Friday, November 30, 2007


The screenwriters of Beowulf (3-D)—Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary--certainly understood the plot of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem on which the film is based. They understood that the basic theme was one of heroism, that the poem was a study in character and kingship, that it had possible Christian sub-texts, that the fabled monsters had psychological implications. In making extensive changes to both the plot and themes of the story, they did so in a studied way with the intent of both modernizing the poem and making the story more palatable and interesting to contemporary audiences.

There is no rule against making changes to a story when it is adapted from text to film. Some of the worst adaptations have been faithful to their sources (and some have been equally unfaithful). Film is a commercial medium as well as an artistic one. If you don't sell tickets and attract an audience, you fail, at least by one definition of film.

Beowulf the poem is basically a narrative about an epic hero. The poem lacks much self-consciousness. It's artful, but the artistry to me seems more the result of the story being told and the culture in which it occurs. Beowulf the poem is largely unaware of itself as artifice, as art, and its purpose is the telling of history, the forging of legend to be grafted on to a developing cultural and national consciousness.

Beowulf the film is highly self-conscious. It is torn by a desire to do right by the poem and the desire to be commercial. All the changes made in the conversion of the source text to film appear to have been made with these contending desires in mind. By changing the poem and by failing to provide in the changed narrative a unified logic equally compelling to that in the source, the film falls short.

The film preserves most of the basic events of the original story, although it sometimes reconceives and embellishes them. The three monsters—Grendel, his mother, and the dragon—are all there. Beowulf continues as the hero of the Geats who hears of the monster that is threatening Hrothgar's people and comes to the land of the Geats to vanquish it. He does so because he wants fame and the power that fame brings. This is not so different from the poem. But the film makes Beowulf a flawed hero, and in the poem few if any flaws are evident. Beowulf in the film (played by Ray Winstone) is arrogant and proud, and in his quest for victory he is willing to compromise himself—he lies to Hrothgar about killing Grendel's mother and about losing the treasured golden horn Hrothgar had given him; he does not reveal that he had sex with her. The film views anyone with power as corrupt by nature. Hrothgar himself (played by a miscast Anthony Hopkins) is an aged and bloated version of Beowulf—vain, loud, boastful. When Hrothgar commits suicide, Beowulf wins his kingdom and his queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn)—although she had virtually no role in the poem she is a major character in the film—she becomes Beowulf's wife, whom he betrays by taking at least one lover. In the poem, Hrothgar lives on while Beowulf returns home to the Geats and later becomes their king. We know nothing about Beowulf's wife and less about his exploits with other women.

In the poem, Beowulf is a great and flawless hero, and for this reason he is a major point in the argument for the poem's Christian sub-text. Beowulf is a Christ-like hero, and his battle against evil—embodied in the two monsters as well as the dragon—is a Christian battle of good against evil. In the film the battle that Beowulf undertakes is a battle against his own duplicity, the sins he has committed, the deceptions he has carried out. The film uses this quest for redemption to weave the two largely unrelated parts of the poem (the battles against Grendel and his mother and the battle against the dragon) into a more seamless but ultimately less satisfying narrative.

The flawed heroism of Beowulf is a specifically modern heroism. Its basis lies in the Aristotelian concept of the flawed tragic hero and even more in modern skepticism about heroes—no individual can be wholly good and unblemished, every hero must be flawed in some way. In making the story one of Beowulf's quest to redeem himself from the sins and errors of his life, the film fundamentally reconceives the story in the poem. In the poem, when the dragon begins its rampage Beowulf acts out of heroic goodness to confront evil and protect a suffering people. He does this even though he recognizes that his death may result. The poem's concern is with heroism and the character of a hero, not with tragedy. In the film he seeks personal redemption and expiation of his own sins of deceit and lust. His motive is selfish, not altruistic.

The film also gives us an Oedipal story. Grendel's mother is an evil demon who can take on the form of a beautiful sexual temptress. She seduces Hrothgar, and from this union comes Grendel. Later she seduces Beowulf, and from this union comes the dragon. Both sons seek to slay their fathers, partially from jealousy and partially out of revenge against the fathers whose duplicity and corruption are at the root of their progeny's being. This is course is a twist to the story largely absent from the poem.

The world of the poem Beowulf is a pagan world. Christianity, if it is there at all, is present in faint hints and presentiments. Beowulf's character and heroism contain the values and virtues that are the basis of the Christian sub-text. But in the film the world of the Danes is a world in transition. Christianity is explicitly mentioned as a religion that may succeed the pagan faith of the Danes and Geats. It is mentioned as a religion in which there are no monsters—monsters belong to paganism. As the film presents it, the battle of Beowulf against the monsters is a battle of Christianity vs. paganism, even though Beowulf himself is still pagan. In the film's final image, after Beowulf's death, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), who has accompanied Beowulf throughout his life and who has succeeded him as king of the Danes, looks out to the sea at the sinking funeral ship that carries the vanquished hero's body—he sees Grendel's mother rise out of the water-- they stare at one another. She is the pagan world—he is the Christian. The film leaves this face off unresolved, as if to suggest that Grendel's mother is not vanquished--she is with us today, whatever we might think to the contrary. We live in a world that is the opposite of the one in the poem—we live in a post-Christian world of rationality and skepticism, but the subterranean context is one in which monsters, in whatever modern forms they may take, still dwell. Even so, in its explicit acknowledgement of Christianity as a religion soon to replace the pagan religions of the Danes and Geats, the film seems confused and does not make anything particularly significant or meaningful out of the transition that it shows to be taking place. Maybe the point is that in the new Christian age without monsters, heroes like Beowulf won't be needed, but the film still can't refrain from denying the title character the full measure of heroism that the poem allows him.

The special effects in the film detract from the story. The entire film is digitally reconceived—the result of motion-capture technology. The characters move in a stiff, unnatural way. As many have pointed out, their eyes lack life. In face-on shots, they often seem to stare off to the side of the camera, to avoid a direct glance that would make their empty eyes more obvious. Their faces lack skin and muscle tone; the nuanced play of light and shadow that we see when we look at a living human face is missing. The digital effects exaggerate the unreality of the story. The filmmakers should have reserved digital effects for the obvious moments when they are needed—the monsters, the heroic exploits of various characters, especially Beowulf. For a story about human character, we need portrayals that are more human and less virtual. At this point in the development of DGI animation, the technology and those who wield it are simply not capable of presenting convincing recreations of human beings—at least not in this film. Do we blame director Robert Zemeckis, who in Forrest Gump, Contact, and Castaway showed himself more than capable of dealing with human characters and situations, or do we place blame elsewhere? Was this just a hire-for-pay effort by Zemeckis, Gaiman, and others?

Beowulf is a far more successful and nuanced film that 300, which also used extensive digital effects. Many of the reviews have overlooked the intelligence of the Beowulf script, dwelling instead on its many defects. Even so, the decision to craft the story for a modern audience, rather than to attempt a genuine adaptation of the epic poem, led to a significant missed opportunity. The poem has great power—its pagan world, alien to our own, so like it in ways—that would translate into a compelling film, if only someone had the courage to make it.

I saw the 3-D version of this film. 3-D technology has vastly improved since its first introduction to American audiences in the 1950s. I remember as a kid watching the film 13 Ghosts in 3-D at a theatre in East Point, Georgia. In Beowulf 3-D technology becomes another dimension of the film's insistence on spectacle. It is noticeable at first as a kind of novelty, but after a few minutes it ceases to be of much interest. In general, it lends little to the film.

Originally published in Blogcritics:

Tongues of Flame, by Mary Ward Brown

The slight, carefully wrought stories in Mary Ward Brown's Tongues of Flame (1986) remind us not so much of Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty as of such earlier writers such as Chekhov or Joyce or de Maupassant. Broiwn's stories are so casually and economically written, with an unassuming and concise prose style, that one is not immediately aware of how seamlessly crafted they are. Set in rural Alabama between the 1950s and 1980s, Brown's stories focus mostly on middle-aged and older women coming to terms with the shrinking limitations of their lives. Many if not most of the stories turn on a concluding epiphany in which a sudden insight changes a character's perception of the world. Brown renders these moments so subtly that sometimes one must read and reread the stories before "getting" them. The best story in the volume is the first one, "New Dresses," in which a daughter-in-law who has always remained distant from her mother-in-law takes the ailing woman shopping. She does so out of guilt. She has always resented her husband's devotion to his mother and has never spent much time with her as a result, especially during the older woman's gradual decline. She leaves her ailing mother-in-law at a dress shop she wanted to visit and goes elsewhere. When she returns, she finds the woman exhausted, and in possession of a type of dress she had not expected her to buy. On the dress itself, and the awareness it brings, the conclusion of the story turns. The word exquisite can virtually never be appropriately applied, but for this story it is the proper adjective.

These stories are often narrow in scope. They do not move outside the world of the author and of the people she knows. Yet within that world, in a restrained and careful way, they delve deeply. Some of them indirectly and inferentially concern the coming of the civil rights movement to rural Alabama (it had come much earlier to other parts of the nation). Older whites react with surprise and concern to a new generation of African Americans who do not show the expected subservience of their predecessors. Brown does not seem to mourn or regret these changes in behavior, but she does mark them. In "Let Him Live," the black and white citizens of the town pray for the recovery of a respected town lawyer from brain surgery. He has suffered complications and lies near death. He is known for his ability to mediate crises, to bring groups in disagreement together, to fend off conflict. He may have been what people used to term in the South a racial moderate. If he dies, the town's last source of stability will be gone, and the uncertainty of modern times will descend. In a sense, the white citizens see the lawyer as their protection against sudden change, against the demands of more extreme black citizens in the town, against upsetting the racial balance that has prevailed for years.

Another story, "The Cure," an elderly black woman, on the brink of death, and surrounded by her daughters, demands that an elderly white doctor be summoned to treat her. She is certain he can cure her. The daughters are unwilling because the doctor, retired for years, is widely known for his alcoholism and is suspected of senility as well. But they relent and summon him. He is not a particularly sympathetic character, and he has no special feelings for the dying woman. But he examines her, diagnoses her illness as old age, which he admits to suffering from himself, and in the final scene they both are dozing in her room while the daughters stand outside talking about who will be responsible for taking care of their mother .

The final story, "Beyond New Forks," concerns the relationship of a white woman in her sixties to an elderly black woman named Queen Esther who worked for her for decades. Esther lives near the woman's house but works for her no longer—she is too old. The narrator needs a housekeeper. She is past the point of keeping her own house and worries that without someone to keep house for her she will lose her independence. Esther agrees to take her to the house of her granddaughter, who lives far out in the country, in hopes that the girl will agree to work for her. Here again the narrator encounters an individual and a situation that she didn't expect, that upsets her sense of equilibrium and forces her to think about her own vulnerable place in the world. Although she and Queen have an uneasy alliance—however much she may think of Esther as an old friend, the story makes clear that the older woman does not return the feeling—it is clear that Esther too has her own difficulties with the modern world and old age. This story explores an intricately complicated set of relationships that tie the women to each other and at the same time separate them.

Some of these stories describe characters that may at first seem of little substance or significance, but Brown is able to uncover their significance and illuminate essential elements of their human condition. The best of her stories are very fine indeed.

Originally published in Blogcritics:

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Fracture (2007) is a crime and courtroom drama featuring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling in the lead roles. There is nothing particularly new or original about the screenplay, but the film is interesting throughout, mainly because of the acting. Hopkins fully inhabits the character of Ted Crawford, a jealous old man who shoots his young wife (out of jealousy) and then weasels his way out of the crime by revealing in court that the officer who took down his confession was having an affair with his now comatose wife. Gosling plays a young lawyer on the make, Willy Beachum. He has served his time in the district attorney's office as a prosecuting attorney and at the start of the film has just taken a job with a high-paying private legal firm. The head district attorney tells him that he belongs in the DA's office, but Gosling is focused on the high salary and especially on the beautiful blonde lawyer whom he learns will be his supervisor. They are soon sleeping together. This film is not particularly meaningful or profound, but it does pit the district attorney's office and its service to justice and the law against the corporate legal firm, where self-interest is the byword. Gosling carries the brunt of this tension. His carelessness in court allowed Crawford to outwit him (Crawford is serving as his own attorney). Willy recognizes that he was careless, that he wasn't paying attention, and as a result he asks to be kept on the case, even though if he loses he will forfeit both his job in the DA's office and in the cushy law firm. He does lose the case because the murder weapon is nowhere to be found—the pistol found in Crawford's possession does not match the bullet in his wife's skull (this is an interesting plot twist). Will Willy find a way to outwit Crawford and redeem himself?

This film develops as one would expect, but Hopkins and Gosling make the often trod path of the narrative interesting and gripping. Hopkins seems able to handle such roles effortlessly. Arrogant, self-assured, soullessly ruthless, as Ted Crawford he is very convincing.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), nothing is ever what it seems, at least not for long. This is the longest and least satisfying of the novels I have read by Haruki Murakami. By least satisfying, I do not mean to suggest that the novel was not absorbing, interesting, or stimulating. It was all of these. But after a while, after 500 pages, it began to drag. And its meandering plot turns and twists ultimately began to seem self-justifying.

The main character is Toru Okada. He is married to Kumiko, a magazine editor. Some months before the start of the narrative, he quit his job as a legal assistant ,and when the novel begins he is basically a house husband who does much of nothing. Kumiko tells him not to worry about his unemployment—eventually something may come along that interests him. Toru is strangely passive, strangely accepting of the various happenings that befall him, beginning with the disappearance of a cat that Kumiko loves because she associates it with the early days of their marriage. Kumiko spends many late nights at her job. Toru doesn't mind. One morning he notices she is wearing a scent he does not recognize, and after she leaves the house he finds a strange bottle of cologne in her bedroom—he wonders where she got it—she wouldn't buy such an expensive item for herself. He seems strangely clueless. On this day Kumiko goes to work and never comes back. Toru has no idea where she has gone. A representative of Kumiko's brother, Noboru Wataya—a brilliant but ruthless businessman and intellectual in the early stages of a political career—comes to tell Toru that Kumiko no longer loves him and that her family wants him to agree to a divorce. Later Toru receives a letter from Kumiko telling him that she has had a torrid affair with another man and that, although she doesn't love the man and has broken off with him by the time she writes the letter, she has shamed herself and asks Toru to forget her. She adds that she never enjoyed having sex with Toru. He seems strangely unresponsive to this revelation too, though as the novel progresses he becomes increasingly committed to finding Kumiko.

Events move strangely and mysteriously forward. Toru meets an obsessively chatty sixteen-year-old girl who lives near his house. She is fascinated with him, and they strike up a friendship. She ultimately seems to fall in love with Toru. He doesn't reciprocate, though the possibility is there. Toru spends days at the bottom of a well near his house. He has a visitation from a phantom-like woman who has sex with him and suggests they travel to Crete. He learns to move through walls. He learns to relieve the stress of women by making strange psychic "adjustments" to their bodies. He meets a former fashion designer and her son, who chooses never to speak. He communicates with someone claiming to be Kumiko through a computer. He meets and has conversations with a World War II veteran who worked in espionage activities and saw his commanding office skinned alive by Russian soldiers—this veteran also spent a significant time at the bottom of a well.

These bits and pieces from the novel do not represent the total experience of the book. The narrative itself comes to an end that suggests a resolution without really providing it in concrete terms. If events work out as Toru is told, then things will come to a satisfying end, but then nothing in this novel really works out as it is supposed to. Everything is bent and slightly askew and reality as a whole is fundamentally shifting, uncertain, unreliable. I would appreciate and understand this novel better if I knew more about the tradition of the novel in Japan, as well as the cultural and folk traditions that Murakami uses in his story.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Zodiac (2007) reminds me of All the President's Men (1976). It can be seen almost as a kind of semi-documentary. It dramatizes the Zodiac killings in Southern California in the late 1960s and the subsequent police and journalistic investigations that ensued. Much of the film takes place in a newspaper office. In the first half a reporter and editorial cartoonist become a "team" that investigates the murders. Newspaper headlines mark the progress of the investigation. Dates and locations label the time and place where scenes occur. While All the President's Men moved forward with a kind of inexorable momentum, partially the result of the fact that any audience would have been familiar with the events it chronicles, Zodiac is more casual if not lugubrious.

Zodiac is oddly structured. It moves forward in chronological order. It's devoted mainly to detailing the investigations of the murders, rather than the murders themselves, though it does show several of the killings. It has several protagonists who vary in importance as the film develops. For much of the film the cartoonist is merely an interested observer. In the film's second half, as the newspapers and law enforcement agencies lose interest, he becomes the primary investigator. Several of the investigators suffer for their involvement—a reporter becomes so obsessed that he loses perspective and quits his job; a detective is accused of faking a letter purportedly written by the murderer; the cartoonist stops drawing cartoons and begins writing a book about the murders, and his marriage is ruined as a result (the Zodiac murderer apparently calls the house once a week and breathes heavily into the phone—this doesn't make his wife happy, and her husband's gradually intensifying obsession with the case causes him to neglect her and their children. He is based on the cartoonist Robert Graysmith, whose book about the Zodiac killings is the basis of the film).

The film continually reminds us that we are in the late 60s by using iconic music of the period as a soundtrack. For some reason, this seems a bit contrived and forced.

In All the President's Men there was a clear endpoint to the reporters' investigations: the resignation of Richard Nixon. Zodiac ends with speculation, but not with certainty. Much circumstantial evidence and some physical evidence points to one suspect, but he dies of a heart attack before he can be indicted. Partial DNA evidence (the result of an analysis conducted long after the murders ended) does not support his involvement. When the film ends, all that is clear is that a lot of lives have been damaged if not destroyed.

Much of the interest in the film centers on the personalities of the reporters and detectives involved in the investigations, not to mention the Zodiac murderer himself—whoever he might be. His use of codes, the ways in which he chooses, stalks, and kills his victims, his manner of communicating with the police and newspapers, his occasional phone calls and his love of publicity—not to mention the question of why he does what he does and why he stops—make him a fascinating subject, even though who he is never becomes clear. Even some of the investigators of the murders are occasionally mentioned as possible suspects.

Murky, moody nighttime cinematography proliferates through the film. One is reminded of the X-Files. Some of the scenes are unsettling—in style and especially tone they reminded me of some of the best essays in Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968). In one such scene the cartoonist goes to visit someone who he believes once might have worked with the murderer—during the scene the cartoonist asks a series of questions, the answers to which make him begin to suspect that the man himself could be the killer. He becomes desperate to escape the house—this is the most frightening scene in the film. Acting by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Anthony Edwards, is good but low key, consistent with the overall style of the film.

There's no real resolution. The film just comes to an end and with a few messages before the credits start to roll tells us a bit about what happens to the various investigators and to the main suspect.

There's no deep philosophical message here. Some murders simply go unsolved. Not all mysteries can be explained. The Sixties were a disturbing, increasingly mysterious and perplexing time (especially as they grow more distant). The Zodiac killings were a bizarre and dark reflection of the decade that produced them. As an entertainment, a crime drama, a psychological study of the murders and the men investigating them, Zodiac is a satisfying if frustrating experience.

Read a Slate essay on this film:

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Charlotte’s Web

In the State Capitol Museum of Georgia, there used to be an exhibit that depicted stuffed animals—raccoons, squirrels, foxes, birds—playing poker. It may still be there, for all I know, though the last time I saw it was probably in the 1960s. Hopefully, the museum has been renovated since then. I remember as a child thinking how corny the exhibit was, even while at the same time I found it funny.

Why do we love to see animals engaged in human activities like playing poker? The answer must be rooted in the humor we find in depictions of animals acting like ourselves. It's a way of laughing at our own behavior. It's probably rooted also in ancient myths and legends, in Ovid's Metamorphosis, Chaucer's animal tales, and Aesop's fables, not to mention all those cartoons from the 30s and 40s I used to watch on television with dancing beasts of one sort or another.

The new film Charlotte's Web (2006) makes use of all the latest special effects technology in bringing to life talking animals—pigs, spiders, horses, geese, sheep—who are the main characters in the story. The film is as charming as the book. Julia Roberts voices Charlotte, the spider, while various other known and not so known actors voice the other animals in the story—Robert Redford, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Oprah Winfrey, Reba McIntire, Kathy Bates. They all do a creditable job. Steve Buscemi is outstanding as the rat Templeton. The film seems relatively true to the E. B. White story. This film was full of charm, whimsy, and life. I liked it but cannot wax too enthusiastic. The 1973 animated version holds more charm for me, probably because it was the one I watched repeatedly with my sons when they were younger.

Lil Abner

The musical film Lil Abner (1959) is a version of the Broadway musical which was in turn a version of Al Capp's comic strip which itself parodied and satirized Southern mountain folk. Capp actually used Southern mountain folk to parody and satirize American culture and politics. Capp's comic strip was idiosyncratic, distinctive, and often wrong-headed. But it had at its best originality and intelligence. The film strips away from its source the controversy and provocativeness and most of the wrong-headedness and gives us in their place dancing Broadway actors pretending to be hillbillies.

I have not seen the musical, but there is little merit in the film, with the exception of a couple of memorable musical numbers, especially Stubby Kay as Marryin' Sam singing about the revered town hero, General Jubiliation T. Cornpone, whose ineptness allowed (according to town tradition and an inscription on his statue written by Abraham Lincoln) the North to win the Civil War.

The plot of this film focuses on the decision of the federal government to move atomic bomb testing site from Nevada (where it is a nuisance to Las Vegas) to the "most unnecessary place in the world," which turns out to be Dogpatch, the home of all the characters in the film. Because the first A-bomb test will prevent the annual Sadie Hawkins Day Race, wherein unmarried women of Dogpatch get to chase and try to catch the men they love, the citizenry begins looking for a way to prove their town really is necessary. An equally important plot is Daisy Mae Yokum's desire to get Lil Abner to propose to her. She's also being courted by Earthquake McGoon, a wrestler whom no one likes.

Folks break into song at a moment's notice in this film. Those moments don't come often enough. As bad as most of the songs are, they're better than the non-singing portions of the film. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for the songs. The dance sequence surrounding the Sadie Hawkins Day Race brings a little life to the film, but the race runs on too long.

Some of Al Capp's themes filter through into the film: the bureaucracy of the federal government, the corruption and incompetence of politicians, suspicion of science and technology, the complexity and pretense of the modern civilized world in comparison to the innocence and simplicity of the people of Dogpatch. These people are, according to the film, ignorant, uneducated, licentious, and full of life. They talk with cartoon accents that seem, ironically, taken directly from the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris. There are no African Americans in the film, though there is one Indian, a dancing Indian. Few if any African Americans would have lived in the mountains where Dogpatch might have been located, and that makes it easy for this film to evade any awareness of the civil rights movement in progress at the time of its release. There's a lot of talk about the Civil War and several obvious flaunting of the Confederate battle flag.

It's difficult to bridge the gap of fifty years between the present time and 1959 when this film appeared. It's difficult to imagine an audience liking this film—its manufactured and accidental cornpone, its fundamental inauthenticity. The film was made entirely on a stylized set. Everything is stylized, brightly colored, as if in homage to the story's comic strip origins. Some of the characters do a respectable job of embodying their characters, especially Billie Hayes and Joey Marks as Ma and Pa Yokum. Leslie Parrish is fine as Daisy Mae—she at least looks the part. It's easy to see in Lil Abner the precursor of Jethro Bodine in the Beverly Hillbillies television series, which borrowed liberally from the comic strip and was more lively than this film ever manages to be.

The closest most of the actors in this film ever came to mountain folk was probably through reading the comic strip.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Wild Strawberries

The brilliance of Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) stems from the acting by Victor Sjöström, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson, the use of memory and dreams as a way of exposing and unraveling Dr. Isak Borg's life, the various characters who pass in and out of the film, the use of landscape, and (of course), the directing. When Bergman died, several articles called Wild Strawberries his greatest film. I had never seen it all the way through, so I put it on my list. When I finally began to watch it, I did so with trepidation--dread of watching a long and tedious exercise in self-reflection and ponderous symbolism. Wild Strawberries was neither tedious nor ponderous.

As an old man playing an old man (no artificial makeup), Sjöström merely plays himself, or a version of himself, Dr. Borg, a retired medical doctor and professor, on the day that he is traveling to receive an honorary doctorate at a national university. His wife is long dead, and his son lives in another part of the country. His only companion is his housekeeper. His decision to drive to the university upsets her. She was looking forward to accompanying him to the ceremony on an airplane. She has served him for many years, and they sometimes interact as if they are husband and wife, though neither would agree to the label, and at the end of the film when the professor asks her to call him by his first name, she refuses, saying that she is content with the current nature of their relationship.

Through a series of dreams and memories, Borg revisits past events of his life: his idyllic childhood with his family, his love for a young woman who ended up marrying someone else, his less than happy marriage to another woman. The dream sequences are full of symbolic images and psychological portents. In the first one, he wanders the streets of a city that seems familiar to him, but it is deserted, and when he does manage to find someone, the person has no face-- only a blank visage. Is this Borg's own face, devoid of the details and accomplishments of his own life?

Along the way to the university Borg visits the family summer vacation home of his youth. Here the wild strawberries that he used to pick with the woman he loved become the symbol of lost youth and precious memories. During the drive he talks with his daughter-in-law Sara, who has been visiting with him. During their talk she reveals that she does not like him, that she finds him self-absorbed, egotistical, and cold. He receives this revelation in a matter-of-fact way, as if it is not a surprise, though it clearly is a surprise. The tenor of many of the revelations of the day drive home the fact that he has led a cold and self-absorbed life that has left him with few if any friends, an embittered son (Sara tells the professor that his son hates him).

The portrait is not entirely bleak. When Borg visits the town where he lived as a young man, residents come up to him to pay respects and express gratitude for all his service. He has worked for many years as a doctor, and his inventions and research have been of great use to the country. So while he has led a career as a venerated doctor and professor, his inner, private life has been cold.

In the course of the drive, Borg gives a ride to a group of traveling college students (two of them have a fist-fight over the question of God's existence) and a quarreling husband and wife. These temporary passengers are a source of comedy in the film, but they also help advance Borg's progressing assessment of his life. The husband and wife quarrel so fiercely that Borg finally puts them out of the car. He says he did so for the same of the college students, whom he does not want to expose to such bitterness, but it becomes clear that they remind him of his own unhappy marriage. The college students are silly and carefree, full of enthusiasm. They admire Borg and before they leave him sing to him from below his window. They remind Borg of his brothers and sisters, of that time in his early life of hope and possibility.

As Sara and Izak talk, her attitude towards him softens. She reveals her estrangement from her husband, who in ways is cold and distant like his father. She wants to have a child, and he does not.

This film is about how Izak Borg comes to terms with this life. He looks back over all that he has done and said, all the people he has known, and comes to an essential point of loneliness. Even his housekeeper declines to be his friend. She is content to be his servant--nothing more. (Borg's unawareness of how she really feels about him is evidence, perhaps, of his self-absorption). Yet in the reconciliation of his son and his wife, and in his deep and precious memories of his life with his parents and his brothers and sisters, he finds solace and redemption. Memory is redemption, in this film.