You know who is really funny? Old people. You know what is even funnier? Old people singing disconcertingly ribald lyrics. I speak, of course, of the new documentary by Stephen Walker called Young@Heart, which tracks an eponymous vocal choir whose average age is 80 and whose choice of material does that thing (the thing Hollywood loves, Kodak loves, we love) where you smile wryly before despair. Sure, we’re all going to die and sure, death is pretty much always grotesque, and yeah, disease and dying are currently managed in an unbelievably cavalier way by insurance interests and, of course, every single other piece of this culture idolizes the flesh and voice and excess of youth but you know what? Old people are funny. They’re feisty and they’ve got weird vocal patterns and their faces squish in ways that make for sculptural screwball. And at Sundance Film Festival, the glitterati needed some comedy because Ledger was dead (youth lost too soon) and they needed to be reminded that it was going to be okay.
Enter Young@Heart. Like other feel-good documentaries (think March of the Penguins, or The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), the purpose of this text is not to instruct structure, but to inundate with the sucker-like sweetness of sentimentality. Global warming and homelessness and health care are subtexts so sub as to be imperceptible. Front and center is the (wait for it) triumph of the human spirit. Just what is triumphed over is always cast as unchangeable and inevitable. Never is context or contingency identified (How does homelessness persist? Why is the glacier shrinking?). Don’t be such a drag: quit that Michael Moore talk and just watch grandma mumble Radiohead lyrics. “Fake Plastic Trees” never sounded so true.
We need a new word for the sort of role old people occupy in contemporary film, a word that could combine the condemnatory analysis of “Orientalism” with the permissive caricature of “slapstick.” I say “we” because religious life is hardly removed from such age imagery. Young@Heart previewed before my viewing of There Will Be Blood, and the images of infantilized seniors stuck with me throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic rumination on Daniel Day-Lewis’ eye muscles. There Will Be Blood has enjoyed such lavish praise that it can endure a little tough love, especially from those (us) whose responsibility it is to pursue the odd tropes wended into this little masterpiece. I speak not of an appraisal of historical accuracy (which seems to me a wrongheaded response to a film relying more on the history of cinema than an accurate history of evangelicalism) but an appraisal of archetypal dependency.
Not surprisingly (to any religionist, to any cultural observer)
P.S. For those wondering how to incorporate film into their syllabi, a great starting place would be to pair the essays from Catholics in the Movies (2007) with screenings of their films. I have never read such an accessibly thoughtful text that so neatly fits undergraduate curricular scheduling. The Introduction, by Colleen McDannell, makes a fantastic argument for the preponderance of Catholic imagery in U.S. film production, even those films (like There Will Be Blood) which convey Protestant thematics. Highly recommended.