It is only on holiday that I can engage in serious reading. This time I struggled with Sally Chivers’ Silvering Screen. I only managed to read the Introduction and the First Chapter and therefore I am not entitled to make any general comments on the book or its assertions, but there are issues that I would like to raise. Some of them would better fit in my blog on personal experiences of ageing (http://ageingageismdiary.wordpress.com/) but the following, I feel, are important for film studies.
First of all I feel very disappointed by the absence of films I consider very important in the study of age, disability, death. I am thinking of The Whales of August, The Company of Strangers, Narayama and Mother and Son. The four films feature old women and Chivers may have had good reasons to have excluded them but I feel that even if they did not fit in her theoretical framework, they should at least be mentioned. There are not many films about age and disability and the inclusion of these major films would not have significantly lengthened the filmography list.
I think that the approach of choosing films, clips and analyses to illustrate a theoretical position is in grave danger of unwarranted generalisations and the misrepresentation of some films. To me Indir, the old woman in Pather Panchali is a unique example of the image of an old woman whose disability and age does not distract from a strong, kind personality. I cannot imagine why Chivers writes about her in the following terms. I quote and offer my critique of this paragraph: the last on page 33.
“Indir Thakrun, a secondary character in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali‘s (India 1955), is old, disabled and a burden on her younger sister-in-law’s family. The movie’s central young characters witness her death, as she runs away after being accused of stealing. Her body is left to rot on a public road as a moral lesson. Her body should also be a lesson for the silvering screen, but Indir Thakrun does not play a central role in or on the silvering screen. “
1- …burden on her younger sister-in-law’s family: whose perception is it that she is a burden? I find no evidence in the film narration or mise-en-scene that Indir is a burden to the family. Her brother evidently does not think so but he is absent most or the time. The children do not think so. On the contrary the warm, rich relationship between the old woman and the young girl is an important feature of the film. Yes her sister-in-law finds it hard to provide food and yes Indir does steal some ingredients. Does this mean Indir is a burden? Yes her sister-in-law resents her being there and she shows no love or sensitivity for her to the point of not noticing that she is dying. A close analysis of the film reveals Indir to be a proud, independent, compassionate old woman who contributes to family life. (see Pather Panchali post in this blog). But why does Chivers agree with the attitude of one character instead of looking at what is on screen ?
2- The movie’s central young characters witness her death. To my mind to “witness a death” is a completely different experience from “finding somebody dead”. In this context the expression that Chivers uses is misplaced in its ambiguity (if it can at all be argued that it is ambiguous). The children found their aunt dead on the path.
3- Her body is left to rot on a public road as a moral lesson : There is again a huge gap between Chivers’ words and the images on the screen. Indir does not die on a ‘public road’. Indir dies on her own, on the path between the richer Raju’s home and the home where she has emotional ties. A very powerful image that I should have mentioned in my analysis but somehow escaped me then. Her body is left to rot. No it is not. The scene of the discovery by the children of the dead Indir is followed by a cut to her tumbler rolling down the hill into the water and then to her funeral.
If there is a moral lesson to be learnt from Indir’s death it is that harsh living conditions can embitter people and render them insensitive to others.
But why does Chivers use such emotional inaccurate sensational language? Burden, Body Left to Rot, Moral Lesson ?
Another example of this careless use of language is in paragraph 3 on page 37. I quote
“As macabre as it is to the end the book, and its introduction, focused on the topic of death, it is appropriate since that is the loudest resonance of old age onscreen. “
The construction of this sentence is careless (the above contains no typos and is an accurate quote) but I want to consider the use of macabre. The dictionary definitions of the word imply dread, horror, fear etc…I just do not understand why in a book about ageing, the subject of death is considered frightening and why Chamber has to apologise about its inclusion. There are deaths and macabre deaths. Is it again a question careless language? Or does this close examination of some of Chivers text reveal a young person’s point of view?
To me Indir is a prime example of the image of an old woman whose disability and age does not distract from a strong, kind personality.
I am more determined than ever to put my older woman’s point of view about films and resolve to continue with experiences of ageing blog.
I have not read this book or seen that film. But from what you say your anger with the author of the book makes a lot of sense. I have much respect for your fight you make.
It is strange (or maybe it isn’t) that people don’t take account of the fact that one day they too will be old – (unless they die young, of course). Towards old age is the only direction of travel so we might as well stop scorning it.
I would not like to give the impression that my remarks apply to the author or the whole book. My remarks concern only details in the two first chapters.