Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in Cinema, '11: Is Old The New Young?

Once more into the breach... Andrew Kendall recently asked me to participate in his quasi-blog-a-thon, and I'm all about the community. So here's my piece on ageing in the cinema of 2011, preceded by Andrew's elegant introduction to the one-day series. Be sure to check out the other great pieces in the series from the hub at Andrew's blog.
Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in a much different manner than literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offerings. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion, especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmakers address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists.

When director John Wells insisted that Meryl Streep was "the only conceivable choice" for his upcoming adaptation of acclaimed play August: Osage County, he was rubbing at a scar that had only just stopped bleeding. Just a few years after her status as the only real female star of her generation was solidified by her scoring bona fide populist hits in Mamma Mia! and It's Complicated, Streep returned as a headlining star in 2011, albeit in a film destined to remain in Oscar circles for its US audience. But there's the not unfeasible idea that The Iron Lady exists thanks to Streep's mighty status rather than from any strong desire to tell Margaret Thatcher's story. And while it may tell the story of an elderly woman, she's a distinctly uncommon one, dementia deteriorating her within a lonely, restricted locale.

Still, you have to admire, even with all its faults, a script that devotes a huge chunk of its time to an elderly woman's struggles with the encroaching effects of ageing. The flawless work of the make-up team leaves Streep free to explore the fracturing mind of Thatcher, as seen from within. Abi Morgan's script imagines Thatcher accompanied by the ghost of her beloved husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent), carefully maintaining a spectatorial balance between sympathetic involvement and the resigned concern seen in her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman). Though Broadbent makes Dennis a genial, soft sort of ghost, his task is to be the little devil on Maggie's shoulders, pushing her to maintain the delusions and imaginings that become dementia's overpowering weapon.

Having to split its thematic concern between Thatcher's political life and her ageing, The Iron Lady finds little room for reflecting the positives of Thatcher's past that dementia returns her to. Instead, it takes a similar tack to Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar in its scattershot structure, spinning back into the past at the stroke of a bronzed statue. Dementia is reduced to a plot structuring device, and depth on the subject is as avoided as any definite political stance. Biopics like these seem to necessitate the use of old age as a duller counterpoint to an exciting youth. This tendency compounds the film industry's obsession with youth and beauty over the multitude of disparate experiences in the human world. Like Thatcher and Hoover, George Méliès and his wife Jeanne (Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory) in Hugo have entered the dark despair of later life, and are led to look back on their former glories in order to find happiness.

Lee Chang-dong's elegiac South Korean drama Poetry seems to suggest the opposite, with its more classic view of the wiser, more fulfilled elderly generation. It even does this in the face of central character Yang Mija (a remarkable Yoon Jeong-hee) facing the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Like The Iron Lady, Poetry contains a multitude of thematic threads refracted through an elderly female character, but Yang Mija does not lose herself inside her own head and memories of former glories. Instead, her efforts to focus her deteriorating mind by joining a poetry class open her up to revelations about the beauty in the world around her, even in the face of her grandson's horrific crime. Like Potiche, Francois Ozon's colourful French comedy, Poetry demonstrates a view of ageing as a positive progression. Yang Mija and Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) are still allowed to discover new experiences and be active participants in their society.

Nanni Moretti's We Have A Pope portrays a man who longs for that same thing. Faced by the overwhelming responsibility of being appointed Pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) has somewhat of a mid-life crisis, a mixture of fatigue and youthful hope present in his escape into the anonymity of the city outside the Papal Palace. He slips away from the absurdist comedy that percolates inside the conclave and into his own tender, affecting plot of a man who simply desires to be true to himself. That's also the choice of the monk community in Of Gods and Men, whose religious dedication is, like Melville's, severely tested, but the truth of these men is instead to stay strong in their faith, even in the face of violence and possible death. Neither We Have A Pope or Of Gods and Men, though essentially presenting opposing views of religious life, judges their protagonists for their decisions one way or the other, warmly presenting their wizened men as capable, reasonable decision makers.

Beginners, 2011's most celebrated and evocative portrayal of old age seems, helpfully enough, to tie all these themes together. The revelation of his terminal cancer is what makes Hal (Christopher Plummer) feel liberated enough to reveal his homosexuality to his loved ones, finally realising the truth in his life because the release of death is assured. But disease doesn't turn Hal inwards to regret and self-reflection; rather, Hal uses his late-blooming freedom to love Andy (Goran Visnjic) and inspire son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) to find his own fresh beginnings with Anna (Melanie Laurent) once Hal has passed away. Beginners depicts the liberty of old age, once people are past the age of financial responsibility, equating in its title the freshness of Hal's and Oliver's romantic experiences as just as engaging and valuable as the other, wrapping sexuality and age together. Beginners stands tall as 2011's finest depiction of the elderly generation, and crucially, levels separate generations as equally worthy of exploration and fulfilment.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

You make me wonder what The Iron Lady would have made for as a film if it was just about woman suffering from dementia (look how glorious Julie Christine was in Away from Her....we need another vehicle for an older female actor who IS NOT Meryl, like that).

LOVE, the ending of your post. I remember fondly a film like On Golden Pond which is about two "old people" (to think it was a box office hit, a multiple Oscar, a critically acclaimed smash) and I yearn for more depiction like that today, which is why I so love the way Beginners assess the aging. So bizarre how some people, and apparently cinema, espies the old as some foreign entity. The aged are just like us...just, older.

Paolo said...

Ugh that piece is the best, if only defense of The Iron Lady and I might actually go see it now, after four more movies. There have been so many friends of mine who have said that dementia is used as Thatch's punishment but what if it isn't?

But despite Meryl's casting in August Osage County, I hope that whoever gets the Mattie Fae role outshines her and gets vehicles and Oscar nominations afterwards.

Nick Prigge said...

Your words on "The Iron Lady" might have just steeled my nerves to finally make myself see it. So thanks. I think.