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Alienation and Idleness in Paradise
March 10, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

The HBO documentary King's Point focuses on something I can speak directly about — the legions of gray retirees in South Florida. I grew up surrounded by their pastel-colored apartment complexes and their creased, crackled suntanned faces. I watched old men gather around the shuffleboard courts and aging ladies stuff their purses with pink Sweet'N Low packets before exiting the deli.

It's that same sort of personal reference that makes Sari Gilman's documentary so interesting to watch. Gilman spent thirty years visiting her grandparents at the Delray Beach retirement village, during her formative years as a child and a filmmaker. The result of her attention, which debuts Monday, March 11 at 9 p.m. ET, is a loving but unblinking look at emigrating to what appears to be a comfort of green golf courses and swimming pools, but is a place fraught with alienation and idleness.

Gilman's narrative (which was Oscar nominated for Best Documentary Short for 2012) features a half-dozen of King's Point long-time residents. Many moved there in the early '70s, fleeing an increasingly crime-ridden New York City for warm winters and a relaxed lifestyle.

Days at King's Point are filled with social activities, attended by an unbalanced number of men and women, impeccably groomed in coordinated cotton separates. There are dances, music and card rooms. "You're alone, but you're not alone. There are people around and there's always something to do," says Jane, who smiles a lot, and who truly seems to love the lifestyle, even after losing her husband, Manny, the year before she was filmed for the documentary.

But despite the Mahjong games and shuffleboard courts, King's Point reveals King's Point's main commonality: loneliness and the lack of real connection. Most residents are separated from their families, and many are widowed. They live without meaningful companionship, and struggle to fill the empty days. For many, entertaining outings have been replaced with weekly trips to doctors. Competition is high for social acceptance and reliable friendships. True caring and compassion is at a premium.

Says long-time resident Mollie, "Not everyone feels very good, and not everyone wants to hear what the next one has to say. In other words, I don't want to know your complaints. I have my own. And nobody means it, they really don't mean it. I know I don't mean it. But ... you just don't want to hear something that is not very good anymore. Self-preservation is number one."

Mollie clearly realizes the choices she's made, and the consequences she now lives with: she's built a life in Florida, and feels she is too old to move back north, where her children are, to start a new life and make new friends and connections. She says, "I don't know how content any of us are. But I think we've all made our understanding, we've all made our peace, and we know what it is. You try and fill your days as best as you can."

To her credit, Gilman and her crew have found an uncanny visual poetry in the seemingly low-rise banality of the South Florida landscape. They also find drama at the heart of an ambiguous relationship between a widow and widower. But at its core, King's Point is a tender and sad story about the failures of segregating groups from each other, and isolating individuals from diverse communities that offer a wider range of activities and friendships. The irony of the modern retirement community is that the decision to gather with like-minded individuals who fall into common cultural and economic demographics is what helps foster loneliness and alienation.

Says Gilman in a press release, "it is their lives and their voices that, for me, have come to represent the universal longing for human connection, and the complexities of aging in a society that extols the virtue of self-reliance."

And that's the true shock of getting old: it's not being sick, or even coming to terms with the end of life — but the idea of doing it alone.

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I really wanted to see this after reading your review, but I don't get HBO. I did mention it to a couple of people in passing, and they said that they were going to be watch it, so I posted your link for them to read, and to ask for their comments.
I hope to see it one day.
Mar 19, 2013   |  Reply
Lovely, bittersweet piece, Eric. Thanks.
Mar 13, 2013   |  Reply
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