What We Talk About When We Talk About Babies
It’s Saturday night, I’m at a party, and we are talking about babies.
“Ok,” A friend tells me, “when you have a baby your feet permanently get a half size bigger.” I mock-gasp, look down at my feet, and think about the only-half-kidding tragedy of growing out of my newly acquired designer loafers.
“Every time?” Another asks, perhaps imagining the hoard of kids and the growth required to accommodate them: Up to size 8 for Tommy, 8.5 for Clara, 9 for Jimmy…
“I think it’s a one and done kinda deal, but hey at least your boobs may grow size too,” the first responds.
“That may just make it worth it,” I joke.
We move on to new subjects, and I chat with other women who stream in and out of our conversation, but I get pulled aside. “Do you really not want kids?”
“Listen,” I prop my arm up on the refrigerator near me, stabilizing myself for the suddenly serious tone, “I don’t know if I can be in complete charge of the care of a completely helpless human being. It honestly terrifies me.” Perhaps inappropriate to shout out over the sounds of the song, “Gas Petal,” and the shouts of girls playing flip cup, it was, at least, true.
I’ve always been frustrated with the act of caring. I’m not exactly bad at handling the various people who’ve fallen apart in my life: I’m maybe even good at it. People with “issues” seem to seek me out, and sometimes I even like it. I ascribe to the Anna Karenina principle: happy, adjusted people are all alike, but unhappy people (those who most need care) are unhappy in their own interesting way.
But there’s a way in which need is also scary, undesirable, and, in a word choice Director Ingmar Bergman might approve of, repulsive. This repulsion is not from a lack of understanding. I had bad anxiety in middle school, the kind of anxiety that made me helpless, made me needy. I expected care and, ultimately, needed care to get over it. But even then I knew that care was, in many ways, a corollary to harm. That each time my mom cared for me, talking me down from an imagined problem or amorphous fear, that I was taking something from her.
Bergman also sees the harm of care in his film, Persona (1966). A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Anderson) is assigned to care for an actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who, while physically healthy, refuses to speak. They head to the sea alone together and slowly become friends, Alma talking and Elisabet listening, Alma caring and Elisabet healing. But, after Alma finds a letter where Elisabet mocks Alma’s revealed secrets (most notably that of an affair in an orgy and subsequent abortion), the movie fractures. Although the film is strange from the opening sequence of close-ups on tarantulas, nailed hand, and sheep slaughter, it becomes even less linear and even more difficult to determine what is real as time goes on.
Bergman’s observations on care also blur after this critical moment of fracture. The beginning sets up the idea that the steady Alma is caring for the unsteady Elisabet. Alma navigates the world in a way that suggests her (relative to Elisabet) well-adjusted nature and ability to care for others. Elisabet, on the other hand, has been overwhelmed by her duties to care for and to care about the world and those in it. But as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to see who is caring for whom. Alma, burdened by the care of a silent existentialist, burdens said existentialist with her repressed desires and her overly intimate stream of consciousness.
The cared for becomes the one who needs caring; the one who cares less begins to care more.
Even two vodka-fruit-punches in, I couldn’t stop thinking about Persona. Despite my baby bravado, I too felt the overwhelming pressure, just beneath the surface. I want to care and to care in the right way or, if not in the right way, the way you are supposed to. I thought about a scene in the film where Alma twice repeats a speech (once from her visual perspective and one from Elisabet’s visual perspective) about Elisabet’s ultimate failure in caring, motherhood. Forced to articulate my own stances on motherhood and on caring at large, I found myself anxiety ridden just like Elisabet and Alma in that scene.
Bergman’s characters aren’t cohesive and neither is his message: his characters care about and care for, care too much and too little, care the right way and the wrong way. But always, they care. This conflicted stance on caring in an existentialist world and a look at the guilt, baggage, happiness, sadness, friendship, love, and hate it can bring with it connected with me. When faced with an absurd world that prioritizes female caring, Elisabet and Alma (ultimately both terrible caretakers) act absurd and erratic, constantly overwhelmed by emotion.
I was surprised with my reaction to Persona. Just two weeks earlier, I had watched another existential European art film from the sixties, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), hated it. I worried that Persona might spark the same response. Unlike Elizabet and Alma, Antonioni’s characters don’t care at all. They face the same gendered and existential conflicts, but they do nothing but continue to live shallowly and ignore their underlying fears.
L’Avventura, a look at the beautiful, the rich, and the existential, takes place in the Italian countryside after one friend, Anna, is lost on a boating trip to the Aeolian Islands. The film follows the friends that Anna leaves behind. The viewer soon sees why: Anna’s best friend, Claudia, and her boyfriend, Sandro start dating while in the midst of searching for their lost (and potentially dead) friend. Anna’s other friends cheat and lie, and most seem to forget Anna all together. These characters seem to care for nothing and no one. It is ultimately Antonioni’s goal to convey his existentialist theme, but it makes for an uninteresting viewing and an inability to connect with or care about the film.
Antonioni’s exploration of caring in the last scene, where Sandro cries and Claudia comforts him, exemplifies this problem. Care in this scene is neither beautiful nor ugly, disgusting nor understandable, too cold nor too crazed: it’s just boring. A beautiful women comforts a beautiful man who cheated on her by the beautiful sea knowing that life is meaningless and that they will continue to go on as normal despite this revelation. Antonioni’s characters don’t care and, so, I don’t care about them.
Bergman’s route towards existentialism is more nuanced, more exciting, and easier to connect with. Bergman didn’t give me a clear answer to my motherhood woes or existential anxieties but his film made me think. I can’t imagine the memory of this film and it’s exploration of care ever fading from my consciousness. And, unlike the mind-numbing L’Aventurra that is already fading away, I don’t want it to. –Maile McCann
Maile McCann ’18 is a government and psychology major at Wesleyan University.
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Runtime: 1h 25m
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Elio Bartolini
Runtime: 2h 25m