Underneath the glamorous backdrop and saccharine settings of Hollywood lies the film industry’s narcissistic negligence of the very notion of ageing. This is not to imply that contemporary mainstream movies never attempt to portray the notion of old age, or indeed, the ageing body on-screen, but rather, it is possible to suggest that such representations are often lacking in substance, depth and complex interrogation of what it means to grow old within (Western-influenced) cultures that seem to advocate a never-ending pursuit of agelessness.
As such, the relationship between society’s perception of ageing, and the ways in which it is conveyed through the moving image, are interwoven. Our notions of growing ‘old’ are inextricably tied to images that we are conditioned to believe are truthful representations of age: the youth-obsessed and commercially-constructed ideologies of Hollywood itself.
Indeed, when left to its own devices, Hollywood’s most recent interpretation of ageing involves a constant cluster of films dedicated to Jack Nicholson’s journey in re-establishing his masculinity by winning the heart of any woman he wants (As Good As It Gets, Something’s Gotta Give), or comedic compositions of older actors ‘getting it on’ for the giggles; as if the thought of elderly people having sex is too grotesque to take seriously, or treat tactfully.
Therefore, the following list aims to introduce a handful of films (without intending to disregard any others that may be concerned with the same gerontological discourse) that serve to challenge this arguably ageist, mainstream monologue within a conversation that requires more critical thought.
Rather than looking at films that portray a mid-life (often masculine) crisis, these narratives allow space for the existential anxieties of characters facing the inevitability of their own mortality during later years of life. Often appearing outside the overarching realm of Hollywood, the films listed come from across the world and span several different decades.
Many offer a socio-political commentary relevant to the historical landmark that may have influenced their creation; fears over ageing are allegorized and poeticized through the intricate stories of older characters and the respective relationships each has with the notion of mortality. To summarise, the following films demonstrate narratives that are dedicated to the complex concept of ageing and the inevitable decay of human life; something, it would seem, Hollywood is very often too frightened to face.
10. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952, Japan)
One of Kurosawa’s most acclaimed pieces, Ikiru, tells the story of Watanabe Kanji (Shimura Takashi)- an old man who has worked as chief of the Citizen’s Section (a small branch of the civil service that initially does very little to help the lives of ordinary citizens) for over thirty years. After learning that he has very little time left to live due to rapidly-developed stomach cancer, he immediately begins to search for some lost meaning to his life.
The story unfolds within a complex narrative structure, intercutting the aftermath of his death with the story of his reconciliatory journey; Kurosawa makes use of flashbacks to reveal Watanbe’s lingering memories, and a voice-over that immediately positions the audience within the existentialist contemplations of the film. The director meticulously frames his ageing figure alongside rectangular doors and walls, conveying a claustrophobic sense of entrapment in the wake of his fatal diagnosis and ensuing bewilderment.
During the first part of the film, the protagonist is often shown lingering in shadows and aimlessly wondering through gritty, bustling streets, seemingly afraid to face his impending mortality, As such, he must reconcile with his own internal anxieties in order to re-establish meaning within his life, and the lives of others, even in the face of adversity (from his rapidly deteriorating body, and government superiors who oppose his motion to build a public park for the people of the town).
Through Watanabe, Kurosawa creates a multifaceted character that is symbolic of the potential within people to confront devastation, in order to determine the significance of their own existence. It is possible to suggest that the film serves as an allegory for the desolation of Japan after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; however, even with its deep and dark subject matter, the recurring message- to live- is decisively optimistic and inspiring.
This is never more apparent than in one final scene where Watanabe is shown swinging in a playground (at once marrying the nostalgia of childhood with the non-sensationalised acceptance of old age) amidst delicate snow fall, while singing peacefully about the shortness- yet significance- of life.
9. Still Life/Tabiate Bijan (Sohrab Shahid-Saless, 1974, Iran)
Still Life/Tabiate Bijan is a minimalist study – with a small cast, barely any dialogue and simple, yet effectual, cinematography- concerning the struggles faced by elderly people when left behind by rapid urbanization. The film- created within the last decade of the Shah’s reign- explores the seeming futileness of old age, when an ageing body is found inconvenient to those still able to climb the mountain of modernization.
It tells the story of an elderly railway signal man named Mohamad (Zadour Bonyadi), who lives a banal, rural life repeating the same, systematic routine over and over, in order to sustain the flowing function of government railways. It is a beautifully composed film, with haunting, static camera shots that serve to document the shuffled walks and fatigued faces of the old veteran and his hardworking wife (Zahra Yazdani), both of whom strive to make ends meet in order to legitimise their own existence.
While the old man dutifully services the railway, his wife stays at home, relentlessly weaving customised carpets for (little) extra money. Saless’ use of what are often excruciatingly long takes, allow for the unravelling of uneventful, yet profound scenes: whether it is a still, medium shot of Mohamed sat fumbling through his pockets for a cigarette, or a lingering, intimate close-up of his wife, scooping up food in between her frail fingers; such sequences make us aware of our own ageing, through the provocative progression of real time.
When Mohamed is issued with a letter from government officials stating that his service is no longer needed, he is forced to leave the work quarters that he and his wife have made their home for thirty-three years. The elderly man initially protests- travelling all the way to the city in an attempt to question his superiors, but in the end is rebuffed and ignored: it is an aching scene that establishes Mohamed’s helplessness in the face of an unsympathetic, bureaucratic establishment that has no desire to help those in destitute.
Still Life depicts an elderly couple lost amidst the swift passing of time: Mohamed and his wife are forced to let go of everything that is familiar to them- everything that preserves some aspect or memory of their youth, including their own son (who makes a brief appearance, before returning to the army) and later, their home.
A tender and promising moment presents itself when, upon leaving, Mohamed catches himself in the mirror: a close-up shot observes the old man staring into his reflection before breaking into a gentle smile; rather than fearing old age, it seems that he decides to make peace with it.
8. The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999, USA/UK/France)
Removed somewhat from the abstract stylization that he is often renowned for, The Straight Story – while, yes, produced by Disney – is nonetheless a poignant film that follows the courageous travels of an obstinate, rodeo-dressed, old man in a desperate attempt to reconcile with the brother he hasn’t spoken to for years.
After learning that his brother has suffered a stroke, and that his own health is deteriorating, Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) sets out across the vast landscapes of north-central America (from Iowa to Wisconsin), aboard a lawn mower, towing a travel-trailer. The slow and heavy machine offers a sure metaphor for the increasingly sluggish old man who, while wishing to reach his brother as soon as possible, resigns to tackle the lengthy, straight road the only way he now knows how: slow and steady.
Upon his first attempt, Alvin drives a small and rusty lawnmower that proceeds to break down in the middle of nowhere. After being towed back to the very beginning, Alvin destroys the inept vehicle by blowing up the engine with an on-target shotgun blast.
Again, it is as if his own tiring body is paralleled by the clunky machines he uses to try and reunite himself with his brother: the initial vehicle breaks down just as Alvin had at the very beginning of the film (we are introduced to the protagonist lying on the kitchen floor), and the old man proceeds to get back up again, but with a bigger engine the second time around.
Lynch’s use of extreme long shots to track Alvin’s cross-country journey serve to frame his existential anxieties: how insignificant his life can seem when measured against a bigger, wider world, and how slow he moves whilst caught within the swift, passing of its time. However, the old man rarely appears afraid whilst on the road- instead, he seems content with his long lasting journey; an adventure that could potentially be the last one he ever makes.
As such, the old man takes this time to talk to each character he meets along the way, imparting words of wisdom as he goes: “the worst part about being old,” he admits to two care-free, young athletes, “is remembering when you was young”. While known more for his surrealist aesthetics,
Lynch isn’t one to shy away from commercial work (his advertisements for Playstation and Nissan Micra are prime examples), and yet- even with ties to Disney- the director is still able to retain some elements of his abstract, cinematic style within this picture.
Lynch’s employment of jagged and jarring camera movements – alongside an unnerving, shrieking sound effect – in moments where Alvin loses brief control over his vehicle, serve to convey the old man’s internal fear that he cannot have control over everything, including his own mortality.
The film also features Lynch’s common utilisation of starry synth sounds, which fit faultlessly within scenes where Alvin calmly contemplates the night’s sky and his long-awaited reunification with his brother.
7. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden)
Bergman’s Wild Strawberries offers a compassionate and beautifully composed account that delves deep into the complexities of human life through an unconventional narrative structure that consistently blurs the boundaries between dream and ‘reality’.
The film follows the journey of stubborn old man, Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) on his visit to Lund to accept a long-awaited doctorate from the university. The protagonist is introduced through an internal monologue that resurfaces sporadically throughout the entirety of the film, drawing the audience into the psychological mind-set of Isak from the start.
Bergman offers intricate explorations into the ageing character’s subconscious with the use of dream sequences and flashbacks that weave in and out of the straight, chronological car journey, further fragmenting the narrative. “In the early hours of June 1st,” the professor explains through voiceover, “I had a weird and very unpleasant dream”; a cut then leads us into the subliminal realm of his existential anxieties, where he wonders aimlessly down jagged, angular streets.
What follows is an allegorical expression of Borg’s underlying apprehension towards his own mortality: a close-up shot of a clock with no hands serves to represent what little (or no) time he has left to live; this is then emphasized by the appearance of a funeral carriage that proceeds to crash and dislodge a coffin that carries the body of himself inside. Through these surreal visions, distorted memories and chance meetings, the old man is forced to reevaluate his life.
The dynamic relationship that he has with his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), is especially symbolic of this gradual change of character: their exchange of attitudes towards life leads Marianne to confide in Isak that she is pregnant and that her husband (his son) does not want the child.
Recognising that his own distasteful traits have transferred onto the personality of his son, he eventually confronts his former bitterness and, towards the end of the film, shows benevolence and kindness to those around him. Given the unnerving tone and nightmarish imagery that Bergman uses to frame the journey of his protagonist, the ending is distinctly optimistic.
Nestled within the warmth of his bed, he is visited by his daughter-in-law, who fondly kisses him goodnight: “I like you, Marianne,” he tells her, to which she affectionately replies, “I like you too, Uncle Isak”. In the wake of his final years, Borg reconciles with the youth that he will inevitably leave behind.
6. Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937, USA)
One of the very few films to come out of the Hollywood studio system that explicitly deals with the events surrounding old age, Make Way For Tomorrow focuses entirely on an old married couple who are torn apart by the prejudice of their own children.
When Lucy and Bark Cooper (Belhua Bondi and Victor Moore) are faced with the difficult situation of having their house repossessed due to a lack of income and Bark’s inability to find work at an elderly age, they are forced to split up and each live with a different child of theirs. It is agreed – with underlying hostility from the four adult-children – as a temporary solution until the old couple can afford to live together again.
It immediately becomes apparent that both Lucy and Bark are considered unwelcome inconveniences by their brood, which is succinctly conveyed in a scene where ‘ma’ Cooper inadvertently interrupts her daughter-in-law’s Bridge class: as Lucy slowly walks across the room towards her rocking chair, the crowd of decadently dressed dealers descends into an overwhelming silence.
Oblivious to the tension that her elderly presence provokes, the old woman begins to rock to and fro with a small, yet incessant creek that echoes across the entire room at the grimacing faces of the guests. The scene cleverly establishes a clear divide between two departed generations: while Lucy is a disturbing reminder of the depression-era amongst an ignorant crowd of ironic hopefuls, she also exudes the unwanted scent of old age.
When the situation comes to a head, Lucy is encouraged to enter into a retirement home, while plans are made for Bark to be transported across the country to live with one of their other children in California. In the knowledge of their impending separation, the couple finally decide to ditch their spoilt offspring and share one last afternoon together in the city. This final stage of the film functions to draw the audience closer into the couple’s history through long-takes that explore their relationship as lovers, rather than weary, old objects.
Renowned for creating spontaneity on-screen through the encouragement of improvisation, McCarey and his actors produce a penultimate scene that resonates with wit and humour. Such optimism then carries through into a more meticulously constructed and equally as effective sequence, which encapsulates the entire gerontological discourse of the film.
The couple are framed in mid-shot against the backdrop of a bustling ballroom; after the exchange of a few affectionate words, they lean in to one another, but before they are able to share a kiss, Lucy pulls back slightly before looking into the lens of the camera and breaking out into a bashful smile.
By transcending the boundaries of the fourth wall, the film gives a self-reflexive wink towards the ‘taboo’ subject of showing intimacy between elderly people on-screen, and serves to cement the director’s dedication in divulging this to his audience.