by Harry R. Moody
Films can offer powerful images of positive aging,(1) and, by examining them closely, we can find a counter-narrative to the negative images of age so prevalent in our culture.(2) In this discussion, we consider four films, Wild Strawberries, Groundhog Day, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Carol.
The 1957 film Wild Strawberries has been called the masterpiece of Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman.(3) It is repeatedly cited on critics’ lists of the 10 greatest films ever made. Wild Strawberries is also the greatest film about aging ever made and the most profound statement of life-review in the medium of film. The film’s message and meaning are conveyed by powerful dreams experienced by the hero of the film, Prof. Isaak Borg, played by silent film director Victor Sjöström. In the film, Prof. Borg is an academic physician who experiences a profound life-review through a series of dreams during a single day’s drive with his daughter-in-law as they travel to the city of Lund where the doctor is to receive an honorary degree, celebrating his 50 years of medical practice.
Dr. Borg’s day begins as he awakens from a dream, a dream that has been called the most famous dream in film history. It is a scene dense with symbols of coffins, clocks, and empty streets, an atmosphere Bergman himself has called an homage to German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), and Metropolis (1927). This dream features a runaway carriage, conveying an ominous message of impending death and inescapable fate. This first dream recalls Dr. Robert Butler’s original account of life-review as a process of encountering the past triggered by a sense of imminent death. Later dreams in the film explicitly display a pattern of life-review in which Dr. Borg encounters unresolved guilt and conflicts from the past. The explicit life-review sequence begins with a nostalgic dream set in a summer cottage from his childhood. Prof. Borg awakens from the dream sometimes confused between past and present, a point emphasized by Bergman since the very same actress portrays the girl from his youth in the past as well as a passenger in the car he’s driving in the present. The dream evokes feelings of loss and regret for a life unlived and the “road not taken.”
Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) is a deep exercise
in life-review, unfolding through dreams, fantasy, and reminiscence.
Perhaps the most disturbing dream in the sequence is one where Borg is brought into a lecture hall, scene of his adult triumphs and mastery as an academic physician. In this lecture hall he is asked devastating questions that evoke his helplessness, guilt, and vulnerability in the face of the past and his empty life at present. In this dream he must face his own emotional isolation in devastating terms. The last dream vision, if we may call it that, no longer reflects the guilt and anguish of Borg’s past. The dream comes after Borg has attempted to reconcile his son Evald with Evald’s wife Marianne. As Borg sinks into sleep, his mind wanders into the past again. In this final dream, Borg is back in childhood, at a family picnic at a lake. The mood is nostalgic and affirmative of Borg’s life and memories, a fitting conclusion and a moving note of redemption and reconciliation between past and present. The journey of life-review through dreams has achieved what Erikson would call ego-integrity, moving beyond the despair evoked by the opening nightmare that begins the sequence.(4)
Wild Strawberries is a deep exercise in life-review, unfolding through dreams, fantasy, and reminiscence.(5) In a single day, Dr. Borg relives an entire lifetime. For this elder hero, the past remains unfinished. Despite his worldly honors, he experiences through deep subjectivity the poverty of his own existence. Despite past failings, he encounters the possibility of growth and redemption. The film itself is
a profound message about hope for the last stage of life.
Bergman directed Wild Strawberries in 1957, when he himself was far from old age but had entered a midlife transition. About the aged Dr. Isak Borg, Bergman would later say, “I had created a figure who, on the outside, looked like my father but was me, through and through....I was then 37, cut off from all human emotions.” Bergman’s work continued throughout his life to explore the darker sides of human life. But, of all his films, Wild Strawberries remains his most life-affirming work.
A film very relevant to aging and lifespan development happens to be a movie with no older characters at all. That film is Groundhog Day, which stars Bill Murray as a cynical television weatherman named Phil Connors who mysteriously is compelled to relive again and again a single day of his life: namely, February 2, Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day is ultimately not a film about
“midlife crisis” but is rather a classical redemptive narrative.
Despite being a comedy, the film has been widely seen as having a profound existential or even spiritual message and it has become something of a cult favorite. Harold Ramis, director of the film, is quoted as saying that he has heard from Jesuit priests, rabbis, Buddhists, and people all over the world who find a deep meaning in the film. “At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief... ’ Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it,” evidently because the film depicts the endless cycle of rebirth for which Buddhism offers salvation.
Yet the film does have significance for aging and lifespan development once we recognize that, just like the beloved film It’s a Wonderful Life, the hero is a middle- aged man who has found himself repeating himself endlessly, trapped in his own ego. In the film there is a great dialogue in a bar between the hero, Phil Connors, and a local character named Ralph which sums up the existential dilemma of the film: “Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered? Ralph: That about sums it up for me.”
But Groundhog Day is ultimately not a film about “midlife crisis” but is rather a classical redemptive narrative, akin to It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, both significantly holiday season favorites. Ryan Gilbey describes Groundhog Day as a supremely intelligent comedy which commands broad appeal precisely because it does not push any specific “deep” agenda.(6) For example, the film never explains how it is that Phil is trapped into living the same day over and over again. The redemption it promises comes about through genuine love between the two leading characters in the film, Weatherman Phil, and his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.
I have mentioned It’s a Wonderful Life as a “redemptive narrative," but it also has a kinship with Groundhog Day because the hero, played by James Stewart, is a middle-aged man caught in a life he didn’t plan or expect.(7) Like Phil Conners, George Bailey hoped for something more out of life. But he stayed at home in Bedford Falls while his brother went off to fight in World War II and became a hero. George Bailey has abandoned his youthful hopes and dreams and now runs the town’s Building and Loan bank, which helps the local townspeople but ends up nearly bankrupt on Christmas eve. In despair, George Bailey tries to commit suicide by leaping off a bridge, but he is saved by his guardian angel, Clarence.
After his near-death experience, George Bailey engages in a
compelling counterfactual life review that restores his desire to live..
At the point of this near-death experience, the hero is in such despair that he bitterly expresses the wish that he had never been born. For the rest of the film he engages in a compelling counterfactual life-review in which he is shown what the world would have been like if he had never been born. In that case, he would not have married his sweetheart Mary (played by Donna Reed) and life in Bedford Falls would have been worse. In this counterfactual narrative, it also turns out that the town of Bedford Falls would have become Pottersville, under the control of the ominous power of banker Henry Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore). The result of this imaginary life-review is that by the end of the film, George Bailey runs back to the bridge and now wants to live again. Clarence’s exercise, fostering an imaginary life-review, has done its intended work. At the end, George is reunited with Mary and his children, and the financial problems are resolved when the whole community comes together to contribute money to make it whole. In the final scene, all the leading characters come together to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
Along with It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol is also
a redemptive narrative, and we can now approach that cherished classic with new eyes. The novel by Charles Dickens has been interpreted in many ways, including, for example, as a case study in clinical depression and its resolution, as Gene Cohen has done. I approach the novel and the film as an illustration of what I have described as the five stages of the soul: namely, Call, Search, Struggle, Breakthrough, and Return.(8)
A redemptive narrative, like
It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas
Carol can also chart the five stages of the soul.
The film, like Dickens’ novel, begins with elder Ebeneezer Scrooge going to bed and being awakened by the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge initially rejects this Call, which is, at one level, a dream, but, more deeply, a reminder of mortality to the elderly Scrooge, a reminder that he dismisses. In due course, he is persuaded of the reality of this supernatural visitation and so he embarks on a process of self-interrogation, a Search for guidance, which for Scrooge comes about through life-review of Christmas past and present. In this Search
he lets himself be guided by the ghosts who enable him to see his life as it really was. Thus, Scrooge revisits the scenes of his youth and confronts the failures of his life and eventually, under the guidance of the ghost of Christmas present, he is able to see Christmas present as it is experienced by his clerk Bob Cratchit. The contrast between Christmas past and Christmas present, between the young and the old Scrooge, is the heart of his Struggle, which reaches its peak when he is guided by the ghost of Christmas future. At that point, witnessing his own gravestone, Scrooge has his Breakthrough when Scrooge imagines his own future, his own death. His cry of the heart, “Must these things be?” is the point where his dream ends and he wakes up, now back in his own bed on Christmas morning.
Having gone through these stages of the soul, Scrooge is no longer the man he used to be. But one more stage remains, the Return. In the heartwarming end of the film, we see Scrooge back at his office, pretending to be his old, nasty self, when Bob Cratchit comes into work, a bit fearful of the old man, even on Christmas morning. In the stage of the Return, Scrooge takes the insights from the Breakthrough, and from all the prior stages of the soul, to bring spiritual growth back into ordinary life. As the Zen masters say, after Enlightenment, we “chop wood and carry water.” And so it is in the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a redemptive narrative that holds out hope for everyone in the last stage of life.
The final scenes of Wild Strawberries, Groundhog Day, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol all share a fundamental life-affirming stance, and this is undoubtedly a reason for their enduring popularity. But I have tried to argue that these films are much more than simply “sentimental favorites.” Groundhog Day and It's a Wonderful Life use hypothetical and counterfactual narratives that offer a different, and more positive perspective on finitude and aging. Instead of “midlife crisis” they offer a promise of transcendence that grows out of giving up illusion and fantasy. Wild Strawberries and A Christmas Carol both have elder heroes who struggle with what Erik Erikson called the polarity of ego-integrity versus despair. This perspective is the fundamental challenge that Jungians call individuation: becoming the person I was meant to be. All four of these films offer guidance on overcoming despair and give promise of the “gero-transcendence”(9) much needed as we look for new directions for positive aging.