Shannon Plumb (Towheads) Talks Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth

Being inside the new Sorrentino movie is guaranteed to make you ponder both your past and your present...

For two hours, I lived inside a song. It wasn’t too much music. It wasn’t too few words. I was inside the movie Youth by Paolo Sorrentino.

Youth is about two old men vacationing at a resort in the Swiss Alps. Michael Caine plays a composer named Fred. Harvey Keitel plays a Hollywood director named Mick. They are well into old age. They compare piss notes. They talk of not remembering, and they talk of remembering. They remember a woman named Gilda who they both wanted to sleep with. Fred can’t remember the voices of his mother and father. Mick says he can’t remember Gilda.

The naked bodies of young and old pass through the frame in saunas and pools. Breasts and bellies, cheeks and necks, the camera pans past wrinkled and smooth skin; a topographical map with a flesh-colored palette.

Even though young and old coexist, at some point they are separated. Like day and night. Like life and death.

I remember the day I was separated from the world of youth. It was the day coffee didn’t excite me anymore. My taste buds were not tickled to action. Something was wrong. It’s two decades since my first cup of coffee. That first cup was inspiration. I was in college, living on my own. I stood outside my class and lit a cigarette. Figure Painting 101. The smell of cafeteria coffee rose from my cup. I licked tobacco from my lips and took another sip. The leaves were falling on campus grounds. It was early morning and anything was possible. The coffee was telling me so. Birds were gloriously chirping. It was the first of my first coffees, and it was the Beginning. Nothing could stop me. I could become anything. I could become a painter who smokes and drinks cafeteria coffee. Or, I could change that idea in the afternoon and become a person who maps out traffic lights.

Now, I am sipping coffee and not tasting a thing. I drink it like I spit toothpaste from my mouth. Automatic. I’m hoping it will wake me up a little more. I’m hoping it won’t burn my stomach too much. That day, when coffee got boring, I was expelled from the world of Youth. Life became more complicated. The youth threatened me. Teenagers appeared with lots of teeth like the little creatures my son draws on clear, flat paper. I began to feel and look like the crumpled picture he just threw on the floor. Coffee used to be so good. What happened? I’d pass by a group of teenagers all laughing and pushing and roaring with enthusiasm. My eyes would roll and my brow rise up in protest. It was a reaction I had no control of. A sound from my mouth would escape like the sound of a moose stuck in the mud. What kind of allergy was this? I was about 38 when I lost my youth (a late bloomer). I used to get carded for matches. Now I didn’t have to tell anyone my age. Nobody cared. No one doubted I was older. Past my youth, past my prime. I entered the world of After.

Mick tells an actress in his latest production to look into the binoculars. We see a close-up of a Swiss mountain through the viewfinder. You can almost touch it. “This is youth,” he tells her. Then he adjusts the viewfinder and tells her to look again. The mountain is very far away. “Everything seems far away when you are old.”

Fred and Mick lived their lives consumed by work. They neglected their family in order to pursue their dreams. Now they look back with some regret. It seems Love was never enough. Love for family or even love for work got complicated and destroyed. Fred’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz, tells him in a perfectly delivered monologue what a bad father and husband he was. After so many affairs and so little affection to his children, it was clear that being a composer was priority. He agrees with his daughter. “You’re right. Music is all I understand, ’cause you don’t need words or experience to understand it. It just is.”

Love as simple as red yarn, youth as simple as peppermint candy. I guess it just gets complicated, like Christmas. It’s simple when you’re getting presents. It’s complicated when you’ve gotten everything and don’t know what to ask for.

Mick says in a defeated voice, “We’re all just extras.” We work hard for the Big Picture. Life seems like a knitted sweater. In your final days, you fiddle with your threads. You pull a loose one and all your hard work comes undone.

“What makes us alive is our desire,” says Paul Dano, as actor Jimmy Tree. “So pure, so impossible, so immoral.” We can never achieve all that we desire because we’ll always desire more. Youth is a great tease because you never know if you’ll get all that you want. In old age, you find out. Desire is just some psychological ploy by Mother Nature to get us out of bed in the morning. Coffee beans are a part of her manipulation, too. Mother Nature wants us to keep building, and dreaming. Youth is for dreaming impossible things. Old age is for remembering those dreams. Mick gets down on his life’s work. He feels insignificant. Jane Fonda, as an aging screen icon, tells him, “Life goes on even without all that cinema bullshit.”

Fred’s most well-known work is called “Simple Songs.” He says to his wife, “They must never know that we liked to think of ourselves as a simple song.” I sat in the audience at the end of Youth and thought about love. I thought of the people I loved, thought of my arms around them, thought without words, without Before and After, thought of us enveloped in a simple song. And maybe, on that last day, embracing love is all that matters.

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 and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.