• Pretty Old the Movie is Pretty Wonderful

    By Marge Ann Jameson

    “So many people have so many stories,” says Walter Matteson, himself a teller of stories. “Verité documentaries often start out as one thing, and life happens. You’re constantly adjusting and developing as the story unfolds.”

    He is the director of a feature-length documentary film, “Pretty Old.” It’s about contestants in the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant, held in Fall River, MA. He says it took him a little less than a year to find his characters and their stories.

    But Matteson doesn’t tell their stories. They do. They tell them through their actions at the 2008 pageant and their frank discussions with the camera, and thus with us. We see them donning their sequined evening gowns and their talent contest costumes, and we hear about their aspirations and the roadblocks life has put in front of them. We watch them from the day they arrive at the Hampton Inn where the event is centered, and we go backstage as they practice their dance routines and have their hair and make-up done. We learn about their motivations and their pasts . . . and we fall in love with them – and the pageant — much as Walter Matteson must have. That much is obvious as we watch the camera caress these adventuresome ladies strutting their stuff on the pageant stage.

    He concentrates on four of the 30 women, who range in age from 67 to 81, going to their homes which include the Virgin Islands, Houston, TX,  and St. Paul, MN and and following them through the days of the tournament.

    Phyllis lost her husband to Alzheimer’s and has had a heart attack. She speaks frankly about her relationship with her late husband, saying they were “married lovers,” and describes his final weeks, and how she climbed into his hospital bed to receive a heartfelt late kiss from him, on her arm.

    Francis has been diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. She has faced it before, and continues to fight it, saying that she is not afraid of dying but worries about her 94-year old mother and her developmentally challenged son. She is a tap dancer.

    “You’ve got limits now, so what are you going to do?” one contestant asks. Tap dance, you want to answer. Don a Betty Boop costume and do a little boop-boop-e-do.

    Ida describes herself as a “late bloomer” and talks about what it was like to be an African-American woman growing up in Harlem. She is politically involved where she lives now in the Virgin Islands, and tells us that her husband is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She is frank, and she is brave, but apparently was not always so. She does stand-up comedy in the talent portion.

    The fourth, Tamara, says she is a “pageant junkie” who works hard at maintaining her beauty, but we learn that she is devoted to her community and to work in a local prison and her apparent vanity melts away as she tells a story about her early childhood and learn something of what makes her tick.

    We see pictures of them when they were young and beautiful – or partway through the film we decide we should say “younger and more beautiful,” because they, each one, shine from within with a beauty that surpasses their years.

    “We’ve still got it. It may be packaged a little differently, but we’ve got it,” says Ida White.

    And it’s evident that Walter Matteson recognizes that beauty. There is not a second during the movie when he drops the sense of awe or ceases to cast the spotlight on these women, even when we meet the founder of the pageant, Lenny “Low Price” Kaplan. Thirty years ago, he set it up as a fund-raiser for his Lions Club, and is the driving force behind it still. The pageant, says Kaplan, is about raising self-esteem “at an age when you think you’re finished.”

    “This pageant will die with him,” says an aide. “Who else could do it?”
    Matteson, 31, is a graduate of Pacific Grove High School. His parents, Walter and Darlene, own Matteson’s Auto Repair in Pacific Grove. Along with his father and grandfather, Walter the younger grew up doing artistic rollerskating, practicing 30-40 hours a week and traveling all over the United States performing in contests. But while in college, he realized that it was not going to be his life’s work. A friend saw his photos and encouraged him to do a documentary on artistic rollerskating, which he did — gaining a few screenings, but no distribution.

    His sister was working in New York and convinced him to go there and get work in the Tribeca Film Festival. Though he never got to do any personal projects at first, he did learn to do production work there and got to work under some “pretty famous” documentarians.

    In 2007, he was at a photography exhibit in Denmark and saw some photos by the Swedish photographer, Magnus Wennman. On his website, he says, “It was three senior women backstage at what looked like a Broadway show, and was a mixture between beautifully vivid textures of  skin tones with lights and glitter intermingled with a haunting reality of aging and a clinging to a past youth. For me there was something unexplainable about it and I couldn’t stop staring.”

    Matteson set about finding who the women were and what the pageant was about. “I wanted to bring those photos to life,” he says. He succeeded. In spades.

    It took a while to get the funding together to do the filming, and even longer to get more than 200 hours of film cut down to an hour and a half, but he had some very big names behind him . . . eventually. “It’s costing me everything I have,” he laughs. “If you’re doing a ‘passion piece’ you need someone else if the idea is going to sustain itself.”

    He was introduced to producer/actor/writer Josh Alexander, who in turn helped him with contracts and agents and eventually came into the project fulltime.

    “Josh knew that Sarah Jessica Parker had a production company so he approached her. They called back and said they were just talking about doing something about aging and beauty!”

    Walt sent her a rough cut and she invested at a fairly early stage. “Just her name opened doors,” says Walt. “Now we’ve been to the Santa Barbara Film Festival [and won first place, we might add] and the audience was so receptive. Having Sarah’s name elevates it to a level that even people who don’t know about the festival circuit and how it works will be interested.”

    Pacific Grove, you’re in luck. Matteson is looking to show it locally, including the upcoming Santa Cruz Film Festival and perhaps San Francisco. Distribution will begin soon if everything goes well. “But it isn’t about financial success,” says Matteson. “It’s about having gone down a path. It’s about relationships.” And wonderful stories, told with love.



    To see trailers and learn more about the movie, visit prettyoldthemovie,com or see their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pretty-Old/143317899012143?sk=wall


    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 27, 2012

    Topics: Features, Arts & Music, Marge Ann Jameson


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