[Author’s Note: I’ll preface with a half-hearted apology for my absence for the past couple of weeks: catching me indoors, typing away in a stuffy corner during high summer, is as unlikely than trying to talk sense to a climate-change denier. So as I write this, sprawled on a sandy log, I invite you to join me on a secluded Pender Harbour beach. Feel free to Google it and you will understand my truancy. Now where were we?]
Of all life’s milestones, two present psychological and physical hurdles that, as we solve them, define us – when we come of age and, again, when we pass the peak of power and productivity. Regarding the former, it’s a struggle as we come of age and face the challenges of adulthood, but we manage to find a path of least resistance and create our own system for functioning and creating, building a life that we, in our delusions of immortality, believe will go on forever. With the latter, there is no such path. What we seem to deny is the realization that life is fluid, change occurs, and that we are mortal beasts who must eventually turn over the world to a younger, fitter and sharper set of players. Sometimes it’s political change, sometimes it’s ones decaying health, but mostly it’s simply because the time has come for nature to take its course and forcibly extract the baton from and pass it to younger hands.
Like all human experience, we tell stories of the experience but, needless to say, this does not make for a barnburner genre at the box office. True, it’s tough to put a positive spin on relinquishing one’s place in society, ceding it to inexperienced players. Other than the commercial hit, On Golden Pond, most films in this genre range from cute granny flics to high concept old man against the world comedies staring actors who should have quit while their careers had some worth. Surprisingly, however, every decade in cinema does include some thoughtful, intelligent and imaginative renderings of this major life event by artists who understand the phenomenon or are actually going through it. It can be a genre one needs to grow into – fair enough – but if you haven’t done so, get on with seeing some of these films because this genre embraces some of cinemas most brilliant pieces, work that embraces both the enlightenment and the discomfort that comes with aging. And so it is….
Here are five geezer flicks that will enrich your understanding of the inevitable, told from several perspectives by directors who have gone deep to make sense of the full circle of life.
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) – Luchino Visconti (1963)
The clashes between 19th Century Italian monarchy and Garibaldi’s democratic movement, along with necessary compromises that chip away at a truly regal lifestyle, questionable upstarts maneuvering for power, both domestic and political, and advancing years all sit squarely on the back of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salinas. Visconti was the numero uno master of cinematic lushness and vivacity, and there are scenes in The Leopard that will take your breath away. Naturally, the film was eviscerated by American critics when it was released, but it has weathered time not only intact, but is now considered one of cinema’s greatest achievements – or failures, depending on which side of the mountain you reside. The film is on the docket as a subject for a future Masterpiece Memo, so we’ll just leave the discussion there. Criterion has an outstanding disc set of the restored version thanks to Martin Scorsese, who lands solidly in the admirers’ camp. Watch it.
Amour – Michael Haneke (2012)
Society is so enamored and obsessed about finding one’s soul mate, falling madly and lustily in love and living happily-ever-after, crescent moon glistening over the wishing well each night, that zero attention is paid to the complete cycle of romantic life – affection may be infinite, but health (and life) is not. A shattering event such as a stroke can snap shut the jewel box instantly, leaving a life partner to face unwanted decisions alone. What does one do now? Why are these things happening to the love of one’s life? Just exactly how much do you love this person and to what lengths should you go to preserve both memory and dignity? Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are perfection under Haneke’s baton and, on a side note – I don’t give a s**t if JLaw was BO Star Numbah One at the time, that was Emmanuelle Riva’s Oscar, Hollywood. Put that in your science oven and press start. (I know, wrong movie but I like the metaphor).
Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story) – Yasujirō Ozu (1953)
We too often assume that our overall dismissal – even disregard – for the aging members of society is a recent phenom. It’s not. As much as sixty-odd years ago, our lives become busier and more cluttered with mostly mundane chores required to flourish. We forgot to slot a place in our lives for those whose life journey is closer to the end than the beginning; after all, they can’t contribute much to what we think are our needs. They speak more slowly, are not as productive, and overall generally remind us of the life that we insist needs to be improved upon. Ozu points a finger at the westernization that followed WWII, world urbanization/industrialization, and a bit of simple and natural offspring drift. The film is fascinating both for its unique, very-Japanese style as well as its message on the abandonment of tradition and misplaced responsibilities. Never a hit, the film finally, in 2012, was named as the “best film of all time” in the Sight and Sound poll. If you have something to say, present it in an artistic way and hang in there for several decades….
Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) – Ingmar Bergman (1957)
It’s not only changes in the outside world a senior has to face, there are also self-doubts – even regrets – stewing away within. Bergman was a master at analyzing the human psyche and how we reconcile ourselves with our own little world. He handles this in Wild Strawberries by leaping from the present into past life events and dream sequences. Bergman, for some reason, is a tougher sell these days that he was in his heyday in the late 20th Century, but I think that says more about the audience than the artist.
Away From Her – Sarah Polley (2006)
Sarah Polley doesn’t blink. She could easily have chosen an unknown to take the lead in her deeply insightful drama about dementia/Alzheimer’s; instead, she landed all-but-retired 60s icon Julie Christie, who provided her most accomplished work in over a decade. It’s a brilliantly tuned performance that explores not only the confusion and heartbreak that accompanies the cruel evaporation of a personality, along with the lifelong connections that tie that person to their former reality. There are also tiny bursts of humor that only this particular situation can trigger. Polley’s vision is honest, objective and, most importantly, unsentimental, much like the rural Ontario winter that envelopes the story. No Hallmark “disease of the week pic” here. The path from fear to acceptance leaves no room for unnecessary melodrama. The destination has been determined and inevitable; the objective is to arrive there with grace and dignity.
Well, now I’m heading out on a hike, relieved that I have no plans on getting older. (Right) What films have you come across that best reflect the Third Act?