Viewing Aging And The Human Condition
PETER DAVIS, FILMMAKER
As a documentary filmmaker,
I looked at this collection with a particular bias. This allows
me to make an early distinction between those titles that are
really "how-to" videos, mainly concerned with helping
us understand and deal with the process of aging, and those that
belong to the documentary tradition. The "how-to" videos
are, of course, very useful, probably more useful in a basic
way than those titles I categorize as documentary, my self-chosen
focus for this essay. Also, I do not expect from a "how-to"
the same deployment of the craft of filmmaking that I expect
from a documentary.
The documentary tradition
includes a strong social sense. The best of documentary has recognized
the commonality and the communality of the human condition. But
the best of documentary also knows how to relate interesting
stories in a way that touches us. In simplistic terms, the difference
between filmmaking considered fiction and that of documentary
is that fiction creates its own world (even though this world
might appear to be "realistic"), while documentary
has to deal with what is there, even though the director has
to select and mold the material.
There is a marked difference between the way fiction films and
documentary films approach death and dying. American culture
is not comfortable with the problem of growing old. After all,
feebleness of mind and body, ultimately death itself, are the
definitive curtailment of liberty, the pursuit of happiness and
life itself, telling limitations on the American Dream. Our culture
is obsessed with youth and action, and old people demonstrably
have neither. So Hollywood either avoids the subject, or distorts
it to make it palatable.
There may be Grumpy Old Men, but in the end, they are
lovable. If old people are shown as sick, then they die discreetly
in hospital beds in sanitized sentimentality. Old people can
only be adjuncts to the real business of life, which is indulging
the senses, not fighting to make them function. It is ironic
that a culture that revels in graphic portrayals of violence
does not have the stomach to deal with the pain of aging.
The documentaries that I
have chosen to review do not flinch from the facts of age and
death. They personalize the problems and illuminate the human
condition. There are many other documentaries in the collection
that are also worthy, but I only have space to deal with the
very best from my perspective.
Paintings is the story of wife and mother Dorothy Bryan. While undergoing
chemo-therapy for ovarian cancer, she starts to paint. Her work turns
into a visual diary of what it feels like to be a cancer patient, but
more than that, it becomes itself a therapy. Her art gives her a measure
of control. Her body conquers the cancer, but it returns seven years
later, the point at which the documentary ends. Despite the subject,
the documentary is not depressing. This is in part because we are spared
a more direct involvement in the suffering, but also because it suggests
strategies for dealing with extreme illness, and this offers hope.
is about a mother-daughter relationship. Daughter Michel is concerned
about her mother living alone. When her mother has a stroke, Michel
wants her to go into a home, but she refuses. "Suddenly, they weren't
friends any more." Michel is faced with the ethical problem of
"Do we have the right to tell our parents how to live if we think
they are in danger?"
Michel decides to confront
the problem by turning it into art. Her mother had always had
aspirations to be an actress, so Michel, who is a writer, writes
a play about senior citizens in which her mother acts. This produces
its own drama when the director for the play within the film,
thinks that the play is going to be physically too much for the
elderly performers. Meanwhile, the mother has another fall. However,
handicaps are overcome, the play is a success, there is reconciliation
between mother and daughter, and Michel leaves to resume her
career as a writer. This is perhaps the best kind of happy ending
that life has to offer.
Alan Berliner's Nobody's
Business deals with a son's pursuit of his father's personality.
The father is adamant in dismissing family history, exclaiming, "I
don't care", while the son insists on tracing the family back to
its Eastern European roots, trying to force his father into awareness.
His father thinks of himself as "a little guy," of interest
only to himself, not even to his family. A kind of reconciliation is
achieved through the birth of a grandchild.
Nobody's Business is remarkable
for the skill with which the filmmaker exploits many techniques
to tell his story, and is not simply content with the presentation
of a narrative. It seeks, and attains, certain universalities.
Jeanne Jordan's portrait of her farmer parents in Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern is not only affectionate without being sentimental, but
encompasses the national crisis in the farming community, with farmers
being forced off the land by economic forces beyond their control. The
story, told in "wall-to-wall" narration from the daughter's
point of view, unfolds in an unhurried fashion, unfashionably long at
88 minutes, but it holds one's attention. This is an outstanding documentary.
The Work I've Done
tackles a subject rarely dealt with: what happens to people when they
retire? This is a huge subject, and one that in the past has been overwhelmingly
a male problem. The Work I've Done
admits that men look forward to retirement, but at the same time fear
it. People define themselves, and are defined, by what they do. When
they retire, they have to create a new definition. To what extent they
are able to do this will determine whether their lives are happy or
Looking exclusively at blue collar workers, the documentary explores
not simply the loss of everyday employment, but more important,
the loss of the camaraderie that can turn even humdrum work into
an enjoyable experience, where men exchange intimacies they would
not even discuss with their wives. For many men, nothing substitutes
for this, so retirement is a devastating trauma.
For Better or
For Worse is a positive look at a number of relationships, both heterosexual
and gay, that have endured for over a half a century. The common denominators
seem to be that the couples started off with the expectation that the
relationship would endure, reflecting the mores of former times, and
that the relationship was based firmly on love and respect, strengthened
by humor and tolerance, "good will" as one character aptly
The couples are shown in their relationships and talk about them
wittily, anecdotally, and even poetically. Coincidentally, shared
music taste plays a part in a number of relationships. Regarding
their sexuality, the couples are frank even in their decline.
These are very warm portraits. Like many of the documentaries,
there is a sense of absence of family. In other documentaries,
this is because of the universal breakdown of family bonds; here,
however, there is a satisfying sense that these couples find
most of what they need in themselves.
Myth takes up the problem of society's attitude towards older
women, wanting them to "disappear into an armchair." The documentary
shows us women who get involved, whether it be with working with the
homeless, with exercising for fitness, with taking up a hobby like painting,
with challenging packaging that ignores the special needs of the elderly
(that is to say, mostly all packaging). There is a lot of talk about
"empowerment". The documentary tells us that at the time of
the film, 17% of American women are sixty or older and constitute the
fastest growing part of the population. To an outsider this looks like
a force ripe for organization for social action.
As told by writer-director Susan Pointon, Breaking
Silence: The Story of the Sisters at DeSales Heights is the poignant story of a group of elderly nuns, living
under a vow of silence, who are forced out of their cloister when it
has to be closed down. The action takes place during the final weeks
leading up to the closing and expulsion, and covers a range of social,
ethical and even economic issues. While dealing with a very special
group of people, including some of the nuns who had been cloistered
since the "twenties and thirties," questions are raised about
the destructive power of economic forces beyond their control. A priest's
conclusion at the end of the documentary seems to articulate the Catholic
But I don't think the
Lord intended that any one group or any one situation would persevere.
It's the Church that's the important thing, and all of us have
got our particular place in the plan of God, and the sisters
here have fulfilled the Lord's plan, beautifully and wonderfully.
However, if we were to substitute
"globalization" for the "The Lord" and "The
Church" here, it could equally be an argument against any
opposition to the doctrine of the inevitability of market forces
and the havoc they wreak on humanity. To a lay observer like
myself, the Christian concept of charity seems absent.
Be Home is one of a number of videos dealing with elder abuse. It
takes the case of one older man who has been abused for seven years
by one of his sons. He is too afraid to complain. Occasionally, he has
left home and spent time in shelters, but eventually he always returns
home. After a severe beating at the hands of his son, he ends up in
a nursing home, suffers a mild stroke and is placed under state guardianship.
Even at the worst times, he makes excuses for his son and does not want
to see him jailed. This is quite a devastating story.
Being Here Now:
A Journey Through Death and Dying follows
two individuals, Elsie and Ed, through the months before their deaths.
Both have cancer and know they are going to die. This does not mean
that they give up on treatment, but it does concentrate the mind: "small
things take on tremendous importance." Both commit themselves to
enjoying what life is left to them, and in so doing seem to have overcome
the fear of death.
Elsie and Ed are fortunate in that they have good support, Elsie
from her daughters, Ed from his companion, Bernice. Everyone
is caring and articulate, often revealing deep affection. There
is discussion of the option of suicide and assisted suicide in
terminally ill situations. The physicians reject these, but Elsie
and Ed both feel that each action should be an option. We are
assured by the medical representatives that death by cancer in
the majority of cases should not be painful, but "peaceful
and kind and without agony."
is another Fred Wiseman epic. I am not an uncritical admirer of Wiseman's
tendency towards (dare I say it in this context?) overkill in his documentaries,
so I did not approach his six hours on dying with any enthusiasm. Even
given the American public's fascination with the minutiae of medical
life and especially with life-threatening situations, at this length,
the material is inevitably repetitious. Nonetheless, this is an impressive
documentary, even though I wish it were one-quarter the length.
Comparisons with other television fare on hospitals, notably
the TV program ER, are unavoidable. Doctors, including most medical
staff, have, in our society, been elevated to the level of demigods.
No other profession commands as much awe and adulation. If you
compare the portrayal of lawyers on television with that of doctors,
there is no question as to who comes off best. Even when doctors
or surgeons make the wrong decisions, they are always depicted
as having done so for the best of motives. No television doctor,
and this includes Wiseman's real-life doctors in this documentary,
is subservient to managed health care as we know it in real life.
Wiseman's doctors, surely
aware of how their image is going to look on screen, appear both
caring and matter of fact. At this level, on the narrow threshold
between life and death, there is no room for niceties. One doctor
offers a narrow range of choices to his patient: "We will
keep you in the hospital for a year and torture you in ways you
never dreamed of, but you will live." This is not the stuff
of television drama fiction, but of unadorned honesty about fundamentals
possible in the social documentary.
Wiseman's doctors are consummate psychologists towards family
and others close to the patients, have an inexhaustible reservoir
of sympathy, and appear to be utterly confident in what they
do. Their motto is "comfort is the criterion by which we
judge everything," whether dealing with patients or their
relatives. There are surely worse ways to die than in the hands
of these professionals. Only occasionally are the economic facts
of dying brought up:
Patient: (commenting on
a recommended treatment) Kind of expensive isn't it?
Doctor: Fortunately, that doesn't have to enter into the decision-making.
Patient: I'm fortunate enough to have Blue Cross and Blue
Shield, otherwise I'd be cleaned out.
And on another occasion,
a doctor comments "two-thirds of all your health-care costs
are incurred during the final 21 days of life," an astounding
Wiseman's Near Death is a
good bridge to some overall impressions regarding this collection.
For the most part, the people in these Owl Award videos can afford
to die. Decisions about how to cope with sickness and dying are
made by patients who have saved enough or are well enough insured
to be able to implement their wishes.
I was struck with the fact
that the people who appear in these videos, whether documentary
or fiction, are overwhelmingly middle class. This is a characteristic
of our film and television culture anyway; even when dealing
with supposedly blue-collar individuals or families, the everyday
questions of money, what one can and cannot afford, are seldom
an issue. And what one can afford is very much linked to the
way that people, both the old and those close to them, are able
to deal with sickness and death. It is the frontier between dying
with dignity, and dying in misery. It is misery, moreover, that
is shared by those close to the elder one, and for whom the repercussions
may continue long after the elder's death. These are issues that
I have never seen broached in American fiction films.
Community TV of Southern California's The
Cost of Caring is one video that looks at
the economic realities. People are living longer, and can be kept alive
for years on end by modern medicine, but never cured. Maintaining these
people costs an average $22,000 per person per year, a figure that is
certainly considerably out of date now. Blue Shield and Medicare are
not sufficient for long-term costs and families can go into considerable
debt. The most devastating statistics are that Medicare and private
health insurance combined pay for less than 3% of long term care, and
that in attempting to pay for this care, most American's will use up
their savings and fall below the poverty level in 13 weeks. You are
left with the feeling that, contrary to the "comfort" sought
by the practitioners in Near Death, the process of dying, possibly for most Americans and their
relatives, is long and miserable.
This appraisal of the situation is reinforced by Can't
Afford to Grow Old. Presented by elder statesman
Walter Cronkite, the documentary notes that families have a strong resistance
to claiming from the government even what they are entitled to. They
feel that they should be able to look after their own. Nevertheless,
four out of five Americans do not have adequate insurance, and many
people are forced by sickness to "spend down" to the poverty
level. Two out of five elders live in poverty.
One doctor talks about the
"need to have a universal social insurance program,"
and one woman, who has British citizenship, says she is moving
back to England for the sake of the national health service there.
There is the strong suggestion in this video that American care
for the elderly may not be the best of all possible solutions.
So I see a whole set of social problems raised by these documentaries
that have to be addressed. Very few videos in this collection
(The Cost of Caring is one of them) deal with the issue
of entitlement. I suspect that many people, especially those
who live in some kind of isolation, simply do not know what services
are available to them. Making a video, a documentary or even
a "how to" about entitlement, and placing it into libraries,
is not necessarily a viable solution, because most of these people
do not use libraries. Libraries, for the most part, tend to be
for people who have a certain level of education, and people
below this level do not readily look at informational documentaries,
from libraries or on television or anywhere. How to access these
people who are the information disenfranchised seems to me to
be a major challenge; probably it is not even a challenge for
this collection. Nevertheless, it would be encouraging to think
that more documentaries like The Cost of Caring were available
to inform others about the plight to their fellow Americans.
The documentary film/video plays a role in conveying this social
sense, and so too perhaps could the community public library
through the use of such documentaries in outreach to this very
underserved population. @