Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
I’ve been thinking about older people. My dad turned 70. At the grocery store there are always old people on Wednesdays. It’s triple coupon day. The old man in the blue house doesn’t drive anymore. They took his license away. The Pope is an old person. Someday I’ll be old. But actually, most of the time, I don’t see a lot of older people.
In The Intern, Robert De Niro plays a retired widower. He says he wants to be a part of something, as he watches young suits at Starbucks discuss the day’s strategy.
It seems to me a lot of older people want to participate in society. When people retire, they talk about working in a flower shop, going back to school, helping those in need. They don’t want to disappear. Not yet. Inevitably they will leave us and we will take their place. But while they still have their minds, their teeth, their passion for life, they might want more than a senior citizen discount at McDonald’s. Some retired people want a destination, a time to be there, a sense of being needed. We so quickly sweep aside the older folks. “They’re slow, they’re tired, they pee on the floor.” Aren’t we supposed to treat the elderly with high regard? Aren’t we supposed to consult with the keepers of wisdom instead of ignoring them? Isn’t there a blind old man or crazy old woman on every young hero’s quest? Isn’t that in the stories of days past? If you seek advice, “Go see the old lady who lives in the cave in the mountain.” Of course, there are some old folks I would never visit in a cave in a mountain. And there are some old folks that are just tired. They want to hit golf balls. They want to watch Law & Order and eat toasted cheese sandwiches. Don’t go into their cave. They’ll bite you. But a body that has endured 70 years and still wants to live and share? Behold experience! Behold your Senior Citizens!
So De Niro is hired as an intern at an online clothing company. There is not a wrinkle on the floor where 216 employees sit in front of laptops and talk into headsets. De Niro is hired as part of a “do good” program hiring seniors as interns.
The movie starts with hints of age discrimination. The firm’s young CEO, Jules (Anne Hathaway), doesn’t want an old person as an intern. “Too much like my parents.” Someone comments to De Niro, “You must be tired, right?” A lot of industries phase out older people and replace them with younger, non-experienced ones. Old people become old because they are never around young people. I hear the older folks talk a lot about the sick and the dying, but that’s who they are surrounded with. Let them be surrounded by young people, let them have a meeting to go to or a client to tend to instead of going to John Doe’s funeral.
The Intern compares the old with the new. They reintroduce the props of “Old.” These props being objects some of us will miss forever, like the Briefcase. My Papa used to carry one. He filled it with butterscotch candies and pens and magic markers. It popped open like a treasure chest. De Niro pulls out a little clock. Portable clocks and big watches were other accessories for the older generation. My Papa would take off his watch at the end of a workday. He’d collapse into the couch and rub his wrist hairs free. He’d rest his elbow on a stack of Playboys as his hand shoveled mint chocolate chip ice cream into his mouth. De Niro also introduces his young colleagues to the appearance of the Gentleman. The young guys dress in sweatshirts and neglect facial hair. The old man wears a suit every day. He shaves every day. He brings a handkerchief every day (in case a lady should need it). And “doesn’t anyone tuck in their shirts anymore?”
Speed seems to be a requirement of the new generation. Talk fast, move fast, edit fast, and do it all at once. Jules’ assistant advises De Niro to talk fast when he first meets his boss. “She doesn’t like slow talkers.” I’ve encountered more and more of these fast talkers. It’s not easy to absorb their instructions when the words are propelled forward like a Serena Williams serve. I miss it every time.
The editing takes on speed too. (That’s not just in The Intern, but in most movies these days.) There are no deep breaths in the frame. The films today are hyperventilating. The shots die from a lack of air. Couldn’t anyone see they were cutting the classic looks from a classic actor? Couldn’t they hold on to four more frames so I could savor that eyebrow and lip tango, the elegant dip between facial expression and emotion that De Niro does so well?
Smartphones are the new cigarettes; texting the new nicotine. Jules has two phones and texts in the back of her car constantly. I was starting to get carsick. A young employee tries to apologize to a girl he likes through a text. “Sorry I slept with your roommate.” She doesn’t reply back. He asks De Niro for girl advice. De Niro gives that classic look (cut too soon) and the kid finally realizes a text isn’t enough. “I have to talk to her?”
The younger generation is a bit al dente. It’s a little hard and undercooked. De Niro’s character brings the gentle and soft side to this story. He brings the human side without devices, and buttons, and speed. His wrinkles and warmth light up the screen and bring more fresh air than a whole generation of youth. After watching The Intern, I felt I was sitting with a friend. I realized how many years I’ve sat with this friend. I realized how much I appreciate Robert De Niro. It’s been a privilege to grow up watching him perform.
De Niro’s character surprises Jules with compassion and thoughtfulness. He observes her needs and feelings. He makes use of “old school” techniques, which benefit all generations: listen and look. Actually now it’s listen and look up.
Hiring old folks as interns is a great idea. In every company that sells women’s clothes, in every hospital where there’s a playroom, in every office where young people sit changing the world, there should be a few desks, maybe even rooms – maybe we could say caves? – where the retired folks sit. And when we as new heroes need to find our way, we’ll climb the mountain and sit in the cave and have a conversation about the way things used to be, the way things are now, and the way the world might become if we listen to the past. Don’t forget the past, don’t forget the old man in a cave on the mountain.