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November 3, 2006

One For the Ages

New doc Deeper Than Y illuminates the challenging -- if occasionally digressive -- realities of getting old in America

Few inevitabilities terrify me the way aging does. Slowing down, hair loss, impotence, blindness, increased sensitivity to everything -- the protracted phenomenon of losing control. I have yet to escape the denial that accompanied turning 30 in August, an event that signaled more warning than milestone, more admonition than commendation. Laugh all you want; if you've been there, then you know. If you haven't, then you will know.

As such, I had mixed reactions to Ilona Siller's new documentary Deeper Than Y, which opens a week-long run today at the Village East. Not because of its quality -- it's a warm, subtle and, yes, flawed film that nevertheless rewards repeat viewing -- but rather because of its philosophy that aging and getting old are not really the same things; one is a physical necessity, the other an emotional frame of mind. The film's tagline, "When you're young, age is just a number," phrases this dynamic with a sang-froid seemingly on loan from Hallmark, but the other obvious implication -- especially in the most candid of Siller's material -- intimates that throughout our lives, we're burdened with self-consciousness about the calendar's influence on who we are, how we look and how we feel.

So imagine this concept in the estimation of Siller's subjects, eight swimmers in their 70s and 80s (and one 93-year-old) whom the director met through teaching their daily water exercise class at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street. Siller conceived the film from the mix of songs she would play during class -- anything from Edith Piaf to The Beatles -- and the reaction it drew from her students. "I started wondering, just watching them move through the water, what they were thinking about," Siller told The Reeler earlier this week. "Myself, I have so many associations with music and the past. You know: ex-boyfriends' songs, or other things you grew up with. And I was wondering what kind of memories were coming to their minds when they were listening to this music. I did not, by any means, think they would agree to be interviewed, but they did. And that's how the movie was born. I really didn't have any expectations. I had specific questions I wanted to ask. I mostly wanted to find out for my generation -- people in their 20s and 30s -- what it would be like to get older: how it would be physically; how it would be emotionally; how their love lives are affected. And that's the direction we went with."

But she also knew from experience that the elderly had a higher likelihood of answering her honestly. Thus followed a succession of interviews whose revelations quickly subsumed any musical association, from the mildly banal ("I definitely will not go to heaven if there is no swimming pool," says the saucy writer Gerty Agoston) to the gut-wrenching ("He said 'You've got nothing to do but wait to die,' " says Ira Belmont, recalling a recent confrontation with a store clerk. "He wasn't so wrong.") to the refreshingly down-to-earth ("I was never famous, but I always worked," says former actress Dorothy Stinnette. "So I have no complaints about my life."). Siller intercuts curious archival footage intoning the roles of America's elderly among its young, sequences both challenging the viewer to consider the social impacts of aging and symbolizing the director herself as inquisitor. The sequences' period earnestness give way to the more contemporary doc abstractions of politics, sexuality and general anomie.

"I wanted the subjects to be as different as possible from each other, so there would be different opinions," Siller said. "So you have a Republican or a Democrat. You have someone who writes erotic novels and someone who was a homemaker. You have someone who is scared of dying and someone who is kind of looking forward to it. So I wanted to show every point, so when younger people watch it, they ask themselves which one they want to be. Would you want to be like Gertie? She has more energy than I do. Or do you want to be like Ira, who's more cynical about stuff?"

Even at only an hour, Deeper Than Y might be a little thin for the approach it takes, which Siller admits was a relatively safe one. She withheld some of her interviewees' most blunt statements, opting to emphasize qualities of life over any specific quality of life. I've seen this with plenty of first-time doc makers: Most recently, Maria Pusateri's otherwise strong Vito After -- about the health woes facing Ground Zero rescue workers (her police detective brother-in-law in particular) -- simply ends rather than face the family drama that could have followed Pusateri's continued inquiries about a city cover-up. Siller was more sensitive to the exploitation of her subjects, who second-guessed their own wrenching candor about family and infirmity after Siller reviewed their comments in the days that followed the interviews.

"The decision I made was to make it truthful, but not embarrassing," she said, acknowledging that playing it safe has probably impacted the film's distribution chances (she is self-distributing in New York). I wanted them to watch the film and for me to be able to look them in the eye afterward -- to remain close to them. That was more important to me. It's not a hard decision at all. I think it's still very much true, and I think the film has enough shocking moments where people think, 'Did they just say that?' "

Perhaps, but again, Siller intends Deeper Than Y as a more provocative exercise in self-actualization than narrative tension. And for the most part, it works despite its overall reluctance to break open its cast's fears, regrets and longings. Instead, as a study of where this cohort is now, the film reflects its viewers' own spectrum of apprehensions. Gerty, Ira, Dorothy and the others are pretty much ourselves; they DO know where the young are headed, and if it's not all good, it's at least all right. Not that we have any choice -- or, as Siller's swimmers hint, not that we would ultimately want one.

(Photos: Ilona Stiller)

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