Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Two Old Fashioneds. For two old-fashioned people."

What if I asked you which swath of the populace is most grievously neglected on film? Think it over. Consider quality of depiction as well as frequency. There’s no right answer, of course, but I’ll bet my answer differs from yours. And if that’s the case, I’ll wager it’s not because you think my party gets a fair shake, but because conditions are so inequitable it was never on the table to begin with.

I'm thinking of the elderly.

Meaning no offense, I believe that of all the “-isms” that fracture our society, ageism meets with the most unperturbed indifference. Nowhere on earth is this truer than in Hollywood, which (breaking news, I’m well aware) places such premiums on youth, frenetic life and glamorous death that people failing to evince those qualities are regarded as dead weight.

Maybe you’re thinking: Wait, I can name lots of actors in their seventies and they’re still going strong! Have you forgotten Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? No, but I wish I could forget The Bucket List. Only the latest submission to an endless cycle of pernicious fairy tales (let’s call them Cocooners, after Ron Howard’s execrable prototype), the film purports that loneliness can be cured and vitality regained by jumping out of airplanes with newfound friends. Oh, but the two leads have terminal cancer. Do you imagine people with that prognosis are more apt to spend their last days: a) knocking around the Pyramids with formulaically mismatched sidekicks, or b) trying to stabilize their anesthesia so they’re lucid enough to enjoy the company of loved ones for as long as their escalating pain will permit?

Who wants to watch a film about torturous decline, you might ask—surely not old people! Well, who wants to watch a film about teenage prostitution, gang warfare or meth addiction? Lots of people! The key difference is that those movies end with deceptive catharses, whereas life in twilight can only end in death—and as heartfelt as that may be, it’s also messy, humiliating and sad. Sadder still in many cases are the preceding years, marked by solitude and degradation (not confined to the physical strain). Should you ever question your capacity to empathize with fellow human beings, watch the first twenty minutes of Bryan Forbes’s The Whisperers; they will serve as your litmus test. An Englishwoman of about eighty trudges to the welfare office to claim her subsistence check, then to church where she’s compelled to sing hymns for nourishment, then to the public library to warm her feet on the pipes. That act of indignity gets her expelled from the premises. In his initial review, Roger Ebert posed a question that society is too content to read as rhetorical: “What is it about the Puritan culture, in England and in this country, that makes it necessary for the old and the hungry to shame themselves in order to get the necessities of life?”

To further his inquiry, what is it about the commercial culture, in this country above all, that makes it necessary for the old and the weak to occupy positions of marginality? Death is everywhere in movies and we’re fine with it, just as long as it’s unplanned and unnatural. “Because we’ve come to see death as a failure to keep living, normal death is stripped of meaning, which renders it terrifying,” observes Pomona Prof. Lauri Mullens. But why should something as universal and inescapable as human mortality be terrifying?

Australia-based filmmaker Paul Cox understands that it needn’t be. His exquisite productions, Innocence and A Woman’s Tale, explore the jubilation of life and the weary, wistful sorrow of its passing. The greatest of all films on seniority—and among the greatest of all films—is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a trenchant reflection on the unwillingness of young people hurriedly leading their lives to make room for old people still (inconveniently) living theirs. Depressing in its allegations but exhilarating in its candor, Ozu’s masterpiece is brave enough to conclude with a casual expression of life’s disappointments, arriving in a manner both startling and overdue.

The U.S. Census Board reports that 13% of our population is 65 or above. What can that demographic expect from Hollywood? As I see it they’re dropped into three basic pigeonholes. First and foremost, the Cocooners—insidious works that mine the aged for pith and vinegar, shuffling them off-screen when it's time for the youngsters to Be Affected. We note a minor uptick of integrity in the second group, films that respect the elderly but can only envision them in conventional frameworks. These include whimsical human interest yarns like The Straight Story, geriatric buddy pictures (shall we say “crony pictures”) such as Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, and episodic character sketches like the undeniably charming Harry and Tonto.

As expected, the third array concerns treatment of corporeal/neurological failure. Unsentimental works of this type are rare enough, but they’re a dime a dozen compared to the paltry contingent of honest meditations on the emotional cost of longevity. Surviving your life partner or feeling ill at ease with technology and estranged from the younger generations tap into deep-seated cultural anxieties. If we fear one thing more than death, it’s obsolescence. Theres vicious irony in the volume of movies devoted to quarter-life turmoil. Restlessness we embrace, uselessness we scorn.

At last we reach the eternal argument for visibility at all costs. Yes, I prefer twinkly, garbage-mouthed Alan Arkin to no Arkin at all, but there should be a third avenue—one that confronts the winter of life with compassion, fidelity and truth. Is life disappointing? Undeniably. Can the plight be acknowledged? Why else do movies exist?


Anonymous said...

What do you think of Fried Green Tomatoes? Or Harold and Maude?

harrylime said...

(Spoilers to follow)

I think they're nice movies, but neither one does any favors for the elderly. Jessica Tandy's character in FGT belongs to a perfunctory framing device that adds little to the film except length; "the storyteller" is yet another shopworn niche that old people are given to fill (see also The Princess Bride, The Notebook). Maude is a rich, vibrant character - surely more "alive" than Harold - but the movie sells her out in the end. Many people find beauty and liberation in her last act, but to me it reinforces the presumption that old people are only worthwhile as long as they can help young people with their problems. The idea that Maude's "work was done" just because she'd coaxed Harold out of his funk is depressing, even dangerous, and in my view entirely out of character.