Movie NewsIan ArbuckleComment

Late to the party

As I post this essay, I’m down in Los Angeles, watching my older brother’s graduation ceremonies. He’s getting awarded his Ph.D. in Something Technical, which makes him the first Doctor Arbuckle in the family. I’m not sure exactly what the official papers will call him, but he works with nanorobotics, and getting swarms of fast, cheap, out-of-control robots to communicate with each other enough to bend them to a scientist’s will.

Against this incredible experience, I come to you with another retrospective Late to the Party. As I did with last fortnight’s Pulp Fiction column, I’m going to turn back a few years to my inaugural months as a film geek. Two weeks from now, I’ll be writing about a movie I really ought to have seen years ago, but haven’t yet. It’s on my shelf. It’s gonna be great.

But this week has got me all misty-eyed as I consider Ingmar Bergman’s:

Wild Strawberries

It’s kind of hard not to arrive late to the Bergman party, given the decades of his most potent productions. I’m a young guy, just growing to fit my own passions, and so have overshot even the awkward admission of, say, not having caught The Seventh Seal during its theatrical run. It’s all old stuff, so this week’s column is about how my first experience with Wild Strawberries woke me up to the clamor of a completely different party I had until then been sleeping through.

My story starts with a man named Leonard. Leonard is the prime mover in my cinematic universe, the fellow who gave me most of the momentum that I carry through my approach and experience of movies today. He was one of my professors in college, and was within a long jump of retiring when I met him. (I’d like to note, though, that he soldiers on as a professor, because I believe his life essence is derived from good jokes, good language, and good people.) He was a fount of knowledge, with many different, discrete streams: cinema, literature, travel, alcohol, and horticulture. He was exactly the type of man who had made me want to be an English major in the first place.

As with most (read: all) people I admire, I was terrified of him at first meeting. Not just because he was an admirable human being, but because he represented the huge disparity between youth and manhood. I was a youth. I didn’t have a firm grasp on my manhood, except when I could get the shower stalls to myself.

There are some people who can stand at the bottom of a mountain, gaze up at the peak, and feel invigorated by the obstacle of the distance between their origin and the summit. I’ve got one of those B-grade brains that sees a lofty goal and thinks, “Damn. I’ve got that much further to go? I would like a taco.” Nevertheless, I tried to hang around Leonard as much as possible, and we developed a nice friendship by the end of the school year; nice enough, anyway, that he let me have my pick of the English department’s sizable DVD collection. There were several discs in the resulting stack that will probably appear in future editions of this column, but one that Leonard particularly recommended to me was Wild Strawberries. I had dug everything else of Bergman’s that I had been exposed to, so I was game.

“You know,” Leonard said. “I tell students not to read Ulysses until they’ve read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The same consideration works here. You’ve seen Silence and The Seventh Seal, so I think you’ll find this rewarding.”

If you, too, are a bit late to the Bergman party, Wild Strawberries tells the story of an old doctor traveling through a countryside haunted by his memories, on his way to receive a commendation for his services to humanity. Each stop along the way opens successive doors of dammed remembering, building the doctor’s image of himself.

It would be quite a stretch to draw direct parallels between a socially retarded college student and Bergman’s empty protagonist, so for the sake of honesty I have to make a couple cognitive hops, here. Upon finishing Wild Strawberries, I immediately felt something like suicidal. (There can be no higher recommendation for a film, yes?) With the impulse to suicide, a depressive thinks that life would be better if he could somehow bypass the present difficulties. I wasn’t quite that bad, but I was overcome with a kind of reverse nostalgia; I wanted to have already lvied through all my difficulties, to be an old man whose obstacles were introspective, and could be dealt with through dignity.

From there, I had to chide myself (I wrote so in my journal; then I gave myself four lashes) for idiocy, and, since I was a college boy fully in thrall of my professors, try to boil down my experience of the film into a thesis. I don’t remember what that thesis was, but I can guarantee it used the word “ostensibly,” and was far too ugly to live.

There does remain a bit of what reined in my easy-way-out longing, though: parallels did not exist between Wild Strawberries and my life, but there was a connection solid enough to lock the movie into one of the memory cubbies in my head. Decisions are made, Bergman says. When you apply those decisions to your life with full consideration of the present, and very little consideration for either the past or the future, you give yourself a blind spot into which regret sidles.

Ironically, then, Wild Strawberries made think I was, perhaps, further an idiot for choosing to study English, rather than cognitive science, or business kinesiology, or girls, or something. Why was I wasting my time with stories? Wasn’t I leaving a big hole in my perception from which shit could blindside me, just by pinning my education on an impetus no more powerful than: “I like to read.”

This is why people in their twenties can’t — and shouldn’t — write memoirs. I’m afraid you’re going to have to stick with me another fifty-odd years, at least, before you get an answer to those questions. I look forward to getting an award around then. Knowing me, I’ll probably be late to that party, too. In the meantime, I’m going to see exactly how much money I can bum off my older brother as he enters his $60/hr telecommuting job in the computer sciences.

Come back in two weeks’ time for my experience with a classic movie, the title of which I’m keeping as a surprise, because I’m still faintly nervous that if I admit to not having seen this flick someone will cut me. And shoot me an e-mail to tell me I sound stoned at