Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Trying To Beat The Clock

When asked how she felt about aging, Bette Davis (who was never one to mince words) replied "Old age is no place for sissies." Several years later, when I asked my parents why they had chosen to move to a retirement community in New Jersey instead of following the herds of retired New York schoolteachers who moved to Florida, my father informed me that he couldn't stand listening to all the "organ recitals" whenever they visited friends in West Palm Beach or Sarasota.

Hope, of course, springs eternal. Whether it means an 82-year-old Carol Channing marrying her high school sweetheart (Harry Kullijian), an 86-year-old Hugh Hefner marrying Crystal Harris this past New Year's Eve, or a morbid teenager (Bud Cort) proposing to a 79-year-old woman (Ruth Gordon) in 1971's Harold and Maude, it's hard to deny people their hopes and dreams.

Two recent films take extreme views of what life has in store for golden agers. One is a documentary which almost seems like it should be fictional. Although well made, it will probably not win any major industry awards.  The other is a fictional narrative which often seems like a documentary (and has quickly garnered a great deal of Oscar-worthy buzz).

Seen on their own, each film makes a powerful statement about what can happen to a person in their final years on earth. However, if placed on a double bill (which is not likely to happen), the dramatic impact of these two films would be quite jarring.

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Sports fans accustomed to table tennis tournaments starring young, agile contestants will be fascinated by a new British film. What makes Hugh Hartford’s documentary, Ping Pong (the polar opposite of Ping Pong Playa) so intriguing is that all of his contestants are octogenarians and nonagenarians.
  • 84-year-old Sun Lao's daughters would like him to cut back on drinking and smoking, but the Chinese tobacco former insists that the socializing and participation at competitive events help to keep him physically and mentally fit.
  • Inge, age 90, relied on table tennis as a way to recuperate from dementia. This is her first international competition.
  • Germany's Ursula Bihl, age 90, "would much rather die at the table tennis table than in a care home."
  • 90-year-old Les D'Arcy has competed in triathlons, shot put events, and weightlifting contests. He carried the Olympic Torch during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Poster art for Ping Pong
  • Australian Dorothy DeLow sailed from Southampton to Sydney in 1911 (about the same time that table tennis was invented). At the time the film was shot, she was a feisty 100 years old.
  • Houston’s 86-year-old Lisa Modlich (who received France's Croix de Guerre for helping to smuggle Jews out of Austria when she was active in the French Resistance) gripes that “they’re letting her [Dorothy] get away with murder because of her age!” 
Lisa Modlich with her husband

This determined group of senior citizens (who have traveled to Inner Mongolia to compete) includes an elderly Brit who trains rigorously at his gym as well as a catty blonde who caustically describes one of her rivals as “an old cow who can’t even move.” Together, the eight contestants showcased in Hartford’s documentary about the World Over 80s Table Tennis Championship share 703 years of experience playing ping pong (and more trophies and medals than you could ever imagine).

Although Ping Pong would hardly qualify as your standard ESPN fare, it's a worthy testament to the human spirit. Here's the trailer.

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Like many seniors, my parents dreaded a long and protracted death as a result of a terminal illness. My father was lucky.  He died in his recliner while taking his afternoon nap.

Although her body remained in fairly good shape, my mother developed Alzheimer's disease and slowly faded from a woman of sharp mental acuity to someone who could no longer comprehend basic words. For a woman who had spent a lifetime reading, losing her mind was a crushing blow that was only alleviated by the fact that her emotional pain was soon diminished by her growing inability to understand or articulate her steady loss of mentation.

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Amour

Michael Haneke's poignant new film, Amour, often seems more like a documentary than a piece of fiction. An elderly French couple (both music teachers) live in a spacious apartment in Paris. Early in the film, the audience sees Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emanuelle Riva) attending a piano recital by one of their famous students. They are alert, alive, and enjoying life late in life.

The next morning, however, Anne suffers a silent cerebral infarction while at the breakfast table. If Georges is confused by her initial lack of responsiveness, he is astonished by the fact that when Anne comes to, she has no recollection of anything happening. Minutes later, when she tries to pour herself some tea, she misses the cup.

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Amour

Upon her return home, Anne insists that Georges promise never to let her go back to the hospital. Although he can't bring himself to say the words she wants to hear, it becomes clear that he will honor her wish. The result? Georges suddenly becomes a caregiver responsible for monitoring his wife's slow and painful deterioration.

As his wife's infirmity leads to partial paralysis and continuing compromise, his independence rapidly fades away. To make matters worse, Georges can no longer respond to his wife's needs as rapidly as when they were younger.

Like many elderly men, this is not what Georges had anticipated (he was sure he would die before Anne did). He soon learns that assisting someone with rehabilitation  exercises, bed-to-chair transfers, bathing, and toilet activities is much more exhausting than he could ever have imagined. When Anne has a second stroke that leaves her unable to speak, her neurological deterioration (and his frustration) begin to accelerate.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges in Amour

Despite visits from their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and a famous concert pianist who was once Anne's student (Alexandre Tharaud), Georges and Anne are stuck in a slow-moving whirlpool of depression and debility ruled by an increasing sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Although Georges tries to explain to his daughter that there is nothing that can really be done to help the situation (or provide Anne with better care), Eva is about as comprehending as the stray pigeon that occasionally flies through the apartment's window.

From the angled views of their apartment to the simple honesty of Trintignant and Riva's performances, there is a spartan beauty in the way Haneke has filmed this story. No ambulances, no car chases, no emergency room drama -- just the slow and inevitable passing of an old woman portrayed with a quiet simplicity and heartrending honesty.

Trintignant and Riva do such a beautiful job in this film that you'll find it hard to believe they're acting. Their performances, though far more internal than histrionic, are deeply moving. In supporting roles, Rita Blanco plays the building's concierge, Ramon Agirre is her husband, and operatic baritone William Shimmel (who last performed with the San Francisco Opera as Don Giovanni in 1995) appears as their son-in-law, Geoff.

Amour (which runs just a little over two hours) is a class act from start to finish.  For those who began the new year pondering their eventual demise, it offers a devastating portrayal of why a short and painless death should be welcomed with open arms. For those who have become caregivers, widows, widowers, or watched a friend or lover die of AIDS, Haneke's film fully captures the sentiments contained in one's vow to take someone "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Here's the trailer:

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