The Power of Generational Storytelling

The Film Poms

 

There was a time when cultures were open to learning from their elders. But today’s culture – focused on youth more than perhaps ever before – has little interest in learning from the experience of age. One might lament this fact until the cows come home but it does have consequences beyond mere lamentation.

One of the greatest consequences comes from the entertainment industry and the stories about the elderly it produces in the form of movies and television. In effect, most stories of older people are filled with all types of clichés and stereotypes of older people. The reason for this is that they are written by younger people who know little about the older generation except they are little tech-savvy. have a hard time figuring out all the digital technology today.

Paraphrasing the comments of one Hollywood reviewer, we have seasoned (even legendary) actors to cast in films about older people but lack adequate stories for them to be part of. The problem has appeared over and over in films about the elderly that cast them in roles created by young writers and directors.

Nothing to Really Cheer About

The new comedy Poms, helmed by millennial screenwriterShane Atkinson and millennial director Zara Hayes – as well as the usual millennial film crew – is a good example. In the film, Diane Keaton leads a rebellious group of retirees to form a cheerleading squad at a retirement complex in Florida. Hoping to attract moms, Pomsopened on May 10 to take advantage of the Mother’s Day weekend.

As I write this on opening day of the film, it is too early to know if the film will find success at the box office. Yet it is not exactly a darling of the critics at the moment with a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and scathing reviews in major entertainment publications. For example, reviewer Beandrea July writes in the 5/9/19 Hollywood Reporterthat the film “pulls off an astonishing feat: making screen legends like Keaton, Pam Grier and Rhea Perlman look like sad, pitiful old ladies.”

Rather than being a type of “cheerleading” salute to old age, it makes reviewers like July “acutely aware of how … few complex character roles exist for women of a certain age in Hollywood.” Although loaded with talented older actresses, who have “earned their credits for decades, won Oscars and survived a cutthroat industry” in Pomsthey are cast in a film that barely makes use of their “hard-won skills.”

Generations Know Best Their Own Generation

The phrase “write about what you know” is an overused maxim in the writing world of writing. Yet films about and starring the elderly show the rather stereotypical results that happen when writers write about what they don’t really know. That is, when writers of one generation create stories about another generation. A hero or villain for one generation (say the millennials) is seldom a hero or villain for another generation (like the baby-boomers).

Reviewer Lindsay Zoladz gets it right in the 5/10/19Ringerwhen she observes “maybe movies that take people over 60 seriously and treat them as complicated human beings is one of Hollywood’s last true zones of uncharted terrain.” As she concludes in her review of Poms, “We might not have the stories yet but, as the women of Poms alike remind us, we certainly have the actors to tell them.”

It goes beyond gender issues (even if the media has made it out to be one) to encompass both genders. No less than legendary actress Angelica Huston mentions this in a recent interview observing that actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro deserve better movies than The Bucket List and Dirty Grandpa.

A Short List of Great Films About Old Age

To be sure, not all films about old age are cliché-ridden full of stereotypes. There have been a number of excellent films about old age in the modern era of films. The short (incomplete) chronological list below, compiled from various, sources serves to prove this point.

Perhaps one of the first films about old age in the modern era of filmmaking, following Hollywood’s Golden years, is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Wild Strawberries. TheSwedish film explores philosophical themes such as introspection and human existence and is often considered to be one of Bergman’s greatest and most moving films. In the film, grouchy, stubborn, and egotistical Professor Isak Borg is a widowed 78-year-old physician who specialized in bacteriology. Before specializing he served as general practitioner in rural Sweden. He sets out on a long car ride from Stockholm to Lund to be awarded the degree of Doctor Jubilaris 50 years after he received his doctorate from Lund University. He is accompanied by his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne.

Harold and Maude (1971) is a romantic black comedy directed by Hal Ashby. It incorporates elements of dark humor and existential drama in a plot revolving around the exploits of a young man named Harold Chasen who is intrigued with death. Harold drifts away from the life that his detached mother prescribes for him, and slowly develops a strong friendship and eventually a romantic relationship with a 79-year-old woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon) who teaches Harold about living life to its fullest and that life is the most precious gift of all.

The Sunshine Boys(1975): An old vaudeville duo reunites for a TV special, but they’re bitter enemies now and curmudgeonly chaos results. With a Neil Simon script and two solid-gold stars (Walter Matthau and George Burns), the best moments make you forget about the lost opportunities in Simon’s story, which is better line to line than as a whole.

Fonda and Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981)

On Golden Pond(1981) starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. The film’s narrative revolves around an aged couple, cantankerous retiree Norman Thayer and his conciliatory wife Ethel, who spend summers at their New England vacation home on the shores of idyllic Golden Pond. This year, their adult daughter, Chelsea, visits with her new fiancé and his teenage son, Billy, on their way to Europe. After leaving Billy behind to bond with Norman, Chelsea returns, attempting to repair the long-strained relationship with her aging father before it’s too late.

Cocoon(1985): Director Ron Howard gathered an all-star list of silver hairs (Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy and Don Ameche, best supporting actor Oscar winner that year) for this endearing tale about a group that sneaks out of the retirement home at night to swim at a nearby residential pool, which suddenly acquires strange powers of rejuvenation. Best line: “Cat couldn’t scratch it.”

The Whales of August (1987): Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and her blind sister Libby Strong (Bette Davis) summer at their Maine cottage, as they’ve done for 60 years. Neighbors Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price) and Tisha Doughty (Anne Sothern) show up to gossip, fish and introduce ulterior motives.  It’s worth seeing just for the silver-haired star power. Watch for old pro Harry Carey Jr. as an annoyingly chatty handyman.

Driving Miss Daisy is a 1989 American comedy-drama film adapted from the Alfred Uhry play of the same name. The film was directed by Bruce Beresford, with Morgan Freeman reprising his role as Hoke Colburn and Jessica Tandy playing Miss Daisy. The story defines Daisy and her point of view through a network of relationships and emotions by focusing on her home life, synagogue, friends, family, fears, and concerns over a 25-year period.

The Fountain of Youth in Cocoon (1985)

Fried Green Tomatoes is a 1991 comedy-drama film based on the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Directed by Jon Avnet. It tells the story of a Depression-era friendship between two women, Ruth and Idgie, and a 1980s friendship between Evelyn, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny, an elderly woman who knew Ruth and Idgie. The centerpiece and parallel story concerns the end of Ruth’s husband’s life and the accusations that follow.

Grumpy Old Men (1993): Two guys who’ve despised each other for decades (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) ratchet up the feud when a hot, snowmobile-driving professor (Ann-Margret) moves into the neighborhood and they’re both smitten. The movie has its slow moments, but who doesn’t enjoy watching Lemmon and Matthau bust each other’s chops? Bonus oldsters: Burgess Meredith and Ossie Davis.

My Fellow Americans(1996): Two former Presidents from opposing parties who can’t stomach each other (James Garner and Jack Lemmon) are forced to work together to expose the current POTUS (Dan Aykroyd), who blames them for his scandals. Implausible? Hmmm. Garner and Lemmon are salty — these guys do some world-class swearing — and surprisingly touching. Garner’s light touch complements Lemmon’s sweaty angst nicely.

Space Cowboys (2000): An old Soviet satellite is falling toward Earth. An emergency mission can steer it back into orbit, but the computer code on board is so ancient only one man can understand it: aging flyboy Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood). Everyone on his team and at NASA HQ, it seems, is ready for the glue factory: Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, James Cromwell. It’s predictable but charming, with enjoyable chemistry among the stars.

The Bucket List (2007): Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play unlikely buddies, two terminally ill men from different worlds who decide to sow some last-minute wild oats. Despite the star power, the movie sinks under the implausibility of its premise. Roger Ebert hated it. “I urgently advise hospitals: Do not make the DVD available to your patients; there may be an outbreak of bedpans thrown at TV screens.”

Nicolson and Freeman in Selfie Mode in The Bucket List (2007)

Gran Torino(2008) American drama film directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in the film. The film co-stars Christopher Carley, Bee Vang and Ahney Her. This was Eastwood’s first starring role since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. The film features a large Hmong American cast, as well as one of Eastwood’s younger sons, Scott. Eastwood’s oldest son, Kyle, provided the score.

Red (2010) where a former CIA operative (Bruce Willis) assembles his old killing squad to help him out: Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Victoria (Helen Mirren) and Ivan (Brian Cox). Disappointingly by-the-numbers and unconvincing, except for Mirren. She’s completely believable as a sexy, stone-cold assassin who can take a gut shot and seem chipper the next day. Bonus: Richard Dreyfuss plays a Cheney-like VP.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011): British retirees get duped by an Indian hotel that’s considerably less than advertised, but they gradually warm to its energetic and persuasive manager. There’s autumnal romance and death, nicely counterbalanced. It’s a slight film, but a great vehicle for some of Britain’s best veteran actors (Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton) to quietly make magic.

Stand Up Guys (2012): Two long-in-the-tooth wise guys, Val and Doc (Al Pacino and Christopher Walken) look up their old buddy Hirsch (Alan Arkin) and enjoy a wild night. Violence, mayhem and Viagra jokes arrive in short order. Noah Haidle’s script is only fitfully entertaining, but it’s got some wonderful lines. As Doc and Val are knocking over a drug store to prepare Val for a wild night, Doc pockets a vial of pills: “My co-pay is insane on that one!”

Quartet (2012): A comfortable British home for retired musicians looks posh, but it’s in trouble and only a fundraiser starring a difficult diva will keep it open. Director Dustin Hoffman delivers a vehicle for older actors that’s predictable but sweet. The cast of senior talent is impressive: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon and more.

Last Vegas (2013): Four longtime Flatbush friends (Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline) decide to throw a Vegas bachelor party for Douglas’ character, the only one who’s still single. Simmering rivalries and lounge singer Diana Boyle (Mary Steenburgen) complicate matters. Huge laughs and unexpected plot twists help to blunt the aging-male clichés.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) is a biographical film starring Meryl Streep as Jenkins, a New York heiress known for her poor singing.

Can one detect patterns and genre themes in these films? There is the aging buddy film in Las Vegas. The fountain of youth theme in Cocoon. The old heros theme in Red and Gran Torino. And what was the age of the screenwriters and directors of these films? Were they close or part of the older generations they created films about? This is an area that could use more research from film scholars.

Current Generations

One might make the argument that the best popular stories occur when writers of one generation write about their own generation, using characters, events, places and products from their own generation. They are truly “writing about what they know” when they do this.

In this sense, the current landscape of storytelling might be viewed as created from the dynamic of various generations attempting to tell the stories of these generations. One thinks of the grand generations today of the millennials and baby-boomers. But there are other generations in the current mix.

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The Silent Generation: Born before 1945

Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964

Generation X: Born 1965 – 1976

Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995

Centennials or Gen Z: Born after 1996

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Current Generations (2019)

Each of the above generations are almost like film genres, possessing their own symbols, music, books, celebrities, common memories, their own films and television programs. Even their own social media. Being part of a particular generation is perhaps the greatest thing a writer knows about. A generation offers something similar to Marshall McLuhan’s definition of “medium” informing all “messages” coming from it in a relatively invisible, but powerful manner. A generation is the true “environment” of one’s life and writers move away from what they truly “know” when they create stories about generations other than their own.

Right now, there are hundreds of screenwriting groups around the nation. Most are in Los Angeles and full of mostly millennials who control film and tv content (and generational focus) in the modern entertainment industry. Yet there are also screenwriting groups with writers of different generations. In groups of older writers, there is usually a huge temptation to write about what is hot at the moment … the latest vampire film or post-apocalyptic story. But these are not the symbols and stories of the older generation and the temptation to write in these genres must be rejected if powerful and relevant screenplays and tv series scripts are to be created. Even for writers in groups of older writers who have the screenwriting chops to pull off writing good screenplays. The real power comes from writing what you know, writing about your own period of time on earth, your special moment. Writing about the common experiences of your generation living through this unique time.

Not that there are not some creative ways to approach this challenge. For instance, what about co-writers from different generations creating screenplays? Perhaps a millennial generation writer matched with a baby-boom generation writer? Does one get a story simply about the clash of generations or is there perhaps the possibility of something more, something created from a common well of synergy between the two?

(The film reviews mentioned in this article can be accessed at The Hollywood Reporter and The Ringer)

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John Fraim grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of UCLA and Loyola Law School. He has studied films and screenwriting for many years while pursuing a career in marketing and advertising. He has a longtime interest in symbolism and wrote a book titled Battle of Symbols(published by Daimon Verlag, Zurich) and a column titled “Script Symbology” for Script Magazine. He is one of the founders of the Desert Screenwriting Guild a group of older screenwriters in the Palm Springs area. He is founder of Midnight Oil Studios.

 

 

 

 

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