Near the “happy” ending — and it feels the best available
Craig (James Cromewell) and Irene (Genevieve Bujold) (2012 Michael McGowan’s Still Mine)
There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life (George Eliot, Felix Holt).
Dear friends and readers,
Despite serious reservations this is to recommend Still Mine on the grounds described by Gary Goldstein:
it’s the intimate moments between Craig and Irene, be they of reverie, passion, devotion or frustration, that truly elevate this beautifully shot picture. Cromwell and Bujold, while significantly younger than their late-80s characters (though the petite Bujold, with her flowing white hair and lived-in skin, more visually fills the bill), inhabit their roles with nobility, grace and the wisdom of age.
What’s powerful about the film: It’s not sentimental slop: we go through the story of of an aging couple (lucky pair in their mid-80s) where Irene, the wife has the very first stages of dementia. As her husband, Craig, the husband is her central caregiver. The film’s view of why a woman needs a husband — to protect her — is a masculinist point of view.
Certainly in our society now except you pay someone a great deal of money, one spouse or relative ends up the one caregiver, analogous to what happens to young women when they are mothers. The husband’s solution to her falling down stairs and forgetting where she is on another spot of their land (with beautiful view) to build a house that has one floor and is tailored to her needs. He finds himself up against these silent-faced expressionless “bureaucrats” who put a stop order on his work because he is in violation of at least 26 codes.
The bureaucrats are not presented as gov’t officials necessarily, but rather implicitly whose regulations lead to one hiring private contractors (who we never see); the officials are these stern middle class types who care only for labels and certificates and won’t listen at all to the high quality of workmanship, goods, know-how Craig (presented in workman’s clothes throughout except once in a suit in court) has. At each stage this means he has to pay some “expert” a fee for a certificate or picture of what he’s done or go to a company which makes precisely the sort of thing asked for — the two then lock together, gov’t demand and company (so we may think collusion and lobbying went on if we are the type who extrapolates later). On the face of it it is a reactionary tale. Gov’t help is oppression which could lead to jail if you disobey their regulations and injure their pride. Its happy ending is that through a lawyer and the common sense of a single judge (nothing to do with society at large), Craig gets to make these people go away and keep the house: it’s in danger of being bull-dozed or he going to jail. Sixyears later (we are told by a closing intertitle this is a true tale) they are both still alive, she not in a home but with him, and by his side. They are left alone in peace. And the sense is that they are indeed all alone but for what their money can buy from people also like themselves all alone but for family, a few friends and what money can buy. Neighbors in this film mean to help but they in fact snitch on the husband and make his life harder because they don’t understand the husband and wife as individuals.
The focus is on the literal making of that house and the characters of the husband and wife involved. The movement of the story is very slow. The movie does do the sort of thing I’ve seen others do, which seem to deal with uncomfortable aging do: In the film adaptation of Alice Munroe’s “When the Bear comes over the mountain” (with Julie Christie) was the same: the disorder is presented in its early stages, the woman is beautiful and was smart and still has some smartness (Irene is great at bridge) and money is not a problem. I’ve realized now too how Wit, the movie about the woman with terminal cancer also glides over what are the real deformities and difficult behavior that goes on. At one point Irene (the wife) does break out and refuse to go into the house and become violent and Craig responds by shoving her into the house — after that he is moving over not behaving that way to anyone no matter what. But this is the only hard scene between this couple in the movie.
To do justice to Still Mine, convey the experience which makes its slow-moving story uplifting while believable, one would have to take down dialogue, provide scenario notes and shots, impossible in watching a film once through in a commercial cinema. A reviewer who carped at the film as “one of ever-tightening gloom”, was irritated at the old man’s refusal to cave in to the people demanding he obey every regulation (“It’s not that he lacks the money … “) certainly watched from a different perspective than mine. I felt envy for this pair of lovers still alive and together at 85 and 86, and was surprised I did not cry when I was told that the actual people and story this film is said to be based on are still alive, and together, in the sound house Craig built at the respective ages of 91 and 90. I fervently wish I and my beloved husband could have been together in our house at ages 91 and 93 (I’m 2 years older than him), but it is not to be. We won’t even make the second half of our 60s. I did not see the recent Haneke Amour, but I get the feeling this is a direct antidote of hope.
What’s misleading: The film’s poster is a rare image on the Net glimpsing of the house finally fully built – which the film ends on in a glowing shot at sunset: the house standing there alone, inside (we are to imagine) Craig and Irene at the windows taking in the magnificent view of water and landscape (seen in the next popular still on the Net)
Imagine the house as film’s last still, the only object in a vast glowing land- and seascape, as it’s prime evidence for what’s false in the movie: The movie embodies Thatcher’s idea there is no society, only families, individuals (the lawyer is a key figure and to tell the truth one might experience a law case this way). It is true that one may see the husband’s holding out as a metaphor or fable of holding onto the convictions of one’s life but it does matter what these convictions are. Here it’s an escape from mindless senseless regulations.
Still Mine has something utterly typical of widely-distributed US movies today: the characters are presented as living inside family groups and having no where else to turn for any help; outside the tiny unit it’s assumed there is nothing but hostility or indifference, commercialism, or a natural world. The gov’t or society is presented by these mindless bureaucrats.
There is no sense you can make a movie which shows something quite different in institutions or groups of people. A while back I read an article in one of the academic film periodicals, but remember more vividly a documentary and discussion on DemocracyNow.org — a genuine film on one of the film-makers blackballed in the early 1950s. The point made in this documentary hour (and I’d have to remember the name of the once popular director well known within the industry) is that the wide-spread popular movie in the 1930s and 1940s had parables which continually embodied pro-social and pro-group messages. At their close someone (a male) would give a didactic speech which supported some community response — either in a court case, or Henry Fonda say in Grapes of Wrath. This kind of ending was utterly out as of the 1950s; and in was a presentation of people as basically amoral, selfish, without real interest in the greater good. If they seem to be working for some version of that, they are hypocrites out for power, or foolish and naive.
Our few movies or popular shows which critique or society are often subtle individual undermining of a social incident, they do not present a pro-social solution in a broad manner. This is quite conscious — or was in the 1950s when this new kind of story began to override all others. There is no sense you could make a movie which showed something quite different in institutions or groups of people — as genuinely there to enact a respected trust.
The movie ends with a glowing picture of this one isolated house. You could look at my husband and I as living alone in a house on a street, and quite literally having nowhere to turn but our money, family and few friends. But what’s happening in my house is the result of all that happened outside of it impinging on us. He has gotten a fatal form of cancer, cancer is at epidemic proportions in our society because of the toxic environment we live in. The way he has been treated by the medical establishment has shaped this his last destiny and it has been rough. The much-lauded Hospice having been taken over by commercial people does not serve us well at all. Only if and when he is on the very point of death do a wider range of services become available; the kind of people working we have discovered listen to us to hear what fits into their regulations and respond to that not to the questions I ask or his real needs. I may say, he’s going for chemotherapy next week, and before I can ask for my request, I’ll get, Oh, is he coming out of Hospice then?
This would seem to vindicate the film’s vision, but I can imagine a society whose institutions were not shaped by money at every individual transaction and thus each experience shaped by other values than money spent.
So the film is skewed to embody a false interpretation of why this elderly couple is in danger: they are at risk of someone taking the wife away and putting her into an institution for her own good (supposedly). The couple’s two children broach this idea but never insist upon it — as they don’t want to take responsibility for what they suspect would ensue. She would suffer from loneliness, neglect, meaninglessness. He would suffer from loneliness, meaninglessness, despair. The meaning of the title is that she is still his, owned by him who loves her, not taken over and abused by others. But the cause of this is not that institutions in and of themselves have to be this way; they are not in societies like Norway and were not in the UK until the 1980s when a new group of people in power re-organized everything and changed public propaganda so as to change the doings and nature of the experience of society’s organizations.
Many old people in our society are left to be alone but they are not better off that way.