Wild Strawberries

Although his issues with his cold and severe father are mixed in, Bergman admits that Isak Borg is a self-portrait (they share the same initials). The name suggests 'icy fortress' in Swedish, and the beginning of the film makes clear that the cause of the malady is a willful severing of contact with other people. Borg finds the endless discussions people have about other people tiring, and settles for studying his bacteria on his own.

That icy metaphor is contrasted with the wild strawberries of the title. In the pivotal scene in which they are introduced, they are associated with youthful exuberance and sexual frission. There is something of the Fall myth in the way a kiss spills the basket of strawberries on the ground. Borg watches on as his crush is seduced by a rival, who is vibrant and flashy rather than solemn and wise. The scenario is repeated towards the end of the film, where Borg watches on as his wife makes him a cuckold. His magnanimous superiority has always made him difficult to relate to – a distant God among mortals. The women in the film prefer men who are less accomplished, perhaps even a bit foolish, but human.

It is a fabulous performance by Victor Sjöström, who has a dry kindliness about him which inspires sympathy even when he is being berated and judged for his grouchiness by his daughter-in-law and housekeeper. Bergman's use of memories and dreams to explore aspects of Borg's personality feels conventional now, but was groundbreaking then. Even so, the complexity of the character that emerges is still impressive. It feels like quite a modern film, even though it's half a century old.


"One difficulty in understanding just what Marx thought a society based on rational cooperation might look like is his insistence that there would be no sacrifice of individuality when we all contributed as we should to the productive efforts of us all. The thought seems to be that we so internalize the desire to do what we rationally must do for the benefit of the whole community that we feel no tension between our desires and the community's needs. This is either implausible or alarming; it is at least very hard to believe that work as the free expression of our creative natures will always coincide with work as our optimal contribution to the rationally organised productive mechanism that underpins our society.


"Full socialism imagines a form of collective economic rationality that makes sense only with an omniscient and omnipotent directing intelligence at the heart of the economy, and imagines that intelligence replacing the coercive apparatus of law and government; that comes close to self-contradiction, and if it did not, it would still presuppose an unlikely degree of spontaneous consensus on the merits of a central plan" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present

The gap between panels / Repetition repetition repetition

Latest column for the London Graphic Novel Network is ostensibly about creators repeating themselves, but mostly spends its time being nice about Phonogram and less nice about The Wicked + The Divine. That despite not have read the third vols of either book. Kieron Gillen found me out on twitter, which has got me worried that I've been insensitive if not outright wrong about WicDiv, but there we go. Read it here.



Shame is a tough film. Bergman talks about the influence of events in Vietnam and the wish to depict the effects of war in an uncompromising way. He is very hard on the first half of his movie, which he suggests does not fulfill this purpose and could have been drastically cut down. I think the before and after is quite useful, however. The film begins with a day in the life of the central couple, the bits of civilization (music, wine, philosophy) they treasure, and the petty disputes that disturb their tranquility (Eva wants children, but Jan is a sensitive soul who thinks it's inadvisable with a war on).

The second half shows this marriage break apart under the strain of totalitarianism, and the terrorism it fosters. A local warlord (and former friend) renders the couple his servants, and their resentment towards him is channeled between each other. Eva talks of being a player in someone else's shameful dream. She is forced to film a propaganda piece for the resistance, and later on the warlord pays her to have sex with him, which crushes the life out of her.

Jan, on the other hand, is hardened by that incident. The one bit of comedy in the film comes in the first half when, in the midst of fleeing bombardment, Jan tries and fails to shoot a chicken point blank so that he and Eva will have something to eat. In the second half, Jan is forced to reenact that experience, but this time the warlord is in his sights and it's deadly serious.

The fragility of civilization is an obvious theme – and the film is rather good on the way peace depends on trust, both personal and political. Less clear cut is the suggestion that the microcosm of the central marriage somehow mirrors the political conflict taking place in the outside world. Jan is yet another self-centred intellectual used by Bergman to punish himself, and here the self-laceration goes into the fear of the horrors he is prepared to commit to survive. Eva is the beautiful, simple-minded and kind-hearted woman who only wants children and gets trampled once society breaks down. Although she is patronised by her husband (and to some degree Bergman as well) she is arguably the more courageous, in that she cannot stomach the things Jan has to do to preserve their lives. In the end those compromises are futile, and perhaps it would have been better to die with more dignity.

Dreams of a better life bookend the film. It opens with Jan recounting a dream of the war being over and the couple continuing with their civilized lives. It ends with Eva describing a surreal dream in which she and her imagined daughter watch a garden being torched by warplanes, and she tries to remember something which makes her start crying. The couple's dreams are soiled by the violence around them, to the point where they become unable to hope for something better. But the shameful dreams of the oppressors, which have created this situation, remain mysterious. Shame explores the effects of the war very well, but it doesn't delve into its causes. That, for me, is the real weakness of the film.

The gap between panels / a splash of colour

Latest column on the London Graphic Novel Network blog looks at colour in comics. Seeing as I'm just a reader, rather than a practitioner, I can only circle around the colouring craft, and point out bits I've noticed that have impressed me. Those include Fiona Staples on Saga, Matt Hollingsworth on Alias, and Jason Howard on Trees – the latter kicking off the whole train of thought. Read it here.


"...whereas Aristotle thought man was a political animal intended by nature to live in a polis, Hobbes was a thoroughly modern thinker who repudiated the idea that nature had any purposes for us whatever, and emphasised that we were driven into political society. The consequence is that for Hobbes it is no loss if we live wholly private lives and take no interest in politics, while for Aristotle it would be a truncated existence suited to women and slaves but not to citizens" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present

The gap between panels / Comics as TV

Latest column at the London Graphic Novel Network takes the Fraction / Chaykin comic Satellite Sam as a starting point to talk about the relationship between comics and television. That's despite the fact that I have mostly stopped watching television. Read it here.



High-Rise ends on a shot of a smartly-dressed boy tuning in to hear Thatcher on the radio talking about capitalism. Hard not to read that as a comment on the kind of society we live in now, the birth of which is shown in the film we have just seen.

So what kind of society is it? Royal is a paternalistic architect presiding over a design experiment attempting to create a new kind of person – his apartment blocks are shaped like the fingers of a hand stretching out into the sky. Like the Tower of Babel, it doesn't go to plan. The allusion suggests a nod to the hubris of man, and the attempt to forge godhood out of the dust we are and the dust we shall return to.

People going feral in the corridors of stylish modern buildings suggests a clash between the order we try to create, and the inevitable resistance such creations provoke. Royal's name is significant. He is the descendant of a benevolent aristocracy devoted to their schemes to improve the world – and the people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But people don't fit into the boxes Royal stuffs them into. The planner's utopia is a failure.

The trigger for the revolt is partly the hypocrisy of the elite, who conduct extravagant parties while the tenants at the bottom of the building put up with blackouts. Royal is too steeped in his privilege to notice what is going on, and at the end gets replaced by Laing – a new kind of elite, sociopathically detached from other people, able to ride the wave of destruction let loose by the end of the old hierarchy.

The snippet of Thatcher's speech contrasts 'state capitalism', where resources are controlled from the top, with the freedom of the marketplace. Royal's aristocratic ways get thrown out in the revolution. The post-war consensus, run by grey upper-class men and their lackeys, is smashed. Deference is replaced with licence – the codes of politeness and repression that keep society going collapse. It is not a comforting sight. The lot of women spirals from putting up with condescension and passive aggression to being at the receiving end of physical abuse and rape.

People in the new order are free to fight for the space and resources to assert themselves in the world. Laing manages to wrestle out a can of paint from the bedlam of the supermarket in order to paint his room. He is strong and determined enough to fulfill his projects. Wilder is less lucky – he ends up under a table screaming his own name into a recorder. His failure to achieve his projects turns him into a brute. In a moment of lucidity, before he spurs him on to his doom, Laing calls him the sanest man in the building. The two are alike, but Laing doesn't push against the powers-that-be, he just stands aside as they get overthrown.

Invoking Thatcher may be a way for the filmmakers to show what happens when you try to abolish society. The film is darkly funny on the iniquities and decadence of the ruling classes, but it seems to suggest that rampant individualism is a lot more scary. I don't think there is a hankering for a return to the stifling social mores that keep people in check, but the trade off seems to be unrestrained brutality. In the end a new equilibrium is reached. Society goes on, a new family is formed between Laing, Melville and the little boy listening to Thatcher. It looks a rather cold, inhospitable place.

I haven't read the book, but the film definitely captures something of Ballard's style and preoccupations. The pace feels a little loose, and the visuals a little short of hypnotic, to the point where I got slightly bored through some of it. Ben Wheatley pays many debts to Terry Gilliam's Brazil – which I find a more beautiful and unsettling film. But bringing Ballard to the screen is no small feat – and there's plenty to chew over if you're able to sit all the way through it.


The Gap Between Panels / That Feeling of Vertigo

Third column at the LGNN blog takes The Unwritten as a starting point and delves into those comics that are particularly bewildering in their speediness. Somehow manage to rope in Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Napoleon to make the point. (I knew that Masters degree will come in useful eventually!) Read it here.