“Nostalgia” originates from the Greek “nostos” (return home) and “algos” (pain). This February, my grandfather passed away. As he began to slip away, he swiftly grasped at the air with his hands. I asked him what he was reaching for, and he said he was ready to go home. Naturally, we all assumed he was making a grand proclamation that he was about to ascend into heaven. He clarified that he was reaching for his keys and as he struggled to get up he restated, “I want to go home to 101”. 101 Edgehill Road is the address my grandfather resided in for over 50 years and is the home that he entrusted to my care. His determination to return to 101 was quite remarkable and utterly surreal.
After watching Ingmar Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES, when I reflect on my grandfather’s last moments I realized that the “101” he spoke of exists parallel to this reality. Even though he could not physically get there from his hospital bed, he was already there, which was perhaps more poignant and necessary for accepting his own mortality.
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Humans have an obsession with preserving their legacy, hence one of the reasons we have museums. The ubiquitousness of smartphones and the desire to record every moment in our lives has created a strange phenomenon within museums. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to see a painting in an art museum in its raw form, some spectators snap a photograph and move on without even looking at the painting themselves. Their camera acts as a proxy, recording their “memory” that is probably then posted online to prove they were there.
Photography is the greatest offender when it comes to an inaccurate portrayal of memory, or worse, a false sense of memory. Photographs lie because they will never have the capacity that humans have to operate multiple facets of their senses simultaneously, especially the subconscious.
Last December, I went to Portland, Maine to see the work of my favorite artist, Andrew Wyeth. The other contingent of Wyeth’s work is housed in his native Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Wyeth’s work inspired by Maine is never exhibited in Pennsylvania and vice versa. Why? It loses its meaning when taken out of context. I remember being singled out by a gallery officer for my behavior in the gallery. Was I acting like a punk? No. I had my face as close to the painting as possible without touching the surface as well as craning my neck as horizontal as I could (a trick I picked up from my artist uncle) to view the paintings upside down. That experience enriches my memory of the painting far more than if I took a picture of it. It’s the sensation of sharing the same space and interacting with Wyeth’s work in the atmosphere that inspired him that is memorable.
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WILD STRAWBERRIES treats the audience to a lovely scene of a beautiful, innocent woman collecting strawberries on an idyllic Swedish countryside. This is interrupted by a relentless suitor who causes the woman, named Sara, to spill the strawberries, ruining the delicacy of the scene. Another intruder is Professor Isak Borg, the quintessential wise old man, who through his voyeuristic memory, watches Sara, the proverbial “one that got away”, leave him for his lothario brother.
Professor Isak yearns for this failed relationship by recalling these flashbacks. The purpose of these flashbacks are not a narrative device to give the audience a background to the story. Instead, they are a vital context to which we can understand Professor Isak Borg. He uses the flashbacks to interact with his current state with these memories and concoct hypothetical suppositions about Sara’s motives for leaving him. He also discloses his fears of failure through surrealistic dreams full of imagery that would make Salvador Dali salivate.
Sara becomes the fruit of the strawberry plant, the very heart and focus of what motivates Isak’s actions for the remainder of his life. The audience must navigate through the gnarled and tangled roots of Isak’s memory that sprout off into emotional tangents that Isak tangles himself and those around him in. The only person that prevents the strawberry plant from withering away is the seeds that come to fruition in Isak’s daughter-in-law, Marianne.
Marianne delivers a scathing but honest character analysis of Isak, who is slated to receive a honorary degree for his work in the medical field. Feeling fairly satisfied with himself and his legacy, he is initially unmoved by her opinion. As he traverses his complex recollections of his past, she becomes a rebirth or reincarnation for Isak. It is Marianne, not Sara, who imparts her wisdom onto Isak that makes him feel content to leave this world knowing she will bring her own little seed (his grandchild) to life. Youth, manifested in the preservation of Sara’s pure and innocent state can continue to exist through Marianne and eventually, his grandchild.
INGMAR BERGMAN, our gardener, produces a bounty of stimulating quotes throughout WILD STRAWBERRIES. The most prolific is from Isak:
It’s not inconceivable that I came to think of a thing or two associated with the places where we played as children. I don’t know how it happened, but the day’s clear reality flowed into dreamlike images. I don’t even know if it was a dream, or memories which arose with the force of real events.
The importance of surrealistic films is the portrayal of the memory. Selective memories, although inaccurate because we remember only what we want and flesh out the holes with our own inventions can be more accurate than reality. Exaggerating an account of memory helps the viewer, especially an audience, really understand what is attempting to be conveyed because it is so overwhelming. Disagree? Think about it again, I bet you’ll remember it differently.