Built among the myriad lakes of central Florida, Orlando is renowned for its balmy climate and sprawling theme parks. Chief among them is Walt Disney World, that great simulacrum of spires, fountains and roller coasters. Opened in 1971, the park was Walt Disney’s passion project, especially the EPCOT centre, which he visualized as a sort of Silent Running high-tech community. A decade later, the big ideas and even bigger facades of this American institution would inspire another man, Harold Schwartz, to realise his own project – The Villages.
Located just 45 miles northwest of Orlando, The Villages is the largest retirement community in the world. But this isn’t all beige décor and meals on wheels. It is a veritable theme park with 130,000 residents and more land than Manhattan Island. The theme in this case is not Mickey Mouse or Toy Story 2, but white picket Americana in the baby boomers’ image. Palm trees line the clapboard avenues, where residents mingle in bars, eat at restaurants, and partake in golf, Zumba, acting classes, or another of the countless activities on offer. Some will just run errands, whether it’s a trip to the bank or a check up at the clinic. Wherever the day takes them, it probably won’t be outside The Villages, which has everything a retiree could hope for.
Or does it? What is life really like in Pleasantville? That is the low-key question of Lance Oppenheim’s excellent documentary, which observes its subjects with little directorial intrusion. The subjects are Reggie and Anne, whose 40 year marriage is strained by Reggie’s drug-fuelled spirituality; Dennis, a caddish drifter who prowls for wealthy women; and Barbara, a lonely widow in search of love and excitement.
Each of them are on the emotional frays of the commune, the compound, The Villages, and their observations are sobering. “It’s comfort or freedom”, Dennis mutters, his voice soft yet gravelly, “you can’t have it both ways.” Dennis is 81 years old and lives in a van, having fled a DUI charge in California. He’s a parasite, but he blends in well with his fedoras, shorts and loudly patterned shirts. Impulsive and fickle, it’s easy to figure which way Dennis will have it.
What’s harder to understand is how Reggie and Anne have lasted 40 years together. Reggie has become a sort of new age guru and martial artist, practicing his rituals with total abandon. Anne, meanwhile, is a picture of restraint, tolerating even his ham-fisted court hearings for cocaine possession. However, as out there and inaccessible as Reggie has become, he’s probably the happiest person in this film. Should Anne have a toke of what he’s smoking?
By contrast there is Barbara, the documentary’s saddest presence. Blank in demeanour and expression, she drifts through The Villages, unhappy and introverted. A widow, Barbara is ready to move on, but she is yet to find inspiration. Sparks fly with one man, an amiable cocktail maestro, but it is plainly unrequited.
Oppenheim captures all of this witha keen instinct for story and pathos. His film is a poignant rumination on the sum total of not only their lives but ours, too. It shows that despite whatever aphorisms his subjects may dispense, there is little wisdom in age, little assurance; we chase meaning and satisfaction until the end. The film’s humanism is so resonant that even shots of geriatric dance floors are quite the affecting spectacle. These moments are, to quote one resident, examples of their collective ‘last hurrah’.
This humanism is enhanced by cinematographer David Bolen’s stunning, painterly aesthetic. Framed in 4:3, scene after scene is like a Polaroid in motion, rich in texture and colour. The last time a 25-year-old director collaborated this well with a DP, the year was 1941 and the film was Citizen Kane. High praise indeed, but Some Kind of Heaven earns it. It’s not only the prettiest documentary in recent memory – it’s one of the very best.