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GARDENS, AGING, AND FILM

Posted Nov 12 2010 1:05pm
Part II of Caring to Cultivate on the Long Row of Life by Dr. Scott Wright, continues.


Scene from Village of the Watermills

Although Jung’s use of the rhizome metaphor supports the philosophical impression of life as continuous and unending, despite the relentless seasons and centuries of time, gardens are very much transitory and impermanent. And so while gardens can be perceived as being artistic (Albers, 1991), they may not necessarily represent the outcome that matches the Hippocratic dictum, “Life is short, art is long” (Ars longa, vita brevis) in the sense that the garden is cultivated and cared for in an effort to outlast its caretaker. For example, Harrison points out that,

Gardens are not memorials. They may, as long as they last, be places of memories or sites of recollection, but apart from a few lofty exceptions they do not exists to immortalize their makers or defy the ravages of time. If anything they exist to reenchant the present (p. 39).

Yet, one long-lasting medium for the expression of art is through the vehicle of film.And it is here that we will examine the crossroads of the use of garden imagery (symbolic and realistic) in relation to the aging process. In the growing array of films (see Yahnke, 2003) with the primary characters as older adults or aging themes 7 (e.g., On Golden Pond, Cocoon, The Trip to Bountiful 8, Driving Miss Daisy, About Schmidt, Strangers in Good Company, Foxfire, Iris, Away From Her), I will focus on three in particular that will capture the topic in this section: Wild Strawberries, Dreams, and Grey Gardens.

Wild Strawberries is the 1957 film by Ingmar Bergman which depicts the story of Dr. Isak Borg (played by the veteran Swedish director Victor Sjöström who was die soon after the filming and was paid tribute by Ingmar Bergman at the Swedish Film Academy in 1960; see Bergman, 1960) who is traveling in his car to receive an honorary degree. But at the start of the day and along the way, Borg is subject through several flashbacks and fantasies, dreams and nightmares. The symbolism is rich and heavy as Borg is forced to face his past, come to terms with his faults, and accept the inevitability of his own mortality. Erik Erikson (1978) has provided a comprehensive analysis, based on his own theoretical interpretation, of Bergman’s film and offered interesting insights into the personality of Dr. Borg and interpersonal dynamics with his daughter-in-law Marianne and host of other characters in the film. It is here that Erikson sees the emergent virtue of care as a necessary strength for “the life cycle as well as the cycle of generations” (p. 7).

For example, Erikson (1978) noted that the tensions found between Dr. Borg and Marianne and Borg’s son Evald reflect the core issues of generativity such that it is Borg who must confront his own rejectivity and the resulting lack of care and interest in his own family and many others around him (see also Weiland, 1993). The turning point for Isak Borg, and obviously the primary inspiration for the title of film, is when Dr. Borg leaves the main highway (his journey of life) and drives down a side road to revisit an old summer home (a chance for reminiscence and remembrance out of the rigid pattern of living in rote predictability). As he walks closer and Marianne leaves to go swimming in the sea, Borg remembers a specific location that would serve as catalyst for a reawakening much like the Proustian Madeleine, but in this case, it is strawberry patch near the summer home (Archer, 1959). And it is here that we find a richly layered symbolism that involves the magical transformation of the landscape surrounding the home into blooming plants and trees, and lush greenery. Even though the film is in black and white, one can almost imagine that large yard as colorful as Monet’s gardens at Giverny. The wild strawberries that grow along the side of the yard are the triggering mechanism to transports Borg back through time and allow him to revisit his own young adulthood in relation to Sara, his “first love.” In this film, the bounty of the earth in the form of wild strawberries is richly symbolic of the decisions made and the missed opportunities at forming intimate relationships (with Sara) and the resulting isolation and aloofness that made him think of himself as a “living corpse.”

Erikson (1978) offers his analysis of the Arcadian scene,


…one senses that this whole earthy scene, beyond its precious gaiety and its symbolic reference to defloration, points to something primeval, some garden, long forfeited by Isak (p. 8).


It is also intriguing that strawberries are prominent in the landscape of the painting by Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, which perhaps symbolizes the domains of temptations and earthly pleasures. We shall present more on that painting in the next section. But the revisiting of the patch of wild strawberries helps to break down the walls of Borg’s enclosed garden of generational isolation, and he then begins to revel in the possibility of love and caring – and sharing beyond himself. Later on in the film, Borg is presented with the gift of flowers by his young travelers who wish to celebrate in his celebration event in his honor at the university, he has achieved an understanding of how he needs to be fully engaged with life and begin to fulfill the need to facilitate a “maintenance of the world.” At least from Erikson’s perspective, that small patch of botanical life, the wild strawberries 9, are at once symbolic of the epigenetic pathway and a crossroads through adulthood and into the commitments of mature caring within mid and later life.

With the title of Grey Gardens, such a film would appear to be the perfect connecting point for examining aging issues (grey) and gardens. But the film is less about gardening in the later years (per se) and more about of what was once cared for in relationships with people, home, and landscape in the past – has instead fallen into a state of neglect due to the disconnect with cultivating what is alive (not counting the cats and raccoons) in the present. Grey Gardens is the 1976 film by Albert and David Maysles and it is a portrait of two aging women (mother and daughter) both frozen in time and place, in an East Hampton home that is graying along with them. Grey Gardens is actually the name of the decaying estate that belongs to Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) age 79 and her daughter Edie (or “Little Edie”) in her fifties. In the early 1970s, their 28-room mansion was found to be health hazard and both were threatened with eviction. They are relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and it was she who intervened on their behalf so that could both stay in the mansion after a massive clean up. Both Big and Little Edie live in the past as they travel back through the decades via photo albums, vinyl records, and scrapbooks. The film opens up with Little Edie telling the Maysles about what used to be in terms of the beautiful and exotic gardens that once was. But as the camera sweeps the landscape it is obvious all has “gone wild” with thick overgrowth, vines that threaten to cover the house, and thick trees that literally create a wall of seclusion around the home.

Throughout the film, there are shots of the house surrounded by thickets of vegetation that make it appear deserted and forlorn. And during the winter months, it carries the haunting images of a Hollywood set piece where the Grey Gardens mansion is enveloped in an ivy-snarled ruin. It brings to mind Alan Weisman’s (2007) provocative scenario of envisioning “The World Without Us” where instead of the encroaching ivy that we observe in the film, Weisman speculates on the role of kudzu (the infamous weed of the South),

…without gardeners endlessly trying to uproot the ravenous stuff, long before the vacant houses and skyscrapers of Southern cities tumble, they may have already vanished under a bright, waxy green, photosynthesizing blanket” (p. 274).


In Grey Gardens there actually is a man who is introduced as the “gardener” at the beginning of the film, but it is clear that the intruding jungle of vegetation is overwhelming to him. As the mother and daughter engage in their own private world of isolation and disconnect, the botanical world encroaches. As they live in the past, the present landscape is removed from their care and attention. While they may have their memories of some glorious yesteryear, the future is left to random seclusion. Harrison succinctly states the connection between the need for constant gardening in the face of our obligations to the here and now,

If we are not able to keep our garden, if we are not able to take care of our mortal world, heaven and salvation are vain (p. 11).

And it is with this insight do we then fully appreciate the lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet whereby the Prince sees the troubled world all around him as “an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; Things rank and gross in nature, Possess it merely” (I, ii.135-136) (see Paglia, 2005).

Akira Kurosawa, at the age of 80, directed and then released the film, Dreams in 1990 (his 28th film), which portrayed several dreams based on Kurosawa’s own over the course of his life. It is a “visually stunning” film and consists of eight segments that are arranged in temporal/spatial progression and filled with cultural references within classical Japanese culture (Serper, 2001; Reider, 2005). The first and last episodes of Dreams feature two processions that symbolize the opening and closing of the life cycle: a wedding (usually leading to a new birth) and a funeral (Serper, 2001). The film also captures luminous sequences of botanical wonderment with fields of flowers (Sunshine Through the Rain), an orchard of peaches in full bloom (The Peach Orchard) and rural scenes of wheat fields (Crows) with Van Gogh (who also loved gardens; see Fell, 2001) at work painting his landscapes and antithetical segments that portrayed the ruins of ecological disasters and the break with nature. It is however, the last segment, “The Village of the Watermills,” that will serve as the focal point of this discussion.

The setting for The Village of the Watermills is a lush farm with blooming flowers, lush green grass, and crystal clear rivers that drive the watermills in a wheel-like fashion. It is a “paradisiacal place: a village where modern technology has not invaded people’s lives and they live in harmony with nature” (Redier, 2005; p. 265). The Kurosawa surrogate (the younger man), while walking through the village, encounters a 103-year old man, who is working on a smaller water wheel structure. The older man communicates the necessity of treating the land with respect and articulates the perils if it is mistreated. The symbolic depth of the old man imparting wisdom to the younger man is a critical link in the message of the segment which highlights that working in harmony with the land helps to create a natural cycle of living – and dying.

Thus, even the funeral of a 99-year old woman (the old man’s first love) is treated with dignity and a celebration of music, flowers, and processional dancing. The entire village is involved in the funeral: children, adults, and the elderly, male and female. The watermills turn with the river of water, which provides nourishment for the plants and the flowers, which in turn the villagers use to celebrate the wheel of life – and death. After watching this segment, there is the renewed sense of appreciation for the purpose of flowers at the gravesite and at memorial services, as we remind ourselves of the blossom that does pass, but the rhizome remains.

At the end of the segment in the film, we are left watching a slow moving river current with undulating clusters of long swirling stands of lush aquatic plants flowing, swaying with the flow of water that reflects multiple colors reflected from the surface – blues, greens, and the liquid silver of indirect sunlight. Much like an oil painting of Monet – Water Lilies – and his Japanese Bridge over his pond.
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