Sunset Story

In a Q&A session after the premire of her 2003 PBS documentary, Sunset Story (PBS discussion site), Laura Gabbart reports that she originally wanted to make a film about Sunset House, a Los Angeles retirement home for free-thinking elders. Gabbart hoped to elicit stories from these veterans of various progressive causes, but instead found another story, the friendship of two of Sunset Hall’s residents, Irja Lloyd and Lucille Alpert. Within the details of their friendship, Gabbart was able to tell a powerful, moving story that touches on some difficult questions, perhaps most importantly, the challenges of aging, espcially in a culture that often seems dominated by a fear of aging. At the same time, the film conveys Lloyd and Alpert’s continued political commitments and their struggle to remain politically active despite their health problems.

The residents’ political commitments are still very clear and very much a part of their daily lives. Lenin’s collected writings are on the bookshelves. Residents such as Irja put up posters with messages such as “Free Mumia,” with Irja and Lucille worrying at one point that the staff at Sunset Hall should receive better pay. There are several shots of Irja and Lucille attending political rallies in support of women’s rights or labor unions, in scenes that are both inspiring–their continued commitment to political struggle–and disheartening–Irja’s comment that after fifty years, they’re still fighting many of the same battles (she jokes at one point that she should have saved all of her old signs because many of the slogans haven’t changed). The two also wander the halls of the retirement home together, Irja in her wheelchair, with Lucille using the chair as a kind of modified walker, with Irja checking with her friend before starting off, “Are we connected?”

Gabbart’s documentary isn’t cautious when it comes to showing the struggles that many eldery people face, particularly their virtual invisibility within contemporary culture. A high-angle shot of the home’s residents, gathered outside on the sidewalk during a fire drill, conveys the Sunset Hall residents’ outsider status, as Manohla Dargis points out. Other shots convey the physical struggles the residents face on a daily basis, with the 95-year old Lucille, in declining health, complaining about how exhausting it is to receive so many phone calls from family members checking on her (though she’s also aware enough to note that she’d complain if they didn’t call). Like Dargis, I sometimes wondered if shots of residents lost in dementia were needed and occasionally found those shots to be potentially exploitative. The documentary mixed talking-heads interviews, generally with Lucille and Irja, and observational footage of the home, but because most documentaries are really documenting an encounter between filmmaker and subject (not simply the subject itself), I would have liked a greater sense of the people behind the camera and their motivations for representing things as they did. It’s clear the filmmakers are sympathetic with the men and women in the home and that they engedered a great deal of trust with their subjects, but a clearer sense of that collaboration might have resolved some of my qualms.

Dargis also notes that because of the filmmakers’ decision to focus on the personal story of the two friends, the documentary only discusses the history of Sunset Hall, which was founded in the 1920s by the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, in passing. The retirement home has often struggled financially, and according to an LA Alternative Press article, the home currently faces an uncertain future, and while I think Gabbart’s film has told an important story, I would have liked a little more emphasis on the challenges Sunset Hall has faced in keeping its mission alive. But, in general, Sunset Story is at its best when celebrating the strength of these two women and the importance of their friendship, emphasized by the newly poignant repetition of Irja’s question: “Are we connected?”

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