One day, and a not-too-very long time ago it was, an assistant news director at a TV station pulled a reporter aside and issued an admonition:
“Do not,” he said, “interview or make a habit of putting old people on camera. It’s a new world, baby boomer time and people who watch TV do not want to see stories about gray-haired old fogies with missing teeth.
“Damn it all to hell, it’s depressing. TV is about life. Old people are about sickness and death. Audiences tuning into the news don’t want to see that sort of thing; it sends out a signal that we are old and used up. Even newspapers are starting to get it,” he said. “Stories about old people just don’t matter. All that 80th anniversary stuff and photos taken around Granny, who had just turned 100, make people yawn.”
Hey, said the reporter to the baby boomer boss: “Don’t you have a mother? Have you never enjoyed time with Grandma or Grandpa? Baby boomers may be afflicted with narcissism, but are they so cold, so self-centered that they have lost their affection for the elderly?”
“Hey to you,” said the boss. “I’m just layin’ down the new rules for a new age. No f**** old people!”
Truth be told, as callous as that assistant news director may sound, he has a point. I must confess that I gag when I come across greeting cards with cute pictures of the elderly sitting around in contrived poses. Whether they are meant to generate humor, affection or both, it’s a cliché and kind of patronizing to boot.
I am even more put off by little talent shows featuring octogenarians dancing and prancing to dated tunes like “Yes, We Have No Bananas, “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” or cutesy renditions of “Side by Side.”
The subtext here is almost always, “Gee, look at Granny. She’ll be gone in a few years. So even though the show is a complete bore, let’s clap and whoop.”
It’s no different from the praise we heap on little Bonnie at her boring dance recital. We love the kid, and one glimpse of her cute face makes us melt. But those hard metal chairs and an hour on a hot afternoon. No time for lies here.
In a way, this fuss over the elderly is a bit condescending. They are being held up as spectacles, objects of sentimentality, as if they have proven to us that they still have it, whatever “it” is.
May I speak for myself? If and when I am seen as a candidate for pasture in the fields of Hallmark Card Joy, may I never be performing ditties for friends and family. I’m not there yet; perhaps there are some things I do not understand or have to learn. Please do not treat me as a cute artifact.
You may already guess what got me going on this topic, and yes, you win the prize if you surmise that I am fresh from a screening of “[email protected],” a movie that showcases a chorus from Northampton, Mass. — a group of men and women from 72 to 92 who perform songs by artists such as Coldplay, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and James Brown.
Their music is not brilliant, but it is accomplished and soulful, head and shoulders above the usual output of senior citizen groups. Part of the success stems from the fact that their leader demands excellence, a criterion that should apply to all of us from elementary school on. No passes for little Bonnie, no passes for Grandma.
As the leader, 53-year-old Bob Cilman shows us, one can balance the quest for excellence with respect and compassion. The fact is, no matter how old we may be, we respect leaders who strive to get the very best out of us. This impulse should not end after retirement. I’m a trumpet player. If I am still blessed with mental acuity and join a band when I am 80 (Please, Lord, let it happen), I need to practice an hour a day. If I don’t and come unprepared to hit the notes, I deserve to be disrespected.) Please, Lord, let me have all my teeth.)
The beautiful thing about “[email protected]” is that although they have talent, we are not in the presence of professional musicians. They work, rehearse, have off days, strive to remember the lyrics, and take praise and negative criticism from their leader. As a result, they are not spectacles. Nor are they patronized by sentimental friends and family members. The audience cheers are not condescending, ballet recital whoops. They are genuine and they come from people are all ages.
Just the other night, I steered two twentysomething women to the movie; they are producers who have no patience with corny, sentimental approaches and they are not bowled over when they get requests to do a feature on Grandpa’s hundredth birthday.
May I cite their responses?
“Oh my goodness!! I just LOVED this sooo much! I cried like five separate times. It was an emotional roller coaster, but I loved every minute of it! Thanks again, I’m so glad I got to see it!”
“ ‘Young at Heart!!’ Perfect movie — thanks!!”
So much for the theory that young, modern viewers are prejudiced when it comes to movies about senior citizens.