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by Melissa Olson-Petrie
February 12, 2009
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Cinematic geography

People narrate their lives through stories, especially as they age.

"In older age, people reminisce and review their lives," says Kevin McHugh, associate professor of geography at ASU. "They try to create a coherent story linking past and present."

McHugh has found that the cinema offers a compelling laboratory for examining this process.

Among the movies McHugh has examined are Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) and Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry (1998). Both are useful in terms of unpacking the process of narrating a life, says McHugh.

Both of these movies involve road trips with the destination of an awards ceremony. In Wild Strawberries, Bergman's character, Isak, visits his family's summer villa in the Swedish countryside en route to receive his award. Allen's character, the novelist Harry Block, in Deconstructing Harry drives to his alma mater in upstate New York.

Both encounter younger versions of themselves. For Bergman's Isak, the wild strawberry patch outside the villa triggers a review of lost love. Decades before he had witnessed his brother kissing the girl he (Isak) loved among the strawberries.

With Allen's character, the narration is more complicated. After all, Harry is not "old," and his main concern is overcoming writer's block. Nonetheless, he does revisit family events, as well as the versions he has fictionalized, throughout the road trip.

As in life, "place is very important in these narrations," McHugh says. "People pause and think specifically about particular experiences and particular places and how they resonate in the present. They also provide some sense of identity for moving forward."

In the end, Harry breaks through his writer's block, and Bergman's Isak senses some reconciliation as he sees his parents and his beloved in dream sequences. Both films use reminiscence, often triggered by place, to move the characters' stories forward.

"Part of a road movie is to move away from a place where you usually are so you can think differently and have different experiences," McHugh says.

Other films McHugh has examined through his geographer's lens include: About Schmidt (2002), starring Jack Nicholson as a retired insurance executive leaving Omaha in an RV; The Straight Story(1999), which follows an elderly man traveling on his riding mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his brother; and This Is Nowhere (2002), a documentary focusing on RVers who camp in Wal-Mart parking lots.

"In the future, I will twin these film studies with interview work with older people regarding place and memory," McHugh says.