Berkeley film focuses on cosmetic surgery

By Peter Crimmins Daily Planet Correspondent
Thursday March 22, 2001

When “Forrest Gump” was released to wild box office success in 1994, the title character was poised to represent the soul of a generation: a man who bumbled his way through every major historical event and cultural trend for 30 years.  

Isn’t it unfortunate that the slightly touched Forrest seemed oblivious to the world at large? 

Odd, because the post-war Baby Boomers are one of the most self-aware generations in history. They have had as much impact on the world as the world has had on them. Their mirror is a cultural barometer. And in that mirror they now see wrinkles. 

“I look at myself as an EveryBoomer,” said Berkeley-based filmmaker Elizabeth Sher, whose hour-long documentary “Thinner, Younger, Smoother” will be broadcast on KQED-TV at 10:30 p.m. The video looks at the cosmetic surgery industry that has grown exponentially alongside the now-aging generation – once-dangerous teenagers – with pesky crow’s feet and love handles. 

Sher, who had earned a graduate degree in fine arts at UC Berkeley and now teaches at the California Academy of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, included herself in her own video, rooting the exploration of the plastic surgery market in her own decision-making process to tightening up the bags under her eyes.  

But with testimonials from surgery patients, interviews with doctors, humorous clips from pop culture ephemera, and man-on-the-street commentary, Sher shows she is not alone in her concerns; that liposuction is not merely navel-gazing. 

“What I think is interesting is that it didn’t come out of nowhere,” Sher said.  

The film traces the advancement of plastic surgery techniques in tandem with the marketplace that is willing to buy them. 

An injection of Botox, for example, has been used for 20 years to induce controlled muscle atrophy. Now, at a beauty salon in Sausalito the image-conscious consumer can attend an informal cocktail party once a month and get Botox injections to remove lines from a worrying forehead. 

People think a furrow in their brow makes them look angry, Sher said. “But you don’t really look angry. You have a line in your forehead.” 

Candid interviews with people on the street, conducted by Berkeley’s Man-On-The-Street legend Mal Sharpe, reveal the physical effects of age are not a burden to be borne willingly. Tightening, tucking and sucking are common considerations for a demographic looking for ways to stave off aging. 

The film illustrates its points with quick snippets from American film and television of the 1950s and 1960s.  

Images of starlets and sitcoms evoke the historical context of the Boomer’s image of themselves, and the cultural flotsam that once formed their young minds. They also add a note of humor to personal testimonials and expository interviews, cuing the audience that this stuff is not without humor. 

The nature of the subject matter even undermines the shopworn documentary technique of the talking-head interview.  

What is normally a bland-but-necessary filmmaking habit of shooting a person talking about something the camera cannot see, these interview subjects are talking about their own faces. When a person scrutinizes his own forehead or her own cheekbones (a practice usually reserved for the privacy of a bathroom mirror), the viewer gets to scrutinize right along with them.  

And, yeah, that guy in Sausalito really does have a high forehead, now that you mention it. 

When exploring the self-awareness, the self-image, and self-importance of a generation, the medium becomes the message. 

Peter Crimmins is the producer of "Film Close-Ups” on KALX radio in Berkeley.