Films That Centre Characters Over 40

Are you weary of films about people younger than yourself? You may be over 40. Here are some suggestions.

Most films about people over forty are men, so the list below is woman heavy.

Some of these stories are really about young people, but told with the framing story of an older person looking back, so I’m not sure they really count as stories about older people.

These are in no order, except I will list my own favourites first. In my experience, if seeking out stories about characters over forty, your best bet on screen is TV rather than film. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Big Love, Greenleaf, Succession and Chernobyl are all prestige shows starring people over forty. Older British TV series also sometimes feature characters in their mid-years and beyond: Fawlty Towers, To The Manor Born and House of Cards.

Then there are TV shows like Six Feet Under and Friday Night Lights which give their older characters developed stories of their own. Nashville is specifically about a younger star rising up to replace the established middle age country music veteran. There’s an increasing number of TV detectives who are over the age of 40. One recent example is Mare of Easttown. These detectives balance their work lives with complicated family situations.

The idea that the glut of bad blockbusters is the result of “audience preference” is neoliberal nonsense. One of the main mechanisms of capitalism is eliminating competition and then figuring out exactly how crappy you can make something before people stop buying it.

@mechanicalkurt, 7:46am · 26 Jul 2021

MY OWN FAVOURITES

Olive Kitteridge (2014)

Olive Kittridge isn’t a movie. It’s a four part miniseries based on the best-selling novels by Elizabeth Strout. However, if you binge watch it all at once, it works like a super long movie. Olive Kitteridge is a bristly character but highly relatable if you’ve hit middle age and find you have less patience for bullshit and pointless ceremony these days. Frances McDormand is perfectly cast, as is everyone else. Olive Kitteridge follows Olive into her old age, where she must face the particular challenges that come with looking your own mortality down the barrel of a gun.

Lonesome Dove (1989)

I’m a big fan of the novel series. Although Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove was adapted for screen in the late 1980s, it’s still great. The old cowboys have come to their end of their lives and are craving another adventure, this time driving cattle from Texas up to Montana, where they believe they will make a fortune and live out the rest of their lives in comfort.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Terms of Endearment is also based on a Larry McMurtry novel, this one from his Houston series. This story is definitely the best of that series, and focuses as much on the mother as her adult daughter.

The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)

Starring Anthony Hopkins. I have a soft spot for this film, being a Kiwi myself. Anthony Hopkins gets the accent absolutely right. Few New Zealanders themselves could manage an authentic Southland accent.

This is a 2005 New Zealand biographical sports drama based on the Invercargill, New Zealand, speed bike racer Burt Munro.

Munro rode a highly modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Munro set numerous land speed records for motorcycles with engines less than 1,000 cc at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. This film follows his trip to America, where he is a fish out of water.

Away From Her (2006)

Based on “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro. The snowy landscape really sticks in my mind after watching this. Few films show what it’s really like to live with snow that settles. (That isn’t even what the film is about.)

Because it comes from Alice Munro, you can trust the story will be expansive and nuanced.

August: Osage County (2013)

There is nothing cheerful about this story, nor cosy. The setting is somewhat similar to that in Terms of Endearment, but this is a harrowing story about a family. The plot will sound familiar to everyone: Adults who’ve made their own lives in the cities return to their small hometown to deal with a family crisis.

The masterful thing about this story, clearly originally written for stage, is how the reveals are done. The first reveal is only a reveal for the characters because the audience has been let in on it first. The second reveal will surprise the audience. Then, when you think there can be no more reveals, there’s one more right at the end.

Doubt (2008)

This is my favourite film starring Meryl Streep. The audience is right there alongside Meryl Streep’s nun as she deals with a terrible moral dilemma: Does she trust her gut instinct about the new priest, even though she has no firm evidence against him?

All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford. out on a sinking yacht/lifeboat by himself in the middle of the ocean, next to zero dialogue. I’ve seen a few ‘man stuck alone on a sinking boat’ films and this one has the pacing and tension just right. However, you won’t get me on a boat.

Secrets and Lies (1996)

I’m a fan of Mike Leigh, and more so the older I get. I did enjoy Secrets and Lies when it was fairly new (I was in my late teens) and it’s still good. It felt new to watch a film about working class people. I’d previously only really seen working class people in soaps such as Coronation Street, which is not realistic.

All Or Nothing (2002)

Another by Mike Leigh. The story of a marriage, again starring working class middle-aged people.

Vera Drake (2004)

Also by Mike Leigh. A shocking reminder of what society looks like when abortion is illegal. The cheerful disposition of the main character juxtaposes terribly against the setting, and the predicament she ends up in.

The Wife (2017)

Starring Glenn Close, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer. The less you know about this story going in, the better.

The Wrestler (2008)

Starring Mickey Rourke, this is one of the few films which Australia’s Margaret and David both gave five out of five stars to.

Anyone who is getting old enough to find their body isn’t working as well as it used to will relate to this film, though it is very sad.

Can you imagine a universe where one flew over the cuckoo’s nest was the second highest grossing film of the year?? I Have to Believe we can go back as a culture to people making and watching Grown Up Media on that scale.

@xtinatucker, 12:12am · 26 Jul 2021

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM OTHERS

Continue reading “Films That Centre Characters Over 40”

Books About Boys Who Dance

Some of the books below are specifically about boys and men who dance. Others are more generally about celebrating boys who break free of expected masculine roles.

Unfortunately there’s still a way to go before book publishing breaks away from the strict gender binary. That’s why we’re still getting books which say, “Boys can do girly things” and “Girls can do boyish things”, with the overt encouragement to “Be Yourself”, and also the covert reinforcement that gender is binary, with no room in between.

Aside from the examples offered below, there are a large proportion of stories specifically about characters who ‘can’t dance’. The animals are clearly serving as a metaphor for anyone who has been told that their interest (of any kind) is socially unacceptable, and I find it interesting that dancing is disproportionately picked as something anyone should be able to do, and is regularly shamed for. Children’s stories such as Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees and Josephine Wants To Dance by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, Brontorina by James Hove and Randy Cecil and Olga the Brolga by Rod Clement are specifically useful for boys (dancers or not) who may internalise the hegemonic messaging that dancing is girly, and that dancing is unacceptable because women (and gay men) are lower in the social hierarchy.

If you’re looking more generally for stories which encourage readers to ‘be themselves’ I have previously written about that particular ideology.

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Stone Mattress Short Story by Margaret Atwood Analysis

1949 March, cover by Arthur Lidov ship

“Stone Mattress” is a masterful short story written by Margaret Atwood, published in The New Yorker in 2011. You’ll also find this story in the Nine Wicked Tales collection.

Some years later, in 2018, author A.M. Homes discussed this story with Deborah Treisman via the New Yorker Fiction podcast, noting that this is (unfortunately) a timeless story.

How many rapists must we kill until men stop raping us?

Mona Eltahawy (and implied by Margaret Atwood)
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The Tunnel by Anthony Browne Picture Book Analysis

The Tunnel Anthony Browne

The Tunnel is a picture book written and illustrated by British author/illustrator Anthony Browne. The Tunnel was first published in 1989.

SETTING OF THE TUNNEL

In the 1980s it was far more common for kids to be sent out of the house because their mothers were sick of them (and it was almost always the mothers doing the caregiving). “Get out of the house, you kids! I don’t want to see you again til dinnertime!” The mother in this story is a little kinder than that, but I’m reminded of the vibe.

So the kids go to a wasteland which just so happens to have a fantasy portal in the shape of a tunnel. The tunnel appears to be manmade. Tunnels are an inherently scary feature of the urbanised landscape. Stephen King made the most of this in the 1980s with IT (you know, with the clown and the red balloon.) Australia’s own Paul Jennings also wrote a tunnel/sewer story. See “There’s No Such Thing” in his Unbelievable collection.

The tunnel/sewer is, symbolically, the man-made equivalent of the forest cave. It makes sense that humans have developed a fear of caves. Wild creatures tend to sleep in there, and if not wild creatures, perhaps other humans. Humans have always been the most dangerous ‘creatures’ to humans. We’re called super predators for a reason.

There’s a strong Narnia vibe to this one, though I guess all portal fantasies which start in the normal world and land kids in a wooded area are going to remind me of Narnia. On top of that, we’ve got the boy who is turned into stone, a trope utilised by C.S. Lewis, and which can be found in fairytales much older than C.S. Lewis.

Illustration by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941). …and the next moment he was turned to stone and lay there immovable…” Story illustration for “The Golden Lads” published in The Green Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1892)

Anthony Browne’s fantasy world offers nothing by way of explanation. We are never told what, how or who turned the boy into stone. Readers are left to create that part of the story for ourselves. Anthony Browne’s books expect the reader to craft at least half of the narrative, which is part of the Surrealist, postmodern experience.

As you read Anthony Browne’s books, look carefully at the skyline. In this story, as well as in Zoo, Browne lines the horizon with industrial buildings to convey a fearful, repressed emotion in the young characters. In this particular story, the skyline buildings change as the characters start to view them differently.

The painting below is by a Russian artist, and features a similar line of industrial buildings between landscape and sky.

Andrey Surnov, Russian digital artist
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Women and Shoplifting in Fiction

1960s Christmas shopping

Watch enough TV and you’ll likely draw the conclusion that women, especially housewives with significant personal problems commonly relieve psychological pain by shoplifting. It’s rare to find men shoplifting for the buzz. Also in fiction, teenage girls shoplift as a hazing ritual, and to own prized items (mostly body adornment items) they couldn’t otherwise afford.

How does this compare to real life stats on shoplifters? Shoplifting is not gendered in the way of fictional tropes. There’s a strong link between shoplifting, anxiety and addiction. When it comes to kleptomania, two thirds are women. For a similar buzz, men are more likely to turn to gambling than shoplifting. Both gambling and shoplifting are impulse control disorders.

The Pact is an interesting example of a story in which a female character has a shoplifting disorder while a male character has a gambling disorder. In this case, the shoplifting is akin to a hoarding problem.

The Pact poster

Nor is shoplifting a crime of young people. However, most adults who shoplift probably started in their teens.

gilmore girls humour
from Gilmore girls

Shopping itself is a heavily gendered activity. Men spend just as much money as women do in shops, but because the job of shopping (groceries, clothing etc.) is the job of the person running the household, it is mostly women we associate with shopping. Men are doing less shopping work, but when they do shop, they buy big, expensive items (computers, cars etc.)

Real life examples of shopping and shoplifting aside, I’ll take a closer look at how women shoplifting is used in popular storytelling to advance the plot, or to convey something to the audience about character. In all three examples below, the women and girls are shoplifting body adornment items. Shoplifting scenes in which characters steal necessary items in order to survive are a different thing entirely. That kind of shoplifting exists at a different spot on the morality spectrum.

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) genuine reductions
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). Would this cartoon work if the characters were masculo-coded?

CASE STUDY ONE: MARIE IN BREAKING BAD

In the clip below, we learn that Hank’s wife Marie is a shoplifter. She impulse steals a pair of sparkly purple shoes. (Marie is strongly associated with the colour purple throughout the show.)

Later, Marie will shoplift a princess crown for Skyler’s new baby, and also a spoon from an open home. Marie is very clearly trying out a new identity.

One problem experienced by the writers of Breaking Bad: An astonishingly small cast of characters. Take almost any other series running the same number of seasons and you’ll find the writers have many more characters whose arcs they can explore. I feel that Marie’s strange shoplifting arc was a strange and unnecessary addition, when the writers already faced a woman problem.

That said, Marie’s shoplifting subplot does mirror the ‘other self’ of Walter White. Both Walt and Marie are objectively good at being a spouse. They both feel confined by the house (or their spouse). Hank is a cranky husband who requires Marie to walk on egg-shells around him. This slightly menacing aspect of Hank is emphasised during Marie’s shoplifting scene, in which Marie calls Hank as Hank barks instructions at some men he and his partner have just arrested.

Marie’s anxiety about Walt Junior’s smoking of pot comes across as busy-body interference, and juxtaposes against Hank’s drug bust for its snigger-inducing inconsequence. “What, you want me to tell him about marijuana overdoses?” Hank says dismissively before pacifying his wife.

It is fitting that Marie shoplifts impractical but beautiful high heels, leaving behind her flat, sensible work shoes. The adornments of women are commonly positioned as frivolous (at best) and actively deceptive (at worst).

CASE STUDY TWO: RUTH IN SIX FEET UNDER

In “The Eye Inside” episode of Six Feet Under (Season Three, 2013) Ruth Fisher meets Bettina, who is helping Ruth’s hippie sister Sarah to detox from a Vicodin addiction. Suddenly free from the strictures of ladyfriend and mother, Ruth is now in a world entirely different from her usual one. She even tells Bettina she has never been brave enough to sit in a hammock before.

While the sister remains tied up in bed to scream and detox in “peace” (a moment of dark humour), Bettina accompanies Ruth shopping and tries to persuade Ruth to update her wardrobe. Ruth is initially shocked to witness Bettina yank the price off a branded scarf and tuck it discreetly into her handbag.

Bettina explains to Ruth that the wonderful advantage of turning into a middle aged (white) woman is that you are now completely invisible, including invisible to law enforcement. This follows on from the juxtaposition of Sarah explaining in pathetically unfeminist terms that she got hooked on Vicodin because of the tragedy of losing her youth and beauty. Bettina has decided to embrace the advantages of invisibility.

Initially shocked, by the end of the shopping expedition, Bettina has successfully persuaded Ruth to join her in crime. Together, Bettina and Ruth steal Ruth a red lipstick.

From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956
From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956

The lipstick is called ‘Flirtation’ and, very similar to the purple, sparkly shoes stolen by Marie in Breaking Bad, is a symbol of youthful feminine sexuality. These middle aged women are symbolically ‘stealing’ back some of their youthful vibrance. They steal because they are invisible, but they steal the very items which, we deduce, aim to make them visible again.

In Six Feet Under, the death at the beginning of each episode will link to the character growth in one or more of the Fishers (and their extended families). In “The Eye Inside”, Ruth’s shoplifting arc opens with the death of Callie Renee Morimer, who flees a group of jeering young men calling to her as she walks alone in the dark. The young men turn out to be a group of joking friends, but Callie is struck down by a speeding vehicle. In their eulogy, the young men reveal they have never considered before that a friend, so brave in other ways, could also be so scared of men in the dark. This 2003 episode preceded the #metoo movement. This would have been a revelation to much of the audience, conveying a feminist message akin to Bettina’s.

The dead girl of this episode was unpleasantly invisible in the darkness, and also completely invisible; her invisibility led directly to her death. As Bettina successfully convinces Ruth, invisibility is useful, but also a kind of death.

Meanwhile, in a thematically mirrored plot involving David and Keith, David worries about seeming too visibly gay in front of straight couples. 

In American TV drama Friday Night Lights, bad girl Tyra Collette takes coach’s good girl daughter Julie out shopping. Tyra’s ‘bad influence’ is signalled to the audience when Tyra tells Julie she’ll look great in this lipstick, then stuffs it down the front of her jeans before leaving the store. Julie is horrified but powerless to stop her. The lipstick is not just a lipstick. It’s a symbol of adult sexuality.

CASE STUDY THREE: THIRTEEN

In the film Thirteen (2003),Tracy Freeland becomes first a thief, then a shoplifter. This is a classic shoplifting scene involving young teenage girls. There is a hazing aspect to it. Tracy is literally buying popular and beautiful new friends, impressing them with her daring.

As in the two examples above, Tracy, Evie Zamora and Evie’s other friends are most interested in shoplifting items which will adorn their bodies and transform them into the sexy older women they aspire to be.

Teenage girls stealing clothes and fashion items in TV shows is standard fare. I’m sure this is partly why I was followed around stores as a teenage girl myself. Back in the 90s, shop assistants regularly barged in on you while you were trying on clothes in cubicles. (The Glassons at Riccarton Mall in Christchurch was terrible for that.) At least that particular awful rite of passage seems to have come to an end.

The character of Hanna in Pretty Little Liars is presented as a cool, calm, confident trickster when she shoplifts this pair of sunglasses, accomplished partly by charming a boy with less beauty privilege at the sunglasses counter.
This scene from Stranger Things is not dissimilar. Eleven literally has supernatural powers on her side. (Hanna has beauty and white privilege.)
Buffy and Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Want, take have”, says Faith, a line very similar to one in a children’s picture book: Wolf Comes To Town. This scene overturns the cliche of girls stealing clothes and makeup, but is a Riot Girl form of feminism in which girls just take what they want, macho style.
This might as well be a contemporary update of Eve daring Adam to steal the apple.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

This theatrical poster for the Chinese release of the 2018 Japanese film Shoplifters is divine.

Shoplifters Chinese film poster by Huang Hai
Shoplifters Chinese film poster by Huang Hai
Lemon girl young adult novella

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The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy Young Adult Novel Study

The Tricksters Margaret Mahy dark cover

The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.

A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.

These three iterations of the tricksters line up with Matt Bird’s head/heart/gut theory:

Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.)
Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love.
Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.

The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.

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The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame Analysis

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

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Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

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Sewing, Weaving and Spinning in Art

Man and Woman at a Spinning Wheel, Pieter Pietersz. (I), c. 1560 - c. 1570. Despite their individualized features, it is uncertain whether the depiction of this elegantly dressed couple was intended as a portrait. The scene nevertheless carries a clear message. The man holding a tankard is seducing the young woman, who stares directly at us. She must choose between the spinning wheel and the tankard, between virtue and vice.
Man and Woman at a Spinning Wheel, Pieter Pietersz. (I), c. 1560 – c. 1570. Despite their individualized features, it is uncertain whether the depiction of this elegantly dressed couple was intended as a portrait. The scene nevertheless carries a clear message. The man holding a tankard is seducing the young woman, who stares directly at us. She must choose between the spinning wheel and the tankard, between virtue and vice.
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The Toys of Peace by Saki Short Story Analysis

Pruett Carter (1891-1955) tree guns

“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.

Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.

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