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.

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
. I had dug everything else of Bergman’s that I had been
exposed to, so I was game.

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.

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.

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.

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