The Elder image
by Stan Hirst
I’ve come to expect very little from the film industry in their portrayal of elders on the silver screen. They usually fall back on us only when they need a little comic relief or a brief moment of tear-jerking. But, just once in a while, an elder might be depicted in a more meaningful role. The past year has left us with a mixed bag of elder imagery which deserves mention.
In Nebraska, the best film of the year (in my humble elder opinion), the main character is Woody Grant, an ornery old soak from Billings, Montana. As the film starts, Woody is seen walking along the freeway on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska (800 miles) to collect a million dollars from Publishers Clearing House. That immediately tells us where Woody is at.
The reason why I find this movie so moving and, at the same time, so disconcerting, is that it is absolutely true to life in its character depiction. I lived in the American heartland for a few years and those folks are exactly as depicted. Case in point – a group of senior men in Hawthorne, Nebraska, sit in the living room after Sunday lunch. All wear plaid shirts and all stare fixedly at a football game on TV. Occasionally two of them, without looking at one another, will converse in monosyllables about the cars they owned back in ’79. Another typical event – Woody hobbles into an auto shop he once owned for 25 years and asks the Hispanic mechanics if they know where Ed Pegram is. Ed was Woody’s former partner in the business. The mechanics have no idea who or where Ed Pegram is. Woody then heads for the battered tavern one block down the street, and the first person he meets at the bar is ….. Ed Pegram.
I found myself searching the Woody character, without much success, for something Elderly (capital “E”), something to offset his crankiness and his detachment from society, something to make it seem all worthwhile in the end, but to no avail. He had served his country in Korea in the 50’s, and maybe that was where he lost his connections.
The underlying thing about the movie that weighs on me is that I don’t really have to go to the flicks to see a character like Woody. There are clones of him on all the streets and in the malls buying lottery tickets right here in Vancouver.
Reg, Wilf, Jean and Cissy are retired former opera singers living in Beecham House, a retirement home for gifted musicians. Whatever they were in previous lives, they’re very human at Beecham House. Jean is catty, vain and difficult to deal with, Cissy is starting to lose it and often goes walkabout, Reg is a curmudgeon who yells obscenities at the French maid for giving him apricot jam instead of marmalade at breakfast. Wilf is a classic senior – hides a bottle of scotch in the greenhouse and wees behind the shrubbery when he thinks nobody is watching.
The four were once part of a popular quartet famous for the best post-war recording of bella figlia dell’amore from Rigoletto. In the final scene they get their act together and sing the aria magnificently at a fund-raiser at Beecham House. That’s the Elder thing to do of course – retain one’s skills honed over the years for effective use later in life when the situation requires it.
There is indeed a first-class Elder currently on display at the movies – Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He can’t go wrong with that beard, that hat and that mellifluous voice just oozing wisdom. He is the quintessential mentor and more. When the going gets tough and the situation is waist-high in orcs, Gandalf has the moxie to hack his way out with his trusty sword or else he just summons up Gwahir the eagle for aerial evacuation. Clearly this is the mode we Elders all need to be in.
The only problem here is that Gandalf exists only in Middle Earth and in the fertile imagination of J.R. Tolkien. I’ve never met anyone even remotely close to his character. I will admit that a British lady, a member of the International Group in Lesotho, used to call me Gandalf. She was usually on her third gin and tonic at that stage.
Just when I was about to give up the search, I remembered one of the best and most believable Elder portrayals on film in the past year – Evelyn Greenslade in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Evelyn is a newly widowed housewife whose house in the U.K. had to be sold off to pay off her husband’s debts. Her twit of a son wants to “care” for her, without her input, but she elects instead to take the plunge and heads for Jaipur, India to live in a shambolic hotel for elderly expatriates. She finds a new, wholly unexpected and very challenging life, but she blossoms in the face of the adversities. Evelyn lands a job teaching English communication skills to an Indian call centre. She shares her activities through her blog, and happens to coin the best phrase of the movie “We get up in the morning, we do our best“. She also comes up with classically Elder snippets of basic wisdom which linger long after the movie has ended.
“Initially you’re overwhelmed, but gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it and you’ll swim out the other side.”
“The only real failure is the failure to try, and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment.”
“But it’s also true that the person who risks nothing, does nothing and has nothing. All we know about the future is that it will be different. But perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same. So we must celebrate the changes.”