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Book Review: The Becoming of Age

The Becoming of Age: Cinematic Visions of Mind, Body and Identity in Later Life. By Pamela H. Gravagne. McFarland and Co.: North Carolina and London, 2013.

The-Becoming-of-Age-Cinematic-Visions-of-Mind-Body-and-Identity-in-Later-Life-14960615-7Pamela Gravagne, who teaches courses in age and gender studies, does not have time on her side. Members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed the “Greatest Generation” slide away by the thousands each week, and BabyBoomers are starting to draw Social Security.  The pressure of demography plus the skill of her presentation make The Becoming of Age significant.

The Becoming of Age features a seven-page bibliography and six pages of informative chapter notes.  The book’s filmography consists of fifteen entries.  Some of the films did fairly well at the box office and might be familiar to casual filmgoers, others less so.  Films used in Gravagne’s analysis include: Iris (2001), Calendar Girls (2003), Something’s Got to Give (2003), Up (2009) and Gran Torino (2009).  Gravagne is very clear about her belief in the power of film. These films stand as both a record and a map.

They matter not only in the sense that they influence the way we think about

our lives, but also… they shape the very material stuff of our bodies and

their relationship to the rest of the material world….I argue that these

pictures and stories matter because they actually constitute both our

understanding and our lived experience of what it means to grow older-

our becoming of age. (1)

As a culture scholar, Gravagne’s analysis presents four approaches toward aging, the first of which is essentialism.  This is a view of aging that ties growing old to certain observable, inevitable behaviors and conditions.  Such analyses are stories of inevitable decline. Second, there is social construction, the approach that maintains our attitudes are culturally influenced, though the aging process is varied and indeterminate. Her third category combines essentialism and social construction.  What is inevitable about aging only seems to be so due to earlier social construction. Attitudes and conditions can be changed.  There is, finally, a collapse of the distinction between essentialism and social construction.  Our knowledge about aging and old age come through a continuous process of knowing and becoming.  This attitude is the one favored by the author and presented as a goal for the future.  Alas, this attitude is seldom to be found in the films Gravagne analyzes.

This slim (186 pages) volume is composed of six sections. The first chapter is a consideration of social science theory about old age.  Subsequent chapters feature her perceptive film criticism. Chapter two is about masculinity and decline.

The next is about the silence and invisibility of older women in films.  A chapter follows on the persistence of desire in both older men and women. The fifth chapter deals with contemporary presentations of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and senility in various films. Gravagne concludes with an essay on what she hopes will result from the study of aging as seen in films, namely that we will see the process of “becoming” as life is “ a continuous and entangled process of becoming, involving agency, growth, connection, and the remaking of the self at any age….”(12)

The Becoming of Age is a worthwhile addition to individual and institutional libraries.  It is an introduction to the scholarship on aging and a well-written analysis of a new and relevant film sub genre.

Amos St. Germain

Wentworth Institute of Technology


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