Film: Aging Gracefully

Cincinnati filmmaker takes on aging myths in new documentary

Feb 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
CityBeat Archive

Engaged and engaging: 109-year-old composer Leo Ornstein, one of several artists who appear in the documentary Do Not Go Gently

Cincinnati filmmaker Melissa Godoy sets out to discover how we can "stay whole against the assault of old age" in her new documentary, Do Not Go Gently. The film tackles a subject of increasing importance in today's long-lived world and will appear nationally in selected venues and on PBS stations. (Presented by Cincinnati World Cinema, the film screens 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Cincinnati Art Museum's Fath Auditorium.)

Walter Cronkite, himself 90 years old, narrates this exploration of vibrant, creative lives in advanced years, suggesting that for all of us imagination can be a powerful tool for a satisfying old age. Premier danseur Frederic Franklin, born in 1914 and still associated with ballet, appears in the film and will be present at both screenings.

Godoy looked first to "great artists, innovators who exert influence in their fields," then to medical science and its studies of the aging brain. The result is affirmative and enlightening, meaningful to people concerned about older relatives or their own inevitable aging.

Godoy, 43, shares with poet Dylan Thomas a desire to not succumb gently to that good night at the end of life. (She added the "ly" to Thomas' abrupt "gentle" partly to avoid copyright issues and "because I'm American, not Welsh.")

"The power of imagination may be the most important resource to an aging nation," she says.

Artists, as usual, are ahead of the game. They've often defied the odds with long, creative lives. George Bernard Shaw was writing his next play when he died at 94, and Michelangelo worked until his death at 89. The artists Godoy interviews are similarly focused on their work rather than their age. We see British-born Franklin, articulate and enthusiastic, coaching young Cincinnati Ballet dancers and even taking part on stage in non-dancing roles.

"I feel good, if my knee wasn't hurting I'd be a girl," quiltmaker Arlonzia Pettway tells Godoy in a visit to Gee's Bend, Ala., where the 82-year-old is the eldest of a group of quiltmakers whose works, now touring museums, are greatly admired in the art world.

Matt Arnett, co-organizer of that exhibition, says, "The quilts, they're confident, they're bold, they're graphic ... they're so modern. They have similar form and style to much of the painting of the latter half of the 20th century. Abstraction wasn't invented in New York!"

Pettway explains, "Most of the time, women in Gee's Bend, they don't have a pattern. They lay down at night and they plan the way they want the quilt made, and they get up and make that quilt." — as succinct a description of the creative life as one could find.

The third artist, composer Leo Ornstein, was a giant figure in American modern music in the early 20th century as a performer and composer, giving up the concert life to teach and compose intermittently, finishing his last work at the age of 97. He is engaged and engaging in the interview conducted shortly before his death, speaking philosophically of time ("The most elusive thing of all") and of his own great age ("It's scary — 109? It even scares me").

We hear in the background concert pianist Marc-André Hamelin playing Ornstein's final work, "Piano Sonata No. 8." Because Ornstein can be considered one of the inventors of modernism, Godoy says the on-screen interview was composed as "an extreme, modern look — very little is centered."

The artists themselves influenced the style of their segments; for Pettway "it's a very grounded, almost verité section, a very comfortable quilt."

While the artists are eloquent examples of extended creativity, the relevance of their experience to people in general is brought out by Dr. Gene Cohen, gerontologist, founding director of the Center on Aging in Washington, D.C. (a think tank on aging) and author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life and The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.

Cohen says, "New research on aging is smashing this age-old illusion of knowledge about aging that was filled with negative myths and stereotypes. Once you start focusing on potential in later life, this completely changes the equation and then you have a whole new sense about what's possible. This is the most highly educated group of old persons that there ever was and their demands are very different."

With Cohen we visit sites of Washington, D.C.'s Arts for the Aging and see that even when memory goes, imagination remains. A group struggling on walkers settles down to perform a lively set of drumming, fitting Godoy's description of her film as "a portrait of hope."

Experienced herself in independent public television filmmaking, Godoy enlisted her mother, Eileen Littig, recently retired as a Wisconsin Public Television producer, as executive producer for this project. An individual artist's grant from the city of Cincinnati provided her editorial dream team of Cincinnati editors: Ben Bolton, Jeff Glaza and HD online editor Brad Coop. Other Cincinnatians involved in the project include cinematographers Mike Bizzarri and Mark Stucker, sound team John McDaniel and Austin Gorrigan and local production entities On Location Multimedia, Sonic Arts and WCET.

The film's 56 minutes move along quickly, the editing tight and sure, visuals communicating as much as the spoken word. A documentary by its nature exists to tell us something — they are message movies. The message here is clear: Old age, waiting in the wings for most of us, has potentials we ignore to our loss.

DO NOT GO GENTLY screens 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Cincinnati Art Museum's Fath Auditorium.