With certain, probably obvious exceptions, documentaries should automatically lose several credibility points when the director shows up in front of the camera, thus rerouting attention away from their (hopefully) fascinating subject and onto their decidedly un-fascinating personal bullshit.
Documentarian Mark Wexler’s slight saving grace, and despite the odd cheesy reaction shot during interviews, is that he’s too bland a screen presence to totally upstage the topic in How To Live Forever, his survey of the many ways humans deal, or pretend to deal, with encroaching death.
At the film’s genesis, Wexler (son of famed cinematographer Haskell; he made Tell Them Who You Are, about his dad) has just turned 50 and his mom has died. His thoughts turned to mortality, he quickly ditches his personal baggage and, mind open, casts his net wide. His crew visits the chipper participants at a funeral directors convention, as well as various olds, including the stubborn member of a geriatric band and the now-late Edna Parker, who at 115 was once the oldest person on earth. AARP members challenge their middle years by participating in a beauty pageant for seniors, while others try to beat aging: Suzanne Somers and nanogenarian fitness guru Jack LaLanne through exercise, various Japanese interviewees through healthy eating, others through cryogenic freezing. Futurist Ray Kurzweil talks about how we’re on the cusp of an “ageless society,” where technology will extend life or at least consciousness; others point out that immortality only means we’ll have more time to waste.
How to Live Forever pulls in dozens of directions but emerges with a specific lesson: the key to a long, or at least productive, life is a positive attitude and lots of activity. Faintly acknowledged, but never explored, is the idea that positive attitudes often require delusion of some sort, whether it’s denial of the true self or ignoring the pain of others. The trade-off of Hexler’s mega-optimism is a very low bullshit detector, which means he gives a free pass to a clan who think all illnesses can be cured by mere healthy living, a practice that’s at the very least questionable. Of course, in the film’s estimation, being critical or skeptical is exactly the kind of activity that will kill you stone dead.