aging topics | a-z film list | links and resources | supplemental books
cinema classics DVD | visual arts | health | contact us | home

Issues of Aging Curated Video Collection

Viewing Aging And The Human Condition


Viewing Aging And The Human Condition

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.

The Chemo 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.

Curtain Call 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 miserable.

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 puts it.

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.

The Granny 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 Church's position:

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.

I'd Rather 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."

Near Death 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 statistic.

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. @

aging topics | a-z film list | links and resources | supplemental books
cinema classics DVD | visual arts | health | contact us | home

back to Panelists' Essays