what do sarah polley, michael haneke and the french artist JR have in common?
they are all three uncommon artists. they are non Americans [one canadian, one french and the other austrian] and their chefs d’oeuvre center on the older generation.
JR’s wrinkles of the city was featured in an extremely tiny blurb in allure magazine april 2013 on page 108. notice how the article occupies a space less than half of the size of a magazine page :
the condensed montage of old people and buildings plus the text [part of which i include below] fit into a skinny column approximately 2.5-3 inches wide. it is hardly visible to the eye and certainly not like not like the large image of the blond girl next to it showing us how to stay toned, young and beautiful. a pity allure gave such a minuscule space to such a huge work of art!
in reality, and not in the magazine, Jr plastered wrinkles of old people from around the globe on 100 foot walls:
here’s a part of the article from allure.
allure: what inspired you?
JR: old people are witnesses to another time. i wanted to dig into what their wrinkles mean
allure: how did you find your subjects?
JR: i looked for faces in parks or on street. people who have lived in the sun have stronger wrinkles in cuba, especially. in shanghai, it’s a different way of life, and it is harder to find wrinkles there. ninety-nine percent of the people i asked [to pose] said yes. i expected more to say no, but at that age, they don’t care. except in los angeles. they don’t seem to see wrinkles as a sign of beauty.
los angeles. hollywood, where old age is shunned in favor of perpetual youth culture. where there exists pots and jars and tubes full of all sorts of cream to get rid of wrinkles. wrinkles like old people, both of which face the same destination; some forgotten place, not easily visible.
like JR, who shows huge close-ups of old people superimposed on buildings, polley and haneke portray old people in away from her and amour, which won the oscar for best foreign film of 2012. and quite deservingly so.
haneke treats an aging couple in amour and explores what happens when one becomes too sick to endure life, and has to be put to rest [see my blog on this and other films at https://crossingfrontieres.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/death-in-amour-not-an-easy-virtue]. polley in her 2006 away from her explores a kind of ‘putting to rest’, too. she shows what ensues when one person in a very loving couple is afflicted with alzheimer’s disease and has to be institutionalized. it is not uncommon in the west to see old people put away when they get old [one of my classes said it was quite normal].
haneke’s riva refuses to get help from outside sources to cope with her aging maladies, but polley’s fiona anderson actively pushes the husband to seek help from a third-party to diminish her malady. fiona is institutionalized due to her escalating alzheimer’s disease and the husband must face an epiphany when she transfers her affections to another man, Aubrey, a wheelchair-bound mute who also is a patient at the nursing home where she is institutionalized. both films show a very loving couple during their golden years, but polley veers off into memories, not actuality, like haneke does.
memory, which can warm you inside, but can tear you apart. if only memory had that capacity of a photograph to disappear the moment it is captured! we want some memories to go or disappear like the moment a photograph is captured, never to come back! remembering is not easy for fiona, but forgetting her husband’s affair is even harder. forgetting her husband’s affair twenty years ago comes easily to her forgetting mind. it is this memory which fiona gets stuck on.
polley complexifies memory in the anderson couple. for the first half of the film, we see a fit-as-a-fiddle fiona, well dressed in a white sweat suit, getting lost when she goes out. she gets lost quite in style! we see her forgetting completely where she lives and requiring the husband to drive around town to search for her in the wooded, snow packed area where they have a house. he finds her once on a road looking out into the far beyond, over a sort of flyover. in one scene, she forgets how long they’ve had the house they live in [twenty odd years] or why they lived there. she often forgets what she sets out to do. but in the second half of the film and on the way to the institution, she vividly recalls her husband’s affair with a student – which is what brought them to live in the woods, far away from the rest of the world. they had moved there to get away from that period and pain when all his professor friends were sleeping with their young female students, as he did, too. but, he was one of the few who wanted to save his marriage. so, he quit teaching and moved deep into the woods with fiona, who has a beauty beyond words.
it is interesting to note that in Alzheimer’s’ patients, it is their old memory which stays and the more recent memories are forgotten. fiona’s memory does work like that, too, though she does forget how long they have had their house, which constitutes [very] old memory.
in a study [by Meek PD, McKeithan K, Schumock GT. Economic Considerations in Alzheimer’s Disease. Pharmacotherapy] in 1998, an estimated $100 billion is spent each year to treat Alzheimer’s’ patents. the ageing of society in america has become a social problem and will increase since there are no known cures for it. in the year when polley’s film was made – 2006- there were 26.6 million sufferers worldwide, and alzheimer’s is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050 [Brookmeyer R, Johnson E, Ziegler-Graham K, MH Arrighi. forecasting the global burden of alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s and Dementia. 2007].
it is good then that polley chose to put it out there in film if just for public knowledge, because it is something much-needed for those families whose parents suffer from that and who blame and ignore their parents for it. but polley goes further and creates two love stories out of it, showing in both cases that alzheimer’s patients are capable of loving and caring. and although fiona is always staggering into forgetfulness with her husband, she doesn’t forget the man who loves her and whom she loves at the institution. she fusses over him, and he, over her, like first loves, while she forgets her husband of many, many years. it could be that she wants to forget her pain, and alzheimer’s is just a cover up to do that. or it could be that she wants to punish him for her pain; that she wants him to suffer as she has. when she veers off into her reverie with such ease about his affair, it is as though it just happened. he’s dumbfounded in the car on their way to the institution by her remembering, as she talks about it with crisp and amazing details like the smell of trees or color of the flowers that day her pain was born. her memory is capable of jumping over the twenty years she forgot about their house, but not the affair. that affair had to have affected her at a deep level to have been remembered with such clarity.
i am happy to see old people in film in hollywood screens, whether or not they are hollywood creations. old people like fiona, riva and trintignant are precious and are treated like demi gods in some cultures. their wisdom is unmatched, as is their intuition, which doesn’t always tie in to what we think in the west as ‘smart’. ‘book sense’ doesn’t carry the same value or weight as intuition in some cultures. JR’s old people, whom he describes as witnesses to another time, reminds me of such demi god status of ‘old people’. it reminds me of my grandmother’s wrinkles which i thought were beautiful and spoke a story of their own. her wrinkles had a permanent smile to them, and an intuition and beauty that her total being radiated. JR’s old people reminds me of the griots in the african cultures, beautifully wrinkled old people who pass on traditions, culture, wisdom to the young. griots are like walking encyclopedias in those cultures, like my grandmother was, always quoting proverbs that she made up which seem so full of vivid images, specific to her life and time and reality, like fiona’s. while polley and haneke don’t remind me of my grandmother or JR’s old people, they do pay great homage to this forgotten race of people in film. JR’s faces are etched on huge walls, as my grandmother’s in my mind. and it is a huge pleasure to see that hollywood is rewarding haneke and polley on that subject. more power to haneke and polley for setting the stage in this 21 st century! i cannot wait to see what others, who follow in their footsteps, will create.