"2001: A Space Odyssey" - Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest of all film directors, would retain that eminence even if he had directed no other film than 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  That seminal work drew only mixed reviews [1] and a tepid box-office when it was first released, but it is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made [2,3,4,5,6].  For example, for the British Film Institute’s 2012 polls of international critics and film directors concerning the all-time greatest films, 2001: A Space Odyssey was ranked 2nd on the directors’ poll [7] and 6th on the critics’ poll [8]. Interestingly, though, there is some confusion and varied interpretations, even among the film’s most fervent fans, concerning the film’s ultimate message [9].  I will offer my own suggestions on that matter below.

The film’s story was co-scripted by Kubrick and renowned British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke [10], and it was inspired by Clarke’s earlier story, “The Sentinel” (1951).  But as their lengthy scriptwriting collaboration evolved, Kubrick and Clarke made significant changes in the story and even came to hold somewhat differing views on what should be included.  They were also jointly and concurrently working on a sci-fi novel of the same story, but gradually the novel became Clarke’s exclusive project and came to represent Clarke’s own particular perspective.  When Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was published a few months after the film’s release [9], the substantially contrasting perspectives of Clarke and Kubrick became more evident. Clarke’s view was more schematic and definite, and his novel offered concrete explanations for enigmatic aspects of the film.  But Kubrick, who felt that films could express feelings and experiences that were beyond the possibilities of text, did not hold to what many felt were Clarke’s banal views – he preferred to leave the film’s open-ended cosmic suggestions up to the minds of his viewers.  Most of us who regard 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a great film feel that way, too.  So my comments here are only with regard to the film as we have it.

Before discussing the structure of the film in more detail, however, it is worth mentioning some aspects of the production as a whole.  Kubrick was sometimes considered to be a cinematic “all rounder”, inasmuch as he dipped into many different genres over his career: epic blockbusters, historical films, war films, comedies, films noir, etc.  So at a casual glance, his films may seem rather dissimilar.  Nevertheless, there were some common aspects to them. 

One common element was the technical craftsmanship of his productions, and this was certainly on display in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  After almost fifty years, the film does not appear at all dated or technically unsound, even though it was dealing with outer-space travel.  The technical work for the film, which was supervised by Douglas Trumbull, was performed well before the current level of computer animation was available, but it still looks as convincing today as when the film was released.

Another common aspect of Kubrick’s work is the portrayal of a dark, narcissistic personality. These people are ostensibly normal, but at some point they reveal their utter lack of empathy that leaves a chill with the viewer. This dark human portrayal is accompanied by an eerie sense of loneliness. Even when there are other people about, one gets this pervasive sense of loneliness that hangs over the entire tale.  And so it occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey, too.

The story of 2001: A Space Odyssey that Kubrick presents to the viewer is not a linear narrative but something more like a cinematic symphony with four “movements” [12].  Even the individual movements are not actually coherent narratives, but they do comprise some narrative fragments.  Although these movements seem quite distinct and relatively disconnected, they do not stand alone – the viewer’s appreciation of these movements depends on their being viewed in the overall context.

It is notable that the first and last movements of the film contain no dialogue, and even the dialogue in the second movement is mostly mundane small talk.  Instead of dialogue, the sound track often features classical music pieces and abstract chorales that convey a sense of interiority and isolation from the external world.

1.  The Dawn of Man
The films opens on an African savannah several million years ago where a band of protohuman apes is struggling with another, similar group of apes over the control of a water pond.   One morning, they wake up to see a huge slate stone rectangular pyramid, a monolith, stuck in the ground before them. The apes are frightened but curious about the monolith and where it came from.  It is clear to the viewer that the monolith is not natural; its perfectly tall and thin rectangular shape was fashioned by an intelligent producer of some kind.

Shortly thereafter, one of the apes thinks about the monolith for a second and then grabs a large leg bone of a dead animal and swings it like a club.  This is supposed to be the first realization that objects can be used as tools to enhance a person’s manual capabilities.  The ape is the first instance of Man, the Tool-User.  And, of course, one kind of tool of great import is the weapon.  Soon the other apes of this band are using their bone clubs to kill other animals for food and defeat their enemies in battles.   In a fit of unrestrained joy, the original ape throws his club into the air and the film cuts forward millions of years to an image of a satellite in the near future (presumably the year is 2000, which was the future at the time of this film’s’ production).

2.  Mission to the Moon
A middle-aged American military officer, Dr. Heywood Floyd (played by William Sylvester), is shown traveling as the lone passenger on a space shuttle to an orbiting space station, and now the first dialogue appears 23 minutes into the film. For the most part this movement focuses on how everyday life, even in outer space, has become routinized and machine-like.  Even the conversations avoid substance, such as when Floyd skirts discussing with Russian colleagues his upcoming mission to the Moon. 

Floyd then travels, again as the only passenger, on a spaceship to the Moon, where his mission is to investigate the recent discovery of another black monolith, identical in form to the one seen in the first movement.  It has been determined that it was buried far below the Moon’s surface four million years ago, but nothing more is known about it. Since the monolith is recognized as a product of some extraterrestrial intelligence, its discovery is top-secret.  When Floyd and some fellow investigative personnel go out and visit the uncovered monolith, it suddenly begins emitting intense electromagnetic radiation directed towards the planet Jupiter.

3.  Jupiter Mission – 18 Months later 
The action now jumps forward to an exploratory first space mission to Jupiter.  The secret goal is to investigate the targets of the mysterious monolith’s emissions.  Onboard the spacecraft are five personnel, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with three other astroscientists placed in hibernation for the voyage.  A sixth “member of the crew” is an onboard HAL 9000 computer, known as “HAL” (note that the succeeding alphabetic-order letters of “HAL” form “IBM” [4]).  HAL is the most advanced implementation of man’s development of artificial intelligence, and it has been programmed to be able to converse in English with the crew members concerning mission operations [13].

While Frank and Dave display dry, businesslike personalities, HAL’s conversation displays a more human-like concern.  “He” even shows a certain amount of pride concerning his presumed infallibility.  This has led many critics to assert that HAL is more human than the others.  I would say it’s more of a ruse on the part of HAL’s programmers.  HAL turns out to be the most chillingly narcissistic and diabolical of all of Kubrick’s empathy-less villains, and this is one of the film’s major signposts.

It turns out that HAL is the only crew participant who has been fully informed of the mission’s true purpose, and it has been instructed to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the mission’s success. HAL asks probing questions of Dave to check up on his mission reliability and then soon reports a fault on the spacecraft’s AE-35 external telecommunications module, which requires one of them to go outside the craft and investigate the unit.  When the removed unit shows no signs of dysfunction, Frank and Dave become suspicious of HAL’s supposed infallibility. They consider the possibility of deactivating HAL. 

HAL gets wind of their suspicions, however, and soon kills Frank and the three hibernating crew members.  It looks like Dave, who is stranded in an extravehicular activity (EVA) pod outside the spacecraft, is finished, too, but he just barely manages to reenter the spacecraft through its manual emergency exit.  He then grimly sets about deactivating HAL’s RAM memory, which leads HAL to a whimpering dementia.  Then Dave continues on the mission alone. 

4.  Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
As Dave’s spaceship nears Jupiter, we see another monolith orbiting the planet, and Dave gets into an EVA pod to investigate it.  As his pod approaches the monolith, he seems to enter into another, inner dimension – the film moves into a 12-minute phantasmagoria of shifting color and sound. Significantly, I think, the dynamic images gradually shift from abstract geometrical patterns to more organic imagery. The phantasmagorical light show closes with the EVA pod shown standing in an elegantly furnished 18th century bedroom. 

Dave, shell-shocked by what has happened, peers out of the pod window to see a considerably aged image of himself still in his spacesuit standing in the room.  The gaze shifts successfully to another, more-aged version of Dave wearing a bathrobe and then to a very old man near death in the bed, who looks up to see the monolith standing at the foot of his bed.  He then appears to be transformed into a large embryo containing a sentient child, the “Star Child”.  The final shot shows the Star Child orbiting the earth and looking downward.

As I mentioned above, the ultimate meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a matter of controversy, especially if we follow Kubrick’s more mystical path, rather than Clarke’s more schematic account. What role do the monoliths play?  Are they triggers for new evolutionary stages, or are they merely passive monitors for intelligent extraterrestrial beings? Some people see religious connections and suggestions of higher spiritual powers.  I will suggest here, though, that a key aspect concerns man’s existential comportment towards the world, and in so doing, I will offer a reason for that 18th century decor in the closing scene.

In the opening movement, the protohuman ape discovers the potency of tools, and more specifically, tools as weapons.  In general a tool extends the agency of a person and enhances his or her capabilities with respect to certain types of actions.  At this moment in the film, the ape discovered not only a tool, but the concept of a tool, which led to the gradually increasing empowerment of humans over nature.  When the story moves forward to the year 2000, it has skipped over many major milestones – writing, machines, the gun, the steam engine, airplanes, computers, etc. – but they all follow from the original realization of the nature of a tool.  However, although a tool enhances man’s capabilities with respect to certain actions, it can also restrict the range of actions, too.  When I drive my car, I can travel fast and far, but I may also be more restricted to where I can go.  It all depends on nature’s affordances with respect to the tools developed.

By the year 2000 men are shown to be flying to the Moon with these tools, but they also seem more restricted, too.  The men shown are key components, it is true, of vast and powerful machines, but they also seem to be somewhat machine-like, themselves. When, for example, Heywood Floyd speaks to his daughter on a videophone in the second movement and when Frank Poole similarly receives a birthday greeting from his parents in the third movement, they both seem dispassionate and preoccupied with their prescribed routines.  Their freedom of action is significantly constrained. The men have handed over some of their autonomy to let the tools and machines do the job.

By the third movement, we get to see the naturally next phase of this tool expansion progression.  Men are not only shown following prescribed rules to use their machines, they are also delegating their decisions to computers and hence subjecting themselves to the rigors of mechanical algorithmic decision making.  An algorithm, after all, is actually logical mechanism that can execute logic-based sequences of actions, such as rapidly searching through a space of possibilities and arriving at the “optimal” decision.  Of course algorithms were being used all the way along in this account of man’s history, but by the third movement the computer algorithms were taking over the major decision-making of life.  In fact this is where we, ourselves, are getting to in the world today, with “Big Data” taking over more and more of our own decision-making and hence of our humanity.  2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrates Kubrick’s prescience in this regard almost fifty years ago.

This is not to suggest that algorithmic decision making is bad, but only to question whether it should serve as the fundamental basis for our interactions in the world.  Today we are facing a proposed major paradigm shift to the new notion of “Dataism” [14].  According to this view, the entire universe, including biological organisms, consists of particles governed by mechanistic rules of interaction; and with our always accelerating data-processing capabilities, we are now approaching the point where we can participate most effectively in this cosmic system by processing vast amounts of collected data. As Yuval Noah Harari has commented, “given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves” [15].  So just as Rational Humanism began to replace Theism as the great metaphysical stance around the 18th century, Dataists believe that their stance relying on computational “Big Data” will replace Rational Humanism. 

To see what this means, consider what happened when Rational Humanism of the Enlightenment (it has many other names, but it is the basis of our modernistic world view) came to the fore. Prior to this rise, the authoritative guide to life was based on the rigid authority of theological doctrine backed up by the unlimited authority of celestial deities.  With Rational Humanism, man alone was seen as the authoritative guide to truth.  This not only meant reliance on human reason, but also reliance on the human heart, too.  It is important to remember this point – that Rational Humanism involves heartfelt feelings as well as rational thinking. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading Enlightenment figure in 18th century France, emphasized this point when he said that his authoritative decision-maker concerning what to do lies
“in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.” [16]
Thus according to the Rational Humanists, it is authentic human feeling and empathy that tells us what is the right thing to do.  We consult the “god” within us, rather than handing things over to an external authority.  Of course, an individual can sometimes be mistaken, so we collectively rely on one-man-one-vote democracy and not on expert authorities to govern our world.  Each person is irreducible according to this scheme. This has become so natural to us now that we take it for granted.

Dataism, however, seeks to negate this view in favor of computational efficacy based on the statistics-based correlations of “Big Data”. This effectively represents a proposal to put HAL in charge of everything, and this is what Kubrick was warning us about in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When the action in the film moves in the fourth movement to the 18th century bedroom, I believe Kubrick is foretelling mankind‘s hoped-for evolutionary move that will restore the balance between heart and mind that was sought by the Rational Humanists.  This harmony was also similarly urged by Nietzsche, who referred to it in terms of the needed balance between the Dionysian and Appolonian modes of existence [17].     

There are other thematic aspects and dimensions to 2001: A Space Odyssey that one might consider.  Some people, remembering Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), see allusions in 2001: A Space Odyssey to global nuclear war.  Certainly the global competition with Russia was in the background and briefly referenced in the film.  But ultimately schematic explanations of the film concerning specific political issues do not do justice to the film’s intuitively non-textual (and hence non-HAL-like) experience.  Kubrick attested to this in an interview in 1969 [18]:
Strangelove was a film where much of its impact hinged on the dialogue, the mode of expression, the euphemisms employed. As a result, it's a picture that is largely destroyed in translation or dubbing. 2001, on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

  1. Renata Adler, “The Screen: '2001' Is Up, Up and Away:Kubrick's Odyssey in Space Begins Run”, New York Times, (4 April 1968).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, RogerEbert.com, (27 March 1997).   
  3. Robert Castle, “The Interpretative Odyssey of 2001: Of Humanity and Hyperspace”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (31 October 31 2004). 
  4. Murtaza Ali Khan, “2001: a Space Odyssey (1968): American Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's Intellectual Extravaganza”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (October 2012). 
  5. Marilyn Ferdinand, “2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)”, Ferdy on Films, (2008).   
  6. Rob Humanick, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Slant Magazine (20 November 2007). 
  7. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  8. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  9. “Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey”, Wikipedia, (18 August 2016).  
  10. Clarke is also famous for having proposed the idea that geostationary satellites could be employed for global telecommunications purposes.
  11. Clarke later published a sequel to his “2001" story, 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), which was subsequently made into a film, 2010, directed by Peter Hyams.
  12. Some critics say there are only three movements (see, for example, reference [3]), but I think the division into four segments is a more natural arrangement.
  13. Interestingly, HAL is said in the film to have become operational on January 12, 1992 – an awfully long time before 2001, given the rapid pace of computer technology development.
  14. Yuval Noah Harari, "Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will”, Financial Times, (26 August 2016). 
  15. Ibid.
  16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education, (1762).
  17. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, (1872).
  18. Joseph Gelmis, “An Interview with Stanley Kubrick (1969)”, The Kubrick Site, (excerpted from The Film Director as Superstar, by Joseph Gelmis, Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York (1970)).

Abrar Alvi

Films of Abrar Alvi:

Mohammed Sadiq

Films of Mohammed Sadiq:

"Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” - Abrar Alvi (1962)

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) was one of the most polished and successful of the Bollywood “Golden Age” films, back when Guru Dutt was a star actor, director, and producer.  This was the last of Dutt’s great works, which also include Mr. and Mrs. ‘55 (1955), Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), and Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960).  Actually, because Kaagaz Ke Phool was a commercial failure at the time of its release, Dutt was not listed as the director of any his subsequent films; but it is generally conceded that both Chaudhvin Ka Chand (directed by Mohammed Sadiq) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (directed by Abrar Alvi) bear the stamp of Dutt’s signature production values [1,2]. Dutt’s expressionistic mise-en-scene, as implemented by Alvi and cinematographer V. K. Murthy (also cinematographer for Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool), included
  • moody, shadow-laden set lighting
  • multi-plane image compositions with fluid camera movements
  • emotive closeups – often as unspoken reaction shots of the principal characters
  • narratively embedded songs

It is all expressed in highly expressionistic and theatrical fashion with dramatic music by Hemant Kumar [3] and exaggerated characterizations (particular in the secondary roles). This is not realism but is instead an emotional, subjective narrative journey.

In the past some of my Indian colleagues have remarked that Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is India’s Gone With the Wind (1939).  I am not sure what they might have meant by this, and there could be several angles from which to view this comparison – for example, both films may be considered to be widely popular romantic “classics” and both films show the decline and fall of a decaying aristocracy. But perhaps the most interesting parallel is the degree to which both films view the world from the perspective of a determined young woman breaking out of her constricted social role [4].  In earlier Indian films I have seen from this period, the perspective is that of a man struggling to find his place.  Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s departure from this trend lends it a special flavor.

The story of the film is based on the Bengali novel Sahib Bibi Golam (“Master Wife Slave”, 1953) by Bimal Mitra, which is set in Calcutta (Kolkata) at the end of the 19th century.  In the film, a young man from the provinces looking for work comes to Calcutta and finds residence at an aristocratic zamindar family’s haveli (villa mansion). Though he does get a job working in a sindoor (a cosmetic for married women) factory outside the haveli, the young man (the ghulam, or servant) develops an ambiguous platonic relationship with a zamindar’s wife (the bibi) living in the haveli.

Over the course of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s winding narrative about the ghulam and the bibi, there are several themes explored:
  • The decline of the decadent aristocracy and Indian modernization.   
    The zamindar families in this film are totally devoted to hedonistic pleasures and are ludicrously out of touch with reality. Because of the film’s expressionistic style, this characterization of decadence is more exaggerated than Satyajit Ray’s more nuanced (but still critical) representation in his The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958).  On the more progressive side of things, but essentially Indian-derived as opposed to being a Western import, was the Brahmo Samaj movement, which flourished in the 19th century.  This was a reform movement within Hinduism that, somewhat like Unitarianism and Sufism in other faiths, sought to be more inclusive and to free the religion from outworn practices such as idol worship and caste-restrictions; and it featured influential contributions from the ancestral families of Rabrindanath Tagore and Satyajit Ray [5].
  • Women’s role.  This is always a major theme in Indian culture, inasmuch as even women from the aristocratic social sectors were highly restricted.
  • Love.  Related to the role of women is the meaning of love and the expected forms that love will take.  I will comment more on this important theme below.
The story of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam covers many activities over the course of roughly six sectors.

1.  A Ruined Haveli   
An architect, whom we will know by his nickname “Bhootnath” (played by Guru Dutt), is overseeing the demotion of a decrepit haveli, which he recognizes as having been his home when he first came to Calcutta as an impoverished servant.  He sits down on a stone and lapses  into his memories.  The rest of the film is told in flashback.

2.  Bhootnath Arrives in Calcutta
On arrival Bhootnath joins his brother-in-law, who is a teacher working for and living with the wealthy Chaudhury zamindar family at their haveli, the same haveli that we have just seen later being dismantled in the opening scene.  The teacher arranges for Bhootnath to stay at the haveli and to begin working outside at a sindoor factory, whose proprietor, Suvinay, is a Brahmo Samaji.  

The zamindar familiy is headed by two debauched brothers, the younger of whom, Chhote Sarkar (played by Guru Dutt regular, Rehman), is totally dissolute.  At night Bhootnath hears the mournful singing (Song #1) of the man’s neglected wife, Bahu (Meena Kumari, in a memorable and award-winning performance). Bhootnath soon learns from his fellow servant Bansi that Chhote Sarkar comes home drunk in the early hours of every morning from a night of depravity at an upscale brothel featuring Nautch girls as courtesans (Song #2). 

At the sindoor factory owner’s residence, Suvinay expresses great curiosity when he hears Bhoonath mention the town that he comes from.  This is an early clue about something that will be revealed later. Bhootnath also meets Suvinay’s perky daughter, Jabba (Waheeda Rehman), who immediately makes fun of Bhootnath’s provincial manners.  But the independent-minded Jabba also takes an immediate fancy to Bhoothath and tries to charm him, too.

At this early stage, the narrative seems to be about Bhootnath and his development.  But as the story progresses, we will see that the focus will shift primarily to the two women – Chhoti Bahu and Jabba – as seen from Bhootnath’s point of view. Unlike other Guru Dutt-starring films, where his agency is critical to the narrative, Bhootnath in this film will remain essentially a male ingenue, a witness to the unfolding drama around him.  Throughout the  film, the story switches its focus back and forth between Chhoti Bahu and Jabba, and we are exposed to a profound difference not only between the two women but also between the kind of love that they offer.

3.  Chhoti Bahu’s Loneliness
Bansi comes to tell Bhootnath that Chhoti Bahu, whom we still haven’t seen, has arranged for him to come to her private quarters in the evening. Having learned that he works at a sindoor factory, she wants him to bring him some special sindoor that she feels may have some magical attractive power to keep her husband from wandering to the nautch girls at night.

That afternoon Bhootnath runs into Jabba again, who has been composing delightful lyrics about a naive and flighty bee (Song #3).  In the evening he visits Chhoti Bahu and agrees to fetch her some sindoor that she seeks.  This is the first time, about fifty minutes into the film, that we actually see Chhoti Bahu, who is the most important character in the story. Although nothing untoward happens between the two, it is clear that Chhoti Bahu is charmed by Bhootnath, and in turn seeks to charm him.  So at this point there appear to be two women interested, to some degree, in Bhootnath: Chhoti Bahu and Jabba.

On the way out of those quarters, he happens to come across another courtesan performing a dance in front of the older zamindar brother, Majhaley Babu, and his entourage (Song #4).

When Bhootnath secretly comes to Chhoti Bahu the next night to give her the requested sindoor, she explains to him that she has been brought up as a proper Hindu wife to worship her husband as a god. Bhootnath is now her confidant and the only person she can explain herself to. 

While Bhootnath and his brother-in-law are later outside on the street, they stumble into a disturbance involving some wantonly violent British soldiers, and in the ruckus Bhootnath winds up getting shot  in his legs.

Later back at the haveli, Chhoti Bahu is prepared with jewelry and the sindoor makeup by her servants to meet her husband.  In anticipation of that hope-for joyous event, she sings a beautiful song (Song #5). When Chhote Sarkar does come, though, he is totally unresponsive to his wife’s charms and rejects her seductive entreaties.

Jabba comes to the haveli to attend to the wounded Bhootnath and has difficulty concealing her jealousy over Bhootnath’s continued attachment to Chhoti Bahu. She suspects that her lower caste separates herself from Bhootnath.

So by this point we see that both of the two women principals are deeply frustrated.

4.  Desperation and Decline
Chhoti Bahu’s husband explains to her that the reason he won’t spend time with her is that she doesn’t sing, dance, and dink wine.  So she decides to succumb further, and she beckons Bhootnath to bring her wine.  Reluctantly, he agrees.  Later, in a disturbing scene, we see the inebriated Chhote Sarkar brutishly forcing wine down his tearful wife’s throat.

Meanwhile Bhootnath learns that Suvinay is critically ill and is closing his sindoor factory, but he is told that Suvinay has secured a position for Bhootnath as an apprentice architect and has also arranged for his daughter, Jabba, to marry a fellow Brahmo Samaji. Bhootnath is surprised but accepts these arrangements.   As he departs, Jabba sadly watches him go and sings a song of regret (Song #6).

Bhootnath comes to visit Chhoti Bahu and sees that she has become a hopeless alcoholic.  When he tries to snatch a bottle from her hand and accidentally touches her skin, a forbidden act, it causes her to banish him from her quarters.  As he leaves, she drunkenly tells him that she is proud to have reclaimed her husband, even if she is now a drunkard.

Bhootnath is now assigned by his architect boss to go supervise a project in Munger, another town up the Ganges.  He first goes to visit the ill Suvinay, but he is too late: Suvinay has died.  His daughter Jabba glumly informs him the news and tells him that she has spurned the planned marriage with the fellow Brahmo Samaji, in part because she has just learned that long ago her grandfather had had her married to someone, now unknown, when she was just one year old.
Meanwhile the Chaudhury brothers continue their decadent lifestyle, engaging in elaborate homing-pigeon contests with the detested Cheni Dutt zamindar family and foolishly selling their land and investing the money in a bogus coal mine.  Chhoti Bahu is still drunkenly worshiping her husband, but he has become bored with his pushover spouse and decides to go back to his courtesans.  She fruitlessly beseeches him to stay at home with another poignant song (Song #7).

When Chhote Sarkar arrives at the brothel and sees Cheni Dutt cavorting with his favorite mistress, a fight breaks out, and Chhote Sarkar is severely beaten by Dutt’s henchmen.  

5.  Return to Calcutta
Some time has passed, perhaps more than a year, and Bhootnath returns from Munger to Calcutta to see that the Chaudhury family is almost penniless and their haveli is rundown and shabby.  He learns that Chhote Sarkar is now paralyzed from the beating he had earlier received.  The still tipsy Chhoti Bahu vows to give up alcohol at her husband’s belated request, and she asks Bhootnath when she sees him to take her to a Hindu “saint”, who she believes can miraculously cure her husband.  But proper Hindu wives are not supposed to go outside with another man, and when Majhaley Babu sees Chhoti leave in a carriage with Bhootnath, he order his few remaining retainers to assault their carriage.  Bhootnath is severely beaten and Chhoti Bahu disappears.  When he wakes up in the hospital, Bhootnath learns from Bansi of Chhoti Bahu’s disappearance and that Chhote Sarkar has died and Majhaley Babu has abandoned the family haveli.  So the flashback sequence ends in desolation.

6.  Return to the Present

Returning from his lengthy flashback, Bhootnath is informed by workers dismantling the Chaudhury haveli that they have discovered a hidden grave.  When he goes to examine it, he sees a skeleton with the same bracelet Chhoti Bahu was wearing on their last day, thereby revealing that she was murdered by Majhaley Babu’s men and secretly buried there.  
Then he leaves the haveli and goes out to his carriage, where his now-wife Jabba is waiting for him.  It is at this last closing shot that we get the confirmation of what had been hinted earlier –  that Jabba was married to Bhootnath when they were both tiny children and had only discovered the truth of their marriage much later.

At the end of the film, we are left to reflect on the natures of the two women and how their love relationships were affected by social restrictions. Now usually societal restrictions block options for love, so it is ironic in this story that Chhote Sarkar’s freedom from social restrictions allowed him to be unfaithful to his wife, thereby thwarting her love efforts, and the restrictiveness of an arranged child-marriage enabled Jabba to attain her true love. This seems more like serendipity than any lesson to be learned, so it is more interesting to look at things from the more personal perspective concerning the respective ways the two women loved.
  • Chhoti Bahu was a woman steeped in Hindu tradition and desperately wanted to live fully the role to which she believed she was assigned – that of a loving and devoted wife. But did she truly love her husband as a soulmate, or was she simply fanatically devoted to her culturally-assigned role?  She seemed more naturally attracted to Bhootnath, but she was bound to treat him as nothing more than a friend.  Her love for her husband seemed more like an abstract religious devotion than the kind of love we usually see between a man and a woman.
  • Jabba, who was from a progressive, Brahmo Samaj family, was essentially a modern woman who felt free to express herself.  She was the one more likely to be a truly equal marriage partner in the kind of marital relationship we seek today.  
And yet Bhootnath was more attracted to Chhoti Bahu than to Jabba.  One might attribute this preferential attraction to the glamorous status of the zamindar family, but apart from that angle, I think that most viewers also find something especially magical about Chhoti Bahu, too, Waheeda Rehman’s evident beauty and vitality in the role of Jabba notwithstanding.  Chhoti’s love was total thralldom, a manifestation of what it means to fall in love.  And Meena Kumari’s heartrending portrayal of Chhoti Bahu gave life to a kind of burning passion that lurks somewhere in the hearts of all of us, I think. We see it, and we feel it. Even if Chhoti was only in love with a dream rather than a person, Meena Kumari’s performance makes us feel for her and want to reach out to her.

I mentioned in my earlier review of Kaagaz Ke Phool [6] that one of the enduring fascinations of that film is the degree to which it mirrored Guru Dutt’s own tragic downfall.  He died of a drug overdose in 1964 at the age of 39. In an eerily similar fashion, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam mirrors the tragic life of its soulful star, Meena Kumari. Like the role she played in the film, she also had a tempestuous private life, became an alcoholic, and also died (here, cirrhosis of the liver) at the age of 39.   

But that’s only interesting background stuff and not intrinsic to the film as shown.  Overall, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is a well-realized and fascinating love story – an evocative and expressionistic presentation to fire the imagination.  
  1. Karan Bali, "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam", Upperstall, (31 March 2001).  
  2. Gitanjali Roy, “Indian cinema@100: Five facts about Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, NDTV Movies, (25  April 2013).   
  3. Dutt’s usual musical composer, S. D. Burman, was unavailable due to illness, but the songs in this film, which are entirely voiced by women, are excellent.
  4. Philip Lutgendorf, “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam”,  Indian Cinema (philip'sfil-ums), University of Iowa, (n.d.).   
  5. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press 
  6. The Film Sufi, "'Kaagaz Ke Phool’ – Guru Dutt (1959), The Film Sufi, (22 January 2015).   

"The Salesman" - Asghar Farhadi (2016)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Forushande, 2016) is another dramatic tale of evolving marital disharmony that has almost become this Iranian writer-director’s trademark.  Similar to his previous films – such as Fireworks Wednesday (2006), About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), and The Past (2013) – Farhadi presents in The Salesman a young middle-class couple whose relationship is subjected to a tragic, disruptive event.  What makes all those films particularly interesting is the way Farhadi presents multiple perspectives with respect to what is going on.   So what may seem to be clear-cut from one point of view may look entirely different when seen through a different contextual lens.  Although it takes awhile to get there, this multiple-viewpoint tableau comes to the fore in The Salesman, too.

In addition to, and related to, this multiple-viewpoint issue are social themes that often show up in Farhad’s films.  Some of them are particularly significant for the Iranian social context, but they can be appreciated by everyone.  Here are a few of them:

  • Establishing and declaring what is "true".  When there are multiple perspectives, there are likely to be multiple interpretations concerning what is factually true.  In the physical world of nature, there are often statements that are either true or false.  But in the world of human sociality, there are overlapping social layers, each with its normative context, and we are all accustomed to seeing things from multiple vantage points.  Getting along in larger society, then, often means making some pretenses or obscuring some private information in order to obscure ethical conflicts that arise.  Thus we selectively offer some “edited” information to others in order to make things go smoothly.  Iranians, in particular, are often inclined to obligingly tell people what they think their audience wants to hear.  This issue is notably important in About Elly and A Separation, but it comes up in The Salesman, too.
  • The importance of a private living space.  We are all aware of the distinction between public space and private space, which are governed by differing norms. In Iran this is very important.  Many Iranians greatly value the sanctity of their privates spaces, where they can act relatively freely and not be subjected to oppressive societal restrictions [1].  A violation of one’s private space can be felt as a personal and distressful affront.
  • Maintaining face.  Although people treasure their private lives, they also want to be respected in the public space.  This can mean engaging in some form of social salesmanship in order to maintain their public image and not be subject to social ridicule. (It can also mean that people are deterred from going to the police when criminalized in order to avoid having their lives opened up to public inspection.)
  • Revenge.  Vengeance is often a big issue with men, and losing face is one of the primary motivations for it.  Often the desired revenge is to humiliate and emasculate the offending party, thereby making that person suffer the horror of losing face.
  • Forgiveness.  An alternative, but seldom seen, response to an offense is forgiveness. All religions commend acts of forgiveness, but how often do we see it unless the offending party humiliates himself by begging for forgiveness
The story of The Salesman concerns the events surrounding a young married couple, Emad (played by Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti).  By day, Emad is a charismatic teacher of literature at a senior secondary school.  In the evenings, both Emad and Rana are actors in a theatrical company, which is currently engaged in rehearsing and performing Arthur Miller’s prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman (1949).  In the play, Emad plays the role of the ill-fated main character, Willy Loman, while Rana plays the role of Willy’s wife, Linda.  Throughout the film, Emad and Rana are sometimes shown engaged in their theatrical stage performances.  In the course of these presentations, we see how their dramatic personae give both of them masks that serve two seemingly conflicting purposes: 
  1. to hide their true selves and present their public faces
  2. to partially shield themselves so that they can express their true emotions as if  they were coming from someone else. 
The film’s narrative passes through four somewhat disjointed acts.

1.  Emad and Rana 
The film opens disturbingly with Emad and Rana in their apartment, which starts shaking violently.  What seems like an earthquake turns out to be a destabilized foundation caused by nearby construction equipment, but the results are no less ominous.  Their building nearly collapses, and Emad and Rana are forced to evacuate and look immediately for new living quarters.  All of this is presented very realistically by Farhadi, and it sets a tone about how one’s comfortable home can be suddenly disrupted by an external event.

Also shown are Emad and Rana’s activities, including their work on the locally-produced staging of Death of a Salesman.  One of the issues of staging such a play, by the way, is getting it past the restrictive government censors, who are always demanding scene cuts, and this is briefly depicted. 

One of their fellow actors in the play, Babak (Babak Karimi), arranges for Emad and Rana to get a newly available apartment, no easy task on short notice in Tehran.  The apartment’s previous tenant has left some of her personal belongings in a locked room, the inconvenience of which irritates Rana.  Emad, however, is more respectful of the woman’s private items and tries to mollify his wife. 

2.  An Intruder Comes
One day while waiting for Emad to come home, Rana hears the downstairs entry buzzer go off, and assuming it is Emad, she pushes the button allowing entry and unlocks the apartment front door.  Then she goes to take a shower.  What happens next is unclear, but we know that an intruder entered the apartment and assaulted Rana.  It will later be revealed that the previous tenant of the apartment they are now occupying was a prostitute who had many male clients.  When Emad comes home shortly thereafter he sees bloody footprints on the apartment staircase and learns that Rana was discovered by neighbors after the attack and taken to the hospital.

Rana is soon released, but it is clear that the attack has shattered her.  She doesn’t want to talk about it to Emad (Farhadi was probably limited in what he could portray anyway), and she seems dazed and confused.  Although Emad is solicitous, he seems more concerned about his own impotence in this matter than willing to attend to Rana’s agony.  In short order he begins to lose patience with her silent suffering.

3.  The Hunt for the Perpetrator
Now the focus of the narrative shifts over squarely on Emad. They are not going to go the police about the matter, assuming this would only bring more trouble upon themselves, so Emad sets about trying to find the culprit.  Rana says she cannot remember what happened or even what the assailant looked like, so Emad doesn’t have much to go on.  But he does discover some money, some keys, and a mobile phone that were left in haste by the assailant, and with these he starts trying to hunt him down.

This part of the film evolves more like a conventional detective story, with Emad bumbling away but gradually uncovering some clues.  He also appears to be becoming more obsessed with taking revenge as he starts get closer to catching someone.

4.  The Perpetrator Found
Eventually and after a number of improbable events, Emad does discover and trap Rana’s assailant.  He turns out not to be the person Emad originally suspected, but instead a very unexceptional and vulnerable individual (well portrayed by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini).  It is at this point that the viewer starts seeing the vengeance story line from multiple perspectives.  This is also the most interesting and moving part of the film.  Emad is unsure of what he wants at this point, but since he feels he, himself, was humiliated, he wants to subject the assailant to maximal humiliation.  This is the revenge mentality.  If a man loses face, he wants his enemy to lose even more face.

The final events are disturbing, and you are left at the end to reflect on the states of mind of Emad and Rana, as well as on the fate of their relationship and whether any forgiveness will be forthcoming.

In some ways The Salesman is more like Fireworks Wednesday than Farhadi’s subsequent films, and this is unfortunate [2].  About Elly, A Separation, and The Past had social fabrics that were more sophisticated and multilayered than what appears in The Salesman.  What we witness in this film is a decent man with respectable, civilized values who gradually and unwillingly, debases himself.  It can be painful to watch.

There are also some weaknesses to the film.  Babak appears to be a significant character over the first part of the film, and the viewer is given some information about him that seems likely to be important later.  But in the final parts of the film, Babak more or less disappears from sight, and that seems to leave a hole in the story.  In addition Rana is gradually overlooked as the film progresses.  Whether or not Emad sees her as “damaged goods”, he doesn’t seem to be much of a sympathetic partner.  Although some reviewers seem to empathize fully with Emad’s frustrations over Rana [3], I find Emad to be ultimately too self-obsessed, and this reduces my engagement with the film.  This is another aspect of The Salesman that harkens back to Fireworks Wednesday – focalized characters from whom we disengage.

Another problem is shaky hand-held camera work, particularly in the first half of the film, that is more than just bothersome. There seems to be little motivation to these movements, as if the camera operator were just wandering randomly about the set and trying to keep the principals in frame.  Presumably this jittery movement is supposed to induce emotional agitation, and it can be justified in some circumstances, such as when a building is collapsing.  But unfortunately the jerky camera is used in far too many situations in this film.  The camera movements here are not comparable to those of people like Antonioni and Mizoguchi, for whose films the camera movements actually enhance the psychological immersion of the viewer.  There are also fixed-frame closeups that should be filmed with a fixed camera, but are instead evidently hand-held.  All of these things call unnecessary attention to the camera work and reduce the viewer’s psychological involvement in the narrative. 

Farhadi’s earlier films also suffered from an over-use of jittery hand-held camera techniques, but this was significantly reduced in his preceding film, The Past.  That film had a different cinematographer, Mahmoud Kalari (he was also the cinematographer for A Separation).  For The Salesman Farhdi’s cinematographer was Hossein Jafarian, who had been the cinematographer for Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly. Whomever Farhadi uses as his cinematographer in his next film, I hope that he attends to more controlled and fluid camera usage.

Despite these shortcomings, Farhadi’s The Salesman is worth seeing, though no match for his sublime About EllyThe Salesman does come together as it approaches the end, and the pacing and acting performances are first-rate. Especially effective is the use of Taraneh Alidoosti’s silent but expressive countenance in reaction shots to convey a mood, echoing a visual technique Farhadi used with her in Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly.  They all contribute to the film’s presentation of a gradual unraveling of a man we can understand and to whom we can relate. 

At Emad’s school where he taught literature, he was a respected role model who seemed to know what is right.  And at one point earlier in the film, Emad is traveling somewhere in a taxi cab with one of his students, and Emad is insulted by a self-righteous woman sitting next to him (taxis in Tehran usually take multiple fares and have them all sit together).  Afterwards, the student expresses his angry sympathy for his esteemed teacher in the face of the woman’s rude behavior.  But Emad takes the high road on this occasion and tells the student that we should forgive the woman – she probably had suffered from some earlier incident in a taxi that had ruined her civility.  This was the high-principled Emad talking, before he himself lost face and began to lose his bearings.  At the end he has become a salesman (of himself) who doesn’t believe in what he is selling.

  1. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, (2009), Anchor. 
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “The Salesman review: Asghar Farhadi offers layers of Willy Loman”The Guardian, (21 May 2016).
  3. Owen Gleiberman, “Cannes Film Review: ‘The Salesman’”, Variety, (20 May 2016).

Hirokazu Koreeda

Films of Hirokazu Koreeda:

“After the Storm” - by Hirokazu Koreeda (2016)

After the Storm (Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, 2016), a domestic drama written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, is another one of the director’s leisurely examinations of an ordinary (sort of) Japanese family.  In this case the focus of attention is on a fortyish man struggling to hold together his life despite its long, slow downhill slide. 

The man in question, Ryota Shinoda (played by Koreeda favorite Hiroshi Abe), had won a prestigious literary prize with the publication of his debut novel, but that was fifteen years ago.  Since then, Ryota has not written anything and is now impoverished, although he claims to be researching material for his next novel by working as a part-time detective. At some point during this long downslide and before the start of the film, Ryota’s attractive wife, Kyoko Shiraishi (Yoko Maki), apparently got fed up with his irresponsible time-wasting and obtained a divorce.  Now his only brief contact with her is when exercising his once-a-month visiting rights to see their 11-year-old son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa). 

Since the focalization is mostly on Ryota, we see things from his perspective, which involves problems along four dimensions: writer’s block, lack of money, family breakup, and loss of respect.  At the root of these problems and a significant exacerbating factor, is Ryota’s serious gambling addiction, a trait he seems to have learned or inherited from his recently deceased father.  Whenever Ryota does earn a little money, he immediately blows it all away via gambling losses at the bicycle racetrack.  He is three months behind on his alimony payments and seems to have failed to pay back loans he received from all his friends and relatives.

Nevertheless, Ryota is presented as a nice guy.  Though perpetually somewhat disheveled, he is tall, good-looking, and amiable.  He looks eminently employable.  First impressions are that he seems to deserve better.  But gradually we are exposed to his relentlessly self-centered and irresponsible nature.  His sister (Satomi Kobayashi) is fed up with his failure to pay her back the money that she loans him.  When he goes to visit his mother’s, Yoshiko Shinoda (Kirin Kiki), fourth-floor walk-up condo to pay her a visit after his father’s death, his main goal appears not to be consoling his mother about his father, but searching the condo for things that he can steal and take to the pawnbroker.  He even surreptitiously pilfers some unused lottery tickets while he is there.

Ryota’s job as a private detective turns out not to be as glamourous as one might expect from reading detective fiction.  Ryota’s work is mainly spent surveilling and spying on suspected adulterous spouses.  Ryota’s lackadaisical sense of morality manifests itself here, too, when he covertly tells one unfaithful woman that if she pays him enough money, he will write up a false report and affirm her fidelity to his client.  Thus Ryota is quite willing to use blackmail and double-cross his employer in order to fatten his wallet. 

Ryota also spends some of his detective time spying on his ex-wife in order to see whom she is dating at the moment.  He is disturbed to discover that she is currently seeing an aggressive and wealthy arriviste who seems to have serious intents about hooking up with Kyoko – the man has beaten Ryota to the punch and purchased an expensive baseball glove that their son Shingo wants to have.  Ryota suspects that if Kyoko marries this man, then his once-a-month visitation rights of Shingo will disappear. 

So on his day-long visit with Shingo, Ryota makes a big effort to establish a vital bond with the boy. He spends the day treating Shingo to things and revisiting his own adolescent mischief-making, which Ryota thinks will make Shingo feel closer to his father.  At the end of the day, they go to dine with his mother at her condo, where Kyoko is supposed to come and pick up her son.  But just at that time an earlier forecasted strong typhoon sweeps through Tokyo (the 23rd one of the year, we are told).  With such vicious weather, everyone will have to spend the night at the Yoshiko’s condo, and this gives Ryota a chance to have separate, private moments with both Kyoko and Shingo. 

This is the moment we have been waiting for in this slow-paced film.  After all, the title suggests that there will be a big change “after the storm”.  However, Ryota hasn’t changed or become more enlightened over the course of the film, and the scope of his horizon is still limited by his own selfishness. 

Everything is told in a slow, easygoing manner, with lots of little local-cultural details about this slice of Japanese society offered along the way.  This fits well with the generally good-natured and easygoing natures of all the people on display.  A particularly important secondary character in all of this is Ryota’s mother, Yoshiko.  Like Ryota, Yoshiko is cordial and good-natured almost all the time, but she also has a calculative, selfish side, too.  And she shows no sense of sorrow or bereavement over the recent death of her husband (neither does Ryota).  True, her husband gambled away all the family’s household money, but Yoshiko’s totally nonchalant and callous attitude about her husband’s passing seems odd to me.

In fact I get the impression that the displayed attitudes of Ryota and Yoshiko are intended to be amusing and that we should view After the Storm as a comedy. Ryota is just a perpetually naughty boy, and he is not showing signs of growing up.  In fact his son Shingo seems more mature than he is.  When Ryota spends the day with Shingo, he seems to want to show Shingo his naughty side.  Shingo goes along with it primarily to humor his dad. 

However, this idea of a comedy is not what comes across from reading the early reviews of the film from the Cannes Film Festival.  They mostly praised the film as a genuine slice-of-life depiction of Japanese culture, and they often invoked comparisons to the earlier, and seriously intentioned,  work of Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu.  Other than the fact that all these films are concerned with Japanese family relations, I don’t see a strong connection.  Ozu’s films, in particular, have more compelling themes to them than After the Storm.

In fact this points to the real problem with After the Storm.  Although the technical production values are strong and the characters are likeable, there is no real narrative development in this film.  What we have is a potentially interesting social fabric that could be the basis for an interesting story, but no such story is forthcoming.  At the end of the film, we are pretty much right where we started. 

Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe also played mother and son in Koreeda’s earlier Still Walking (2008) – but here we are just given a collection of cinematic bits and pieces that dwell on their characters.  For a film to be a truly successful experience, one needs more than interesting characters; one needs their participation in an interesting story.  This is what Ozu, for one, offered to his viewers.

“Wild Strawberries” - Ingmar Bergman (1957)

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), widely considered to be one of his greatest films, came directly after his The Seventh Seal (1957), when he reached the pinnacle of his artistic success [1,2]. Though those two films had quite different settings (The Seventh Seal was an expressionistic fable set in the Middle Ages, while Wild Strawberries was a contemporary story about one day in the life of an old man), they both covered people agonizing over life’s meaning. In some ways, though, as I will mention further on, Wild Strawberries continues with an outlook that Bergman had touched on in his earlier To Joy (1950) and Summer Interlude (1951).

In Wild Strawberries, a 78-year-old emeritus medical professor and physician is about to be conferred as a doctor jubilaris (jubilee doctor), celebrating fifty years of distinguished service.  The occasion sets him to reflect on just what he has accomplished and whether he has achieved his goals in life. The film covers his day-long journey by car from his home in Stockholm to Lund, where he had originally received his doctorate and where the doctor jubilaris ceremony is to take place.  Over the course of that journey, he has encounters with people along the way and has several disturbing dreams during occasional snoozes that contribute to his increasingly reflective mood.

Some reviewers of the film have found it to be a confusing jumble, because of the heterogeneous collection of characters and circumstances that appear in the journey [3].  I will suggest, however, that this confusion may be due to the many interacting issues and themes that Bergman covers in the film.  Here are a few of them:
  • Death.  We all know that we will eventually die, but an old man feels death to be imminent.  He then becomes, in Heidegger’s terminology, a more authentic “Being-towards-death” and must confront this issue.
  • Judgment.  As suggested in Bergman’s earlier To Joy, most young men seek some sort of greatness, without necessarily knowing what form it is to take.  Usually men seek honors, wealth, professional distinction, and a successful love life, and these successes are to be verified by external judgments.
  • Resentment. When one is hurt or rejected, one may feel resentment towards the responsible parties.  We usually know that this resentment is counterproductive and wasteful – it is a pain even to be around resentful people – but it is difficult to overcome resentful feelings.
  • Withdrawal. One approach to reducing resentful encounters is to withdraw from the conflicting scene.  This can make one detached and more objective, but it also means disengagement.  Some people nurture a natural tendency to withdraw whenever there is something contentious.
  • Age Perspective. There are basically three age groups in the story: young people (late teens or early twenties); mature people (thirties),and old people.  Each group has its own outlook, set of responsibilities, and perspective.  Depending on your own age, you are likely to see this movie more specifically from one of these perspectives.
  • Relations with Women.  Bergman was fascinated with women and how they related to the world and to men.  In this story Isak Borg has interesting relationships with a number of women (Miss Agda, his mother, Marianne, the two Saras, and his wife).
All of these themes and issues interrelate to each other and are touched on in the course of the narrative presentation.  The various scenes of the film can be grouped into the following sections.

1.   Isak
The story begins with Isak (played by famous Swedish actor-director Victor Sjöström) at his writing desk stating that our personal relationships are mainly devoted to discussing and evaluating other people’s behavior (i.e. they are mainly judgmental).  That is why he has gradually “withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations.”  He also mentions that he started out in life working for money, but ended up with a love for science.  Thus it seems that he has chosen a career where his achievements can be measured objectively.

He then describes a disturbing, expressionistic dream (Dream1) he had, where he is wandering around in the deserted streets of an old part of Stockholm and sees several symbols of death: a mounted clock with no hands, an eerie man with no face who falls down dead and bleeds profusely, and a horse-drawn hearse carrying a casket.  The casket falls to the street, revealing a corpse that is another Isak, a doppelganger.

2.  The Journey Begins
Very early in the summer morning of the commemoration, Isak wakes up and decides he can drive the 600 kilometers to Lund in his car and make it in time for the 5pm ceremony.  He gets into an argument over this decision with his fussy maid, Miss Agda, who is about as old as Isak is and has been serving him for forty years.  In this connection, Isak remarks,
“I hate resentful people.  I wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone Miss Agda.”
At breakfast, Isak’s daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who has recently been staying with him, says she would like to ride with Isak so that she can go home to her husband (and Isak’s son), Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) back in Lund.

As Isak drives with Marianane in his old sedan, their conversation is cordial, but distant.  He peremptorily tells  her not to smoke and that there should be a law forbidding women to smoke. Finally Marianne comes forth with her real opinions about Isak:
“You’re a selfish old man. You’re utterly ruthless and never listen to anyone but yourself.”  . . . . . . “Your judgements are very categorical.”
Isak is stunned by these remarks, but as is his custom, he tries to hide his feelings. Note that though the protagonist of this tale is Isak, we will see throughout the film that Marianne seems to be the voice of Bergman.  They soon decide to stop and visit the summer house that Isak’s family used to use during his first twenty years.

3.  Stop at the Summer House
Isak sits down and looks at the now-vacated summer house and lapses into a dream (Dream2a).  He has a vision of a time almost six decades earlier when the young girl he loved, Sara (Bibi Andersson,  who was Ingmar Bergman’s paramour at this time) is outside the summer house picking wild strawberries.  Since there are two Saras in this story, I will refer this one as ‘Sara1'. Sara1 is then approached by Isak’s cocky younger brother, Sigfrid, who impudently flirts with and kisses the girl, even though she falteringly insists she is loyal to her upstanding boyfriend Isak.  This is clearly a most painful memory for Isak, when the girl he most loved became susceptible to the oily charms of a “good-for-nothing” rogue in his own family. The dream shifts to a luncheon right afterwards in the summer house involving the large Borg family (Dream2b), where Isak’s young twin sisters tease Sara1 and Sigfrid about having seen the two of them kissing.

Waking from his painful dream, Isak encounters a young woman hitchhiker, also named Sara (Sara2, also played by Bibi Andersson).  Sara2 is unquenchably bubbly, innocent, and flirtatious – a modern girl. She and her two male admirers, one of whom studies science and the other theology, are also headed to Lund and so are invited to climb into the car and travel with Isak and Marianne. 

4.  Encounter with Anger
On the road, they almost hit an oncoming errant car, which crashes off to the side.  The two occupants of this car, Mr. and Mrs. Alman, turn out to be a hopelessly bickering mature couple who spend all of their time in outspoken mutual resentment.  This six-minute interlude seems to be a demonstration of just the kind of relationship that Isak abhorred and always sought to avoid. Yet this can be a natural outcome for judgmental people who feel they can score points by continually lodging telling criticisms.

5.  Stop for Gas
Stopping for gas in the area where Isak had his first medical practice, the gas station proprietor (Max von Sydow) recognizes Isak and tells him that everyone in the area still cherishes his memory and his contributions.  Hearing this heartfelt praise, Isak wonders to himself if perhaps he should have stayed in that town all his life instead of going off to pursue greatness.

6.  Stop for Lunch
Further on, they stop for lunch at an open café near the home of Isak’s 96-year-old mother, giving Isak and Marianne the time to go off and pay her a short visit.  The mother, who was seen in the Dream2b to be bossy and judgmental, is now ice-cold and grumpy.  She has outlived all but one  (Isak) of her ten children, and now all she has is their old children’s toys – but she can’t remember whose was whose.

7. Further Dreams

Isak then snoozes and falls into more dreams, each of which includes impossible aspects and so cannot fully represent true memories.  In the first of them (Dream3a), Sarah1 is outside the summer house and coldly holds a mirror up to Isak’s 78-year-old face and tells him how ugly and old he looks.  Then she berates him, telling that she is going to marry his brother Sigfrid and pointing out how useless all his learning has been:
“You know so much, and you don’t know anything.”
Sara1 then goes over to Isak’s sister Sigbritt Borg’s baby and offers it motherly tenderness and caresses – exactly the kind of mothering that Isak missed out on.  Afterwards Isak peers through a window from outside to see Sara1 and Sigfrid inside showing marital tenderness towards each other. 

The dream then shifts to a bizarre and nightmarish medical examination conducted by the extremely judgmental Mr. Alman (Dream3b).  Isak badly fails all the tests, and Mr. Alman tells him, “you have been accused of guilt” and that he is incompetent.  Moreover, Mr. Alman goes on, Isak has been accused by his dead wife, Karin, of being “callous, selfish and ruthless.”

Mr. Alman then takes Isak outside into the wood and allows him to re-watch a remembered 40-years-earlier scene of his wife cavorting with an extra-marital lover (Dream3c).  After they make love, Karin speaks dismissively of Isak’s hypocritical pseudo-sympathy.  She tells her lover that whenever she tearfully confesses her sins to her husband, he will always say that there is nothing to forgive,
“but he doesn’t mean a word he says, because he’s cold as ice.”
Clearly the marriage of Isak and Karin was a failure and perhaps merely a more reticent and civil version of the type of marriage exhibited by the Almans.

At the end of these three dream segments, Mr. Alman remarks that the dreams have all been concoctions of Isak’s mind in order to separate himself from the world.  When Isak asks Alman what will be his punishment for this guilt, his judgmental critic responds by saying it will presumably be the usual one: loneliness.

In the original Bergman screenplay that I saw, but is not present in the film, there is a fourth brief dream segment at this point where Sara1 comes to Isak and tells him he is supposed to go get his father.  She stretches out her hand to him, but then rushes off too fast for the old man to follow her and disappears.  “If only you had stayed with me,” he yells out to her.  This missing segment would offer further evidence that losing Sara1 was the main regret in Isak’s life.

8. Marianne and Evald
When Evald awakens, he and Marianne are alone together in the parked car, and she confides to him about her troubles with her husband Evald.  She had informed Evald a few months earlier that she was pregnant, but he was adamantly opposed to bringing a child into the world.  He emphasized how different they were by pointing out that her overall desire was to live and create life, while his was to be “stone-cold dead.”  She was told by Evald that she would have to make a choice between him and the baby.  This level of coldness goes beyond Isak’s, but as she tells Isak, when she saw his cold-as-ice mother, she understood how both Isak and Evald had grown up to be so cold – it was in the family.  She tells Isak that when she gets to Lund she will tell her husband that her choice is the baby. 

Then the effervescent Sara2 and her two buddies rush up to the car to present Isak with the wildflowers they have just picked.

9.  Ending in Lund
They arrive in Lund on time, and Isak’s doctor jubilaris ceremony with all its Latinate pomp is duly held. It all appears somewhat stuffy and hollow, though.  Later in the evening as Isak is about to go to bed, he hears outside his window Sara2 and her two friends joyously singing a serenade for him.  Then after her two boyfriends are out of earshot, Sara2 tells him,
“It’s you I really love, you know.  Today, tomorrow, always.” 
Isak smiles and says, “I’ll remember.”

Evald comes to Isak’s bedside, and Isak asks him about his relationship with Marianne.  Evald glumly says he will give in to her demands, because he cannot live without her.  After Evald leaves, the film closes with Isak, now more contented, settling into sleep as he recalls a pleasant childhood memory of his parents relaxing outside the summer cottage.

Wild Strawberries ends its rather subtle and complex story in a contemplative mood.  It all goes down smoothly for the viewer thanks to the film’s superb production values.  The cinematography, editing, and acting are all so well done that we barely notice just how smoothly they were performed.  They effectively enhance our fascination with what interests us, Isak’s journey and its meaning.

Over the course of Isak Borg’s long day, people from different generations have been presented – from  the headstrong exuberance of youth, through the quarrelsome bickering of mature couples, to the cold rigidity of old age.  According to the way Isak was accustomed to viewing things, everything and everyone is accountable; and guilt is to be assigned appropriately. But this kind of judgmental accounting, characteristic of Isak, Evald, and others, can only lead to accumulated resentment and a desire to withdraw from life.  However, this is not where Isak ends up at the end of the film, from my perspective.

At the end, there is a change in Isak. He is willing to suspend his judgmental side. He is comforted to hear that Evald and Marianne are on the way to working out their own problems.  At the same time, he is not simply giving up and accepting things just as they are. No, I think he has come to a more enlightened state. Rather than perpetually mourn the departure of Sara1 from his life, Isak has turned to see that the mysterious magic of love and life is always present.  Sara1 can be reincarnated into Sara2, who represents the eternal vitality of life.  After all, she loves him “today, tomorrow, always.” In this sense I detect an echo of Bergman’s To Joy, and even more, of his Summer Interlude, wherein the female protagonist learned to celebrate and affirm the wonder of life’s  mysteries, even when they are sometimes terminated in an early death.  After all, death is inevitable for all of us, and we must remember to accentuate those opportunities that life perpetually affords us, as well as savor those memories of beautiful moments.

  1. Mark Le Fanu, “Wild Strawberries: ‘Where Is the Friend I Seek?’”, The Criterion Collection, (11 June 2013). 
  2. Peter Cowie, “Wild Strawberries”, The Criterion Collection, (11 February 2002).  
  3. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Elusive Message; Wild Strawberries' Is a Swedish Import”, The New York Times, (23 June 1959).