Aging in literature and film
August 13, 2014 8:45 AM   Subscribe

As I approach my fifties and confront the reality that parts of my body are wearing out and will never be young and resilient again, I turn to the arts for deeper philosophical understanding of this aspect of the human condition that I am facing. I'd like recommendations of fictional treatments of physical aging which are realistic but compassionate. Guidelines and caveats behind the fold.

I would prefer literary fiction rather than memoir or genre fiction, but I will consider some mysteries or SF if they are particularly well written and a distinctive treatment of the theme. I welcome books from both female and male authors, but would like to stay away from the typical Updike/Roth/Mailer treatment which seems to be oriented mainly around the author's fear of the loss of potency of his penis. I am more interested in characters dealing with the physical limitations and losses of aging, more so than mental concerns. I do not want to read something that makes fun of or is cruel to the old. I do not want to read something that is totally bleak, but more that it is about coming to terms with the stage of life that the character(s) is/are in. In literature, a good example is the works of Alice Munro. In film, a good example is Robot and Frank, or Harold and Maude.
posted by matildaben to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Slightly orthogonal, but I just finished watching the Elaine Stritch bio, Shoot Me, last night. I was greatly impressed by her candor about aging, and her very philosophical musings on her own mortality. And she was a real firecracker to the very end.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:50 AM on August 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I thought of another good example of what I'm looking for, Forgetfulness by Ward Just.
posted by matildaben at 8:57 AM on August 13, 2014

Some of Tove Jansson's fiction for adults contains this kind of theme. The Summer Book features an elderly woman and her perspectives on her health, body and memories- but it is also largely a book about childhood, too. Other short stories also feature older characters, and the more autobiographical ones herself and her partner as they age together. I'm thinking particularly of "The Squirrel" and "Taking Leave" in A Winter Book. I'm certain some of the stories in Art in Nature, Travelling Light, and Fair Play would be what you're looking for as well.
posted by mymbleth at 8:58 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is a lot of reading but the Wallander series of mysteries by Henning Mankell does an outstanding, disturbing and reassuring job of focusing on the social, psychological and physical challenges Wallander experiences as years go by. It also does an excellent job of describing Wallander's struggles as he deals, or doesn't deal, with his father's increasing dementia. BTW--Spoiler at end of 5th paragraph if you should decide to read it.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:09 AM on August 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Losing It is a kind of brilliant and genre-bending take on aging that brings in commentary from a lot of literary fiction and mythology.
posted by shivohum at 9:13 AM on August 13, 2014

I love a book of short stories by Robin Black, entitled, "If I Loved You I Would Tell You This." Several of the stories deal with aging.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:20 AM on August 13, 2014

I saw In Good Company the other week and was pleasantly surprised by it's treatment of the subject. The film is about 50ish Dennis Quaid and his middle-aged colleagues dealing with 25ish Topher Grace becoming their new boss.
posted by oceanview at 9:21 AM on August 13, 2014

She's more frank than compassionate, but Elena Ferrante deals with aging female bodies a lot in her fiction, particularly Troubled Love and Days of Abandoment.

In the sci-fi realm, there's Scalzi's Old Man's War.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:45 AM on August 13, 2014

Waking Ned Devine

The producer (or someone) was encouraged to make the main characters younger. There is a scene where some old geezer jumps on a motorcycle naked, I think because he was skinny dipping when he got word that he urgently needed to get somewhere. So whoever made the movie was being told "nooooo, we should have young, beautiful bodies riding naked through the countryside!" type stuff. He stuck to his guns.

It's a nice little movie, for a lot of reasons, including showing old people as whole people, something you don't see enough in movies. Way too many movies try to portray characters as having the virtues of older people (wisdom, maturity, etc) combined with the beauty of youth and I think it is really warped.
posted by Michele in California at 9:48 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should clarify: the beginning of Old Man's War. The book is about the characters getting their bodies upgraded to be super soldiers. Before that happens, there's a lot of reflection about the body as it is, and then the feeling of what's lost and gained after the modifications.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:48 AM on August 13, 2014

Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety deals with these issues including aging and physical disability. It is literary fiction.
posted by Jahaza at 10:02 AM on August 13, 2014

Lonesome Dove follows the story of two former Texas ranchers starting one last adventure into the last remaining wilderness, right at the closing of the American West. Hands down one of my favorite books, and I'm not generally drawn to the western genre.

I have not read it myself, but I've also heard good things about Duane's Depressed, also by Larry McMurtry.
posted by susanvance at 10:04 AM on August 13, 2014

A couple of classic films:

Wild Strawberries
Ikiru (To Live)

posted by Beardman at 10:21 AM on August 13, 2014

I just finished reading Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool and it dealt well with this subject. The story is told from two alternating points of view--there's Sully, a 60 year old man who has wrecked his knee but somehow needs to find a way to keep working manual labour jobs to support himself, and Beryl, his 80 year old landlady who is sharp as a tack but beginning to notice her physical decline. They have great affection for one other and the depiction of their relationship is a delight.

Russo's treatment of his characters is humorous but compassionate, and never cruel. I thought it was a terrific book that had some interesting things to say about aging, regret, family, love, and friendship. I'd definitely recommend it.

(There is also a 1990s movie adaptation with Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy as Sully and Beryl. I haven't seen it but it did get good reviews at the time.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:35 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ack, I forgot one of my favorite recent films, La Grande Bellezza, which is an extended meditation on the life and advancing age of a playboy author in Rome. Really great, and sumptuously shot.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:44 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Wallander. If you don't mind subtitles, the Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson is very, very good. The final series is series three comprising 6 episodes nos 27 - 32. It is sophisticated, black-hearted and matter-of-fact; neither cliched nor sensationalist. If you're going to watch it, don't get spoiled.

Another possible film, Venus with Peter O'Toole.

Tokyo Monogatari, a very quiet film reckoned a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. I saw it at college when I was 19, probably I would actually get it if I saw it again now.
posted by glasseyes at 10:54 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding "Nobody's Fool" and I'm older than the protagonist.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:58 AM on August 13, 2014

This is a really lovely film, although not told through the point of view of the old characters: Mid-August Lunch. It's about a middle-aged man looking after his mother (ignore what IMDB says about 'demanding', she's just old and needs his care) who somehow acquires three more old ladies for the August holiday. Hi-jinks ensue.

The humour is respectful and sympathetic. If you watch it, DO NOT PLAY THE DRINKING GAME.
posted by glasseyes at 11:02 AM on August 13, 2014

The "sequel" to Mid-August Lunch, The Salt of Life, is also good and in the same vein.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:18 AM on August 13, 2014

Carlos Fuentes - 'The Death of Artemio Cruz', which (among many other things) jumps back and forth between different periods in Cruz's life. It's an extended meditation on vigour, power, youth and nerve (among many other things).

José Saramago - 'The Cave', in which (among other things) a potter considers the value of a craft acquired over a considerable, yet finite, period of time.

It might be that a series of books, over the course of which the protagonist ages, could be a line to pursue. I'm partial to Vazquez Montalban's Pepe Carvalho series, partly for tis reason (Pepe and his friends grow old together). Similarly, Leonardo Padura Fuentes' Havana (Mario Conde) series - we see people move away, sympathies develop, bodies and careers change.
posted by Joeruckus at 1:27 PM on August 13, 2014

It's TV, not film, but a fabulous example of coming to terms with being older is Last Tango in Halifax. The older couple has it much more together than either their children or grandchildren, and are played so convincingly and sympathetically by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid that I'd take being 10 years older if I could be involved with the character played by Sir Derek. According to something I read or saw, it's based loosely on the story of the mother of one of the writers.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:17 PM on August 13, 2014

Barney's Version Depicts Barney's life across several marriages from his perspective as an aging, unreliable narrator, with edits by his son from his perspective.
posted by goshling at 6:11 PM on August 13, 2014

How about Love in the Time of Cholera? Young love through to old love.
posted by MrBobinski at 2:11 PM on August 15, 2014

The Company of Strangers (1991), directed to Cynthia Scott, released in America as Strangers in Good Company.
In this feature film, 8 elderly women find themselves stranded when their bus breaks down in the wilderness. With only their wits, memories and some roasted frogs' legs to sustain them, this remarkable group of strangers share their life stories and turn a potential crisis into a magical time of humour, spirit and camaraderie. Featuring non-professional actors and unscripted dialogue, this film dissolves the barrier between fiction and reality, weaving a heart-warming tale of friendship and courage.
I found it more than heart-warming-- for me it was profound. One of my favourite movies of any genre; it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%. As a bonus, one of the women is writer and artist Mary Meigs. And you can watch it, apparently in its entirety, on the National Film Board of Canada website.

Shakespeare also has some things to say on the topic, of course. If Lear is too harrowing, perhaps The Tempest?
posted by jokeefe at 12:27 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Urgh. Directed BY Cynthia Scott.
posted by jokeefe at 12:36 AM on August 17, 2014

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