'How to Live Forever', If You Really Feel You Must

While Mark Wexler’s pursuit of immortality takes him all over the world, extending one’s life emerges as a peculiarly Western, and especially American, obsession.

How to Live Forever

Director: Mark Wexler
Cast: Jack Lalanne, Ray Kurzweil, Suzanne Somers, Ray Bradbury, Phyllis Diller, Willard Scott
Distributor: Docurama
Rated: Not rated
Year: 2010
Release date: 2012-06-05

From biogerontology, laughter yoga, and small molecule drugs to the Ms. Senior America pageant and neurobics, How to Live Forever documents the science, pseudoscience, lifestyle coaching, and gimmickry of the longevity movement. Director Mark Wexler also offers a generational and personal perspective on the subject, through a candid view of aging Baby Boomers’ struggles with mortality, and his own mid-life crisis triggered by the death of his mother.

While Wexler’s pursuit of immortality takes him all over the world, extending one’s life emerges as a peculiarly Western, and especially American, obsession. For the first time in history, it seems, people who aren’t completely delusional believe that lengthening the human lifespan by tens if not hundreds of years is within reach, and many want to join the anti-aging vanguard.

Among them are biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a former computer scientist, and the irritatingly ubiquitous inventor Ray Kurzweil. Both embrace a mechanistic view of life—de Grey declares aging to be “a repair and maintenance problem”—and in the cocksure belief that scientists will soon engineer the elusive elixir of youth, both ignore the philosophical and environmental ramifications of large numbers of people exceeding their threescore years and ten.

Surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland calls “life extenders” like de Grey narcissistic, and speaks of the debt we owe to future generations to shuffle off this mortal coil on schedule. He’s drowned out by the slogans and catchphrases of the true believers. “The good old days are this second!” cries fitness guru Jack LaLanne, still clad in his signature jumpsuit, as he leads Wexler through a routine of restorative power walking. “Hormones are the juice of youth!” effuses a creepily perky Suzanne Somers, who ingests a battery of them every day. “Not just designer babies, but designer Baby Boomers”, Kurzweil lectures. (The idea of an immortal Kurzweil fills me with dread.) At least LaLanne admits he’s a salesman.

It all takes a toll on poor Wexler, whose emersion in what Dr. Ron Klatz calls “the anti-aging marketplace” renders him desperately aware of his own age and diminishing capacities. What really rattles Wexler, and here the 50-something expresses the quintessential Boomer fear, is becoming “uncool”.

Wexler’s interviews with the aged, though they offer mixed messages on the secret to a long life, comprise the best sequences of the film. Zenei Nakamura, 92, an Okinawan fisherman, still works in the traditional way, setting his nets in a wetsuit and goggles, without the benefit of scuba gear. Cardio-thoracic surgeon Ellsworth Wareham, 94, continues to scrub in every day, relishing the social interaction of the operating room. Pugnacious Buster Martin, 101, who works washing vans for a London plumbing company, enjoys a pint and a smoke, runs marathons, and performs in an a cappella rock group. All three exhibit remarkable physical health and mental acuity.

The other side of 100 is less uplifting. Frail Edna Parker of Shelbyville, Indiana, at 115 the world’s oldest human when the film was made—understands some of Wexler’s questions, but mostly babbles to herself as she sits in a wheelchair in her retirement home.

It falls to Wexler’s good friend, travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer, to help the director emerge from his funk. Echoing Nuland’s critique of de Grey and others, Iyer sees the desire for longevity as a “craving” analogous to the indulgent behavior of a child who can’t accept limits, and he encourages Wexler to acknowledge his.

Poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch wonders if artists don’t strive to create enduring works of art so that they can be sure something 'of them' will outlive them. Wexler closes How to Live Forever with this ancient, sobering, yet comforting notion. He moves towards accepting mortality—his own and his mother’s—when he decides to go through a storage container full of his mother’s things, including a number of her canvases. Shots of his mother’s paintings, many quite beautiful, provide the backdrop to the credit sequence. It’s a tacit rejection of the life-extenders and an invitation for viewers to make their own peace with death. Take heed, Boomers.

DVD extras include extended interviews and a few sequences with people who didn’t make the final cut of How to Live Forever, including Michael Palin, who eloquently praises the “uneventful” life, one full of work and purpose. We also learn that Kurzweil takes 150 supplements a day, in an effort to survive until science can preserve him indefinitely for the enrichment of future generations.


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