That Awkward Age
Michael Koresky on The Savages and On Golden Pond

Let’s look, if we must, at the posters. Not that one should judge or evaluate a film in this manner, but a one-sheet, commissioned to aptly represent a movie’s spirit and tone, will also, in retrospect, say a lot about the spirit and tone of the era from which it comes. The poster for Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages looked familiar upon its release in 2007: it was designed by comic-book artist Chris Ware, known for beautifully static, melancholy cartoons of doughy-faced, moist-eyed personae with all the flexibility of Charles M. Schulz figures. The act of using this particular style to represent the essence of a film like The Savages undoubtedly constitutes a form of branding. The Savages is a film about two physically if not emotionally grown siblings, played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, forced to take care of their bitter pill of a father, now aged and wracked with dementia. Its tone is practiced wryness, its visuals as plain and sullen as a shy teenager. There are genuine moments of empathy peeking through its slightly cracked self-protective shell of distancing irony. Like so many American mini-major-studio indies from the past decade or so—a broad category, admittedly—there’s a built-in glibness to its direction and an emphatic formalism that dilutes its knottier issues. Which is all to say that Ware was indeed perhaps the right choice to illustrate the film: his illustrations are a known entity, providing an immediate flash of recognition of cartoonish melancholy. The Savages, a film ostensibly about messy people with messy problems but which finally only tries to assuage, came, appropriately, perfectly prepackaged.

Frigid parents and their scornful offspring, both dealing with the pain of getting older yet lacking empathy for each other’s separate experiences, all of them facing the specter of disease—there’s no way this stuff should feel clean. Yet for films as wannabe unfiltered as The Savages or as traditionally, unabashedly sentimental as 1981’s On Golden Pond, directed by Mark Rydell, the problem remains stubbornly the same, and it’s not just the nagging necessity of closure, but the dramaturgy itself, the way in which a lifetime of resentment has to be boiled down to a time-contained narrative and a few choice scenes, whether those scenes are intended to be redemptive or despairing, conciliatory or complicating. In many ways, the films (both in their own ways Oscar bait) offer a study in contrasts, typified by their poster treatments, which are each reflective of their eras—Rydell’s film was represented by the hand-drawn realist style in those days applied to everything from fantasy (Star Wars) to slapstick comedy (National Lampoon’s Vacation) to prestige drama (Coal Miner’s Daughter). Rather than the embellished stick figures of Ware’s Savages illustration, with their tiny faces locked in muted despair, in On Golden Pond’s one-sheet we have beaming, smiling close-ups, heads placed in a pleasing semicircle, punctuated by a bit of Little Orphan Annie optimism: “When life is at its finest . . . When love is at its fullest.”

It now seems a relic from a time when our domestic dramas came served straight up, when we didn’t need (or filmmakers didn’t seem to think we needed) a properly pomo emotional distance. Neither The Savages nor On Golden Pond burrow authentically to the truths of their characters without relying on narrative gimmickry, but comparing them is worthwhile nevertheless. Looking at these two films, which at their respective moments in American film history were considered by some to be penetrating glimpses into matters revolving around aging, reveals truths about the level of identification they intended to foster in their audiences.

The Savages announces early that it intends to pull no punches in its depiction of disease and growing old. Non-cuddly senior citizen Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is introduced in his Sun City, Arizona, apartment on a faded couch in his underwear, gulping down a bowl of cereal from a TV tray; the nurse who has been hired to take care of Lenny’s ailing wife is fed up with him for not flushing after he does his business, as his waste is not under his jurisdiction. In retaliation for the nurse’s criticism, confused but still coherently spiteful Lenny proceeds to smear the word “prick” on the bathroom wall with his own feces. Bosco looks down at his own stained hands with befuddled horror. This is the film’s inciting event and the first sign that Lenny is losing his grip: soon Lenny’s pointedly unmarried children, Wendy (Laura Linney) and John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who live far from Arizona, will be summoned to his side and be forced, despite their paternal resentment, to monitor his physical and mental deterioration.

All this would seemingly set a tone of raw discomfort, yet before we meet any of the Savages, writer-director Jenkins has already done a curious thing. The opening credit sequence is a series of sitcom-like establishing shots of sun-dappled, prefabricated homes and perfectly pruned shrubbery, an unmistakably ironic Edward Scissorhands–like take on suburbia that instantly offers a magical realist check the rest of the film doesn’t care to cash. A line of senior citizens, outfitted in tight, blue cheerleader uniforms, emerge from behind a row of bushes and begin to gyrate and tap-dance in slow-motion to the tune of Peggy Lee’s “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.” Aged golfers putter around a course under a perfectly cloudless sky. The title pops up in falsely ornate cursive (shades of Solondz's Happiness). These are the golden years, clearly, those which elude a great many of us, despite what we are told is written in the stars.

It’s a strange instance of satire in a film that mostly means to huddle down in the dark; yes, The Savages is a film filled with humor (often too forcefully), but not of this surrealist sort. There’s something oddly expected about Jenkins’ tonally off opening sequence, which seems as rehearsed as that cheerleading routine; it’s a rote moment of idiosyncrasy that feels like a page right out of the new independent American playbook. It’s authoritative stylization as distancing effect—call it insta-irony (think of Zach Braff’s patterned shirt seamlessly blending in with that wallpaper in Garden State, or any of the overly art-designed-as-empty interiors in Todd Solondz’s films, or those rows of samey-same white shelves in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture—oh, the stifling stasis of American living). If trends of filmmaking dictate certain flourishes, then this is one of the hallmarks of the past decade of indie films: a free-floating, predetermined, environmental bitterness.

The question of style is similarly elusive in On Golden Pond. In making it in 1981, Mark Rydell could not have felt the pressure to do anything but faithfully adapt the source material, a popular 1979 Broadway play by Ernest Thompson about a couple in their twilight years spending what is implied will be their last summer together at their beloved vacation home. The matter of style here has less to do with auteurist imprint than it would seem to revolve around the effective evocation of an idyll: Dave Grusin’s tinkly piano score in sun-sparkled harmony with Billy Williams’ cinematography; dissolves and cross-fades representing the passage of time; straightforward, empathetic close-ups of the actors in all their liver-spotted beauty. On Golden Pond is a film entirely without irony; if earnestness alone made a great movie, it would more than earn its place on all those AFI lists.

Yet ultimately, On Golden Pond is as interested in the bitter business of getting old as The Savages—which is to say not much. These are both films that crave sensation; instead of Jenkins’ mild shock value, though, here we have strident sentimentalism. We learn that Lenny Savage is “losing it” because he smears his walls in shit; for On Golden Pond’s irascible Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda), the telltale signs are considerably more adorable. In the opening scene, when the late-seventies Norman and his sunshiney late-sixties wife, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn), arrive at their cottage, he calls the operator and instantly forgets that he called; simultaneously he’s scrutinizing a framed photo sitting in the dust-covered living room, angrily wondering aloud “Who the hell is in this picture?” even as we can clearly see that it’s a photo of himself and Ethel (or rather Fonda and Hepburn) at a younger age. We have barely met this longtime couple, and they seem completely defined by their age: his cloudiness, his slow shuffle, and in an extratextual moment of recognition, Hepburn’s upsetting Parkinson’s tremor, which had grown only more pronounced since its first noticeable onscreen appearance in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

That movies generally (and American movies in particular) usually want little to do with the elderly is a fact not lost on either The Savages or On Golden Pond, which seem positively defiant in their initial foregrounding of geriatric characters. On Golden Pond intends to correct this oversight with sobriety and sensitivity, The Savages with irony and drollness. Both, however, will mediate our identification with these old (or in movie terms, positively ancient) characters by providing younger folk through whose eyes we can size them up. Norman and Ethel are, as cutely compared to the birds who welcome them and bid them farewell every summer, two old loons. As a counterpoint, On Golden Pond not only gives us Norman and Ethel’s successful, well-rounded, yet enormously resentful daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda, in a headline-making real-life daughter bit of casting), and her west-coast dentist fiancé, Bill (Dabney Coleman), but also Bill’s thirteen-year-old son, Billy (Doug McKeon), who arrives on Golden Pond seemingly not only to melt the curmudgeon’s heart but to speak up-to-the-minute California youth slang like “suck face” and “cruise chicks.” On Golden Pond doesn’t entirely stay outside of Norman’s perspective (an early scene in which he gets lost and frightened while picking strawberries includes a low-angle shot from his POV, looking up at a malevolent gnarled tree, not to mention suspense-movie music right out of Carpenter’s Halloween), but it’s ultimately less interested in him as a man with his own history than as an antique object—one that requires one last polish (i.e., shown the error of his curmudgeonly ways) before being tossed away for good. And he gets it through his revivifying interactions with Billy and his inevitable reconciliation with Chelsea,

There’s no redemption for Lenny Savage however; his kids are the focal point of the film, and he becomes a hump to get over before they can move on with their lives, the albatross weighing down these fumbling wannabe artists, making their adult lives little more than elaborate play-acting. Wendy is stuck in office temping jobs while applying for artists’ grants to fund projects such as an autobiographical play about her childhood titled “Wake Me When It’s Over.” John is a grumpy college professor with an affinity for Brecht (he’s a “doctor of theater of unrest,” Wendy tries to explain to her befuddled dad at one point). Often reduced to childish bickering, Wendy and John are clearly neurotic products of their father’s anti-intellectualism and lack of support: Wendy sleeps regularly with a married man and lies to her brother about getting a Guggenheim fellowship; John is dissatisfied at work and hopelessly out of shape (at one point forced into a silly mechanism with a chin-strap that connects to the doorframe after pulling his shoulder in tennis). With relatably fucked-up characters like these, it’s no surprise that The Savages is quick to mine the comedy of embarrassment: support group jokes; a mortifying scene in which John screens the racially dubious The Jazz Singer for a nursing-home audience replete with black staff and visitors; an awkwardly staged, intentionally humorous moment in which Lenny’s wife (Wendy and John’s stepmother) dies suddenly at a manicure parlor. Scenes of humiliation or discomfort abound, so much so that those scenes in which Wendy and John must deal with the terrible nitty-gritty of caring for a parent with dementia—in an emergency, Wendy must escort Lenny to the bathroom on an airplane, and his pants fall around his ankles in the cramped aisle, exposing his Depends undergarments; in a diner, they ask him practical questions about what to do with him should he fall into a coma, inciting him to yell “Bury me!”—feel undifferentiated from the rest of the film’s episodic take on life’s little annoyances.

It’s unfair to harshly criticize a film for not choosing to delve into sickness: this is not Dying at Grace, nor need it be. Yet neither does it feel significantly truer to life, or any less schticky, than On Golden Pond. Lenny’s cognitive deterioration feels about as sharply defined as Norman’s “occasional heart throbs,” as Ethel calls them. This despite the fact that the film clearly comes from a very real, emotional place: Jenkins wrote the film based on her experiences with both her father and grandmother, the former having had dementia, the latter having to be put in a nursing home. Since humor is indeed the best defense mechanism to get through these devastating landmarks, it makes sense that The Savages would hold itself at an emotional remove—as anyone who’s been through similar circumstances knows, keeping a steely exterior and a handy arsenal of deflating jokes is the greatest weapon of all (Alzheimer’s leaves both patient and caregiver in a constant state of limbo, neither able to understand or explain the newly nonsensical thought processes it engenders—a sort of cosmic insanity). And in this way, The Savages, with its gallows humor and at times suffocating wryness, becomes a cinematic mimic of these coping mechanisms. That the brand of humor on display in the film can so easily be slotted into a particular type we’ve become used to (call it “indie sardonica”) perhaps lessens the authenticity, but at least allows us to witness how someone’s truth can become trend. (If The Savages looks and sounds as familiar as its poster, perhaps it’s partly because its production designer is Jane Ann Stewart, who worked on all of Alexander Payne’s movies; its xylophone-and-piano-heavy score is by Stephen Trask, who composed Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Station Agent.)

The two films couldn’t possibly end any differently (Norman ties things up with Chelsea; John and Wendy have buried their father, their outstanding issues with him unresolved). The Savage offspring will likely remain bogged down by their past, as Jenkins knows there are never any easy answers, but the manner in which the writer-director represents their baby steps toward redemption feels as false as Chelsea’s triumphant fear-confronting climax: “I’m gonna do a goddamned back flip!” Jane Fonda enunciates perfectly before showing off her bikini-clad, gym-toned, and tanned physique (the first exercise video was only a year away) and doing the dive Norman always admonished her for failing at; as for Wendy and John, we see them back in New York watching a rehearsal of her new play, a silly bit of personal catharsis complete with a child-on-a-wire flying away from an abusive father.

Both films ultimately mollify with “life goes on” platitudes, whether made bitter or just bittersweet. Finally, though, perhaps only the sickly sweet Hollywood one gets at something truly ineffable. On Golden Pond contains its own kind of truth by making us witnesses to the wizening of two Hollywood legends. Hepburn’s severe tremors, while not written into her character, are as crucial an element as Ethel’s chipper, peacemaking nature, while Fonda was to die of heart disease only one year later. We are watching Katharine Hepburn shake, not Ethel; we wince as Henry Fonda clutches his heart, not because we’re fearful that Norman Thayer might pass away but because we know a Hollywood hero has reached his twilight. It’s an ontological realism that the film cannot avoid, regardless of how much it slathers on the schmaltz.