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Interview: The “Silver” Power of Cinema

 

Dr. Pamel Gravagne


The number of films dealing with age rises as the population ages.

In The Becoming of Age, Pamela Gravagne examines what these films say about aging and how society perceives it. She shows how cinematic representations of aging can reflect and change the way we think about aging.

Dr. Gravagne teaches courses on age and gender studies at the University of New Mexico, N.M., U.S.A.

AHB reached her in Sandia Park, N.M.

Ruth Dempsey: Congratulations on your new book!

Pamela Gravagne: Thank you! When I finally had the opportunity to start graduate school at 58, writing a book was the last thing on my mind.

In my program, I became more and more fascinated by theories that explained how difference is constructed. It struck me these concepts could be applied to age. Writing about age began to seem like something I wanted to do.

Since, just then, we began to see more movies about aging or with older characters, film seemed the perfect vehicle through which to express many of my ideas.

So, at 66, a year after getting my PhD, I had a book!

RD: In the opening chapter we meet your Grandma Alice . . .

PG: Grandma Alice was my rock. From the time I was a small child, I would run to her house whenever my world went awry. Although only three blocks away, she would welcome me from my journey with a strong embrace, sympathize with my plight and wipe away my tears with her handkerchief and some cookies.

Later on, after my grandfather died, I ran to her house to comfort her, to return some of what she had always given me – all the cookies and caresses.

And when bedridden in her 90s, I ran to her house to take in stories of her past delights and defeats and to share with her my dreams for and doubts about the future.

To me, she was always and never old; she was just the best grandma and the best picture of age I ever could have had.

RD: Your book examines 15 films including the Canadian movie Strangers in Good Company. This is the story of seven older women who become marooned in an abandoned farmhouse after their bus breaks down in the Canadian wilderness. Why did you choose this film?

PG: I had several reasons. First, the movie takes older women out of a social context in which they are marginalized. It places them in a situation that lets us see who they are and what they can do, without comparison to those who are younger.

Once they take center stage and their full humanity comes into view, we are almost forced to question the one-dimensional, stereotypical identities that we often impose on them.

The second reason is that this film provides the perfect platform from which to look at the nature of time – to understand how the way we envision and experience time affects the way we envision and live our lives.

And to redefine time as a force that not only produces the old, but inspires the creation of the new.

The third reason has to do with the way the film illustrates how tenuous the line between representation and reality is. Because the director asks the women both to "act" according to a script and to "act" as themselves in "real" life, the movie shows that becoming "actresses" is intimately connected to their becoming as human beings.

RD: The women attempt to fix the bus engine with an emery board, and catch fish using pantyhose for nets. They forge friendships, sharing confidences. They talk about the times they were in love, of being in heaven. Alice, 82, dreams of a new love . . .

PG: I believe all these scenes work together to reconstruct the usual picture we have of older women in a way that reveals the life hidden away inside them.

These conversations and memories let the viewer see that the most serious limitations of growing older are imposed not from within, but from the outside through stereotypes that render the old invisible and by policies that exclude them from certain activities.

Unless overwhelmed by these barriers, these scenes show us that the old are just as alive and full of hopes and dreams as anyone at any age.

RD: The movie’s success changed 82-year-old Beth. Is that right?

PG: Yes. One of the cast members, Mary Miegs, wrote a book entitled In the Company of Strangers about their experiences making the movie. In it, she tells us that Beth had always longed to be a real actress. But when her husband died, leaving her alone to raise their son Tony, she gave up on her dream.

So when the opportunity came along to be in this movie, she jumped at it. She learned to put aside the internalized ageism that made her feel like an old lady with no chances left, and she embraced her success.

She appeared on TV and traveled to New York and London, going anywhere the film went to help promote it. This new attitude towards the creative possibilities of life led her to become gregarious, to try out new activities and to develop new interests.

As Miegs wrote, she was "reborn," becoming a new person – a perfect example of overcoming the internal and external barriers that inhibit the becoming of age.
The Becoming of Age
RD: Chapter 2 is about masculinity and decline. You examine films like Gran Torino and Up. What one thought stands out for you?

PG: The thought that stands out for me most in this chapter also happens to be the most disturbing: An older person, who is not near the end of life due to illness, might imagine that commiting suicide to be a better option than living into old age.

Although it’s true that suicide is a choice that gives the chooser a certain kind of freedom – in a cultural atmosphere in which the old are judged to be unproductive, undesirable, and increasingly useless – I don’t believe that it can be a choice freely made.

As I see it, such a choice represents the complete internalization of a narrative that refuses to see the old, and the singular gifts and experiences of old age, as an integral and important part of the becoming that is all of life.

RD: You say cinema has the power to change the way we see and value the last years of our lives. How so?

PG: For one thing, cinema enables us to see our chronological age and our changing bodies as more than markers of decline.

It is not old age but the practice of ageism that reinforces the narrative of decline.

This tactic keeps us from developing alternative conceptions of old age that might deal with the realities of growth and becoming despite disabilities and losses.

Young @ Heart, a documentary based on the experiences of a chorus of rock ‘n’ rolling octogenarians shows age is larger than our constructions of it.

When these old people challenge themselves to become rock and punk performers despite their infirmities, they reinsert themselves into the stream of becoming that is life.

These scenes highlight the continuing dreams and desires of the old, and they challenge a straightforward narrative of aging as decline.

RD: Any movie suggestions on films about aging?

PG: There are so many movies now that it’s difficult to choose, but I will recommend some of my favorites.

I like Gran Torino because it shows both how the old can reinvent themselves and makes us think about why the protagonist would choose to die in order to help his new "family" rather than to live.

I also like Innocence. Although its comparison of an older woman to an innocent young girl are sometimes overbearing, its portrayal of the discovery of love in old age is quite interesting. As for more movies about the continuing need for intimacy among the old, Beginners is an interesting choice as it tells the story of the need for love and acceptance from the perspective of a previously closeted gay man. Similarly, Ladies in Lavender explores the thwarted desire of an older woman in wartime.

The Mother is an unusual movie because it portrays the gradual and contested process of self-discovery of an older woman whose husband has just died. It also deals with her family’s response to her newfound freedom.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is a good movie about cross-generational connections and about the ability of the old to make their own choices and remain true to themselves.

And the recent Philomena is an excellent portrayal of the resilience and adaptability of an older woman.

Last but not least, I would recommend Autumn Spring. This is the tale of how an older couple overcomes their differing perpectives on growing old and learn to embrace the ambiguity of age.

RD: And what’s next for you?

PG: Right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying teaching classes about film, aging and gender. It’s deeply gratifying to see students begin to understand how pervasive ageist attitudes and actions are, and also to watch them change the way they treat older people and think about their own aging.

I’m also involved in a project to develop a course that combines the medicalized view of aging with the perspective from the humanities.

I think such a course could do a lot to make medical professionals more aware of the ongoing becoming of the old, and to make those in the humanities more sensitive to how the medicalization of old age limits older people’s full participation in society.

Of course, I intend to write more about aging, possibly a book of essays that would combine theoretical perspectives on aging with lived personal experience.

We’ll see. As always, I hope to remain open to all sorts of creative becoming!