For Josh Alexander ’97, filmmaking starts with a philosophical question. As many forgetful seniors do, he never declared his philosophy correlate, but has kept the subject in his work post-graduation.
This past Friday, Feb. 6, the Drama Department hosted a screening of Alexander’s award-winning film, “Pretty Old,” at Vassar. The film is about four 67- to 84-year-old women who participate in the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant in Massachusetts.
As a drama major while at Vassar, Alexander took advantage of the wide range of subjects and classes that Vassar students get to experience. He said, “I think that’s one of the great things about Vassar is that you’re really able to work across different departments and different subject matters and start to make connections, and I remember when I was even here that I would start to take a philosophy class and be writing a paper for that class, but also be writing a paper about an Ibsen seminar.”
Before deciding to pursue a career in the subject of his major, Alexander considered his other options which he gained from taking classes in different departments at Vassar. “I was a drama major, and then took a lot of philosophy classes…I kind of had a choice, I was actually considering going and getting a grad degree in philosophy at one point but then I thought ‘why not be an actor, there’s a better chance of making a living,’” he said.
Although he ended up choosing a path in the arts, Alexander didn’t abandon his interest in philosophy. He commented, “I do think that philosophy has had an impact on my career as a filmmaker, because any story that I tell in a film, I’m always coming to that narrative with questions that I want to try to ask or understand, and also, especially with documentary film, you’ll have thousands of pages of transcripts, and you’ll have to read it like text to try to piece together a story.”
Although Senior Lecturer in Drama Katherine Wildberger did not teach Alexander while he was at Vassar, she attended the screening of Alexander’s film this past Friday. “I saw the film and was there for the talk. It was a beautiful film that everyone should see. It deals with age in an insightful manner,” she said.
In his recent film, Alexander conducted interviews with the subjects of the film. He spoke on the process of these interviews, “I think that, with interviews, you always try to prepare questions and get as much preparation as you can when you’re going into an interview, but you really have to be willing to let the interview go where it goes, and that’s the gift of certain directors…people will reveal themselves, and if you come in there with a really clear idea of what you’re trying to get out of someone, then they’ll close up.”
When asked about dealing with the subject of his film and the challenges of ageism, Alexander noted the people he worked with who inspired his work. “I mean, it’s really easy to do like a…parody, or move off into sentimentality or sappiness, etc. or to even make fun of the women, and some people come to the film thinking that that’s what you’re going to do. Lenny, the founder of the pageant, has such deep love for all of these women, and such care and such thoughtfulness in how he treats them, that that was the bar we held ourselves to. As long as we were staying true to his own vision of what the pattern is, then we could do that,” said Alexander.
Professor of Drama Gabrielle Cody is not at all surprised about Alexander’s angle in his documentary. “I would expect from Josh that he would be focusing on really difficult issues that are politically difficult and complex,” said Cody. “And that’s who Josh is, Josh has always been very interested in contradictions and nuance and he’s an intellectually hugely curious human being and hugely engaged in the world. He’s a citizen of the world.”