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Wrinkly Film Club* 16/11/17: Ruth & Alex

Having pretty much run out of DVDs in my possession that my care home pals will comfortably watch, I have begun using rentals. I found Ruth & Alex / 5 Flights Up (dir. Richard Loncraine, 2014) while browsing the modest (and largely adult) collection in my local library. The film’s affectionate depiction of an ageing couple played by Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman facing having to move from their Manhattan apartment after 40 years because the stairs have become a struggle was up our alley.
I’m always on the lookout for films concerning well-developed older characters. Ideas for these are plentiful, but I’m working some limitations pose challenges. Some residents are at various stages of dementia, so I need films gentle enough for them to follow, meaning uncomplicated linear plots and narratives, clear English diction, subtitles for the hard of hearing, and nothing too suspenseful or racy. I also must factor in the regulars whose minds are sharp and hungry for good stories, and who need a break from the incessant quiz and auction shows blasting from the telly box day in, day out. 

Animation, even when realist and universal, has not gone well, and I haven’t felt brave enough to try again. Contemporary films have worked fine as the images are clear, and colour seems to be easier to cope with and to follow who’s who. Historical dramas have proved the most popular. Belle (dir. Amma Asante, 2013) had about the biggest, most gripped audience and, along with Mrs Brown (dir. John Madden, 1997), the most positive response so far.

Ruth & Alex was a punt that worked okay. Two of the ladies enjoyed it very much and are fans of Morgan Freeman. One had lived in Washington DC in the 1960s and mentioned that she didn’t like New York as much as DC. It seemed to take her back to a happy time in her life, though. Their praise and thanks for my good choice (their words) was heartening. I suspect it was to balance the negativity coming from a regularly dissatisfied contingent.

The woman in question makes loud disparaging remarks and talks through chunks of the film when she’s not enjoying it. It’s a shame because it disrupts the others who are giving it a go and even enjoying it. But who am I to shush people in their 80s and 90s? She’s pleasant to my face but it’s the kind of passive aggressive politeness that is laced with disdain. To be honest, there are weeks when I dread going because of this one person, but the others make it worthwhile and appreciate that I do this voluntarily and am trying my best in a situation in which you simply can’t please everybody.

The film was charming. At times it was a bit too ‘talky’ for me, and I always have issues empathizing with middle class problems. However, Ruth & Alex is punctuated with flashbacks of the couple’s struggles in their early years, indicating the prejudice they rose above in the 1970s and the condescension they face daily as elderly people.

A sub-story about a suspected ‘Muslim terrorist’ affecting their part of town and the tangential events connected to this subtly suggests that the US’s problems perhaps lie with unfounded white anxiety fuelled by sensationalized news reportage. It indicates through a range of incidental characters that New York’s diversity is what makes it special. The underpinning narrative of the distressed man of middle eastern origin being mediatized as a terrorist threat also highlights the selfishness of the ‘elite’ classes in showing how they perceive the drama unfolding around him as having a detrimental effect on the desirability and profitability of the homes they are selling. The sellers Ruth and Alex look to buy from blame his actions for affecting the area’s real estate while Alex sees him as a fellow human whose difficulties are being misrepresented for the sake of ratings on 24-hour live broadcast news. The same couple assume Ruth and Alex lost their critical faculties some time ago and speak disparagingly about them – not to them – in their presence. Given that Ruth and Alex's life experiences have been centralized until this late stage of the film, this assumption is clearly shallow and ignorant.

The film is solidly made with clean, conventional aesthetics and the most beautiful, lovingly filmed aerial/drone shot of Manhattan providing a backdrop to the closing credits accompanied by Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately’. I thought it was heart-warming, and not trite or too schmaltzy (not that schmaltz is negative). It made me feel pleased that Diane Keaton is still so relevant to New York film production 40 years after Annie Hall. That two of the residents enjoyed it so much made it worthwhile, and I’d recommend giving it a go.

*I run a weekly film club at The Grove Abbeyfield Residential Care Home in Gosforth to provide intellectual stimulation and a talking point for residents. I sometimes rent or buy DVDs for this. If you would like to support the club, I would be incredibly grateful for donations to paypal.me/peablair. Just £1 will fund two films borrowed from local libraries at 50p each. Thank you.

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