Yesterday, in a nod to the way-too-short spring break that is coming to an end, I spent the afternoon at the movies (an act so reminiscent of Saturday afternoons of my childhood at the local theater). The show: Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s film about a musicians’ retirement community. Critics complained about the film’s maudlin quality, as the reunion of two once-married opera singers provides a thin story line. Audience reviews on “Fandango” are much more positive. And I would agree. It is not the story, so much, as how well the film captures a particular retirement situation (or seems to, given how much of my father’s descriptions of life at “Senior Commons” I see in this story). Maggie Smith’s character, on arrival, calls the place a “prison” and hides in her room. The trivial annoyances when someone else makes the choices for you – apricot jam for breakfast instead of the preferred orange marmalade. The various manifestations of physical ailments and limitations. The tremor among the residents when one of them is taken away to hospital. But against these negatives the film honors the expressions of “community” among the residents that appear as they plan a benefit to celebrate Verdi’s birthday and rehearse for this performance. Community also in the myriad ways they acknowledge each other’s unique strengths and weaknesses and support each other as they come to terms with losses in old age.
I think the scene I valued most, however, was the exchange between Reginald, the retired opera singer, and a group of teenagers (students from a local high school? the reason for their presence in the home isn’t entirely clear). Reginald’s task is to explain opera to a generation versed in rap and hip hop. His description mesmerizes the young people (would that my students might be so mesmerized, but … Quartet is fiction). One of the students then demonstrates for Reggie the power of rap through an impromptu interpretation of Reggie’s words. This scene illustrates for me the value of reciprocal teaching and learning at any age; it also complicates the place of age in our definitions of teacher and student. The generous give and take of this scene may be utopian fiction, but as a reminder to embrace opportunities for interchange whenever and wherever they appear, it holds a compelling message.
See this film if you can. It’s short, it’s sweet, but it comes with the bite of reality.