In Love for the Long Haul

As children, many of us learned the tale of The Tortoise and The Hare, thinking it was just a nice story about two cute animals. However, as we grew up, we began to develop deeper understandings of such morals as "Slow and steady wins the race," "Nice guys finish last," and "Stop to smell the roses."

To this day, the tales of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Ugly Duckling and Ferdinand the Bull give children hope for a future in which they won't be bullied, succumb to the ravages of an incurable disease, or be gunned down in the street by police who were supposed to be their friends and protectors.

For survivors, of course, longevity can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is wonderful to live through so many changes in civilization, scientific progress and take pride in one's accomplishments and offspring. On the other hand, old age can be a brutal experience filled with pain, poverty, depression and dementia.

A string of recent celebrity deaths made many people stop and think about how they want to live the rest of their lives. In happiness and health? In disgrace and despair? In isolation and indifference? Or with a concentrated effort toward building a sustainable future?

In an interview with Lindsay Abrams of, acclaimed marine biologist (and explorer-in-residence for National Geographic) Sylvia Earle described what it has been like over the course of the past 60 years to witness the destruction of the world's oceans as a result of acidification and industrialized fishing.

There are times when outlasting the competition (or the negative impact of forces beyond one's control) requires a tremendous amount of patience, goodwill and accepting the challenge to avoid becoming one's own worst enemy. For those who are lucky enough to gain wisdom as they mature, the memories of friends, family and colleagues who have died offers little solace.

Those of us who survived the AIDS epidemic learned a simple yet brutal truth. When people die (no matter how long they might have lived), one's feelings for them do not evaporate. Depending on the depth of one's love and affection, that person may reside in one's memory bank for years to come.

Two films recently screened for Bay area audiences gave new meaning to the old saying that "He who laughs last, laughs best." While one is based on a piece of Scandinavian fiction, the other is a documentary about a beloved actor and political activist who has led -- and continues to lead -- a most remarkable life.

* * * * * * * * * *

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been building a solid relationship with the Swedish Consulate. The happy result has been a steady stream of Swedish silent films as well as the impressive musical talents of the Matti Bye Ensemble. Last year's treasure was 1920's The Parson's Widow, a black comedy written and directed by Carl-Theodor Dreyer that becomes surprisingly touching at the end.


Poster art for The Parson's Widow

Based on an 1879 short story by Norwegian author Kristofer Janson, the film's roots lie in the tale of a mid-17th century parson's wife who outlived three vicars. The plot revolves around the fact that a handsome young seminary graduate named Sofren (Einar Röd) and his fiancée, Mari (Greta Almroth), are very much in love. However, until Sofren lands a full-time church job, Mari's father refuses to give his permission for his daughter to marry.


Sofren (Einar Röd) and Mari (Greta Almroth) are
eager to get married in The Parson's Widow

When Sofren and Mari arrive at a small Norwegian village whose church needs a new pastor, he discovers that two older men from Copenhagen (one skinny, one fat) have also applied for the job. Each applicant has been asked to audition for the job with a trial sermon. The first man's sermon quickly puts the church's congregation to sleep. The second man chooses a controversial piece of Biblical text for the subject of his sermon.

When Sofren is called upon to address the congregation, the handsome young student opts for a fire-and-brimstone approach to speaking which should, at the very least, keep everyone awake. As he tells the congregation:

"Two learned applicants have appeared here before me. One of them took us to Eden, and that is as far back as we can go. Let him stay there! The other one chose the text: 'Am I Not An Ass?' But what has an ass to do on the pulpit? My friends, I will not take you to Eden -- you are too clever. But I will take you to the bowels of the earth, deep in the roaring jaws of Hell!"

The fact that the women in the congregation are instantly smitten with the young theologian does not go unnoticed. However, there is one tiny detail with which Sofren must cope. Whoever is hired as the church's new pastor must marry Dame Margarete Pedersdotter (Hildur Carlberg), the old widow who still lives in the parsonage.

After wining and dining Sofren in her home, Margarete informs him that their marriage is a formality which will allow them to have separate sleeping quarters and lead separate lives.

When Margarete asks him if he has a fiancée, Sofren (who has taken note of the fine furniture, handsome clothing and healthy food that come with the job) lies to her, claiming that Mari is merely his sister. As the film progresses, Sofren and Mari find themselves waiting for an old woman who is nearly three times Sofren's age to kick the bucket. But Margarete is full of surprises.


Hildur Carlberg as Dame Margarete in The Parson's Widow

After Mari is injured in a fall, Margarete nurses the young woman back to health and reveals a long-kept secret about her first marriage. Her confession wins the respect, sympathy and love of Sofren and Mari such that, by the time Margarete dies, their relationship has been immeasurably strengthened.

Though The Parson's Bride is nearly 95 years old, it contains some solid laughs and moments of deep poignancy. If the acting occasionally seems a bit wooden and the print rather grainy, it still delivers a surprisingly satisfying story. Thankfully, a complete print is available on YouTube. Enjoy!

* * * * * * * * * *

Many actors are so busy dealing with the here and now of building and maintaining a career that it's hard for them to concentrate on the distant future. Will they end up doing character roles in their later years? Will health and family problems keep them out of the public eye?

Few could imagine such a rousing (and rowdy) second act as the one George Takei is currently enjoying. The man who portrayed Hikaru Sulu on television's original Star Trek series would, under normal circumstances, be happily retired. But at the age of 77, Takei shows no signs of slowing down. A former runner who met his husband (Brad Altman) through Los Angeles Frontrunners (a gay running club), Takei has found a new career as an Internet presence, a political activist and continues to find work as an actor.

A man whose deep and frequent laughter has proven to be a solid asset in his golden years, Takei speaks bluntly and with good humor about the challenges he has faced in life -- from spending his childhood in Japanese-American internment camps to the terror of living a closeted gay life for so many years while working in Hollywood.


Brad and George Takei

At present, Takei has more than five million fans following him on Facebook and Twitter, He frequently speaks out for marriage equality and LGBT civil rights, and is often heard as a guest announcer on Howard Stern's radio show. When conservative Tennessee legislator Stacey Campfield tried to prevent students from using the word "gay," the popular actor launched a counteroffensive campaign, encouraging people to say "It's Okay To Be Takei."

Often descrribed as Takei's legacy project is a new musical by Jay Kuo and Mark Acito about life in a Japanese-American interment camp. Following its tryout at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego (with a cast that included Lea Salonga and Telly Leung), Allegiance is still trying to raise enough funding to land on Broadway. In the following TED talk, Takei explains to a Kyoto audience what allows him to be an out and proud gay American after his childhood experiences.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, To Be Takei is remarkable for its subject's candor, good humor and his ability to wallow in the joy of finding a second career (as well as a deep abiding love with his husband) late in life. The filmmaker (who describes Takei as "like Barack Obama meets Mr. Rogers meets John Waters") was impressed with Takei's skills as a listener whenever he meets strangers. Among the delightful piece of trivia included in the press kit for Kroot's documentary are:

  • As a young actor, Takei did voice-over dubbing in English for films like Rodan and Godzilla Raids Again.
  • From 1973-1984, Takei served on the Board of Directors of the Southern California Rapid Transit District as it developed plans for the Los Angeles subway system.
  • In 1984 George Takei carried the Olympic torch during the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
  • In 2004, Japan bestowed the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette on Takei in honor of his contributions to U.S.-Japanese relations.
  • In 2007, an asteroid was named after Takei.
  • George and Brad Takei were the first same-sex couple to compete on The Newlywed Game (they won).
  • Since 2012, Takei has reviewed technology for seniors.

Whether discussing the challenges of being forced into an internment camp, his family's post-war poverty, his political activism, or the difficulties of working with William Shatner, Takei's resilience and cheerful personality never fail to shine through. However, what may surprise some of George Takei's most ardent fans is to learn about how his family survived in the 1940s and to see what an elderly married same-sex couple -- who are still very much in love with each other -- look like in their day-to-day activities.

Signing autographs at San Diego's Comic-Con International convention is one thing. But going for an afternoon walk together and sharing long drives is a lot closer to real life for America's golden agers. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape