Monday, 17 October 2011

Beauty is Truth; Truth Beauty...?

For the past few days I have been thinking about youth and old age. Not, actually, connected with me personally. More that I spent two days at the Marbella Film Festival and three of the films I saw involved a juxtaposition between people when they were younger and now.

One of these films was called Mila’s Journey. It is the story of Mila Jansen, a woman from Amsterdam, who when young had gone with her husband to India there to embark on a 1500 klm trek through the Ladakh area of the Himalayas. The journey was filmed by herself and her husband. Some sort of serious disagreement ensued once the trek was over, however, and was so acrimonious that the couple parted, and so did the footage of the journey with Mila keeping one half and her husband and soon to be ex-husband the other. Mila doesn’t elaborate on the source of the split, but she does hint that he wanted not to return to India, and she most wholeheartedly did.

Fast forward almost 40 years and Mila wonders what happened to him. She finds that he is dying, of cancer, and goes to his bedside.

My first thought on seeing both of them in the 70’s was how incredibly beautiful both were. Hans, her husband even comments on this when he sees his picture. Mila, so many years later, is still a beautiful woman with fine bone structure and laughing eyes. Hans is a skeleton. His once fine and handsome cheekbones reduced to painful protuberances.

Mila wishes her ashes to be scattered at a certain lake high up in the mountains and decides to go back, to try to meet up with some of the people with whom she had walked and, most especially, to locate the guide who had become one of the family. She succeeds in most cases, although many have died. Mila has had a recent heart attack and is far from well physically, but this doesn’t stop her initially; although later she finds that the altitude is too much for her. The crew must go on, and she must return.

The second film I had pause to consider was called Spanish Steps. This film looked at a group of mainly English people (and a few Spaniards who had found themselves transplanted in England) who had become not only aficionados of flamenco, but practitioners of the art themselves, mainly in dance. The footage this time took us back to more or less the same time period as Mila’s Journey; perhaps a little before.

In both cases, the people I saw on screen were more or less the age I was when singing with a band and later a folk duo: running a folk club in the Midlands and spending late nights entertaining many musicians who were to go on to considerable fame, and their friends. The film footage of those times was so dated that I might have been looking at Dageurrotypes!

What struck me about both films (and both were truly excellent) was the realities of aging. Once young, beautiful and energetic, the people in these films were now overweight, lined, slower of movement, more ponderous, and in some ways, more innocent than they had been before, although most of the dancers in the latter film had no problem once the Duende – the spirit of flamenco - entered into the scene.

The last film called Beyond the Noise directed by and featuring Dana Farley, a young filmmaker who had struggled all her life with serious learning problems. Dana had been introduced to Transcendental Meditation by the filmmaker and director, David Lynch and it had helped her enormously to concentrate and overcome her fear of such things as exams and so on. The last third of the film is an interview, initially Dana interviewing Lynch, until then he turns the microphone on his young friend. The resulting conversation is quite an extraordinary one: a sharing of knowledge and most of all camaraderie between the famous man and the young student. The juxtaposition between young and old simply melts away in the light of a shared passion.

“She doesn’t really know who he is,” her almost lookalike mother Karen told me over a beer on the hotel’s terrace. Lynch, of course, is perhaps best known for the series Twin Peaks and the award-winning film The Elephant Man. Dana had met him in a context quite different from the Hollywood glitz in which most people would meet such a person. As a result, while she knows of his fame, it doesn’t seem to have any impact on their interaction. Dana's film follows her own difficulties with growing up dylexic and suffering from attention and processing difficulties and the bullying and self-esteem issues which are endemic to young people with learning "disabilities". As an educator myself, I greatly enjoyed it and for one so young it is a remarkable effort.

So going back to my original thoughts. Why do we have to change physically as we grow old? Do we really have to "wear out"? Do we have to become redundant, leaving the world to a younger and more attractive "race" of people who do not have our wisdom and abilities, nor our own particular beauty? Why do our limbs begin to fail us? ("Bits are falling off," said the outspoken Prince Phillip recently.) Why do our thoughts become so much harder to process? Why sometimes do we make excuses for ourselves citing our age as reasons? Why do we so delight in sending each other those slightly offensive (but “fun”)) “age” cards for our birthdays? Why does “beauty” so often seem to be equated with “youth”? Is it because once we grow beyond our childbearing years (and of course I am speaking more for women here) that “looking beautiful” is no longer seen as so important because we have no need to attract someone with whom to mate? Yet from a man’s point of view, it also seems to put most of us out of the running in the romance stakes… Have you ever watched a man sitting at a café on the street direct his gaze to the butt of a woman in her 50’s? I thought not. And what about the one who said: “Well, with her long hair she looked pretty good from the back, until she turned around”. (From a Facebook post from someone I have as a “Friend”: Not about me as far as I know, but it could have been!)

I watched a film recently in which Angie Dickenson’s words were (mis)taken as a “come on” by a much younger man: “Why would I do that with an old stick like you?” the man says. Under the dirt and trappings of an alcoholic bag lady, Dickenson still looked beautiful, at least to my eyes.

Why when we look at a photo of someone when they were young do we say: “Wow. S/he was so good-looking/pretty then,” when the person in question has gained an inner beauty through self-confidence, risk, knowledge, peace? Can't we acknowledge that instead?

Oddly, I would not want to be any age but the one I am now. Not if it meant that I had to go back and re-live all those years of struggle and doubt. I look at a photo of someone like Vanessa Redgrave, gorgeous still at seventy something and without a trace of hair colouring or botox, and say: “I’d like to look like her” whereas I have no desire to look like, say, Cameron Diaz or Keira Knightley. I don’t mind at all what I see in the mirror.

Furthermore, I know that what I have to give today is of great value. In that sense, I guess I consider myself “expensive” in the way that a younger woman might value her looks. If diamonds littered the beaches, then diamonds would have no value.

What does concern me though is this assumption, often by men closer to my age than either of the stars above, that women “of a certain age” are no longer attractive. Living in Marbella I see so many “trophy wives” (the Marbella Woman is legendary) on the arms of men who quite clearly have left their own wives to start a second family. Often these men are in their 50’s and 60’s, even ‘70’s and well… not what my mother would have called “an oil painting” themselves. Do they think those women are in love with them? What about the wife or wives they have left? I find this very, very sad indeed.

Is there a conclusion to this general rambling and ambling I am taking? I don’t really know. Perhaps I am looking less for a “Fountain of Youth” and more for a shady avenue of trees under which beauty achieves a broader recognition and in which we can walk together without coming into a meadow in which we are to be put out to pasture...

Your comments (young and old!) would be most welcome.


  1. Enjoyed this post!!! I too wouldn't want to be any of my younger selves!! Too much drama! Please, tell me I don't have to come back and repeat it all again either!! Do it right and once is enough! Or so I read somewhere once.

  2. I'd love to bring back all the dramas, the highs and lows... sure, truly ruly... though now in 60s and not doin' badly, 5th camino this year coming up, toughest thing about this age for many is 'parents', is caring for aged and ailing, sometimes difficult, parents. This role reversal is no fun!