Only the Lonely

Self-absorption is a pitfall of too much time on the road

Magazine Issue
November/December 2005
Only the Lonely

Ulysses, Don Quixote, Harry and Tonto, the Joad family, and Thelma and Louise all went on road trips and, along the way, discovered not only the world, but themselves. In this age of the special-effect film, nothing offers a more low-budget guarantee of entertaining novelty–not to mention serendipitous revelation—than the road movie. Apparently, in the world of the road film, if you want to find yourself, you must first get out of town.

A contemporary master of this time-honored genre is quirky Jim Jarmusch, who gave us Stranger than Paradise and Mystery Train. Now, in the bittersweet Broken Flowers, Jarmusch takes us on another road trip, this time following Bill Murray, playing a torpid, computer-rich bachelor whose girlfriend has just walked out on him, as he revisits his own failed love life. Like his sterile-looking house, Murray’s world at the beginning of the film seems meticulously organized but vacant. As his girlfriend is walking out on him, he stares blankly ahead, still and silent, and then flops over on the couch for another nap.

Murray wakes up to find an anonymous pink note in red ink, presumably from one of his many ex-girlfriends, informing him that he has a 19-year-old son who’s trying to find his daddy. Murray ambles next door to consult with his advisor on things human, Jeffrey Wright, an amateur detective with a messy house brimming with life, noisy children, and a lusciously ripe and ever-pregnant wife. Seeing an opportunity to revive his friend’s spirit, Wright winds Murray up and sends him out, terrified but dutiful, on a voyage of discovery–instructed to take a bouquet of flowers to each of the potential mothers of his hypothetical son.

Murray’s ex-girlfriends include brassily overheated Sharon Stone, imperious animal “communicator” Jessica Lange, post-hippie librarian Frances Conroy (who thrives on keeping secrets from her paranoid husband), and gun-toting motorcycle moll Tilda Swinton. While the deadpan Murray has no more luck connecting with any of the ex-girlfriends this time around, we get to share his anxious fascination with the alternate lives he’s let pass, noting with him the detail of each woman’s household and lifestyle. The trappings of the four homes, like the contrast between Murray’s house and Wright’s, tell us more than we want to know about each occupant’s life.

Murray appraises without comment the absurdity of Lange’s effort to communicate with her animal caseload and the lifelessness of Conroy’s overly tasteful show house. He’s more bemused than turned on by Stone’s nubile (and naked) teenage daughter, Lolita, who waves at strangers through the picture window.

Eventually Murray encounters a kid he suspects might be his son, buys him a vegetarian sandwich, and offers the best fatherly advice he can muster: “The past is gone. The future isn’t here yet–whatever it is. So we only have this, the present.” The boy gives him a confused look–not sure what to make of this insistently paternal stranger–and then cuts and runs. Suddenly taking his own advice, Murray goes into eureka mode, emerges from his torpor, and chases after the kid. We’re left at the end with the image of the semicatatonic Murray finally putting some energy into his lifelong, listless longing to connect.

Murray first established his comic persona on Saturday Night Live, triumphing over his homeliness and obliviousness to those around him to establish himself as the coolest guy in the room–at least in his own eyes. Nobody could mock the pieties and disingenuousness of unctuous show-biz personalities as well as Murray, or more deftly tap into our desire to be seen as cool, sexy, and self-possessed. During the past two decades, he’s been responsible for some of Hollywood’s best comedies, including What about Bob? Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, and Ghostbusters. His specialty has been deadpan, disconnected heroes who win our approval despite their egotism and utter inability to fathom their impact on others. His popularity through all these years attests to the fact that many of us find Bill Murray in ourselves.

As they age, other clowns, from Jerry Lewis to Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, seem to grow more desperate to ingratiate themselves with their audience. But rather than becoming more obnoxiously hyperactive, Murray has grown ever more still and silent, revealing a vulnerability that was unimaginable earlier in his career (as he showed us in the endearing Lost in Translation and even more so here). As we watch him take unaccustomed risks to find the son who might connect him to his past and future, we see that he’s spent a lifetime longing for someone else to bring love into his life. In its gentle wisdom, Broken Flowers never loses sight of the fact that the search for love makes us all lose our cool, revealing the neediness behind our unruffled façades of self-containment. Once humbled by love, we’re all inescapably comic.

As he showed in Smiles of a Summer Night in 1955, when he was 37, Ingmar Bergman clearly knows how silly sex and love and the mating dance can be. (Understandably, the hit song from the musical version of Smiles of a Summer Night is “Send in the Clowns.”) Nevertheless, most of his depictions of the search for love throughout his long career have been imbued with an aura of existential angst–none more so than in his 1973 masterpiece, Scenes from a Marriage, originally made for Swedish television as the series Scenes–six, hour-long episodes from a failing marriage. Unrelievedly intimate and unapologetically autobiographical, the series was filmed almost entirely in close-ups of seemingly eavesdropped conversations between two lovers.

Scenes starred the radiant, young Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s mistress at the time, as a successful lawyer and mother of two daughters, who’s married to Erland Josephson, an imperious older professor akin to Bergman himself. We first meet them as they’re being touted as the ideal couple in a magazine interview. Then they watch in horror at a dinner party as their best friends, a presumably happy couple, try verbally to eviscerate each other. Ullmann next meets with a client who feels she must escape her longstanding marriage because she isn’t in love with her perfect husband and doesn’t love her children either. Ullmann goes on to discover that her own husband is having an affair. They talk about it with exaggerated reason and calm and decide to split up, but then the signing of the divorce papers is delayed by a fist fight, followed by love-making. Throughout, no thought is given to the kids. At the end of the film, Ullmann and Josephson have a postdivorce tryst. They lie in bed afterward and reveal their loneliness and their disconnection from everyone else.

In interviews, Bergman said that a casual, sexual friendship was the happy answer for those disillusioned by marriage. He believed marriage couldn’t work because men have such a terrifying need for closeness that they must use infidelity to prevent themselves from being engulfed.

Now, 32 years later, Bergman is 87. He’s widowed after decades of what appears to have been a happy marriage with his sixth wife. (During those decades of domestic happiness, he made no movies.) He now lives alone on the isolated Faroe Islands. This is where he reunited Ullmann and Josephson for Saraband, a bitter conclusion to Scenes from a Marriage.

This four-character drama repeats the bleak, intimate look and feel of Scenes. In it, the lonely Ullmann takes a road trip to visit her sickly ex-husband, living alone on an isolated island. He’s a wretched old man, giving little or nothing to anyone else. He’s lost contact with his daughters–one a childless lawyer living in Australia, the other institutionalized with catatonia since her parents’ divorce.

Josephson’s only emotional spark is his lifelong contempt for his son from his first marriage, who lives in the nearby boathouse. The son, a failed musician, is dependent on his father, which disgusts him. The son’s wife, upon whom he also was dependent, has died. Now the son has shifted his dependence to his angelically loyal, cellist daughter, who fears he’d die without her. Father and daughter even sleep together, presumably not sexually, clinging to each other through the night as Ullmann and Josephson did at the end of Scenes.

During her extended visit of mercy, the conflict-averse Ullmann encourages the young cellist’s emancipation and Josephson’s support of his granddaughter, and thus throws the crisis into tragedy. But escape is the only solution, Ullmann knows, to the discomfort of heightened emotions.

Bergman’s early films about the silence of God and the loneliness of man are stuck in the psyches of all who saw them. This last chapter slips back in with ease; it’s so familiar and internalized it doesn’t feel dated. The aging of Ullmann’s beatific face is immeasurably sad and tender. The score–Bach and Bruckner in the background, and often the foreground–massages the soul. It’s even comforting to see Bergman still fretting about his own soul and, at long last, those of the children.

In this autoeulogy, there’s none of the joyful humanity Bergman showed in the ripely celebratory Fanny and Alexander, in which he seemed to nurture all the abused and neglected children, rather than continuing just to salve his own wounds. The focus of this postlude to Scenes is the lingering impact of parents’ selfish choices on grown-up children, as it documents the damage Josephson and his son have done to the next generation. Bergman seems to be apologizing, as his alter ego Josephson refuses to do, for having overlooked his real children in his self-absorbed preoccupation with his own inner child.

Coming out of Saraband, I was haunted by an appreciation for Bergman’s artistic generosity in exposing himself to us over the course of a lifetime. His work has brought us as close as the screen can to the eternal loneliness each of us must confront at our core. For Bergman, unlike Bill Murray’s character in Broken Flowers, there’s no epiphany: he still seems to view life as a perpetual road movie, in which the artist is doomed to endless psychological and interpersonal wandering, like the Flying Dutchman, and there’s no hope of finding home. Bergman always thought that what he found–and didn’t find–in himself was the plight of mankind. A dependent misogynist himself, he assumed that we’re all doomed to a lifetime of loneliness, like Josephson’s iceberg- hearted father.

I wonder what the Bergman of today would think of Bill Murray’s aging Don Juan, who plays for comic effect the loneliness that’s so obsessed Bergman. Murray’s character learns that the failure to give and receive love isn’t due to a curse from God or an attack of depression, but is simply self-indulgence and laziness of the spirit. It’s fortunate for us that Bergman has so obsessively explored the barren territory of isolated misery within himself in a way that’s enriched our own road trips through his work, without our having to live there.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.