'Is Anybody There?'

John Crowley's "Is Anybody There?" explores the subject of mortality with as much insight, humor, and devastating honesty as any film I can recall. Because it is an elegant study of death and grief, it celebrates the very substance of life. And it is one of those rare stories that reminds us how to gaze unflinchingly at the trivia of existence without feeling utterly ridiculous to be human.

The film takes place in England, 1987. Michael Caine stars as Clarence, a retired magician whose life has been crushed to insignificance by the recent death of his wife. Bitter and possibly suicidal, Clarence rolls into a coastal town and checks himself into a modest retirement home named Lark Hall. Here he meets young Edward (Bill Milner), the proprietors' son.

Edward is a precociously spiritual kid with a bizarre practice: whenever a resident of the home is about to die, Edward secretly holds a tape recorder to the resident's mouth and waits, spellbound, for her final breath, and then for "¦ he knows not what. Proof, I think, that something essential escapes before the rest of her is annihilated.

While this practice sounds morbid, Edward's behavior is actually a pseudoscientific method to save his sense of wonder. He openly asks the questions that plague many children soon after they learn about the nonexistence (sniffle) of Santa Claus. What is left to believe in? Ghosts? An afterlife?

Although his parents' business enables Edward to nurture his obsession with death and its attendant mystery, it also suffocates him. He resents that his life has been suddenly infiltrated by people whose present pastime is to slip quietly (or not) into senescence. His house is no longer his. His room is no longer private. Add to this mess the usual family melodrama — bullies at school, parents enduring midlife crises — and Edward loses control over everything dear to him.

Yet by the image of his sorrow, Edward sees the portrait of Clarence's sorrow. Edward can't help liking Clarence, who tenderly offers to teach the boy a magic trick or two. And Clarence, almost against his will, grows to like and to respect Edward, though Clarence had lately ditched the prospect of ever caring about someone again. They form an odd pair, but no pair ever needed each other's company more. Both are desperate for friendship, though neither would willingly admit it.

I spent much of my own childhood around the elderly. For a few years, I was even raised in a retirement home that my parents ran. "Is Anybody There?" gets many details of this business exactly right. My favorites: the instant joy of a lonely resident when a relative calls; the confusion and slapstick of a fire evacuation; the sad inconvenience of a stranger dying in one's house; parents indisposed to play because he or she is busy helping someone use the toilet; and the recognition that a surplus of old people simply cannot replace an absent grandparent.

Growing old can mean relinquishing the very dignity we pine for as children and spend the rest of our lives struggling to maintain. If we keep kicking long enough, we witness the (often agonizing) death of everyone we love.

We have little defense against this cruelty except to embrace gratitude whenever possible. But what do we do when a lifetime's worth of hard-earned regret refuses to fade, when it exists only to fester beneath our best intentions?

There's a scene when a delusional Clarence, consumed by self-loathing at the thought of his misspent life, asks his dead wife for forgiveness. His voice carries a childlike earnestness. If she does not forgive him, he cannot forgive himself. The solace given him in that moment is real, though the forgiveness itself is imaginary.

This is his way of gently going, with what remains of his dignity, into that good night. For who wishes to rage, rage, against the dying of the light?

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