Cultural Gerontology and Films

On the film front the 8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology was not very exciting for me as opposed to other presentations.  SEE:

The majority of papers on visual representation were about TV programmes none of which were familiar to me, and two documentaries. There were two major papers on feature  films. Unfortunately I could not hear any of  the presentation of Aagie Swinnen (The Netherlands),  Ageing in Film. In her abstract she says that the talk is an overview of contemporary gerontology’s critical exploration of film as an art form. She mentions that the scholars need to have a good knowledge of film analysis, film history and cinematographic techniques and devices. In conclusion she writes that the paper will indicate potential directions of study.

(Here I must digress to give an example of non accessibility. I asked one of the organisers if there was a hearing loop in any of the rooms but she did not know and told me that the acoustics were very good . When I could,  I sat well placed between two loudspeakers and near enough the lectern so I could see the face of the speaker. This worked well. In the case of this presentation it did not. I do not know if it was due to me or the microphone so I kept quiet. )      

  I also missed Josie Dolan’s The Iron Lady : Contemporary Biopics, the Life Course and Prosthetic Memory this time for purely selfish reasons as it happened to be on the last day when I wanted to be free. Here again I will just quote Dolan’s abstract: This paper aims to explore the production of prosthetic memory and public history and its ideological work. Whose memories are they anyway and does it really matter?                                                    I would like to explore here some topics that occurred to me during this conference.

As in the cinema, there was no exploring of the changing role of grandmother or of carer of a parent at the conference.   But contrary to films, the one session with three papers on Ageing and Sexuality was poorly attended compared to others. Rhiannon Jones who reported her findings on the sexuality of women over 70 told me that this was the pattern in other conferences. Yet it seems that in the film world the most important aspect of old women’s lives is their sex lives.   Ignoring Nancy Meyers’ American romantic comedies, there have been, between 2003 and 2008, three major films, two of them directed by prestigious men dealing exclusively with the sexuality of the older woman. And in workshops  study days and community projects the documentary Still Doing It, sex of course, is the chosen film.

I think that it is important for me to pose some questions about these three films.

The Mother (2003), Dir: Roger Michell Writer:  Hanif Kureishi. (363 000 admissions to date in EU). This film was highly lauded in the UK and rated 77% on Rotten Tomatoes site 72% on Metacritic. Two eminent scholars Kaplan and Gravagne analysed and praised it.   Notes On A Scandal (2006), Dir: Richard Eyre, Screenplay Patrick Marber after the novel by Zoe Heller. (2 490 373 admissions to date in EU – ). Rotten Tomatoes 87%. Viewing figures its huge success.  Cloud 9 (2008), Dir: Andreas Dresen (612 598 viewers to date in the EU). This film was also hailed as a breakthrough in the representation of  nudity and sexual scenes of the old. It rated 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. The majority of reviews elevated the acting of the old women to great heights.

I have expressed, in this blog, my personal view about The Mother and Cloud 9 . I think that the latter verges on pornography and that the former is a good film about Thatcher’s Britain where every character is selfish, individualistic, acquisitive.  The twist here is  the old woman’s sexual desire that should be satisfied at any price.

An excellent review by  Daphna Baram  (  expresses very well what I think of the third film.  It is viciously sexist and ageist.

Women of the film group or in the more general audience of the Lexi, and University of the Third Age polled in the BFI guide to Older Women in Films, found The Mother offensive. There were no words of praise for Cloud 9, only derision  from the audience at the Lexi screening.

I know that film is a very seductive medium and interpretations can vary enormously. I know that a single image can obscure other scenes. A woman leaving home can speak for all women who, at some time in their lives, have wanted to pack a suitcase and escape their circumstances. I also know that a film expertly directed, filmed and acted can cloud one’s judgement.  I know that viewing figures depend on a multitude of factors. I also know that reviewers cannot always be trusted. But I also know that we as old women should protest when the sexuality of the older woman is only portrayed as destructive. What has been commented on is the quality of acting, and the breaking of taboos but not the ageism that underlie the three films.

I would like to ask the  following questions to scholars who study age and films.  What is the age group of people who think that old people are asexual? and why do they do so?  What target audiences are the films above intended for ?   What meanings are carried by these three films?  What do the viewing figures above reveal in the context of changing the perception of old women’s sexuality and redressing the stereotypes?

On a positive note I feel that there may be a change in the representation of old women in feature films in the last few years.  Besides the American romantic comedies,  Quartet (2012),  Amour (2012), Philomena (2013) , Gloria (2013), Nebraska (2013)  give me some hope.


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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