So many people are living into their 80s these days that we've lost track of what an achievement it is. Here to rectify that situation is a pair of short documentaries by Andy Abrahams Wilson, who seems to have a special affinity for octogenarians. He must come by it naturally, given that his 87-year-old grandmother is the subject of one of the documentaries, Bubbeh Lee and Me. Utterly familiar yet uniquely herself, Bubbeh Lee is the kind of Jewish grandma who won't leave the house without her blond wig attached to her scalp. She has big hair, big glasses, big earrings and a burning desire to return grocery items that she deems not up to snuff. In the documentary's funniest scenes, this one-woman Consumer Protection Agency wreaks havoc on the produce aisle, picking individual bananas from several different bunches, discarding the rest, and cutting through red tape to claim a 73-cent return on some overripe peaches.
"Make a stand, put your best foot forward, and don't take any crap," Bubbeh Lee says when Wilson asks for her philosophy of life. And you can see how that pushiness has gotten her through the last 87 years, from Poland to New York to Florida, where she lives alone in a retirement community called Century Village. Proud of her ethnic heritage, Bubbeh Lee represents that whole generation of European Jews who made a new life for themselves in America. But life keeps throwing her curve balls. Wilson, who's gay, has already come out to Bubbeh Lee when the documentary's being shot, and she's still struggling with it. ("Is that carrot sweet?" she replies when he brings the subject up over dinner.) But her love's too strong to impose some "Don't Ask, Don't Kvetch" policy. As big as her hair and glasses and earrings are, her heart's even bigger, which may help explain why, well into her ninth decade, it keeps on ticking.
If Bubbeh and Me seems like a glorified home movie at times, Returning Home: Anna Halprin Dances in Nature is a poetic look at the legendary dancer/choreographer/ shaman, who's still kicking up her heels into her 80s -- well, not kicking up her heels so much as rolling around in the dirt. A pioneer in the blending of art and life, Halprin has spent years exploring dance's healing power (she credits it with curing her of cancer), its ritualistic power, its ability to help us put the "nature" back in "human nature." And Returning Home, which contains lengthy excerpts from performance pieces that show her not just communing with nature but merging with it, reflects her desire to shuffle off this mortal coil and begin her journey to the other side. No, that's not it. She loves being alive, loves her "beautiful old body," but rarely has an artist striven so mightily to put herself in touch with the earth's inner rhythms.
In one piece, she's lying in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, the waves lapping over her naked body, which is encased in an amniotic sac of webbing. Rolling toward shore, she could be the missing link between sea creature and land creature, amphibian and mammalian. In another piece, she's lying in the hollowed-out trunk of a fallen pine tree, the twigs and needles crackling like a campfire as she wriggles around. Here, she could be a vole or a termite. Or a woman. One could ask whether these pieces (which were conceived and designed by Eeo Stubblefield) do as much for us as they obviously do for Halprin. We have the urge to participate, not just watch. But they're so primordially strange that they open up a whole new way of seeing our role in the grand scheme of things. And death, which Halprin talks about, comes to seem, not like the end of life, but like a transition to a different kind of life, a return.
Wilson will be on hand to introduce and discuss his documentaries, which are screening at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21.