By Adam Bernstein
Friday, Jul 29, 2011
The title alone - "How to Live Forever" - makes me wary. It's not enticing. It's not enigmatic. It's a taunt.
Then again, as obituaries editor at The Washington Post, I take these things personally. Mark Wexler's documentary film seems, on the surface, like just the sort of threat to drive one more nail in the coffin of journalism. If we all live forever, ciao to obits.
My apprehensions aside, "How to Live Forever" is a moderately ingratiating, none too probing and largely predictable essay on the way people fear and embrace their senior years. It's not Jessica Mitford's literary expose "The American Way of Death." And it lacks the dark satiric fun of Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One" (was Liberace, as an unctuous casket salesman, ever better?).
Wexler, 55, who directed, produced and co-wrote "How to Live Forever," is a second-generation filmmaker whose father, Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, was a looming figure in Mark Wexler's 2004 documentary "Tell Them Who You Are." In his new film, Wexler says it was his mother's death, followed by the receipt of his AARP card, that spurred his examination of the "downward slope" of life.
"It's not death I fear so much," he says, "as it's being stuck with the uncool trappings of old age."
Besides shopping for Metamucil, he mentions early-bird specials and "Lawrence Welk Show" reruns. Continuing that bleak outlook, the narrative lands the viewer at a Las Vegas convention of funeral directors. Here is a garish summit of life-affirming bromides and Marilyn Monroe look-alikes slinking around the latest in hearse technology.
On a sprightlier note, Wexler leaps to a Vegas beauty pageant for women over 60. There's no bathing suit contest - "wrinkle city," says the pageant founder. He instead substituted a "philosophy of life" category, in which one woman wisecracks that she's "still hot. Only now it comes in flashes."
Wexler tosses in a bunch of wild-card "experts." There are authors (among them, Ray Bradbury, who turns 90 this year), futurists, an elderly Japanese porn star and a man at Guinness World Records whose job is to verify ages of the world's oldest people.
Then there are the pitch artists. Actress and ThighMaster shill Suzanne Somers (now 64) explains why she hasn't met a hormone replacement pill she won't swallow. Jumpsuit-class fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who died in January at 96, hawks more of his name-brand juicers and ticks off his list of age-defying stunts.
Wexler seems bemused by all this, but rarely does he challenge the observations of his guests. And they opine aplenty: Is spending $150,000 to cryogenically store yourself a matter of narcissism? Or are such expanding scientific horizons what being human is all about?
The most eloquent and poignant of the talking heads is Sherwin Nuland. This clear-minded thinker - who taught and practiced surgery at Yale University for decades and wrote the National Book Award-winning volume "How We Die" - offers a nimble assessment of why we should not aspire to live forever.
"It's my debt to everything that has come before me and it's my obligation to everything that comes after me that I die within my allotted time," Nuland says. It's pure folly, he says, to think one's life so important that it must continue on and on, regardless of the social and environmental impact.
One wishes this film had more Nulands and less Somerses. Not that frivolity is unwelcome. After all, Woody Allen expressed it better than most: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying."