Friday 14 May 2021

The living end: "Some Kind of Heaven"

I could be wrong - it could be pure coincidence - but the title of Lance Oppenheim's disarming documentary Some Kind of Heaven would appear to contain an echo of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris's comparably suggestive study of a Californian pet cemetery. Oppenheim has planted himself at the penultimate stop on that route: Florida's The Villages, conceived by its founder Harold Schwartz as "Disneyland for pensioners" and now America's largest retirement community, constructed of equal parts Floridian colour and cushioned comfort, and positioned at some distance from the rigours of the real world. (As one of Oppenheim's subjects puts it: "I don't see the slums, I don't see death and destruction, I don't see a lot of murders.") Its residents are cuddly old critters, either couples who've spent long enough together they can finish each other's sentences, or singletons - whether by divorce or bereavement - seizing the chance to swing again; some early footage of the dancefloor at a Villages speed-dating night serves as a jolting reminder that one of the biggest recent spikes in gonorrhea cases has been within the newly carefree over-65s demographic. Most of them display the tan that comes from spending long hours in the Florida sun, an orange glow of privilege they shared with the American President at the time of filming. All available evidence would suggest that many of these people, who are almost exclusively Caucasian, voted for him, not once but twice. Oppenheim, who is just 24, seems to realise early on that he has his work cut out trying to get his head around them.

One reason the movie proves so odd is that it's a film composed chiefly of the leisure that follows from being moneyed and detached from reality: lengths of the pool, low-octane volleyball, poolside line-dancing. Oppenheim's subjects not only travel everywhere on golf carts, they have the option of purchasing their own customised cart from a garrulous salesman in the onsite showroom. Here are people with infinite resources and nothing to do: a widow, Barbara, flips a page on an empty calendar before settling down with her cat to watch somebody else's wedding video on her tablet. There is an obvious poignancy to this, in that we're watching people living in the valley of the shadow of death; it's just that this valley comes complete with a nail salon and a bowling alley, and has an 18-hole golf course running through the middle of it. So this camera keeps alighting upon strange quirks. A seemingly upright retiree called Reggie, who would be played in any fictionalised version of Some Kind of Heaven by Frank Langella, confesses to an ongoing recreational drug habit, and winds up attempting to defend himself in the most disastrous court appearance you'll witness all year. (This, we surmise, is what happens when Village life collides with real life. It's a car crash.) We meet the Villages' resident itinerant, a bronzed, often unnervingly shirtless fellow called Dennis, who looks like Joe Biden's party-hearty younger brother, has fled an outstanding DUI violation in Cali, and now putters everywhere in a backfiring camper van he sleeps in by night. Amazingly, his mother is also still alive. What's in the water down there, and where on earth can you and I get some?

A roomful of Elaines; a late-life acting career launched by a monologue from the TV series American Horror Story. There is confounding human activity everywhere Oppenheim points his camera; his really is one of those documentaries that sees the world in a teacup, and something more in a flake of skin. The 4:3 framing is its own suitably eccentric choice, used to more sharply define the symmetries of the film's sight gags, to square up that which might otherwise seem bafflingly off-kilter. Yet the biggest quirk is that Oppenheim doesn't seem to have read the promotional literature on The Villages, or swallowed the sales pitch whole. Instead, he allows for the possibility that this community's residents might just be as bored, depressed, lonely, bamboozled, zonked or directionless as they might have been seeing out their days anywhere else on the planet. The risk in setting an ambitious young filmmaker loose on any retirement community would surely be gerontophobic sneering, yet Oppenheim looks on this world, and the people within it, with a slightly bemused affection that translates very easily to us as viewers. For starters, there's nothing insincere about that title, ironic as it might seem. The Villages is, clearly, some kind of heaven: it's the kind of utopia you build and end up in when you've lived your entire life within a system that's been designed to provide and keep a roof over the heads of a chosen few. (Note that Oppenheim never shows us the support staff who clean the pools and keep the golf carts running, only adding to the air of unreality.) Good luck to them, you find yourself thinking as the closing credits roll. But God knows what that system will have left to give by the time you and I reach retirement age.

Some Kind of Heaven is now streaming via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and Dogwoof on Demand.

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