If you could take a pill that would increase your life by 500 years, would you? Should you?
Documentarians Mark Wexler and Robert DeMaio take a light-hearted look at these questions and more in How to Live Forever. The documentary begins with Wexler contemplating his own mortality after the death of his mother from cancer. He first visits a Las Vegas convention for morticians, but he quickly moves away from dwelling on death and into exploring the notion of ‘life extension’.
He travels with the Guiness Book of World Records’ agent in charge of the Oldest Living Person categories, meeting many centenarians — none of whom, by the way, seem to want to take a pill to live another 500 years. He talks to science-minded folks like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil (featured in the book Long for This World). He meets with fitness guru Jack LaLanne and comedienne Phyllis Diller, both going strong in their nineties. He visits Okinawa, Japan, a world “hot spot” for an active older population. In the film’s most outrageous moment, he even talks with a Japanese man who decided to fill his retirement by creating “elder porn”.
While Wexler is not as strong a personality as Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, two other documentarians who reject objectivity and inject themselves into their films, he and editor/co-writer DeMaio do a great job of covering the territory. Cryogenics: check. Laughter yoga: check. Susanne Sommers: check. SPOILER ALERT. The film attempts to tie up Wexler’s story in a tidy bow by having him experience catharsis while going through a storage unit filled with his mother’s paintings. This resolution rang false to me, but who am I to judge Wexler’s spiritual journey? All I know is that the journey presented in the rest of the film was fun and informative.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, since Mark Wexler is the son of legendary d.p. Haskell Wexler, the film is very nicely photographed. The sound mix felt a bit sharp in some places with the interview dialogue and narration piercing through. I loved how the film has a counter showing the ages of each of the interview subjects, as well as their names and titles. The Pico Iyer interview felt staged, as if he had been roped in after editing had begun to provide some structure, reminding us of Wexler’s personal journey. Although the film doesn’t delve into the story, Disney fans should note that Tyrus Wong, the 98-year-old man featured in the film who makes and flies amazing kites, is none other than the same Tyrus Wong who styled the movie Bambi.
Leaving the theater, I was thinking about ‘the good life,’ a subject of debate among philosophers down through the centuries. I don’t know any who advocate quantity of life over quality. How to Live Forever ultimately asserts that the way to transcend death is through art. I’m not convinced that even great art won’t some day die. The agéd people featured in the film whom I most admired were all people who lived in the moment, embracing some kind of activity. Ray Bradbury his writing. Tyrus Wong with his kites. Even Buster Martin, the 101-year-old man who washes cars and runs marathons.
If I have the good fortune to be so old, I want to be like them. I much sympathized with Jack LaLanne’s comment. He said something like, “I don’t want to waste away. I want to do what I love until I drop dead.” Amen.