May 20, 2011

Humanity+ @ Parsons recap: How to Live Forever review

This past weekend at the Humanity+ @ Parsons conference in NYC I had a chance to attend the debut screening of Mark Wexler’s new documentary, How to Live Forever. The film chronicles Wexler’s struggle to come to grips with his mother’s recent death and his ensuing existential crisis. To help cope with his newfound dread, Wexler ventures down a number of paths that might help him achieve a longer life. To this end, he interviews centenarians, gerontologists, health and fitness gurus, anti-aging hucksters, and anyone else with an opinion on how to extend life spans.

Of interest to the transhumanist and radical life extension communities, Wexler talks to Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil, and Tanya Jones of Alcor. But in addition to this he is lectured on hormone therapy by Suzanne Summers, takes a stab at caloric restriction, and visits with elderly Okinawans in Japan. Importantly, he explores and treats each issue with a certain seriousness—tongue just so slightly in cheek—giving each person or approach its due consideration. And by doing so, he brings the viewer into each world in an entertaining way and and then let’s them make their own minds on the efficacy of each approach.

That said, the central thrust of the documentary is rather weak; Wexler’s struggle is clearly contrived, uninteresting and underdeveloped. Thankfully it’s the characters and insights into aging that give this film its spark. Every segment, location and person that’s explored by Wexler is a little gem that offers insights into both life extension practices and novel approaches to living a healthy life. Wexler offers some wonderful food for thought by juxtaposing a caloric restriction advocate with a glutenous food critic, by visiting a nursing home in which robots are used to comfort the elderly, and by highlighting the fact that the world’s oldest woman on record smoked, drank and lived alone until her dying day.

In the end, the film offers no real solutions. Its life-affirming insights, many of which are provided by Wexler’s best friend, are pedestrian and unsatisfying. The final shot of the documentary shows Wexler sifting through his dead mother’s paintings, as if to suggest that she lives on through her work. But as Woody Allen once coyly noted, the key to achieving true immortality is by not dying in the first place.

How to Live Forever is a wonderful introduction to the sub-cultures that are a part of life extension, but it skirts past some of the deeper philosophical and ethical issues that are integral part of the larger discussion. The result is a quaint but highly enjoyable film. Those looking for something more analytical, profound or scientific, however, will need to look elsewhere.

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