If movies are a reflection of society and our reality, it was only about time until they caught up with the fact that the Western population is aging. Better conditions, food, scientific discoveries, less babies per couple and other factors are responsible for this. I’m not really interested in how we got there, but I find it fascinating that the “older” segment of the world population is increasing. Right now we have the highest percentage of old people since, well maybe forever. I know this doesn’t sound very scientific, but that’s not the point. The point is that the very way we live will be changed by the fact that there are more elderly people.
How is it going to change, David? Oh, I don’t know, I’m just a marketing student. I guess there will be more products and services targeting this growing older market segment. Of course there will be also problems, like: How are we supposed to get enough money for pensions? Should grandma and grandpa still be allowed to drive? And what if the whole world starts smelling like old people? I’m exaggerating a bit here, but yes, ageism could turn out to be an issue. Some people think old folks are useless, some mature people themselves think that once they’re retired they’re worthless for society, because they don’t work. I know this is all interesting, but let’s talk about movies.
Lately there’s been an increase in elderly protagonists. This weekend Bad Grandpa, a film about a mischievous grandfather, comes in theaters, next week a bunch of old farts will party it up in Last Vegas and in a couple more weeks Alexander Payne’s road-trip Oscar contender Nebraska hits the road (Go Bruce Dern!). Red, Up! and almost any Oscar-bait film the Academy of grey white men love is about people well past their prime. Since this is a recent phenomenon, it’s not surprising that most of my favorite films about old folks will be recent.
As much as I sound like a tool when I talk about old people, I actually like these kinds of movies quite a bit, and I do respect the elderly. However, much like other “minorities” or people on the “fringe of society”, increasingly I get the feeling they don’t want to preferential treatment. Now more than ever they feel empowered. It’s their time. They’re not ready to die yet. They still got life in them and even if they’re weak and tired they can still kick ass, be cool or love, which coincidentally brings me to the first film I want to discuss.
Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)
In Amour Michael Haneke shows what true love is all about. The film about the elderly couple caring for each other on their last days together is a touching, realistic, but bleak film. It shows the harsh side of aging, the suffering, the regression, the weakness, the hurt, the feelings of desperation, anger, coldness even. Even though Haneke’s portrayal may seem detached and lacking of empathy, that is how life is. There’s nothing romantic about a decaying body. Most of those notions were imparted us by Hollywood. The sad truth is that we all die. I don’t know if there’s a happily ever after, but in Amour at least they had each other.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012, Sophie Huber)
The documentary of legendary cult actor Harry Dean Stanton is not only one of the best examples of existentialist cinema, but a truly spectacular looking film. The film explores themes such as the meaning of life and if such a notion exists at all. Sophie Huber tires to discover if Stanton is satisfied with his life. Would he have changed anything? He has achieved so much, does that make him happy? Could he die in peace? Is there something missing? I’m not going to lie, in certain parts this was a most heartbreaking film, mainly because it’s all real and because you feel so much for this man who for the first time appears real and human.
Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is more about showing that old people can still be badass, they can still look cool and connect with the outside world. There is hope. He still got it. Yes, he may have made some mistakes throughout his life, but who hasn’t? It’s never too late to make things right. It’s never to late to be a hero. It’s never to late to drive a slick-looking Ford. This film is also about prejudices, racism and so many other things. While it’s certainly the most romantic and possibly unrealistic of my picks, it’s also the one you hold on to, because let’s face it as much as those other films may be realistic and true we also go to the movies to escape sadness and heartache.
Broken Flowers (2005, Jim Jarmusch)
Carried by a brilliant performance by Bill Murray Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is about an aging Don Giovanni that finds out he may have a son somewhere. The film shows his loneliness, the man’s regrets, it’s about boredom, ennui, mal de vivre. It’s also about making peace with yourself, your past, who you were and what you did. To be able to forgive yourself and live with all your flaws is to love yourself. There are rarely clear-cut answers in life, there’s rarely a movie moment. To quote Sofia Coppola’s short film Lick the Star “Everything changes, nothing changes. The tables turn and life goes on”. Not everything resolves, but that’s okay (“I’m sure that’s so gay”).
About Schmidt (2002, Alexander Payne)
This is arguably Payne’s best film so far, but it’s just so sad and depressing. Jack Nicholson’s character is a lonely old man who just seems to be waiting to die. After a life that he felt was pointless he is finally retired, now what? Why not take go on a road trip, after all that’s what indie films are all about, aren’t they? One of my favorite things in this film is James Glennon’s (RIP) cinematography, it’s very stylish (almost too much) for a film like this, yet it is so beautiful and really helps conveying a sense of loss and desolation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch it, but it’s definitely a stunning cinematic triumph.
All in all we’ve learned, that most films about old folks are depressing, sad and even hard to watch sometimes. However they’re also true and real and sometimes we need to be reminded of our own mortality and that no matter how cliché it may sound: Life is short. I will stop typing now before I start to cry. Thanks for reading and remember, there are happier films you could be watching, but if you want something to think about these five films surely will do it. Make sure you’re in the right mood and mindset otherwise you’ll just end up being beat up and suicidal. I’d like to end on an funny and upbeat note and quote an old guy in American Movie (1999): “It’s alright, it’s ok there’s something to live for: Jesus told me so”.
It is no exaggeration to say that Harry Dean Stanton might be one of the greatest character actors ever. A living legend. He has appeared in more than two-hundred films and worked with the industry’s finest directors. As it often happens with iconic and grand personalities of his caliber, it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, the man and the myth. If that annoying journalist in Somewhere somehow made it into this picture, he would probably ask: Who is Harry Dean Stanton? No need for that however, because that seems to be exactly Sophie Huber’s quest in her staggering debut documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Continue reading