Aging and the Road Movie
The road movie is a film genre in which the main character leaves home on a trip that alters his or her everyday perspective on life. Dealing with themes of alienation from settled attitudes about life or with changes in personal, familial, or cultural identity, the road movie focuses more on journeys of self-discovery, internal conflict, and transformation than on actual physical and geographical journeys. Consequently, road movies with older protagonists often depict stories of characters who are restless or frustrated by the current state of their lives and wish to rebel against the social, often ageist, norms that constrain them. These characters commonly desire to explore the possibilities of acting against one’s age, of not buying into the demeaning and damaging prescriptions of later life that signify aging as an unadventurous and gradual progress toward death (Chivers 2011, p. 41).
Overview and Examples
Since road movies tend to keep characters on the move, they often make a connection between a character and the cultural, personal, and temporal symbolism of a particular mode of transportation. Traditionally associated with quest narratives, the road movie also can focus on a masculine experience of rebellion and liberation that excludes female experience and results in a “male escapist fantasy of freedom” (Mueller 2009, p. 154). Thus, the tensions that emerge from the juxtaposition of the road movie with a staid depiction of aging permit directors either to challenge and critique current discourses on aging, such as the loss of dignity and independence that occurs upon retirement, or the infantilization and threat of institutionalization that can arise from increasing physical or cognitive difficulties, or to reinforce them.
Up (2009), an animated movie about widower Carl’s improbable escape by balloon from confinement in a retirement home, exemplifies one type of road movie in which the protagonist begins to look forward again by forging new intergenerational relationships that reestablish his place within a family. He also regains his sense of masculinity through heroic deeds that enable him to create a counterstory that rejects the oppressive identity imposed on him by others (Gravagne 2013). This desire to escape is reiterated in The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2015) when Allan slips out the window of his nursing home and embarks on a series of (mis)adventures that allow him to reconnect with his mischievous, often dangerous, past. Both films echo the outlaw theme of road movies where the protagonist often comes to a violent end. Yet, rather than end with violence, these movies conclude with the audience cheering for the successful escape of the protagonist and his ensuing transformation of identity. Cocoon (1985), The Bucket List (2008), and Little Miss Sunshine (2006) also fall into this category.
About Schmidt (2002) is a second type of road movie where the combination of (reluctant) retirement and the death of a spouse lead an older man to take to the road and in the process discover misunderstood aspects of himself and his familial relationships. Yet, the film ends with Schmidt back where he started, unable to change how he gives meaning to growing older or to his earlier life (Gravagne 2013). In Strangers in Good Company (1990), on the other hand, when seven older women are stranded in the wilderness on a broken-down bus, they not only survive but help each other grow and become more than they had ever dreamed. While both films deal with conceptions about aging and growth, the first depicts aging as entrance into a meaningless existence without the support of family or community (Chivers 2011), while the second presents a notion of aging as a process of supporting others and becoming through creativity (Gravagne 2013). The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), also with female protagonists, offer similarly optimistic narratives of aging.
The Straight Story (1999) typifies a third type of road movie in which the protagonist refuses to equate a medical prognosis of age-related disability with a social prognosis of decreased quality of life. When Alvin, who can no longer drive, decides to ride his tractor hundreds of miles to see his brother, he shows that adjusting to adversity doesn’t mean overcoming it, but adapting to it in a way that allows one to maintain a sense of self-worth and independence (Gravagne 2013). In Last Cab to Darwin (2015), when Rex finds out he has only three months to live and drives his cab to Darwin to use a controversial machine that allows terminally-ill patients to euthanize themselves, he also finds a way to live on his own terms. This type of road movie explores the idea that being defined as in decline presents older people with a far larger problem than any actual physical or cognitive difficulty ever could. The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) is another example of this category.
Although many road movies with older protagonists see characters free themselves to some degree from the narrative of decline – a linear and chronological biological, psychological, and social process of deterioration – and present alternative visions of aging and old age (Gravagne 2013), decline remains the preeminent ideology of aging (Gullette 2004). And even though filmic images of aging could allow for broader acceptance of the inevitability of becoming old, plots seldom celebrate the possibilities more than revel in the disadvantages (Chivers 2011).
Since road movies can be both a mirror to the realities of old age and an outlet to explore creative approaches to understanding aging, they have the potential to bridge the gap between aging as a subjective journey and as a social phenomenon by presenting richer and more diverse representations of growing older (Cohen-Shalev 2012). Yet, until scholars, actors, directors, and audiences more fully understand that old age and its association with decline are constituted more through operations of discourse and power rather than through biology and chronology (Dolan 2017), movies that could present more imaginative visions of the “road trip” to later life will remain relatively rare.
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- About Schmidt (2002) DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. New Line Cinema, USAGoogle Scholar
- Cocoon (1985) DVD. Directed by Ron Howard. 20th Century Fox, USAGoogle Scholar
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) DVD. Directed by Hayao Myazaki. Studio Ghibli, JapanGoogle Scholar
- Last Cab to Darwin (2015) DVD. Directed by Jeremy Sims. Pork Chop Productions, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006) DVD. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Big Beach Films, USAGoogle Scholar
- Strangers in Good Company (1990) DVD. Directed by Cynthia Scott. The National Film Board of Canada, CanadaGoogle Scholar
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) DVD. Directed by John Madden. Fox Searchlight Pictures, UKGoogle Scholar
- The Bucket List (2008) DVD. Directed by Rob Reiner. Warner Bros Pictures, USAGoogle Scholar
- The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2015) DVD. Directed by Felix Herngran. Film i Vost, SwedenGoogle Scholar
- The Straight Story (1999) DVD. Directed by David Lynch. Alliance Films, USAGoogle Scholar
- The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) DVD. Directed by Roger Donaldson. New Zealand Film Production Fund, New ZealandGoogle Scholar
- Up (2009) DVD. Directed by Pete Docter. Walt Disney Pictures, USAGoogle Scholar