Bodies age. Human bodies age. I believe I’m right in saying that the bodies of all living beings age—some much faster than others. We’re fortunate in that ours age relatively slowly. Or is that a blessing? It’s all, really, the blink of an eye…
Dare I add that bodies generally don’t become more beautiful? Despite the denial of some and the efforts of many, in our country these days, to delay or stall the process, the body continues stubbornly to age. There is, too, that familiar attempt to promote the idea that the aging body has its own particular beauties. It’s a judgment, of course, but I’m afraid I disagree. Faces, yes. Faces can grow truly beautiful with age. The eyes, I think, do not age at the same rate as the flesh surrounding them. But the body, sorry, no.
Take my own. I look in the mirror and I see a body less beautiful than it once was. (I’m speaking of the beauty of youth, not touting my good looks!) Despite my best efforts to control it, the girth expands and the belly droops with the natural force of gravity. Legs and arms, by contrast, seem to grow scrawnier by the day. The once resilient flesh begins to lose its inner elasticity, and wrinkles at the surface. Brown mottling and blemishes are everywhere. The hair grows grey at an alarming rate—and in alarming places.
I will refrain from showing you the picture. Words must suffice. And I say this not to denigrate myself in any way, but simply to be real, . I take reasonably good care of this vehicle I’m given to walk around in, and treasure such health and well-being it continues to provide me. I have no complaints. But yes, the body ages. You will not find me exposing its (debatable) glories at the beach so readily as I once did. And to be real is also to be honest, to be conscious, to acknowledge the truth. This, after all, is what I lay claim to be writing about: unearthing the truth, wherever I can find it.
I take note of this particular reality in the context of a film that Ellie and I watched with distinct discomfort the other night. It’s a German film called Wolke Neun (“Cloud Nine”) about Inge, a sixty-something woman who for thirty years has been reasonably happily married to her husband, Werner, but who now suddenly falls in love (well, lust, actually) with the mid-seventy year old Karl.
We are spared no detail of their bodies as we see them undress, and watch them making love through that slow, deliberate, lingering lens of the European camera. It’s at once quite lovely and unsettling—lovely because of the spirit of the thing and unsettling because their bodies are, well… old. They sag in all the expected places. They crease and wrinkle. They grow rapidly tired with exertion.
It’s wonderful, and right and proper, that older people should continue to love and care for each other’s bodies. The human desire for touch has no expiration date, to my knowledge, nor has passion, nor the desire for erotic experience or the need for sexual release—and I do not, please, exclude myself! Watching the movie, I sympathized with the film-maker’s earnest desire to show us that sex over sixty is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. That older people should not be afraid or reluctant to explore the needs and potentials of their older bodies. All those in favor? Aye.
Then, too, Wolke Neun is a slow and thoughtful movie, one that explores not only the physical but also the emotional and moral implications of the love relationship. Inge is a woman trapped between bliss and pain; Werner’s rage is palpable, as is his anguish. She cannot understand his inability to understand that her suffering is as great as his. He, of course, in the justice of his moral outrage, can’t understand how she could “do this to him.” They race along the tracks of their own destinies like the trains that Werner loves and which, for me at least in this German film, invoke that “unbeweltigte Vergangenheit”—that still-living but unconscious past—that gives the film a bass line of historical depth. These people are of an age to be carrying the dark burden of a rapidly receding past, nowhere overtly mentioned but rumbling in the background of so many scenes.
This is a part of the unsettling nature of the film. The other is those naked bodies. Both seem to be asking, are there things we should not see? Things we do not wish to be shown? Truths we do not wish to have revealed? Was T.S.Eliot right, suggesting that “human kind/cannot bear very much reality”? (“Burnt Norton,” in Four Quartets). The mirror offered me by the movie, as a man, does not flatter me. Far from it. It asks me to contemplate the persistence of sexual desire even as the body follows the course of nature. It asks me to contemplate the persistence of ego as both a driving force and a barrier between myself and others, a rock against which I continue to stub my toe. It asks me also to confront the extent to which that ego is contingent on the body I inhabit, and the reasons for which I dread the aging process.
These are not easy exercises in self-examination. If you rent this movie—as I believe you should—know that, if you are of our age or anywhere close, you’re likely to be as uncomfortable as Ellie and I, in watching it. The mind will undoubtedly come up with all kinds of good excuses to turn it off—like, “this is boring.” And indeed, it is slow, there is not much “action” here to keep you engaged or entertained. But if you can tolerate the reality of it, you’ll stand to learn a good deal about yourself. Perhaps more, even, than you would have wanted to know. Here's the trailer.