How film prepares us for the road ahead

Thursday, February 3, 2005

There are many roads to an increased healthspan ... and not all of them have to do with smelly vitamins, leafy greens and sweating.

Try going to a movie.

That's right, engaging in a cultural pursuit can add healthy years to your life. Studies of older folks engaged in creative arts programs report boosted immunity, better overall health, fewer doctor visits and lower levels of depression than those who aren't so cultured.

I realize that there are many ways to float your cultural boat ... anything from enjoying Mozart sonotas to collecting vintage comic books or taking a watercolor class. But for me, since those indelible days sitting in the dark of the Esquire Theater, it has been the movies.

It wasn't just the popcorn or escaping from the glare of the everyday that benefitted me. I learned many things while watching my fellow humans play out their simple to grand humanity before my eyes. Of special relevance to me these days is the preparation film has provided me for getting older.

From the campy to the classic, my peers remember films that taught them well for life: from "Love Story" ("love is never having to say you're sorry")to "Auntie Mame" ("Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death"), to "Gone With the Wind" ("Fiddle-de-dee, after all, tomorrow is another day"). And don't forget "The Graduate" (plastics are bad, having an affair with your girlfriend's mother is worse).

"Harold and Maude," from 1971, was the film I remember as the most inspiring when it came to considering the aging process.

In this quirky dark comedy, a morose and suicidal 20-year-old named Harold falls in love with the 80-year-old Maude who teaches him about life as a joyful enterprise.

I recently revisited Maude, thanks to Netflix, and realized how much she had taught me about negotiating the home stretch:

First up, it was a good thing to learn that old people could have sex.

Along with Harold, I also learned that: "Everyone has a right to make an ass out of themselves. You can't let the world judge too much." Maude exhorted the death-obsessed Harold to not back away from life. "Reach out, take a chance, get hurt even. Play as well as you can. Otherwise you got nothing to talk about in the locker room."

In one riotous scene, Maude gets Harold to help her steal an ailing tree from a street planter and replant it in a forest. The local police didn't approve of the theft, nor of Maude's penchant for borrowing other people's cars whenever she needed transportation.

"Aim above morality," advises Maude. "If you apply that to life, you are bound to live fully."

A tattoo on Maude's arm reveals that she was a Holocaust survivor and, by inference, that she has confronted many big issues in her day. But at 80, she was "still fighting for the big issues, but now in my small individual way." Another great lesson.

In the end, Maude chooses to end her life on her 80th birthday, not as an act of desperation, but as a celebration for the life she lived freely. On her death bed, she tells the bereft Harold: "Don't upset yourself so." He protests, "But I love you, I love you."

"Oh Harold, that is wonderful. Go and love some more."

You go girl. When I first met you Maude, you seemed like an alien creature from some far away future. Now, upon meeting you again, you seem very near.

Good to know you.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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