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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
May. 20, 2011 | 2:07 PM

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When director Mark Wexler was interviewing legendary fitness guru Jack LaLanne for his new documentary, How to Live Forever, it appeared that LaLanne might do just that.  As one of the country’s most outspoken fitness and nutrition advocates, LaLanne had been preaching his own unique gospel of health for over four decades, and was still going strong at the age of 96.  Sadly, as Wexler’s film reveals, science may be making more significant anti-aging breakthroughs by the day, but death still has the upper hand for now.  LaLanne died earlier this year, but the footage of him in How to Live Forever offers one of many examples of people living life to the fullest.

Wexler’s urge to investigate the aging process starts with the loss of his mother.  A talented artist, Marian Witt-Wexler lapsed into depression after many of her works were destroyed by a canyon fire.  Her death inspired the director, who had just turned 50, to make a film investigating the many varied ways in which humans pursue longevity.

Many of his discoveries are surprising.  For every expected result, like the highly nutritious, low calorie diet in Okinawa, there’s one that startles.  We meet Buster, a 101 year old Brit who not only runs marathons, but seems to do it fueled by cigarettes and beer; a group of Japanese who are fighting off the specters of age using stuffed robot companions, and a couple of elderly women who claim their secret is “not eating meat and loving the Lord.”

Closer to home, Wexler secures interviews with such elder American icons as Suzanne Somers (a young 60), Ray Bradbury (87) and Phyllis Diller (90), all of whom seem to be aging with few signs of fear or regret.  Diller clearly believes in the healing power of laughter, while Bradbury comes across as a cheerful iconoclast who wakes up each day ready to go out “collecting truths.” 

In examining Science, Wexler also investigates schools of thought still in their infant stages. He pays a visit to the Alcor cryogenics facility in Arizona, where customers can have their brains or their whole bodies frozen for future re-animation.  This may seem like science fiction, but the whole body process costs a very real $150,000.  One customer reveals that he’s having a hard time convincing his wife to join him, but presses on in the hopes that he can become “part of history, and part of the future.”

Some attention is paid to the societal ramifications of an extended human lifespan.  Is the desire to live forever narcissistic, or simply an example of mankind ‘s evolving ingenuity?  What are the environmental consequences of eliminating death from the cycle of life? A few of Wexler’s interview subjects appear to have second thoughts about arresting the aging process, but the majority seem to agree that expanding life would be preferable.

How to Live Forever, while never less than engaging, occasionally stumbles when Wexler allows himself to become the focus.  The director is featured in the film a lot, both as interviewer and narrator, and there are moments of self-indulgence that could just as well have been left on the cutting room floor.  The film is at its best when it’s allowing its elderly subjects to speak for themselves, even as it comes to the only answer any of us have to the question of aging: “Wait and see.”

How to Live Forever opens Friday, May 20th at Laemmle’s Monica Fourplex in Santa Monica.  Director Mark Wexler will be present for audience discussion at several of the screenings this weekend.  For more information, visit the film’s website

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