Portrayals of older people in films

Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet lately, but I’ve been quite busy with both leisure and academic stuff! A few weeks ago some friends and I went to the Warner Brothers Studio outside of London where they filmed much of the Harry Potter movies, and have now turned into an exhibit with tons of original props and set pieces. You can read about that over here on my personal blog if you like, and it’s a trip I’d definitely recommend for any Harry Potter fans! Other than that Josh has been chauffering me all around South West Wales to do my data collection for my dissertation, which is coming along all right. Tonight I’m going to talk about something a bit more fun though–representations of older people in television and films! Last night Josh and I watched Up, which is in my opinion the best Disney-Pixar film to be released in the past five years (although it’s a close tie to Toy Story 3). Then we watched Gran Torino, which also features an older man as the lead character. The choice of these films was pretty random and the decision to blog about them came afterwards, so I’m not touting them as the most relevant films about older people or anything like that, but I just thought I’d share some thoughts and observations on the characters.

I’m going to skip over summarizing either of these films in order to keep this short and to avoid spoiling them for anyone who hasn’t seen them, but I would highly recommend them both! Up is known for its amazing ability to make nearly anyone cry within the first 15 minutes, but overall it’s a fairly light film; Gran Torino is much more intense in its themes. Both of them feature an older man as the lead character. In Up this is Carl Fredricksen, a widower living alone in the house he shared with his wife for their entire life together. In his physical representation he is quite the stereotypical old man, with his age represented by his use of a walking stick, hearing aid, glasses, and his white hair. The main character of Gran Torino is Walt Kowalski is also newly widowed, but less the physical stereotype of age aside from the natural signs of age that Clint Eastwood was showing at the time. Both characters are portrayed as the stubborn, grumpy old man, which is another quite common character to appear in television and film, and both characters at the start of the film are portrayed as trying to ignore the massive changes going on in their neighborhoods and trying to maintain some sense of normality. Both characters are faced with the possibility of entering retirement homes early on in the films, and in both cases this is portrayed as the “solution” to what others perceive as the men needing assistance. In Walt’s case, his family, who seems oblivious to his feelings and desires and don’t take the time to listen to him, suggest that he moves into a retirement community to relieve him of the stress of taking care of his home on his own, not realizing how much he enjoys that. In Up, a misunderstanding and a mistake cause Carl to be deemed a “public nuisance”, and the court orders him to be admitted to a nursing home, basically as a way to get him out of the way. However, both Mr. Fredricksen and Walt Kowalski defy some of the stereotypes of ageing in their own ways. When approached by a young boy offering him assistance “across his yard”, Carl instead asks for assistance that leads the two on an epic adventure where he’s able to finally find the adventures he’s wanted since he was young, demonstrating that just because he’s old does not mean he is “elderly and infirm”. Walt Kowalski also defies the stereotypes of ageing by becoming a hero in his neighborhood and making friends with the teenagers next door, and teaching them that there’s more to him than meets the eye. This is something the two films have in common–the emphasis on intergenerational relationships, and on the fact that older people have their own stories and personalities. So often we put them in the box of the “old person” and forget that they’ve lived entire lives with their own successes, dreams, tragedies, and adventures, and this is what both of these films demonstrate. Both the characters share these things in unexpected friendships with young people, and as cliché as this might be, it’s an important message to remember.

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