“Lives Well Lived” is a nicely assembled montage of interviews of oldsters, aged 75 and beyond, as well as a valentine to director Sky Bergman’s 103-year-old grandmother, resident of the Italian Bronx, who is still able to embrace life, such as it is, with an engaging vigor.
In truth, “Lives” holds out a promise that with each interview these men and women, whose back stories are very different, will reveal a nugget or two about how to live a rich and fulfilling life. The subtitle of the film is “Celebrating the Secrets, Wit, and Wisdom of Age.”
The documentary is actually a request by Bergman to recalibrate those stereotypes and assumptions we might have about those denizens that our society refers to as “seniors” or “senior citizens” (a nom de aging that always seems to have a whiff of condescension).
But perhaps “recalibrate” is too gentle a verb considering that we live in a culture that worships at the shrine of youth, a reality that is compounded by countless messages, both overt and subliminal, in ads and film and language, that in the aggregate convey that life is the most intense, desirable, and fulfilling, meaning downright exciting and fun, if you are young. Pause and consider pop culture and all that’s trending upward and you find tweens, teens and 20-30 something. That’s represents the nexus of our attitudes toward aging. As a society we, in great part, lose interest in that segment of our population often referred to as “snowbirds.”
If the above is the context, then Bergman’s purpose is to change our attitudes toward getting and being old, and to accomplish this she uses that recognizable technique of the straight on, full frontal interview, giving each person an opportunity to simply talk about life. Some have escaped Europe during WWII. A Japanese woman recalls being a child in an internment camp during WWII. All have arrived at this, the last third of their lives, with a unique perspective; yet, it’s also evident that they share certain commonly held values, such as family and companionship. While curiosity and an unabashed courageousness are evident, having people close is essential to a full life.
If there’s wisdom to be gleaned, then it’s realizing that each of those interviewed have not stepped back from life; rather they have moved forward with a tenacious resilience. Note that behind many of those filmed, as a backdrop of sorts, are easels and well-used paintbrushes, a piano, or works of art in progress.
Bergman, in her optimism, framed by hope, has selected oldsters who are clearly in good health. Each seems financially comfortable and content with his or her circumstances and speaks of the present and the past with a preternatural buoyancy and good cheer. Their prism does seem a bit rose-colored. Indeed, none conveyed even a hint of regret or bitterness or was distracted by the hurt created by the loss of a dream or a loved one, though it is assumed that they have experienced the full kaleidoscope of life. As well, there wasn’t a curmudgeon in the group, nor a moment of embedded crankiness, though we know that for many older folks, for a myriad of reasons, life can be a push.
Regarding wisdom: embedded in this upbeat collection of chats is the reality that reaching their age, meaning longevity, is a roll of the dice. Stuff happens. Events occur that are beyond our control. To reach the age of 75- plus requires a modicum of luck, followed by a certain grace.
I was given the following, framed, written on parchment, in part as an admonishment: “We should not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” Indeed.