Quartet (2012)–A New Geriatric Genre?

Is it me, or are there more movies showing up on the big screen catering to the social security set?  I’m sure there’s plenty of septuagenarian actors anxious for work, but I’m also hoping Hollywood is finally targeting us folks living in the 55+ demographic landscape.  That would be wonderful, since I’m awful tired of watching flicks for kids, especially when adolescence ends at 45 nowadays  I qualify for social security at the end of year, and only expect to get older, so I’m hoping there will be a boom in this geriatric genre.

The other night, four of us, three 61 year-olds, and a 55 year-old youngster in tow, went to see Quartet about life in a retirement home for musicians and singers put out to pasture. It stars Maggie Smith (78), Tom Courtenay (75), Billy Connolly (70) and Pauline Collins (72), four former opera singers separated in youth but thrown together in old age.  Quartet is advertised as a heartwarming and uplifting film about old age.  That’s exactly what I got out of it too, until I started talking to my friends who saw it with me.  Then it made me think about films for and about the old.


When my friend Annie expressed disappointment I was surprised.  I had been so completely entertained.  Annie thought it was morbid and felt some of the characterization was undignified.  Anne and Janis did like the film, and both had laughed heartily throughout the show.  That night I laid awake thinking about Annie’s comments.  Was it the movie she didn’t like, or being reminded of getting old?

Quartet also featured many characters played by real retired musicians and singers, and during the credits, we were shown photos of these people as they look now and when they were young.  That was both lovely, and shocking.  We all get old, and we must accept and embrace the reality of being old, but time melts youthful faces into distortions, even grotesque masks of our former features.  And I can see how Annie would think this would be morbid.  My friends and I saw Quartet on a Tuesday night, and there exactly 10 people in the audience, none younger than 55.  I doubt even on a busy night if Quartet attracts many young people.  It’s hard to promote our sunset years as thrilling movie fare.

Mary Pols at Time Magazine was less than enthusiastic about Quartet, calling the film “terribly cloying and cutesy.”  Now, I can buy that, but isn’t that true of most uplifting movies of our time.  We don’t like realistic movies.  We cover everything with a patina of cutesy.  Even when we’re critical, it’s usually only with the sharpness of satire that’s merely funny.  Quartet portrays little realism about getting old.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a bit more informative.  I wait to see if Amour goes deeper into the subject.  I was entertained by Quartet, but disappointed it wasn’t insightful.  I watch these geriatric genre films hoping to learn how to deal with getting old.  But that can’t be a real criticism because films are seldom inspirational. 

The retired citizens of Quarter live in Beecham House, a humongous manor house, beautifully restored, set against a magnificent English countryside.  Nobody suffers neglect, bedsores or even loneliness.  This is geezer nirvana.  The aged here spend their days creating music and having a rather good ole time.  Quartet is like a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical, with the old folks putting on a show to make dough to keep the joint going.  Unless everyone at the grand performance paid $50,000 for their tickets I can’t imagine how anyone would think this as a realistic view of retirement living.  But then, are movies targeted at the youthful end of the demographic chart selling a realistic view of life either?  No, but we all grow up hoping life will be like the movies, so is it all that strange to have Hollywood sell us fantasies about life after 60?  The trouble is, I now feel cheated by fantasies I had in the first third of life about the second third of life.  So Hollywood, or wherever they make British movies, I can’t speak for the other old dudes , but I don’t want fantasies about my final third.

This brings up the question:  If we’re old and getting older, do we want films that fool us about our future or grittily tell it like it is?  Anyone who has had to care for parents with dementia or breaking bodies has seen a realist view of their future.  Do we really want to pay $10 to see a two hour recreation of dismal living?  On the other hand, do we want to buy some Santa Claus version of what our “Golden Years” should be?

Clint Eastwood has the right feel in Grand Torino (2008) and Trouble with the Curve (2012).  Too often Hollywood wants us to think of the elderly as cute codgers, like in Cocoon (1985) and Going in Style (1979) where old people are shown as loveably, but goofy and eccentric, not average people inhabiting decaying bodies and minds.

Part of the problem is how the young see the old.  Young people don’t like the old acting young.  I have to admit I have that prejudice too.  Getting old doesn’t really change our sense of self all that much.  How often have you heard granny or granddad say they felt like 19 on the inside?  We want old people to act old, to be dignified, to dress conservative, to be neither seen or heard, to sit in their retirement rooms and wait quietly to die.  A good example of this is again from the Time review by Mary Pols where she describes character she really dislikes:

I’ve saved the character I like the least for last. Wilf (Billy Connolly) is the resident dirty old man of Beecham House, a title no one would dare challenge him for, unless they had an actual court record. Wilf hits on everyone, including Cissy, whose “tits” he remarks on while eating his toast, and most persistently on the very tolerant director of Beecham House, Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith). The character is included without commentary and his grossness is treated entirely as comic. Being a pervert is his only contribution to the story. He makes Norman, the resident horn dog of the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seem a model of restraint in comparison. Dr. Cogan would have done the world a favor if she kneed him in the groin. But not at Beecham House, where everyone gamely gums their bread and jam and gets a good chuckle out of old Wilf. Obviously Hoffman and writer Ronald Harwood have never been groped by anyone old enough to be their grandfather.

Wilf does flirt constantly with all the women in this film, young and old, but I don’t remember a single scene of him groping anyone.  He does try to snake his arm around the doctor once, which seemed rather chase.  I liked the Wilf character because he did maintain his old self.  Sure he was a flirt, and even a dirty old man, but it was his way of keeping a stiff upper lip while going down with the ship.  We see Wilf experience one scene of physical weakness, an attack of dizziness.  Sure he propositions all the women, but they don’t take him serious, and I doubt he expects them too either.  And does any character or member of the audience believe he can live up to his boasts given the chance?  No, Wilf is trying to act like nothing has happened, that he isn’t different.  He’s pretending he can still get it up.  I don’t even think he’s delusional.  It’s his way of not being a downer.  He doesn’t want people’s pity.  It’s an act that keeps him from withdrawing from the world.

I know that’s not realistic, but don’t we all put a positive spin on our lives from birth?  Don’t we all live with endless hopes and desires?  If we’re going to be hung, don’t want we want to walk up the gallows stairs with some dignity?  Why bitch and moan about getting wrinkled, why whine about droopy dicks and tits, why cry over failing bodies, or become depressed over forgetting a lifetime of facts.  Sure it sucks to live in pain from a body becoming undone by decay but must we wallow in pity and tears?   Why are we only beautiful when we’re young?  Why is life only worthwhile when our bodies are ascending?  Isn’t life just as existential on their decline?

That’s what I want from these films about getting old.  I want them to be charm schools on how we should act when we get wrinkled, frail, forgetful and forgotten. 

JWH – 2/9/13

7 thoughts on “Quartet (2012)–A New Geriatric Genre?”

  1. You’re kind of a downer yourself, Jim. I should introduce you to my mother. She’s 87 and, although she’s unsteady on her feet (she uses a cane), she’s in great health.

    She can still do the things she likes to do – playing cards, socializing, crocheting, etc. – and although she lives alone, she’s around other people her own age who tend to like the same things. She spends the winter in Arizona and the summers in an apartment here (in an apartment complex specifically for seniors).

    Yes, our physical capabilities decline, and then we die. That’s a fact. And the very end is not likely to be dignified or pleasant, not in the slightest. But until then, life can be good. My dad enjoyed his retirement, right up till the end, and my mom is enjoying hers, too.

    And you don’t have to be a dirty old man to “keep a stiff upper lip while going down with the ship.” You can, instead, be a gentleman, recognizing that the ship will be going on without you. Wish the other passengers well when you leave them.

    Of course, you know that. But I have no sympathy for the character of Wilf, as you describe him. And I don’t think I need “uplifting films about old age.” Old people are just people. People of all ages have problems. The elderly are no different in that respect.

    1. That’s true Bill, many people consider me depressing because of my preoccupation with reality and science. However, I’m very happy, active and have lots of friends. I expect my retirement years to really be my golden years because I’m planning to do a whole lot with my free time. I think the written me is more of a downer than the physical me.

      But for a lot of people I am a downer because I don’t support their fantasies, especially religion, or for silly beliefs. The other day my wife saw an astrology book that appealed to her, the kind that teach you to draw astrological charts for people. I ask, why do you want to spend so much time studying something that’s totally make believe? She said because it would be fun. She didn’t get the book and accused me of spoiling her fun. I apologize. I told her I wasn’t suggesting she not get the book, that would be her choice, but I wanted to know why she didn’t put her time into other hobbies that have more value for the time spent.

      Bill, I think you need to see the Quartet before you pass judgment on poor old Wilf. My point was Wilf was always a skirt chaser, so why should he stop just because he got old? Why is it acceptable for a handsome successful young man to be a skirt chaser, but he becomes a dirty old man at some point? If JFK had lived, when would he have become a dirty old man? I agree his youthful sexual behavior was unethical, but why is such behavior worse when older?

      The same can be applied to women. Why are women beautiful when young, but ugly when old? Most of the old women I know go on and on about sexy young men. They sound like boys talking about girls. Should I judge them foolish? Tell them to act their age? Sure Wilf was crude and upfront about liking women’s bodies, but I wondering why it was more acceptable for him to be that way at 30 and not at 70?

      My core question is: Why does society treat old people different? If you live long enough people start treating you like kids again. Sadly, for many we do revert if we’re unfortunate enough to descend into dementia. But people with dementia are struggling to maintain who they were. I think Wilf was trying to maintain who he was. He might have been an ass, but his personality is important for him to maintain. In some ways I think we have to respect that. Like I need to respect that my wife has the right to study astrology if that’s what she thinks is fun.

    1. I’ve been seeing trailers for Amour for months now at my favorite theater, the Ridgeway, which we call the old people’s theater. It’s a fourplex that runs shows that mainly attract the 55+ community. I just checked and Amour is not at Netflix yet. Maybe it will still come to the Ridgeway.

      1. Jim, i finished your post (finally). If you are looking for inspiration or something optimistic in Amour you should look elsewhere. Although it is one of my favourite 2012 films, it is quite morbid and realistic.

  2. I agree, there seems to have been a lot of films about old people lately. As for dirty old men, I’m tolerant of them up to a point – they’re the same as dirty young men, but more harmless (except, perhaps, to small children, where we won’t go).

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