertainment art, Croce and Collingwood each derived aesthetic theories as implausible as any in literature.

Nevertheless they were right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject-matter and the mere cultivation for effect. The photographic image has to some extent deadend us to the contrast here. While the theatrical stage, like the frame of a painting, shuts out the real world, the camera lets the world in - spreading the same bland endorsement over the actor pretending to die on the pavement and the accidental balloon drifting across the street in the background. And the temptation is to turn this defect into an enticement, by encouraging a kind of 'reality addiction' in the viewer. The temptation is to focus on aspects of real life that grip or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning. Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the characters, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.

Since cinema and its offshoots are most at fault among the arts, in pursuing effect at the cost of meaning, it is fitting to give an example of cinematic art from which that fault is absent. There have been few directors as conscious as Ingmar Bergman, of the temptation posed by the camera, and the need to resist it. You could frame a still from a Bergman film - the dream sequences in Wild Strawberries, the Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal, the dinner party in The Hour of the Wolf - and it would sit on your wall like an engraving, resonant, engaging and composed. It was precisely in order to minimize distraction, to ensure that everything on the screen - light, shade, form and allusion, as much as person and character - is making its own contribution to the drama, that Bergman chose to make Wild Strawberries in black and white, even though colour had by then (1957) become the lingua franca.

The film tells the story of a selfish but distinguished old man who has avoided love, who is approaching the end of his life and sensing its hollowness, and who - through a single day of simple encounters, memories and dreams - is able miraculously to save himself, to accept that he must give love in order to receive it, and who is granted, at the end, a transfiguring vision of his childhood and a final welcome into the world of others. The burden of the story is contained in the dreams and memories - episodes which play a part in the drama that is amplified by the cinematic medium. The camera fuses these episodes with the narrative, pressing them into the present through creating identities where words would enforce only differences. (Thus the faces in the dreams have already acquired another significance in the real events of the day.) The camera stalks the unfolding story like a hunter, pausing to take aim at the present only to bring it into chafing proximity with the past. And the images, often grainy, with sharply foregrounded details, leave many objects lingering like ghosts in the out-of-focus hinterland. In Wild Strawberries, things, like people, are saturated with the psychic states of their observers, drawn into the drama by a camera which endows each detail with a consciousness of its own. The result is not whimsical or arbitrary, but on the contrary, entirely objective, turning to realities at every point where the camera might otherwise be tempted to escape from them.

Wild Strawberries is one of many examples of true cinematic art, in which the techniques of the cinema serve a dramatic purpose, presenting situations and characters in the light of our own sympathetic response to them. It illustrates the distinction between aesthetic interest and mere effect: the first creating a distance that the second destroys. The purpose of this distance is not to prevent emotion, but to focus it, by directing attention towards the imaginary other, rather than the present self. Getting clear about the distinction here is one part of understanding artistic beauty.

- Roger Scruton, Beauty, pgs. 101-104

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The most striking thing for me about Wild Strawberries is that hope that MattPage mentioned in his review that doesn't exist in most of Bergman's work. The aging process for the professor  provides a means for him to come to terms with past failures, rectify past wrongs where possible and share his wisdom with those around him through hope. All the characters seem to exist on autopilot like the professor did most of his life, but as he learns to live, he gives an opportunity for those around him—especially the younger people around him—to do the same. His presence in their lives challenges them to embrace hope and to not wait until they're old to truly live.

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Ironically, I was discussing World Cinema with a guy at conference this weekend, and this pervasive pessimism was my central knock on why I've always had a hard time warming up to Bergman. Maybe it's time for me to revisit WS. 

 

Also, I think it is interesting how many professors were on our Growing Older nominations. (Although we didn't nominate Stalker, my conversant reminded me that one of the characters in Stalker was "The Professor." This profession is an easy symbolic shorthand for intellectual knowledge, so it probably shouldn't be surprising that our Growing Older list looks at the limits of human knowledge and its contrast with some sort of experiential or spiritual insight through the use of characters who embody one or the other. 

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On 5/18/2019 at 9:39 AM, kenmorefield said:

Ironically, I was discussing World Cinema with a guy at conference this weekend, and this pervasive pessimism was my central knock on why I've always had a hard time warming up to Bergman. Maybe it's time for me to revisit WS. 

 

Also, I think it is interesting how many professors were on our Growing Older nominations. (Although we didn't nominate Stalker, my conversant reminded me that one of the characters in Stalker was "The Professor." This profession is an easy symbolic shorthand for intellectual knowledge, so it probably shouldn't be surprising that our Growing Older list looks at the limits of human knowledge and its contrast with some sort of experiential or spiritual insight through the use of characters who embody one or the other. 

I have a hard time with Bergman too for the same reason. It's easy for me to recognize his masterful use of the film medium but extremely difficult to emotionally recover after watching such hopeless views of humanity. I only watched Wild Strawberries for the sake of this list and experienced nothing close to my usual Bergman-induced depression. Much like the professor in Madadaayo, Dr. Borg recognizes that with age comes the decision to either let himself fade away or to allow his professorial relationships to change in ways that continue to bring transformation. The aging process for him becomes a type of spiritual awakening where he recognizes the limitations of human knowledge and wants to encourage the younger people around him to seek wisdom more lasting in addition to the human knowledge that he continues to value. Even though the people who became surrogates for students in the story (his daughter-in-law and those they traveled with) didn't receive his attempts to impart wisdom very well, Dr. Borg's willingness to embody both an intellectual and spiritual knowledge keeps the movie centered in the possibility for better lives than these characters were currently experiencing. To call it optimistic would be wrong, but Wild Strawberries possesses enough hope to steer clear of the relentless pessimism we've grown accustomed to seeing from Bergman. It left me with the sense that Bergman must have believed people are capable of changing for the better and of encouraging the same transformation in others, but that he was merely reluctant to expect it as normative. 

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