Directed by Lina Plioplyte
Produced by Ari Seth Cohen
Now playing at NYC’s Quad Cinema. Available on VOD and DVD October 7th. Learn more – here
“Charming and uplifting but overlooks the downsides of getting older.” That’s what I’d just written in my notes three quarters of the way into Lina Plioplyte’s ‘Advanced Style,’ a trim new doc about aging female Manhattanites who have held onto their fashion senses and all-around vitality as they’ve gotten older. Glorying in colorful ensembles and sunny philosophies, Plioplyte’s doc was just up on life in a way that, while infectiously charming, seemed to willfully ignore the wrinkles and aches and hospital stays that come with age. But then the film just changed. “Advanced Style,” it turned out, wasn’t ignoring anything. Like its subjects, it had vitality and hidden depths that one might not expect from something so breezy and festive.
But let’s backtrack. Several years ago, blogger Ari Seth Cohen launched the blog Advanced Style as a way to feel closer with his grandmothers. Posting photos of stylish women aged 50 or over (often well into their 90s), his blog became unexpectedly popular. Not surprisingly, a lot of people like the idea that women can still be joyful and expressive as they get older.
Cohen, who produced “Advanced Style,” is only a small part of the film, as he should be. Like the blog it’s named after, “Advanced Style” is a documentary about women with terrific dress styles and a general joie de vivre. Appropriately, the film showcases a mélange of loud fashion choices and out-there personalities. But even in its early goings, what makes “Advanced Style” more than just a charming curiosity is its effort to obliterate the idea, all too prevalent in modern media culture, that joy and creativity are the province of the young. The women of “Advanced Style” show us that, shockingly enough, aging women can keep being happy so long as they hold onto their passions.
Thanks to its colorful subjects, the film is frequently hilarious. Take Lynn Dell Cohen, the endlessly talkative and bracingly up-front 79-year-old owner of the uptown clothing boutique Off Broadway. In one scene, she chastises a deeply uncomfortable customer for marring the appearance of her “beautiful breasts” by cleaving them apart with the strap of her handbag. Another memorable subject is Jacquie “Tajah” Murdock, a tall, regal African American 81-year-old who, in her youth, danced at the Apollo Theater. Revisiting the Apollo more than six decades later, she acknowledges that “dancing at the Apollo was the highlight of my life.” But she’s wistful about her past without also despairing over her present. For good reason—she just got booked as a model in the latest ad campaign of the Paris fashion house Lanvin. Of course, all of Plioplyte’s subjects know their fashion backwards and forwards, and don’t hesitate to wax rhapsodic about their outfits.
All this adds an important element to the conversation on aging, reminding us that getting older need not be the death of joy. But at the same time, willfully deemphasizing the bad in favor of the good doesn’t exactly enrich that conversation…Which brings me back to where I started. Plioplyte, to her credit, recognizes all of this. On the heels of the film’s good cheer comes a decidedly less upbeat third act: Lynn has a brush with death after a gallbladder rupture, and reaffirms her passion for life toward the end of a multi-week hospital stay. Jacquie reveals that she is nearly blind from Glaucoma; scanning the photographs of talented performers that blanket the walls of the Apollo’s hallway, she laments that she can’t see their faces. And 95-year-old Zelda Kaplan, Plioplyte’s eldest subject, collapses and dies at Lincoln Center during a show at New York Fashion Week.
This material is all the more powerful because the film has lulled you into thinking it wasn’t coming. Just when you’re feeling generally pleasant, suddenly you’re thinking about life’s briefness and fragility. It’s an elegant trick that somehow doesn’t undo any of the film’s brighter sentiments. Instead it reinforces them, hammering home the urgency of maintaining passion and positive attitudes in the face of advanced age: Without those, what are you left with during your older years? As in a great fashion ensemble, the film’s unexpected darkness complements its sunnier elements. And when all’s said and done, a brief, funny, and colorful doc about fashionistas and socialites has somehow landed resonant statements about aging and mortality.
— David Teich