Thursday, December 13, 2007

Age Before Grace

"Being an old maid is like death by drowning- a really delightful sensation after you have ceased struggling."- Edna Ferber

Life doesn't end at thirty; it ends the moment you forget what age you actually are.

In an era consumed more than ever with drowning in the fountain of youth, the transition into senescence is a frightening prospect few want to face or contemplate, let alone address in major Hollywood productions.

We like our old people to be warm, friendly, funny and wacky- whether it be the overstimulated hilarity of "Cocoon," the boys-will-be-boys screwball silliness of "Grumpy Old Men," or the geriatric pre-Sex and the City set of "the Golden Girls." When it comes to old people in mainstream media, we want them sharp or silly, never meandering towards a gradual decline into mental and physical decrepitude.

Which is what makes two of this year's strongest dramas arguably the most unconventional. "The Savages" and "Away From Her" don't simply use elderly decline as a disposable comedic device or meaningless MacGuffin (i.e. "Little Miss Sunshine," "On Golden Pond") but daringly make it the centerpiece of their respective narratives, addressing issues and concerns with depth and sincerity.
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"The Savages", a Laura Linney/Philip Hoffman vehicle looks like a quirky indie comedy on the surface, but peels back layers upon layers of emotional complexity that isn't devoid of comedy, though a comedy it definitely is not.

With all the critical acclaim and indie buzz a relatively small production like the "Savages" has garnered, the viability of well-known brand names like Hoffman and Linney have helped get this film to a larger audience, yet also further illustrates the problem of making a film about old age- age is nearly impossible to market.

Death? Death is easy; it's sexy, it's dark, it can be wrapped up in dark comedy or carnal confections and still maintain a profitable audience. But old age? No, today, you have to trick audiences into watching it, and in the case of "the Savages," it's a trick worth the price of admission.

Though not the kind of conventional indie comedy experience one anticipates based on the ad campaign, "the Savages" succeeds in eloquently touching the nerve of mortality not as an empty source of melodramatic parental blame, but as a bitchslap of reality hitting middle aged siblings still stuck in adolescent isolation. It would have been easy to make the film about "why daddy's presence (or lackthereof) is why the fuck I am the way I am" but director Tamara Jenkins steers clear of this cliche, and emphasizes the terrifying reality of facing maturity even at the tender age of 45.

Laura Linney does her usual best in being the predominant protagonist in the film, balancing the child-like naivete of a daughter trying to do what's expected of her, while also reconnecting with a competitive sibling she scarcely sees. Linney carries the bulk of the film, her progression not a wanton 'symbolic' narrative, but an arc that serves as a product of the greater whole.

Hoffman, to his credit, plays the condescending, yet emotionally conflicted brother with the right amount of masculine detachment and indirect empathy. His interactions with Linney are the strongest points of the film, whether it be forcing his sister to face the reality of their father's impending demise or sitting alone in a bathroom late at night, framed by darkness and coming to terms with his fear of emotional intimacy.

As "the Savages" delves into the harsh reality of dealing with parental demise, "Away From Her"tackles the most painful aspect of the subject- the loss of identity by losing a loved one. In stark contrast to the indie comedy promotional vibe of the aforementioned, "Away From Her" personifies the reality of making a film for a specific audience that they themselves don't want to see.

Highlighted by the suprisingly enthralling Julie Christie and the grizzled omnipresence of Gordon Pinsent, "Away From Her" beautifully takes the fairy tale love affair archetype and punctures it with degenerative dementia, cutting open a wound that doesn't scab and eventually heal, but continues to pulsate and bleed out towards an ending that isn't emotionally satisfying, nor should it be.

First time director Sarah Polley takes all her 28 years of life experience and channels the youthful fears of elderly mortality into a subtle, moving film, that doesn't ever try too hard, nor ever pushes buttons the sophisticated viewer anticipates. Polley's film is not an exercise in managing loss, but an exploration of the end of the fairly tale, an end to a way of life, and a journey towards redefining one's identity in the wake of a loss.

Christie and Pinsent's interactions define beauty and sexuality in old age, as Christie's decline emanates a shimmer perfectly offset by Pinsent's maddening descent into depression.

The success of the these respective films has been a refreshing change of pace from the mainstream film landscape riddled with melodramatic bio-pics, faux-socially conscious celebrity whore-studded ensemble pieces, and customary overblown literary action films. Yet ultimately they reflect the stark reality of the elderly audience.

You're old, your incomes are rarely far from disposable, and thus you are disposable. "Respect your elders" indeed.

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