Title: How to Live Forever
Director: Mark Wexler
Featuring: Suzanne Somers, Jack Lalanne, Ray Bradbury, Phyllis Diller and more
Aging, if we’re lucky, is something that happens to all us. And yet, despite the many billions of industry and consumer dollars devoted annually to anti-wrinkle creams and everything else under the sun to stop the inexorable march of time, it’s a topic we’d at all costs rather avoid than have a honest societal discussion about — witness Sarah Palin’s willfully gross distortion of end-of-life counseling services during the national health care debate, turning them into “death panels” coming to snatch your grandparents out of their homes and euthanize them in the street.
Mark Wexler’s “How to Live Forever”, then, is a refreshing and entertaining documentary look at aging, because it embraces the natural anxiety and discomfort the subject engenders, and emerges as a richer rumination on life for it. Spurred on by the death of his mother and his own maturation, Wexler embarks on a worldwide travelogue to at first investigate the possibilities of scientific life-extension — including cryogenics and biotechnological advances which allow for certain genes to be added and others to be turned off, (theoretically) stopping and even reversing the process of physical aging. Along the way, though, his film morphs into a sort of souffle of comic poignance, exploring what it means to grow old through the borrowed eyes of a wide variety of colorful and intriguing characters.
The sheer variety of Wexler’s interview subjects makes “How to Live Forever” an utter delight. The movie flits to and fro, but never in a manner that becomes off-putting. There are a handful of well known figures, from 93-year-old comedienne Phyllis Diller to 96-year-old fitness evangelist Jack Lalanne, but they’re interspersed alongside “regular” folks like a 74-year-old Japanese porn star and Buster Martin, a 101-year-old unrepentant British chain smoker who still works washing vans, and swills beer while running marathons. Noted science-fiction author Ray Bradbury says that he doesn’t fear death, since he’s lived each day collecting truths. Others, like novelist Pico Iyer, a friend of Wexler’s and mere middle-aged pup, assert that fretting about “the story’s end” (i.e., death) and trying to remove it from the equation actually distorts life and bleeds it of its purpose and importance.
A kind of navel-gazing sensitive soul, Wexler has turned the camera on his own frustrations and uncertainties before, most notably in 2005’s “Tell Them Who You Are”, which chronicled his tumultuous relationship with his father, famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. This film is less intrinsically personal, though, and more universal. Still, he makes for a nice guide, refracting events and chats through a personal lens, but not foregrounding his own personality to an untoward degree.
For all its globe-trotting and hearteningly wide focus, “How to Live Forever” doesn’t make explicit the grander point with which it occasionally flirts — that Americans largely evince exasperation with the aged, whereas certain other cultures have more of a tendency to embrace their learnedness. There’s not a sociocultural axe to grind, here, in other words, though certainly this inclination could be put more under a microscope, and tied into American behavior writ large. The chief takeaway comes in the form of research which indicates that a positive mindset about aging has an equal level of impactfulness as other important health factors when it comes to autumnal happiness and mental acuity. So go ahead and laugh at laughter yoga… but recognize that they may be on to something there.
Written by: Brent Simon