Seniors on screen

He calls it "one of the most difficult films I've ever had to make ... putting a parent into a retirement home or nursing home is an agonizing decision and process for most people."

Toronto film producer John Kastner's 90-minute documentary Rage Against the Darkness was named best full-length Canadian film at Toronto's 2003 Hot Docs festival. It focuses on two sisters separated for the first time in 30 years. Maxine, 67, or "Bunny," is hospitalized after a debilitating stroke and waits months for a nursing home bed. Her sister Leona, 72, moves to a retirement residence.

Over the ensuing year, the sisters seem to switch personalities - Leona blossoms to emerge from her lifelong introversion, while Bunny's physical and mental health weaken after her long-awaited transfer to a nursing home.

Flicks focus on the senior set compiled by Jane Van der Voort

Lights, camera, aging. The following movies spotlight the silver-haired segment of the population.

Alive And Kicking (1959) starring Sybil Thorndike, Kathleen Harrison and Estelle Winwood tells the tale of three elderly ladies who meet an Irish millionaire when they try and hide out in his cottages after escaping a retirement home.

Age Of Consent (1969) starring James Mason and Helen Mirren, is the story of an elderly artist who discovers his muse in a young girl when he travels to an exotic island to regain his prowess as a painter.

Cocoon (1985) starring Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn, features a group of seniors who discover the regenerative effects of the neighbour's swimming pool - which harbours the cocoons of aliens waiting to be taken back to their home planet.

Tough Guys (1986) starring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, unfolds around two elderly ex-cons who prefer a life of crime over life in a retirement residence.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, focuses on an elderly widow who grudgingly agrees to the black driver her son hires, and spans the pair's 20-year relationship.

Grumpy Old Men (1993) starring Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Anne Margret, tells the zany tale of two neighbours whose 50-year rivalry heats up when a gorgeous widow moves on to their street.

Iris (2001) starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville, is the true story of the lifelong romance between novelist and eventual Alzheimer victim Iris Murdoch, and her husband, professor John Bayley.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) starring Bruce Campbell, finds Elvis Presley in a retirement home and teaming up with fellow resident President John F. Kennedy to battle an evil Egyptian entity who hunts in their long-term care facility.

"You've done more things in the last six months than you've ever done in your whole life!" Bunny, a former beauty and society hostess tells her quiet, unmarried sister. "You look wonderful, Leona. God, you look better than I do."

Rage Against the Darkness is frank and unapologetic in its portrayal of the sisters.

"All demons emerge and all powerful issues surface when a family member goes into a retirement home - even if it's been planned years in advance," says Kastner, 49, a three-time Emmy winner.

His mother, Rose, who passed away in 1983 at age 70, pushed him to make the film. "I later realized she had an agenda about her son seeing these places she was so terrified of.

"She piled up the research on this subject. I couldn't go near it for years and years after she died; I found it so disturbing," he says. "But, I figured anything that disturbed me so much would make a good film.

"My mother had prejudiced me, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the places were nice and the staff were great. It takes a special kind of person to work in geriatrics," he says.

Kastner has entered Rage Against the Darkness for consideration in the 2003 Academy Awards. It also will be part of a five-hour miniseries he has compiled for CBC that is set to air in spring 2004. The issues dealt with in the film are the kinds of issues frequently dealt with here, too, as we strive to provide a complete picture of life inside retirement homes.

A retirement home just for artists

In Montreal, filmmaker Carole Laganiére took another look at the elderly.

She says the fate of older artists inspired her 65-minute documentary, Un toit, un violon, la lune (The Moon and the Violin). It was named best Canadian short documentary at the Hot Docs festival.

"There are a lot of jokes about this place - that when you have problems as an artist, this is where you will finish your career," she says of the retired artists' Montreal residence, Chez-Nous des artistes. "I'm preoccupied with the idea of what you do when you are old, or when you have no more contracts, and cannot express yourself as an artist.

"I mean, you are still an artist. It was that idea I wanted to illustrate," Laganiére says of the subjects in her film who all strive for a comeback. Of the group - three jazz musicians, a pair of singers, a writer and a painter - only the musicians realize success. "That was a great moment because, after 15 years, it was like they had never quit," she says.

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