My wife Sally and I live in a retirement community in the Sacramento Valley, where in the summer it’s hot and lately has been smoky from the wildfires that blaze up in California every year. This being so, we welcome an annual July visit to our old friends Frank and Judy Miller who live outside of Seattle. On our latest visit, we started talking about what movies were our all-time favorites. Sally, who’s from the South, unhesitatingly named “Gone With the Wind.” I forget which ones Frank and Judy named but think “An American in Paris” and “Gigi” were included; they like musicals. Interestingly, no one mentioned the perennial choice “Citizen Kane.” I threw out one of Ingmar Bergman’s films “Wild Strawberries” and it turned out they had it on a CD so the next night we watched it.
The protagonist of “Wild Strawberries” is an elderly doctor/scientist (and possibly professor) who’s going to receive an award in his home town, Lund, later that day. The movie starts with an “unsettling” dream in which he’s on a deserted street, sees a clock with no hands, checks his pocket watch but it too has no hands, a coffin spills out of a hearse, he opens the coffin to find the corpse in it is himself. This is the first of several dream sequences. The doctor is driven to Lund by his pregnant daughter-in-law, who has left her husband, an icy person, because he doesn’t want a child. As it develops, the doctor is an icy person who’s lost his first girl friend because he’s a goody-goody and a more aggressive cousin gets her. He has an unhappy marriage with a wife who mocks him with her infidelity. His son, it turns out, is also icy. On the drive, they pick up a young girl and two young men and stop at a gas station whose attendant, in a minor role, is Max Von Sydow.
The movie, as I saw, dated back to 1959, which meant that I was around 30 when I first saw it. The elderly professor was 78 years old, which seemed pretty old then, but now he was ten years younger than myself. No one except me especially liked the movie and Judy asked me what it was about. I told her “life, death and the appearance of Max von Sydow.” I was tired and sleepy and didn’t want a long discussion with Judy, who enjoyed such things. But when we went to bed I started to think about the film and realized that I had an entirely different view of it.
When I first saw “Wild Strawberries,” probably in an art movie in Manhattan, the doctor seemed old and decrepit, bent over and walking with a stick. Despite his prestige, he seemed to have had an unhappy life. He lost his first love, had a bad marriage, his son didn’t like him and, until the end of the movie, neither did his daughter-in-law. I certainly didn’t see anything of myself in him. But now that I too was old, bent over and walked with a stick, I could easily identify with him.
In that first dream sequence, when he sees that the corpse in the coffin is himself, I took it to mean that he was afraid of dying. At my advanced age, I couldn’t help but think occasionally of my death and I too was scared of it. I didn’t have a bad marriage and I wasn’t estranged from my sons but, like the professor, I had regrets. I certainly wasn’t going to receive any awards because of my career. I’d lost my job with a paper company when it downsized and had taken a safe civil service job with the State, where I’d stayed for 27 years. After I retired, I’d become a free-lance writer for our local paper and then for a senior paper. I also wrote short stories which appeared in online magazines but when I collected them into e-books they sold almost nothing. If I’d had any hopes of becoming a best-selling author I’d long since given up on them.
The young people they pick up on the drive I thought represented the energy and hope of youth in contrast to the regrets of old age. Toward the end of the movie, the doctor reconciles with his daughter-in-law and seems about to forgive a loan he’s made to his son. Then, at the end he recalls a scene from his youth, when he sees his father fishing and everything is calm and serene. Of late, I’d been remembering scenes from my own youth when, despite having grown up during the Depression, I was also happy and felt safe. The scene I most recalled was sitting in a living room chair at night reading a book from a pile I’d gotten that afternoon when I’d gone to the library with my mother. When I was doing this whatever worries I might have had faded away into the distance and I felt safe and secure for that moment. With this thought, I fell asleep.