Stephen Glass reviews How We Are Now…
As well as opining on new releases and re-releases and DVD releases and all other releases, film writers, professional or otherwise, are afforded a great power to vouch for films and filmmakers with little exposure, which are perhaps only on the festival circuit. Even this launchpad leaves innumerable films and their enthusiastic crews by the wayside. I’m currently in a position to start spreading the good word about a film still close enough to dripping wet that its festival run has yet to even begin.
How We Are Now is a half-hour documentary observing a couple in their 80s, Peter Kerr and Douglas Adams (not that one). Peter, a retired actor, moved to the UK from Australia in his adolescence and he and Douglas have been together for 60-something years. The film is a respectful and charming sample of their lives together, which are adapting in various ways to old age. A mixture of observation and interview footage, we watch Peter and Douglas living unobserved, and speaking candidly about their health concerns, sex lives, and considerations for the future. No stranger to cameras and somewhat of a showman, Peter offers moments of commentary and is more of our ‘host’ to his daily routines than Douglas, who has an almost transcendental composure and grace.
The film was made this Spring by a crew of four students at the London Film School, an establishment with an impressive list of alumni across its nearly 60-year history. During the third of the six-term MA Filmmaking course, students make documentaries, and How We Are Now is the remarkable product of this exercise. (At this point I should declare an interest – I’m a student at the LFS and know this production well, though my involvement has been primarily as an audience). Being that the School is dedicated to encouraging collaboration amongst people from across the world, the crew’s background is in part British, Italian, Japanese, and both Northern and Southern American, and I could naively speculate that perhaps this in some way accounts for, or at least plays some part in, the great humanism central to the film.
The film has many strengths, not the least of which how lean and straightforward it is. One could be so churlish as to suggest that with subjects as frank and intriguing as Peter and Douglas, any film would be interesting, but this would discredit the skill and insight of the filmmakers.
Peter and Douglas make it clear that old age does indeed provide trials and tribulations, it focuses the mind, and Peter in particular seems to harbour certain anxieties about it. He comments on the change in the contents of his bathroom cupboards – in the past ointments and beautifiers, now bottles of pills – and in a beautifully insightful moment explains the not infrequent moments when he is forced to remember that his partner is not the robust physical specimen he once was, but is an old man, troubled by physical debilities. Douglas on the other hand, despite his visible difficulties in using his own body, makes it clear almost immediately, and tells us outright that he’s not a vegetable, some body being fed at intervals and taken care of. In his old age he offers as much as anyone else, and the difficulties come from knowing and feeling the increasingly difficulty of continuing to learn and grow mentally as his body winds down.
The great strength of How We Are Now’s style, its observational format, is how much we intuit, rather than what it tells us. We don’t jump into close-ups to emphasise a relationship quirk or insight which the filmmakers have discovered in their preparation. Like them meeting Peter and Douglas for the first time, we watch them from one vantage point, and this point-of-view is greatly respectful of both subject and audience. We see everything and in extended takes and developed shots, are given the time to be with these people as we may in person. Credit must go in large part here to DOP/camera operator Toshiyuki Ichihara, whose work is refined and perceptive, shots well-chosen and alterations within them made gently and unobtrusively (a challenge in an observational format like this). Credit should also go to editor Monica Santis – the film’s pace is crucial to its impact and she allows us long enough with each shot to absorb without indulging and builds our level of insight piecemeal without ever giving the impression a shot or sequence is either demonstrative of an important trait or action, or charming window-dressing.
The effect is one of great affect and is intelligently-designed. We don’t learn about ‘old age’, the broad concept, by discussing it in a head-on and entirely abstract fashion. Instead, How We Are Now, like the best observational documentaries, observes examples of its chosen subject matter in great detail, and they become the core interest. We see how old age is managed and considered by these two men, which is as an intrinsic part of their life, still in flux like any other change is – you don’t reach ‘old age’ and stay that way – and to be adapted to moment by moment. And where perhaps the greatest understanding is shown is in the level of intuitive understanding the audience is able to reach through what is apparently very little explicit exposition. It’s in how the documentary allows us an insight other than that of Peter and Douglas; it’s a device of clarification, disclosure. In the very quietest fashion, it becomes clear over the course of the film, and touchingly so, how much these two mean to one another and what their dissimilar personalities offer each other.
While it may not be screened publicly until it finds a well-deserved place at a film festival or two this Autumn, I urge you to follow How We Are Now in post-production and support it. It’s a mesmerizing and insightful documentary, and a product of four talented and hardworking filmmakers who deserve all the support they can get.