The Film Column Movies

Growing old at the movies

tugging at heartstrings: Marley from Home Alone is one of the many lonely old people from movies to evoke sympathy. —

tugging at heartstrings: Marley from Home Alone is one of the many lonely old people from movies to evoke sympathy. —  

It began with the quintessential childhood favourite: Home Alone. While the world and its mother fawned over little Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) and the bumbling Wet Bandits, my attention lay elsewhere. I was more intrigued by the developing bond between Kevin and his ghostly neighbour, old man Marley (the late Roberts Blossom). I was only five. It was the first time I remember wondering what loneliness felt like. But I hoped Kevin would keep in touch with him. I hoped Marley had a friend or two. I couldn’t forget him: the estrangement with his son’s family, his stricken voice, the sheer isolation in his eyes. It made me sad. As did the ‘scary’ Pigeon Lady (Brenda Fricker) in Central Park from Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.

As the years passed, I felt a growing affinity towards the elderly and alienated. The same corner of my chest would ache when I saw them on screen. I’d be torn between feeling frightened and sorry for them. The retirement home scenes in Baby’s Day Out and Lage Raho Munnabhai made me emotional. I’d often drift into tangential ruminations about how difficult rejection must feel, more so at such advanced stages in life. Gavin O’ Connor’s mixed martial arts drama Warrior (2011) only strengthened my weakness. Particularly Nick Nolte’s character: a regretful ex-alcoholic pining, almost begging, to re-enter both his now-adult sons’ lives. It was both pathetic and heartbreaking.

Around the same time, I met Winston. I needed an evil, mature vampire for a short film, and the 70-something deep-baritoned Winston fit the role perfectly. It was meant to be. He lived like a vampire too, a nocturnal creature occupying a large bungalow by the beach. I somehow felt protective of him, of his strangeness, his singularity. At one point between shots, he broke out into an impromptu jig, all alone, for no apparent reason. It didn’t matter that there was no music.

After that, I visited him every month, though never in daylight. We would sit in two chairs, listen to the waves, and I’d ask him about his lifestyle. It was a crime — such an emphatic voice, such proper diction, but no ears to serenade. At first, I felt a lot like curious Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai, in Pixar’s UP), the overly eager young wilderness explorer probing a monosyllabic Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner). But Winston opened up. He talked about new TV shows, and I couldn’t help but think he was happy, almost relieved, to see me. Or anyone. But when I’d offer to take him out for a movie, his inner Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood, the grumpy old war veteran from Gran Torino) would surface. “No, Rahul, I prefer not to venture out, anywhere.” Topic over.

How I wished for a bunch of balloons to uproot his house, take it to the sky and fly us across the city. I wanted to show him how much the world was changing. I wanted to help him, even though he seemed perfectly happy being alone. Perhaps it was all those years fretting about the perils of abandonment. Perhaps it was the fact that Winston looked increasingly pale and skinny; every visit felt like my last. Or maybe that all his brothers had families, but Winston had never married. After noticing his fondness for an early morning drink, I wondered if he was someone like coach Mohit (Naseeruddin Shah, in Iqbal), a talented maverick who had maybe just lost his way. Would he come out of his shell if I went to him for help?

Or maybe I could be a Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao, in Aligarh) to his professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee). I certainly behaved like an overbearing chatty boy intent on rescuing an old man. At times, given the presence of an omnipresent mutt in his verandah, he even came across as a fiercely private anti-establishment man, like Colonel (Naseer, again) in The Blueberry Hunt.

But there was actually no tragic backstory, no drama and persecution, no crushed dreams or tragic love stories — nothing. He was no movie character. Unlike all those faces, who looked like they had once been people’s people, he was never used to company to begin with. They were victims of their own history. But Winston never had anything to lose. Cinema had long romanticised the concept of age and loneliness for me. I’d invariably identify eccentricity — a straggly-haired Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro or Amitabh Bachchan — as the defining trait of the crabby-old-fart stereotype. Sad strings would play in my head when I left his house; I’d always imagine he would call out to me. This outpour of sympathy within had everything to do with what I expected him to be, and little to do with what he really was. To an extent where I couldn’t fathom that there was, in fact, nothing ‘wrong’ with Winston. He was just an uncomplicated man who liked keeping to himself — a loner by choice, not circumstance.

At our most recent sitting, he asked me some gentle questions. A role reversal of sorts. “Are you traveling solo again?” I vaguely knew that look on his face. Familiar. I casually answered his questions: yes, I travel alone; yes, I work from home; no, I don’t like big groups; yes, I love dogs more than humans; no, I don’t interact with my extended family; I occasionally live alone; I write about people, but rarely talk to them…

And then it dawned upon me. He was concerned. He was worried that I was turning into those movie characters. That I was, in fact, the socially inept old man here, a recluse withdrawing from civilisation too early. And that maybe I visited him because I was a bit of a…loner. I was Marley and Carl and Walt all along. But there was no Kevin and Russell and Thao in sight to distract me.

And perhaps the only thing more dispiriting than lonely old people is lonely young people. Even the famous Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch in Into The Wild) discovered this during the final moments of his prolonged, tortured stint in nature away from human attachments. Was I always worried that Winston — they — would die alone, or that I would live alone? All the films had affected me, but not in the way I imagined. Sad strings played in one of our heads that night. As I left, I hoped he would call out to me.

The writer is a freelance film critic, writer, and habitual solo traveller

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 8:41:20 PM |

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