Selling a Myth

The “warrior hero” is a familiar figure in mythology across the world. He is the lone wolf, riding off into battle, killing without passion with the clear realisation that his ultimate destiny is a violent death. He has no personal stakes – he kills because it is his duty (or karma, as per the Bhagavad Gita). Joseph Campbell talks about a samurai who desisted from killing his opponent because he spat at him; because he had made him angry! Killing in anger, in the heat of the moment, is always decried.

This mythical figure is enduring. We see him/ her in science fiction, fantasy, historical romances and tales of the wild, wild west: and also in various bestselling books on “war heroes”, soldiers who showed extreme valour on the battlefield in the World Wars I & II and other sundry battles. Forget the fact that there is seldom anything glorious about war or the gunslinger of the Wild West was most probably a rapacious murderer: we, as a species, do not want historical facts. Mythical truth is more essential.

(Please note that I am not using the term “myth” to denote “falsehood”. In my opinion, myth is an unavoidable part of the human psyche.)

Clint Eastwood must be the one person who used the appeal of this myth to the maximum. His “Man with No Name” characters in the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are unforgettable portrayals of the warrior hero: the lanky and laconic loner who rides off into the sunset chewing tobacco, smoke streaming from the barrel of his gun. When Eastwood became a director, this figure reappeared again and again, and in the process gained a more rounded and philosophical personality (Pale Rider, Unforgiven). Recently, he has moved away from the Wild West but the hero is still in evidence (Gran Torino).

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So it was with mixed feelings that I watched American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history. On the one hand, I was confident that Clint would deliver a terrific movie: on the other hand, I was not very comfortable with the “heroism” attributed to Kyle, who had stated

I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.

This is hardly what you’d expect from a hero! However, the movie did not contain a single objectionable statement. Chris was shown as rather honourable, having pangs of conscience before he shoots down a woman and a child who are carrying lethal weapons. Also, there are plenty of “evil” Iraqis out there (guys like “The Butcher” who drill children to death), so we get a feeling that the director is trying to say: “Look, American intervention in Iraq was not so bad!” This disturbed me, and I decided to read Kyle’s autobiography.

A good thing I did. I could immediately understand what Clint was trying to do – and it was something pretty insidious.

***

Chris Kyle sees the world in black and white: American is good, Texan is excellent, non-American is not-so-good, and Arab is bad. He has no doubt why he is fighting the war in Iraq: it is not to help the Iraqis (as the US government would have us believe), it is to “stop this shit from reaching America”. He has no qualms about killing; rather, he is at pains to tell us, over and over, that he simply loves it. He is not killing because he is a soldier and it is his duty: he became a soldier to kill.

A sample of quotes from the book is given below.

My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day.

Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kil every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.

The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam’s army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren’t Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we’d just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.

Man, this is going to be good, I thought. We are going to kill massive amounts of bad guys. And I’m going to be in the middle of it.

..I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bulshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.

The portrait of an extremely juvenile character comes out from the book: a person whose ethical sense has been stunted in his pre-teens. The themes which are repeated again and again – his addiction to video games, the comic book heroes he tries to emulate, his simple pleasure at shooting a human being – presents the picture of a kid who have never really grown up. And he does not even bother to hide his racism; he says he would have shot any Arab carrying a Koran with pleasure, had the higher-ups allowed it.

It’s interesting to see how the tone changes when the Marines and SEALs are at the receiving end. Then people are not “killed” but “murdered”. Also, it’s interesting to hear him lamenting about the fact that the Arabs hate him just because he is a Christian, and that religion should be about tolerance – when he is ready to drop anybody with a Koran.

On top of all this bigoted racism, the book is badly written to boot. Of course, he is not a professional writer, but you would expect some coherence and sequence. The narrative comprises short staccato sentences, repetitive descriptions of Kyle’s kills interspersed with detailed discussions about arms and military vehicles.

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***

Clint Eastwood’s movie bears no relation to this narrative than the bare outline. By infusing a storyline into it, introducing murderous Iraqi characters and peppering it with philosophical dialogue, Eastwood has tried to present a sympathetic view of Chris Kyle. It’s rubbish.

But what he has accomplished is to make a movie which is astonishingly value neutral. You cannot pick a single incident from it to show its hidden bigotry: the script is expertly written. However, a right-winger can take what he wants from it – a celebration of “America”(see how the movie has been praised by hardliners in the US); a leftist or a liberal will be mildly disturbed, without being able to exactly put his finger on the source of the unease; and a middle-of-the-road person may think: “Well, maybe I’m misjudging those brave marines”.

This movie, declared as anti-war by Eastwood, is nothing of the sort. It is the selling of a myth, after subtly subverting to suit the aims of a murderous colonial power – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Clint Eastwood ensures commercial success along with the spreading of an obnoxious right-wing philosophy. Unless one catches the subtext, it is liable to percolate into the psyche.

In my opinion, herein lies the danger.

A Review of “Drishyam”

In Malayalam, “Drishyam” means “Visual” or “What is seen” – in this context, each movie is a “drishyam”. The director carefully chooses to show you what he wants you to see. He strings up the images in a certain fashion so that the narrative is built in your mind (remember the famous “Odessa steps” sequence?). In the process, he is like a magician, cheating your senses to create the visual he wants you to see – and you are willing to be fooled. The art of the movie, creating the illusion of movement by the juxtaposition of static images, is itself a form of cheating.

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In “Drishyam”, the protagonist Georgekutty does a similar sleight-of-hand to create a fictitious alibi for his family, to save them from being indicted for a murder which they had to do. Being up against the system and very powerful people, he has no hope of any mercy from any quarter: he has only his sharp wits and the street knowledge he has picked up from watching movies (he is a cable TV operator) to pit against the powerful police force and the antagonism of one particular policeman. It is to the credit of the director and scriptwriter that Georgekutty succeeds in fooling us also till the very end of the movie. (I will stop my explanation here. Any more would be telling. See the movie!)

The movie works on many levels. First of all, it is an out-and-out thriller, without any of the trappings of traditional thrillers: there are no gunfights, no fistfights (“dishoom – dishoom”) and no hair-raising chases. Even though the theme is loaded with possibilities, there are no sex scenes (apart from a bit of loaded dialogue): a very adult theme has been handled with restraint. Suspense is built up gradually through intelligently cut scenes, rather than jump cuts and jarring music. The craft is near-perfect for an Indian film – my only complaint is that the film is a bit overlong, about twenty minutes could have been reduced by shortening the length of some scenes and reducing the initial “family” scenes.

Moving a little bit further in, it is the fight of David against Goliath that has really entranced the people. Police in India are not seen as trustworthy by a large part of the populace. They bend to (have to!) political pressure and corporate muscle: they are constrained by resources: and quite a few of them are corrupt (like the villain of the piece, Constable Sahadevan). Knowing this fully well, and knowing that they stand very little chance against the police behemoth, Georgekutty fights back with the only thing that is available to him: an astute brain. No wonder we root for him all the way.

If we dig down even deeper, ultimately we find the glorification of the family unit. Georgekutty tells his family: “As long as I am here, none of you will go to jail.” In a country where most government institutions are seen as failures, this is the assurance that keeps all of us going – our family will be there for us, whatever happens. Ultimately, I feel this is the reason behind the thundering success of the movie.

Bergman’s Two Journeys (Part II)

In the first part of this blog post, I talked about Joseph Campbell and Hero’s Journey. Campbell is deeply influenced by Carl Gustav Jung, whose theories of psychology centres around the concept of “Individuation”: the inner journey of an individual to discover his innermost being. According to Jung, this starts with dreams, and if the dreamer is allowed to follow the dream symbols to their logical conclusion (often with the help of a trained psychoanalyst), it will result in the person achieving his/ her full potential. He says that this dream journey is reflected in most of the myths and folktales across the world. (The whole of the Jungian concepts are outlined in a fantastic book, Man and His Symbols, a scholarly tome that is eminently readable. I will review that book someday on this blog. I strongly advise everyone who is interested in art and literature to read it.)

Echoing Jung, Campbell made his famous statement: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” In The
Seventh Seal, we were treated to the public dream involving Antonios Block and Death and their chess tournament: in Wild Strawberries, we enter the private mythical world of Dr. Isak Borg, a highly respected doctor and curmudgeonly old man. “Wild strawberries” as a symbol of lost innocence, first encountered in The Seventh Seal, becomes the central metaphor here: the chessboard which was central to the earlier film is passingly shown in the first scene. The movies, made only months apart, are close enough to be twins, yet strikingly different.

Fittingly enough, Bergman’s second journey starts with a dream.

Wild Strawberries: Journey Inward

The movie is presented as memoir by Dr. Borg of his journey from Stockholm to Lund, where he received his original degree. Before we start, let’s allow Dr. Borg to introduce himself, in the framing sequence, before he prepares for this trip.

In our relations with other people, we mainly discuss and evaluate their character and behavior. That is why I have withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations. This has made my old age rather lonely. My life has been full of hard work, and I am grateful. It began as toll for bread and butter and ended in a love for science. I have a son, also a doctor, who lives in Lund. He has been married for many years. They have no children. My old mother is still alive and very active, despite her age. My wife Karin has been dead for many years. I am lucky in having a good housekeeper. I should perhaps add that I am an old pedant, which at times has been rather trying for myself and those around me. My name is Isak Borg, and I am 78. Tomorrow I shall receive an honorary degree in Lund Cathedral.

This sequence is brilliant, as it introduces the character fully without resorting to too much exposition. We are shown the doctor’s study, where he sitting and writing his (presumably) diary: as he talks, the camera moves over the objects on his desk, the pictures of his son, wife and aged mother. All his near-and-dear have been objectified. There is a dog at his feet, which quietly follows him out as he calls it; even here there is no pat on the head, no sign of intimacy. In a significant detail (which I missed in my original viewing), there is a chessboard in a corner where the pieces are set. Dr. Borg contemplates a move before going out to dinner – obviously he is playing by himself. If one reads it along with The Seventh Seal, this could be seen as a premonition of approaching death.

The Start

On the eve of his journey, Isak Borg has a strange dream. He dreams that he is walking in strangely deserted and empty streets, where he has a terrifying encounter with a man with a closed face (who collapses at his touch) and a clock with no hands. Then a hearse arrives, and a coffin falls down from it. On closer inspection, Dr. Borg finds his own body… though not quite dead, because the corpse wakes up and grabs his hand.

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This sequence, shot in stark black and white frames by Gunnar Fischer, is worthy of Kafka and Dali; it gives us the goofy feeling of unidentified menace which is the trademark of nightmares. Maybe because of this dream, Isak Borg decides to drive down to Lund from Stockholm in the early hours of the morning, instead of flying, against the counsel of his long-time housekeeper, Miss Agda. He is joined on the tour by his daughter-in-law Marianne, who is living apart from her husband Evald with her father-in-law: both the housekeeper and Dr. Borg are surprised to hear that she wants to return to her husband in Lund.

So the stage is set for the journey of discovery, with one of the classic road movies of all time.

Jung has said that a significant number of the folk and fairy stories start with a king who has fallen ill, and his sons must set out to procure the magic balm or object which will restore him to health. Actually, it is the soul which is sick, and dreams tell the person that he is ready for the journey of individuation. Seen in this light, the doctor’s decision to travel by road is significant: for a man who has remained aloof from other human beings all his life, he has decided to “come down to earth”. The fact that his daughter-in-law accompanies him is also significant – as she says at the beginning of the trip, he has so far categorically refused to mediate in their marital troubles, even though she hoped he would. The enclosed space of the car forces an uneasy intimacy upon them.

Through the dialogue between Marianne and Dr. Borg, we come to learn about the mechanics of the Borg family. They are a group of people who cannot connect. Evald has taken a loan from his father, and is being forced to pay it back, by some strange code of honour; even though it is keeping Evald poor and Dr. Borg does not require the money. Even after Marianne’s explanation that this is the root cause of the trouble between them, the doctor is not willing to relent.

First Interlude

Immediately after this exchange, however, Dr. Borg decides to take a detour to the summer house where he spent many happy days of his youth. Here, as Marianne goes for a swim, he slips into a daydream where he sees Sara, his cousin and childhood sweetheart, gathering wild strawberries; and the romantic scene between her and Sigfrid, his brother, whom she ultimately married. He also witnesses a typical holiday evening of his large family, where Sara confesses that Isak is good but too highbrow for her – she is drawn to the wicked and manly Sigfrid, against her will. As this scene fades away, leaving Dr. Borg “overwhelmed with feelings of emptiness and sadness”, he encounters a hitchhiker on her way to Italy with her boyfriend and chaperon – she is also Sara (in the movie, both characters are played by Bibi Andersson), endowed with the same bubbly nature as his childhood sweetheart.

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Sara is hitchhiking to Italy with her sweetheart Anders who is studying to be a minister: their chaperone Viktor, an atheist, is also in love with her. The constant silly prattle of Sara, and the asinine quarrels of Viktor and Anders about the existence of God, are a direct link to the doctor’s youth, the lost innocence of the “wild strawberries”.

Here onwards, the memories and dreams of Isak Borg begin to mesh with the reality of the ‘Now’. On the way from the summer residence, their car nearly collides with the car of Alman and Berit, a couple who bicker continuously; and revel in hurting each other. They also join the doctor in the car, but soon get on everybody’s nerves due to their constant quarrelling. Ultimately, they are abandoned unceremoniously at the roadside by Marianne, who says she must do it “at least for the sake of the children”. The idyllic pre-marital stage of romance is contrasted here (rather explicitly) with the hellish post-marital state; Marianne and Evald are on the way to that troubled territory, while Dr. Borg is past it. As they get out, Berit says: “Forgive us – if you can.” The shot of the couple standing abandoned by the roadside is terrifying in the desolation it signifies.

Second Interlude

Immediately after this distressing incident, Dr. Borg reaches the suburb where he spent his youth, and meets his aged mother: Marianne accompanies him. But before that meeting, there is a small yet significant incident where he meets up with an old acquaintance Ackerman and his wife who runs a petrol station: they are so much in awe of the doctor that they intend to call their unborn child after him! This is a new Isak Borg which we meet here. As Ackerman refuses to accept payment for petrol, he tells the doctor: “There are some things which can’t be paid back – not even with petrol. We haven’t forgotten. Ask anyone around here. They all talk of your kindness.” Dr. Borg replies: “Maybe I should have stayed here…” not quite understanding what he is saying. But we do.

Afterwards, they all have lunch and wine, and the doctor tells stories: he is a hit with the teens. The doctor believes that they simply did not “laugh out of courtesy”. Isak Borg is thawing; slowly moving away from his world of cold, hard scientific fact to the metaphorical world where wild strawberries abound the year round. This clash of the world views is presented as an argument between the atheist Viktor (who is studying to be a doctor) and Anders, the future minister. When confronted with the question which world view he believes in, Dr. Borg deftly sidesteps and sings a hymn, in which Marianne and Anders join in. Viktor derisively calls it “a love poem”, not knowing how close to the truth he is.

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Immediately after these pleasant interludes, we meet Isak’s ancient mother, and that meeting is far from edifying. If Isak Borg is cold, Old Mrs. Borg is absolutely frozen at 96. As she opens an old box, full of her children’s toys, she keeps up a monologue.

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Here are some of your toys – I have been trying to think which of you owned what. Ten children, and all dead except Isak. Twenty grandchildren. Evald’s the only one who comes to see me. Don’t get me wrong… I am not complaining. Fifteen great-grandchildren whom I’ve never seen. I send presents for all their birthdays. I get letters of thanks, but nobody bothers to visit me – unless they want to borrow money. Oh, I know I’m tiresome… and I’ve one more fault. I don’t die. The inheritance isn’t being divided up the way these crafty young people had planned.

Mrs. Borg complains of the cold; she has been cold all her life. It is the coldness of the soul that we are encountering here. As they are about to leave, she shows them the gift she proposes to give her grandson as he turns 50: her father’s watch, without hands, which she says “doesn’t matter”.

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Dark Night of the Soul

By now it’s pouring with rain: Viktor and Anders have had a tiff, trying to decide God’s existence through a boxing match. As Marianne drives, Isak Borg dozes off, to be disturbed by “humiliating dreams”. He says “there was something powerful in these dream images which bore relentlessly into my mind”.

Dr. Borg has a classic “examination dream” (it seems we all have this in moments of crisis), where he fails every kind of examination possible: but before that he is literally made to face himself by his cousin Sara, as they hold the conversation in the garden of the old summer house, in front of a basket of spilled strawberries. She holds up a mirror to him.

Sara:    Have you looked in the mirror, Isak? Then I’ll show you what you look like. You are a worried old man who’s soon going to die, but I have all my life before me – that hurt your feelings, after all.

Isak:    No, it didn’t hurt.

Sara:    Yes, it hurt, because you can’t bear the truth. The truth is that I’ve been too considerate – and so became unintentionally cruel.

Isak:    I understand.

Sara:    No, you don’t understand because we don’t speak the same language: look in the mirror again. [as Isak turns his face] No, don’t turn away…

Isak:    I see.

Sara:    Listen to me. I am going to marry your brother Sigfrid. Love is almost a game for us. Look at your face now… try to smile!

[Isak smiles]

Sara:    There! Now you are smiling!

Isak:    But it hurts so…

Sara:    As Professor Emeritus, you should know why it hurts. But you don’t know. You know so much, but you don’t know anything.

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This realisation of ignorance is the first step to enlightenment. Going off in search of Sara, Dr. Borg is confronted by a stern examiner who behaves like a grand inquisitor and hauls him over coals. He fails all the exams, the most terrifying one being the confirmation of death when the corpse suddenly springs to life. The examiner, accusing him of guilt, incompetence, ruthlessness and selfishness, makes him witness a scene: that of an illicit sexual encounter between his wife and her lover, which he actually witnessed in the past. The most telling point of the whole episode is that his wife is angry that Dr. Borg will forgive her, ostensibly due to magnanimity, but in reality, “because he doesn’t care about anything – he’s so cold.”

The examiner tells Isak that his wife is gone forever: “Removed by an operation. A surgical masterpiece – no pain. Nothing that bleeds or trembles. A perfect achievement in its way.” And the punishment for the doctor’s crimes? “The usual. Loneliness.”

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Dr. Borg is at the lowest point of his spiritual journey: from here onwards, the only movement possible is upwards. He has been through the dark night of the soul – now is the trek towards redemption.

Having woken up, Borg is ready to confess to Marianne that his dreams seem to be “telling him things which he won’t listen to when awake – that he is dead, even though he’s alive.” This prompts his daughter-in-law to talk about her problems: she is leaving Evald, because she is pregnant and wants to have the child and he doesn’t want it. He does not want to bring life into the hellish world he inhabits – his only wish is to be stone dead. And after meeting Dr. Borg’s mother, Marianne understands, because he, his mother and Evald are all more dead than alive – in her words, “all along the line, there’s nothing but cold and death and loneliness”. It has to end somewhere, so she is leaving her husband.

At this point, the hitchhiking teenagers who have been out stretching their legs come back with a bunch of wild flowers they have picked to congratulate the doctor: calling him a very wise old man who knows everything about life and wishing that he would live a hundred years, ironically contradicting all that he himself was saying. The movie suddenly brightens. Isak Borg is riding into the light.

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Dr. Borg’s receiving of the honour, coming immediately after he “fails his exams”, is something of an anticlimax: the hollowness of the ceremony is evident to himself and the viewer, though probably not to the others. The hint that Isak is a changed man, however, comes at the end when he suggests to his housekeeper that they use first names – a suggestion which shocks her. Similarly, he broaches the subject of the loan to his son, evidently with the intention of writing it off, but Evald curtly replies that he’ll pay it without understanding what his father means. However, his travel companions have come to understand the changed Borg: as she kisses him goodnight, Marianne says: “I like you, Uncle Isak.” Also the girl Sara, who has managed to find a ride up to Hamburg, tells Dr. Borg cheekily as she leaves: “It’s you who I really love, father Isak. Today, tomorrow, always.” And he replies: “I’ll remember.”

The Final Dream

Dr. Isak Borg is preparing to sleep.

If I have been worried or sad during the day, it often calms me to recall childhood memories. I did so on this evening too.

In his memories, he is back at his summer residence, along with Sara, his cousins and parents.  The wild strawberries are all finished: it seems the season is over.  However, as Isak watches his father and mother (blurred figures in the movie) fishing by the side of the lake in a picture of domestic bliss, he is a happy man.

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The movie ends with Dr. Borg asleep, with a smile on his face.

***

The Seventh Seal was a tragic journey of disintegration; Wild Strawberries is an edifying one of integration. In the former, the events are distressing, the action is epic, and the setting dystopic: in the latter, the events are humdrum, there is no action and the setting is extremely urban and mundane. However, watching both the movies in succession, one feels that the distressing questions which plagued Bergman during The Seventh Seal have been answered through Wild Strawberries. The memory of the magical evening that Antonius Block has been trying to hold on to, as he partook of milk and wild strawberries with Jof and Mia, has finally been captured forever and enshrined.

Bergman’s Two Journeys (Part I)

I do not remember when I graduated from reading for killing time and started to take literature seriously, but I do remember when I started to view movies as a serious art form.  It was when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal during my second year at Thrissur Engineering College.

Thrissur was a vibrant centre for art and literature in those days (the status has still not changed, I believe).  There were the Sahitya Academy, the Lalitha Kala Academy and the Sangeetha Nataka Academy; frequent shows in the Regional Theatre; the well-endowed public library and the frequent book exhibitions… there was also the Pooram festival and the attendant cultural extravaganza.  Thrissur was aptly termed the Cultural Capital of Kerala.  I felt myself lucky to be living in that city.

The early Eighties was the golden age of film societies in Kerala.  In those pre-TV days, we could see foreign movies (other than English) only through them.  Thrissur also had its popular film society in “Mass Film Society”, of which my aunt and I were members.  The movies were shown in the Town Hall, in a poorly ventilated room with dysfunctional fans.  We had to sit on very hard benches, and our bottoms were hurting very badly by the time the show ended.  But for me, it was bliss.

Because I learnt from those movies that pictures could talk; that what the film showed within its small 35mm frame actually spread over a much larger canvas in the mind of the viewer; and that ultimately, the movie was Myth in its modern incarnation, and the experience inside the theatre was the sacred covenant between the worshippers (the audience) and shaman/ priest (the director).  The Seventh Seal was my initiation.

The journey is a common trope in literature and myth.  We have Odysseus’s travels in the Odyssey (which James Joyce parodied in Ulysses), Rama’s journey in the Ramayana, and Frodo Baggins’s journey in The Lord of the Rings.   These journeys are metaphorical as well as physical: the hero starts out as an initiate and returns as a wise man.  Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has suggested that the “hero’s journey” is a common motif in almost all of the world’s mythologies – he calls it the “Monomyth”.

However, a discussion of the Monomyth is not the subject of this blog post.  What I am analysing here, from a connoisseur’s point of view, are two of my favourite Berman movies: The Seventh Seal which depicts the outward journey, and Wild Strawberries which depict the inward one.

The Seventh Seal: The Journey Outward

Ingmar Bergman was the son of a Lutheran priest.  One can imagine what kind of family atmosphere he would have grown up in, with the typical sense of sin, punishment, redemption and all the accompanying religious baggage.  The Seventh Seal obviously owes a lot to this darkness.  Bergman has confessed that at a particular stage of his life, he was plagued by the fear of death; the making of this movie provided the catharsis.

The movie in part was inspired some murals in a church the young Ingmar visited with his father.  These pictures had been painted at a time when the plague was sweeping Europe, leaving death and desolation in its wake; naturally, they were frightening and pessimistic.

A common theme was the victory of death.  Death, a skeletal, grinning figure, would be shown in the company of healthy unsuspecting individuals.  Here he would be, sharing a goblet with a handsome young man: there, dancing with an amorous couple: in a third place, cutting down a tree on which a young knave is sitting – themes to remind one that “in the midst of life, we are in death”.

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[image courtesy: Wikipedia]

One picture which seems to have made a lasting impression on Bergman is the one shown above, a knight playing chess with death.  One could say that the whole metaphor of The Seventh Seal is built around this image.

The movie begins with a quotation from the Book of Revelation: “When the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven for half an hour.”  This is the silence of God: an apt prologue, because the whole film is about the search for God – or His absence.

Antonius Block, a knight returning from the crusades, finds himself travelling through plague-ravaged Europe.  He is searching for God: his distressing experiences have shaken his faith, but not destroyed it.  His squire, the cynical atheist Jons, believes otherwise, and couldn’t care less.  They make an odd pair as they plod across the desolate landscape, Jons replying with sarcastic repartees to Block’s profound questions.

Then Death (personified as a figure totally covered in black) enters the scene.  He has come to claim the knight and his companion; however, he gives Block one final chance.  If the knight can defeat him at chess, he will survive.  Block is confident that he can beat Death or at least hold him off until he discovers the answer to his theological enquiries.

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They continue their journey towards Block’s castle, picking up a motley crew in the process.  The most prominent are Jof and Mia (and their infant son Mikael), actors in a strolling theatre group managed by the lecherous Skat.  Jof considers himself a visionary, and he genuinely sees religious visions, but he is something of a buffoon and the others in the group make fun of him, including his wife.  Another is a servant girl whom Jons saves from Raval, a theologian turned brigand and grave-robber (ironically, he had persuaded Block to desert his wife and go on a crusade).  Their team also comprises the town blacksmith who is cuckolded by Skat and his wife, Lisa. Death follows them, appearing at intervals to continue his game with Block.

As they move across the plague-ravaged landscape, there are many encounters in true “road-movie” fashion: a young woman condemned to die as a witch; a group of flagellants marching by, flogging themselves; and Raval, now himself ironically a victim of the plague, dying miserably in front of them.  Throughout the journey, Jons is interested in helping his fellow humans any way he can, while Block is aloof, his head full of theological angst about the nonexistence of God (in a significant scene, he asks the young woman about to be burnt as a witch about her encounter with the Devil, while Jons tries to alleviate her misery and pain).

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Block knows that his life has been meaningless and futile: his aim is to hold Death off till he accomplishes “the one significant thing” even though he himself does not know what it is.  Towards the end, when there is only one move between him and defeat, Block realises what it is – to save Jof, Mia and Mikael.  He upsets the board to distract Death just long enough for the family of actors to escape (Jof, with his visionary capacity, is the only one who can see Death apart from him): so in the end, when death comes for all of them in his castle, Block dies with his questions unanswered but with the gratification of knowing he has accomplished something worthwhile.

There have been a lot of allegories, using the metaphor of the journey and Biblical imagery to depict the soul’s journey, both in the temporal and celestial regions.  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy come readily to mind. The Seventh Seal creates its impact by placing this allegory on its head.  Here, the theme is not God, but the silence (death?) of God and the ultimate failure of the hero’s quest.  However, in depicting this failed quest, Bergman has managed to pack such a large mythological canvas into ninety minutes of screen time that the effect is indeed magical.

Even though the style here is unabashedly expressionistic, the story is clear and straightforward.  Unlike Wild Strawberries, this movie can be enjoyed as a Medieval Gothic tale, without looking at the subtext.  Bergman speaks with clear, black and white images which need no interpretation.  The subtext is very much there, however, in the images and more so in the crisp dialogues, delivered by the nihilist Jons.

Consider, for example, the following scene at the very beginning of the movie.  Block requests Jons to ask a man, seated by the wayside, the way to the inn.  On finding the man unresponsive, the squire shakes him, only to find himself looking at a rotting corpse.

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The scene is pretty bizarre, but it is the dialogue which follows which takes the cake.

Block: Did he indicate the way?

Jons: Not exactly.

Block: What did he say?

Jons: Nothing.

Block: Was he dumb?

Jons: No, one can’t say that… I have to say he was extremely well-spoken… well-spoken, yes; but the speech he made was dour, I have to say.

One can’t say whether this is horror, comedy or black comedy.

There is another scene where Block confesses to Death at a church, inadvertently thinking that it is a priest he is talking to.

Block: I want to confess as honestly as I can, but my heart is empty; and emptiness is a mirror turned to my own face.  I see myself and am seized by disgust and fear.  Through my indifference for people, I have been placed outside of their society… Now I live in a ghost world, enclosed in my dreams and imaginings.

Priest (Death): Despite that, you don’t want to die.

Block: Yes!  I want to.

Priest (Death): What are you waiting for?

Block: I want knowledge.

Priest (Death): You want guarantees.

Block: Call it what you like.  Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses?  Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?  How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith?  What will happen to we who want to believe, but cannot?  What about those who neither want to nor can believe?  Why can’t I kill God in me?  Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way despite me wanting to evict Him from my heart?  Why is he, after all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of? – Do you hear?

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Priest (Death): I hear you.

Block: I want knowledge!  Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.  I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face, and speak to me.

Priest (Death): But He remains silent.

Block: I call out to Him in darkness.  But it’s as if no one was there…

Priest (Death): Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Block: Then life is a preposterous horror.  No man can live faced with death, knowing that everything’s nothingness.

Priest (Death): Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.

Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.

Priest (Death): That day…

Block: I understand what you mean.  We must make an idol of our fear and that idol we shall call God.

Priest (Death): You are worried.

Block: Death came to see me this morning. We played chess together.  The respite allows me to attend to some business.

Priest (Death): What business?

Block: All my life I’ve been searching, wondering, talking without meaning or context.  It has been nothing!  Yes, I say so without bitterness or self-reproach, as I know that almost all people’s lives are made this way.  But I want to use my respite for one meaningful act.

Priest (Death): That’s why you are playing chess with death.

Block: He’s a difficult and skillful tactician, but so far I have not surrendered a piece.

Priest (Death): How can you outwit death in your game?

Block: I’m playing a combination of bishop and knight that he hasn’t noticed yet.  I’ll expose his flank in the next move.

Priest (Death): (revealing himself to Block) I’ll remember that.

Pardon me for quoting that dialogue at length, but I consider it the most important exchange in the whole movie.  It marks out Antonius Block for a traditional tragic hero on his doomed quest.  It does not matter that this hero does not do anything particularly “heroic” in the film: rather, it is strangely apposite.  For Block’s flaw is not his lack of faith, but a faith which he cannot tear out from his heart even after experiences which prove that it is useless.  He is the photographic negative of a hero who fails by trying to challenge the gods – one who fails by not challenging what should be challenged.

Jons is the perfect foil to Block.  He is a man without any faith, who carries on because there is nothing else to do.  If Block is tragic, Jons is beyond tragedy and comedy.  He inhabits a charred and desolate mental landscape which is eerily like the plague-infested land that he is crawling through; an acceptance of a black fate that is even beyond despair (however, it is to his credit that this does not prevent him from acting in the world: it is he who saves the servant girl and in another encounter, Jof, from Raval).  In the end, when they all stand before death, Jons tells the praying Block: “In that darkness where you claim to reside, where we probably all reside, you will find no one that listens to your complaint or is moved by your suffering”.

Is there only darkness?  It is interesting that both the seeker Block and the atheist Jons fall prey to Death.  The only people who escape are Jof, Mia and Mikael.  The character of Jof is like a ray of sunshine in a story which is mostly built out of darkness.  Jof is a common man, something of a simpleton, who does not have the depths of either Block or Jons: he believes in a simple religion, loves his wife and son, and wants to live his life, that’s all.  In fact, the pastoral life of the trio are sketched in such loving detail that we feel that we are in the presence of the Holy Family here.

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When Block spends his first evening with them, he is treated to wild strawberries and goat milk (the metaphor of wild strawberries as innocence makes it first entry here; he will use it as the title of another of his famous movies, his second journey which I shall be discussing later).  Block says: “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk…And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me.”  These strangely evocative lines, taken in conjunction with his confessions earlier, point us towards the “one significant thing” – even though it is almost impossible to know without hindsight.

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By saving Jof (the idiot visionary, a sort of “God’s Fool”) and his family from Death, Block is accomplishing the continuance of innocence in a world totally bereft of it.  In the last scene (arguably the most famous in world cinema), Jof has a vision which he describes to Mia.

Jof: Mia! I can see them, Mia! I can see them! Over there under the storm-laden skies. They are all there. The smith and Lisa and the knight and Raval and Jons and Skat. And Death, the severe master, invites them to dance. He wants them to hold hands and dance in a long line.  And the grim master leads with scythe and hourglass, but Skat brings up the rear with his lyre. They move away, away from the dawn in a solemn dance, away to the dark country. Whilst the rain washes over their faces, cleans their cheeks of tears and salt.

Mia: (Smiling) You and your dreams and visions…

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This brief exchange rounds of brilliantly what has been a dark ride, in the same fashion Block’s confession sets off the premise at the beginning.  The movie ends with Jof, Mia and Mikael moving away towards the light.

Bergman speaks with images as well as words.  In fact, this movie is a textbook on how to meld the two.  Being adapted from a play, and because of its content, the film is necessarily wordy – sometimes even pompously so.  However, Bergman uses his camera angles brilliantly to emphasise his words (aided by the great cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer).  In fact, most of the images from this movie (like the “Dance of Death” above) have become iconic in the world of serious cinema.

Joseph Campbell said that all myth was metaphor.  Directors like Bergman have proved that art is the medium for myth in today’s world.  This is a timeless classic.