Hollywood Does a Bad Job Dealing With Sensitive Subjects Like Elderly and Death

ByAnna Storm

There’s a line from Sarah Polley’s 2006 film, Away From Her, in which the titular Edith Head beauty, Fiona, leveled by early onset dementia,  says to her husband, “I think the only thing we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” 

Away From Her is an adaption of the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” and is full of these literary – eloquent, portentous, crafted – moments. It’s one of the better “aging” films of the past 10 years and one that hints at but fails to convey the full brutality of its subject matter. When compared with such recent first-hand accounts as Michael Wolf’s New York Magazine essay “A Life Worth Ending,” and the brief but disquieting Washington Post piece, “A Man Conveys The Often Grim Atmosphere in Assisted Living Facilities,” the emotionality, romanticism and aestheticism of Away From Her, misses the more visceral aspects of modern old age.

The Savages and About Schmidt join Away From Her in a triad of critically acclaimed “old people” films released since 2002. Notably, the most recent of the three, The Savages, premiered five years ago before Obamacare pushed talk of Medicare to the forefront of national punditry. If others have been brave enough to tackle the often uncomfortable and challengingly marketable subject of the elderly since then, they’ve made small waves within the industry, and certainly none in the wider public sphere. Which is too bad, because there’s a lot these films are doing right.

There’s a scene in Her, in which Fiona’s husband Grant observes a Christmas dinner at the assisted living facility to which he’s reluctantly brought his wife. He watches the young relatives eat and leave, leaving their loved ones alone at empty tables, a little dazed, perhaps blindsided by the sudden appearance of so much space. Similarly, Savages includes a brief scene in which, while en route to an airplane bathroom, Laura Linney’s father stops in the middle of the aisle and stares, bewildered;  his pants have fallen to reveal his Depends. Schmidt’s scene of ignominy comes in the form of Jack Nicholson’s wife’s death; a heart attack while power-sanding the kitchen floor. Helen’s body lays sprawled, her skirt ridden up, while the saw eats into the suburban linoleum.

Each of these episodes brings to mind a similarly disquieting moment in either Wolf’s or Martin Bayne’s (the author of the Washington Post’s “Assisted Living”) essay. Her captures the isolation and loneliness described in “Living,” while both Savages and Schmidt echo the moment in “Ending” where the author imagines his mother’s running monologue as someone else wipes her: “It’s a violation. It’s a violation." 

Yet for every finely wrought observation there’s a barrier, a stylistic buffer between subject matter and audience. Away From Her is visually gauzy, romantic in tone and storyline. Old age and mental deterioration are less explored than included for the sake of conflict, to both inflame and reconcile old wounds, to provide the tragic insurmountable necessary for any true romance. These are lovely elements, but beyond a general aching “mood,” they say little about the kind of impossible issues facing relatives of the elderly today – the anguish and ambivalence accompanying our modern dichotomy of increased life span versus decreased quality of life.

Schmidt is something like a comedy, less about any corporeal or mental failing than the life stage just before. Schmidt’s wife Helen could be called lucky for her sudden end, which arrived without the turmoil of doctors and hospital care and millions of taxpayer dollars keeping her barely there mind very much alive. The brief shot of Helen’s akimbo, lifeless limbs forms the one visceral element in an otherwise forced and pat film, whose character “quirks” distract rather than enhance its subjects.

Of the three, Savages comes the closest to probing the harsher aspects of aging. The father of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characters is a deteriorating former misanthrope, who vacillates between moments of docility and profanity. His assisted living facility is clean, the workers kindly, but it’s also clinical. His “room” not quite that, but a corner of a larger space sectioned off by a curtain. Linney and Hoffman’s inability to figure out how best to cope, or what’s best for their father, is both maddening and believable. They’re as dedicated to visiting him as they are to talking over him to each other about themselves. They still have lives, after all, even if their father’s is close to ending.

Ultimately, the tragedy of their father’s death (it’s suggested the lonely old man made a conscious decision to simply give up the ghost) is mitigated by how much of a lout he was for most of his life – beating his son, ignoring his children, etc. It doesn’t make his circumstances all right, but it does check any sense of outrage that might have otherwise accompanied them.

These films, the Oscar-nominated elderly movies of the past decade, only halfway deal with the issues they raise. The problem is, in order to do the matter of modern aging justice, such works need to be more uncomfortable. More unflinching in their depictions of the aging body, more uncompromising in their suggestions of smells, and more honest about how truly ambivalent many are about living at any cost. Some, like Wolf, find our current system of sustaining life for its own sake, regardless of quality, absurd. Some, like Bayne, find it sad. Both men are on the frontlines of the unspoken war against death and make it known that something is fundamentally wrong with the way things are now. But unless the issue is raised in an effectively popular medium – film, for instance – the way things are now will continue to be the way things will be.