Getting old fucking sucks. Not only do the good die young, but also the lucky, the fortunate, the happy, and the wise. No matter one’s power, wealth, physical attractiveness, or charm, all inevitably burns to the cinder of incontinence, madness, helplessness, and delusion. We run through the exciting days and passionate nights of youth, complete with erect penises, sharp minds, and steady hands, only to limp and crawl through the glassy-eyed indifference of the aging process. Verities all, but somehow the human mind tunes out these facts and manages to convince itself that hope and optimism are actually worthwhile pursuits, rather than temporary stopgaps on the road to ruin. And so we beat on, living as we must, and the indignities of age seem so far off as to be unreal. But come they do, and with a tidal wave of fury so fierce that every human being under fifty should draft a living will before that day ever arrives. My own personal instructions are clear: at the first sign of memory loss or physical decline, the closest and firmest available pillow is to be placed upon my face and held there until the breath of life has disappeared forever. Failing that, I would also accept a shotgun blast to the face, a strong shove into interstate traffic, a cyanide cocktail, or even an evening with a group of small children. For the ultimate nightmare of our times is not rectal cancer, or paralysis, or even ALS, but the transformation from rational animal to a mere shell of dementia; physically worn, yes, but eaten alive by a loss of one’s mind.
Allan King’s documentary, Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, is the sort of film that inspires such thoughts, and it is also one of the most depressing films ever made; that is, if any film that produces mirth, cackles, stifled guffaws, and near-hysteria can be considered morose. Sure, spending nearly two hours in a home for the aged is akin to the pain one usually associates with severe nerve damage, but when it’s flashing upon a screen and nowhere near your own experience, then laughter is the only route to the comfort of denial. Taking place in the all-Jewish Baycrest retirement care center in Toronto, this movie never flinches from the fate that befalls all too many on this cruel, unforgiving rock. In that corner, a woman weeps uncontrollably for a son who never visits, and the loneliness she feels every moment of her excruciating day. Over there, a once proud business woman — a strong lady who long ago commanded her fellow Canadians with dignity and pride — rots away, covered not only in open sores and bruises, but a blanket of diseased rage that forces her to kick, yell, and ramble incoherently for hours on end. A fellow resident even huffs that it’s her curse for marrying a goy. Ah, and walking down the hall is Max, a dapper old fellow now reduced to a pathetic shuffle; a zombie-like coot who sings, hums, and, late in the film, dies off-screen after a severe fall. At least he got out with some teeth.
In many ways, though, Claire is the star of the show; a hunchbacked lion in winter who piles on the rouge with a spatula and, in a certain light, has all the beauty of Zero Mostel in drag. She loves Max, but only because her late husband shared the same name, and he appears to be the only one whose Alzheimer’s has actually softened his disposition so that the human voice doesn’t send him into fits of biting and scratching. They hold hands, dance, and even share a tune, but when Max dies, Claire is unable to handle the news. And I don’t mean she’s merely grief-stricken. No, she is literally told of Max’s death a dozen times and, because her brain approximates Swiss cheese, every two hours she wonders where the hell he is. And so we see her burst into tears again and again, lashing out at the staff for not telling her sooner (even though she was told within hours of the accident). Each and every time the camera falls upon Claire’s cavernous visage, we sense that fleeting moment of ignorant bliss before she’s forced to run through the cycle yet again. Admittedly, I failed to snicker during these scenes, and was instead left shattered and slack-jawed; devastated by the horror of what we become. Shitting one’s pants while conducting a lecture for thousands of respected colleagues could not possibly be this humiliating. At this moment — one of many, believe me — I wanted to crawl under my seat and hope tomorrow never came. But I knew that Ruth was starving herself to death, so I stayed glued to my chair.
King’s movie is old fashioned verite: no narration, talking heads, or sidebars, and it is because of this that we seek escape from the implications. I freely admit that I can be entertained by such a picture because I won’t ever have to worry about visiting anyone in this situation (all interested parties know that they’re on their own), but there’s something more, as if in the midst of the despair, it is hauntingly comforting that someone we hate is going to end up in a place like Baycrest, preferably that handsome asshole who stole all my masturbatory fantasy chicks back in high school. Such a man might have been Murray, a former dentist now reduced to shaking psychopath, who still flirts with the staff (“I love women!”, he cries, though tomorrow he’s likely to be as emphatic about pissing without discomfort), and sends everyone’s ears to bleeding with tales of the past, all told through two lone front teeth that stick out like Bugs Bunny. He’s one of the lucky ones because he’s able to afford more personal care (a caretaker even shaves his face), but as he’s still above ground, one should look upon his good fortune with some skepticism. But at least Murray’s daughter feigns enthusiasm better than most, unlike Rachel’s son, who smacks his gum during visits and seems so preoccupied that he all but pushes the old bat out of the way to get to his car. But why should he visit? If the mind is gone, it’s not really your parent anymore, and it’s best to get on with life and conceive of mama as little more than a piece of cord wood. Though if you reside in the States, a very expensive one at that.
“Stranger stop and cast an eye, as you are now, so once was I…..As I am now, so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me.” Words of wisdom indeed, and never far from my still intact mind while watching this documentary. Baycrest’s employees might be better than most, I suppose, but fake smiles and condescending reprimands are all that’s possible when you’re dealing with child-alike adults and the dead weight to match. It’s terrible — all too terrible — and the only evidence we’ll ever need that life is not too brief a candle, but rather an everlasting ember that won’t go out. We cling against all logic, and push on when everything in our minds and bodies is telling us to punch that final clock. So let my iron rule guide you: if there ever comes a time when you are no longer able to wipe your own ass or, even worse, can’t even remember how, it’s over. In the absence of a god, it’s the only voice in the darkness you’ll ever need to hear. If only it managed to penetrate the sad, sick walls of Baycrest.