Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wild Strawberries (1957) - #139

Beneath your benevolent exterior, you're as hard as nails. But you can't fool us who have seen you at close quarters.

In 1957, Ingmar Bergman was coming into his prime. Nearly twenty years of work in film and theater began to pay off in more than just steady work; his films were generating worldwide acclaim, with the most prestigious  awards and weighty consideration of his artistic merits accompanying each new release. Smiles of a Summer Night provided a foundation of commercial success that enabled him to pursue riskier, more personal subject matter. The Seventh Seal solidified his stature as an auteur of the highest rank, and the reputation for quality established by his talented company of actors and technicians put him on a career path that surely must have yielded much in the way of personal satisfaction and pride of achievement.

And yet, Bergman himself remained a troubled, conflicted man. Not yet  forty, he had already experienced two divorces, was in the midst of a third marriage destined for failure, and his affair with one of the many beautiful actresses he employed over the years, Bibi Andersson, was also foundering at the very time that he had cast her as an object of desire in his current film production. On top of these personal complications and heartbreaks, his relationship with his parents was painfully strained, he was tormented by religiously-derived doubts and anxieties and felt burdened by a fear of death. Despite the many trappings of external success and creative expressions that would have seemed capable of offering a measure of fulfillment, Bergman still had deep-seated issues to work out. Turning to the outlet that served him best, he wrote and filmed Wild Strawberries, a crucial work in his filmography that by his own admission played a major part in helping him resolve at least some of these inner conflicts and continue the process of moving ahead with his life.

Wild Strawberries followed hard on the heels of The Seventh Seal, released a scant ten months after that earlier masterpiece. Without doing much research to back up my claim, I challenge anyone to name two more influential movies made by the same director, released in such a short interval. Even more impressive to me is that the films are so different in temperature and historic settings: a medieval allegory, typically considered cold and formal, followed up by a modern day road film noted for its relative warmth and sentiment (by Bergman's standards, anyway.) That's not to say they are utterly distinct from each other, because the parallels can easily be pointed out as well: a world-weary protagonist embarks on a journey, accompanies others along his way, arrives at his destination only after facing down a series of regrets and fears, which having successfully met the challenge results in an embrace of the unchangeable facts of life and a comfortable acceptance of the inevitability of death. Bergman was not yet halfway through his life when he made this film (and achieved at least a partial measure of relief from his dread, though the symptoms never completely went away, judging from his subsequent body of work) but it's clear that this deeply introspective, self-aware man had spent a lot of time pondering the mysteries of aging. As a result, he produced a work of art that is strangely prophetic of the old age he ended up living.

Criterion made a brilliant choice of including a late-in-life video interview with Bergman as the main supplement for this DVD. He was roughly the same age as Wild Strawberries' central character, Dr. Isak Borg, when he sat down with a friend and filmmaker to discuss his life and work. His comments, which begin with a discussion of the honorary awards and degrees that his career accomplishments earned from prestigious academies on various parts of the globe, provide the perfect context to see just how closely his own biographical arc followed that of Dr. Borg; though Bergman himself seems to have come to his own sense of realization at a younger age, that simple knowledge of self wasn't enough to protect him from the string of regrets and broken relationships that Borg ponders in the course of his day's journey into night as capture on film.

I suppose that I should get around to telling you what I think of the movie itself! Wild Strawberries is one of those foundational works of classic world cinema that, even if one is only just now viewing it for the first time, easily demonstrates its significance and credentials with only a minimal amount of reflection. There's a reason that when the Criterion Collection put together Volume One of its Essential Art House series of bare-bones discount DVDs, Wild Strawberries was prominently featured. More accessible and less off-putting than The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries epitomizes the formidable combination of elements that make Bergman's movies so great, with practically flawless execution in every aspect of film making: script, acting, cinematography, narrative innovation and all the artsy touches and symbolic richness that sustain and even demand multiple viewings in order to fully appreciate and extract its communicative power. All without descending into willful obscurity or excessive pretension. I know those qualities are in the eye of the beholder, but compared to the steps Bergman took in later films to challenge his audiences, Wild Strawberries is about as mainstream, approachable and universally appealing as any of his serious works. (I'll posit the comedic Smiles of a Summer Night as an effective crowd pleaser as well.)

This short clip of various scenes strung together gives a nice wordless overview of significant moments from Borg's journey. It's probably more effective as an evocation to those who've seen the film than as an introduction or sampler to anyone who hasn't. But to those who have yet to seek out Wild Strawberries, my main ambition in having you read this is to simply compel your attention: if you're interested in Criterion-style movies, you really need to get acquainted with this one.

Another indication of Wild Strawberries deservedly canonical status is the amount of contrarian blowback that it's generated. In reading up on it over the past week or so, I was a bit surprised at first to read some of the negative takes on the film, written mainly (it seems) by critics looking to differentiate themselves from the scholarly consensus that Bergman created an unambiguous masterwork in this film. I can appreciate the necessity of taking down universally revered works, and I won't say that Wild Strawberries demands the status of "unassailable" - no movie or any work of art deserves that kind of endorsement. But the familiarity of Wild Strawberries and the multiple homages it's generated from admiring directors and screenwriters over the past 50 years are more to blame, in my opinion, for the knee-capping that some writers seek to give this film more than anything egregious on Bergman's part.

So I find at this time that I have little to add that wouldn't sound derivative of others' comments when it comes to pointing out my admiration for the dream sequences, the striking performances of Victor Sjostrom, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson in particular or the gorgeous camera work of Gunnar Fischer. It probably doesn't help me that my friends over at CriterionCast.com recently spoke about Wild Strawberries on their podcast and I mentally find myself echoing some of the points they made as I gauge my own reaction to the film! In my regard, Wild Strawberries isn't so much a part of the process of discovery that I'm going through as I watch all these Criterion films - it's a movie I've seen several times over the years, probably more than just about any of the others, with only a few exceptions. Coming back to watch it again was just a confirmation of so much of what I admire about Bergman's craft: his ability to artistically connect with a wide range of inner doubts and turmoils that affect us all in different ways, respecting his audience enough to both deliver his own provocative insights and opinions without feeling the need to manipulate us into agreement or ridicule those who persist in their own disagreement. The real discovery on this disc is indeed the documentary feature I mentioned above. At the conclusion of Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work, he says one of many revealing things that I'll quote here:
In the first place, I'm a craftsman, and I make a good product. I make a product that's to be used, and I'll be terribly upset if it suddenly turns out that nobody wants to use my product... It's like making a good article for everyday use, a good table or a comfortable chair.
I like that image of his films as solid, old-fashioned craftsmanship. Wild Strawberries, with its themes of old age, unfulfilled romantic longings, foolish vanities and ambitions that obstruct what's most real and precious in our lives and the continual possibility of reconciliation with those we've wronged for as long as we draw breath, is a product I can lean on, one that can withstand my weight, providing a place for calm repose and reflection whenever I take a moment to put it to good use.

Eclipse Review: Black River

Next: A Dancer's World


bza said...

I'm not going to beat Bergman, but I hate to let such an intriguing challenge go by the wayside. I think the directors that come closest off the top of my head are Preston Sturges in 1941 (Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve), Alfred Hitchcock in 1958-59 (Vertigo, North by Northwest), and Billy Wilder in 1959-60 (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment). Oh, and Coppola in '72 with Godfather II and The Conversation, that wasn't too shabby.

Anyway, I love Wild Strawberries, even though Winter Light probably just overtook it as my favorite Bergman film. I can't imagine anyone not being moved on a personal level by this movie.

Dave said...

Wow! I love the immediacy of your feedback almost as much as the content of your comment! Nice job with that, I'm truly impressed by your mastery of film history and your powers of recollection. I think you've mounted some worthy challenges there - a brief spin over to IMDb will help to see if anyone's managed to beat the ten-month threshold that Bergman established (plus, he also direct four stage plays in 1957!)

Winter Light is an incredible piece of work, no doubt about that. I have a few other Bergmans to get through before I revisit that gem, but I get what you're saying. The sparseness and intensity of the dialog is so amazing. But as for Wild Strawberries, you're right. The way it puts a whole life in retrospect, basically forcing us to reckon with our own versions of youthful disappointments, opportunities lost for whatever reason, owning up to our frailties and arrogance... to nitpick with Bergman or fault him on some fine point or technical level, or just blow it off as irrelevant... well, that's just sad. I wouldn't want to be that person.

james1511 said...

This was my first Bergman, which I saw when I was 19, and I liked it so much that it still baffles me a bit as to why I've liked so few of the other Bergman films I've seen since then. I have a similar relationship to Wings of Desire, which I also first saw around that age and loved, and have since disliked almost everything else I've seen by Wenders (and have cooled towards Wings of Desire too).

My records indicate I've got Wild Strawberries on VHS somewhere, taped off TV, so I presume I've seen it at least once since that first time... or maybe I just taped without watching, maybe I just wanted it for the tape archive. Either way it's been a lot of years since I would've last seen it, and I wonder how I'd react to it were I to revisit it now...

Dave said...

James, without getting too nosy, how many years has it been since you were 19? :) I ask because I think that Wild Strawberries is the kind of film that can hit us in different ways based on where we're at in life when we first watch it. What stood out to you as your main reason for liking it back then?

Most of the characters present a more sympathetic side than the usual austere detachment and strained repression we typically get from Bergman. There are even notes of sweetness to be found as tensions diminish toward the end, even if they seem only momentarily resolved. In my most recent viewing, the marital conflicts between Marianne and Evald fascinated me more than Dr. Borg's introspections. Even though my marriage is considerably happier than theirs, that stage of life seems more vital and easier for me to relate to than the old man's... but I know that phase is drawing ever closer.

Dave said...

One other thought I want to add here. In October, I reviewed The Magician as a new release over on CriterionCast.com, and noted that Wild Strawberries was due for a Blu-ray overhaul now that The Seventh Seal had gone through the upgrade. I think a great new supplemental feature to add would be some kind of retrospective on Victor Sjostrom, either a biographical documentary or one of the films he made/starred in. Or both! Sjostrom is such a central figure and apparently revered within Swedish cinema, but I have never seen any of his work. I think Criterion ought to be able to swing the rights to something he did way back when without too much difficulty.

james1511 said...

Too many years :) To be more precise, it was 1994 when I saw it. I wish I could remember why I found it so appealing back then.

I've seen a few Sjostroms, both Swedish and American, and I think I've liked most of them (He Who Gets Slapped is a bit too weird and is really only palatable because of Lon Chaney). If Criterion were to assemble an Eclipse box of some of his extant works, I'd pay good money for it.