The daughter of a plastic surgeon, award-winning filmmaker Mitch McCabe has a particularly personal connection to the multi-billion dollar industry she investigates in her new documentary film Youth Knows No Pain. Before the film premieres at the Film Society on Tuesday April 28th at 6:30 as part of Independents Night, the filmlinc blog interviewed the filmmaker, who is also New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films veteran.
How do you think attitudes about plastic surgery are changing and to what do you attribute that change?
Mitch McCabe: Whether it be growth hormone, anti-oxidant diets, $500 creams claiming to change your cells, Botox or the knife, there’s a huge market for anything tied to anti-aging or “reversing the clock.” My dad died in 1998, four years before Botox was approved by the FDA, and I know that the accessibility and affordability of Botox changed everything. When my dad was a practicing plastic surgeon, cosmetic surgery was a bit hush-hush, and limited to upper middle class. That’s not the case anymore.
But the most important theory I heard repeatedly from doctors and psychologists alike, is that we are an aging society. Our life expectancy is fast increasing, and hence so is the overall population. Therefore we no longer retire at 55 or even 60, and we need to stay in the work force longer. We’ll simply be in life longer, and the chances of being single and dating in our late 50s and beyond are greater than they were in the old days.
In all areas of life, we are becoming a more competitive society, and older people in their 50s and older have to compete with thirty and twenty-somethings for jobs. Easy retirements and pensions are increasingly a thing of the past. The dilemma is of course, that in our culture we instinctively doubt whether an older person will have fresh ideas, or even be alert. So, plastic surgery—and anything to keep one competitive with the young—has grown in popularity as an option for people to “look fresh and awake” and not tired or angry (their words!).
Your film combines elements of the personal with issues that have larger social implications. Can you talk about finding that balance?
I’ve made a number of personal shorts over the years, but this was the first time I incorporated the personal into a larger cultural issue. Thank God for the perspective of my editor and some great pairs of eyes! In the beginning my personal presence was very subtle, but with every rough cut viewing the feedback we received was that the thread of my own journey and my dad’s story needed to come forward more. Moreover, it was important to me as a filmmaker who was also in the film, to let the audience know that I did not judge these people, but understood them. So as risky as it felt at times, I felt I had to step forward into the film more. In the end, I think it made a better, more honest film, something that hopefully offers something beyond what the many articles and news shows on plastic surgery can offer the audience.
Was there any idea you had about plastic surgery that was challenged during the making your film?
To be perfectly candid, when I began the main filming in 2006, I was pretty against elective plastic surgery, and anything that pierced the skin. Dying gray hair and creams were okay, but beyond that was a questionable. I remember in October 2006, one 52-year-old woman who owned as makeup line in Dallas told me she had an eyelift at 45. She asked me, “Would you ever get anything done?” I looked her in the eye and defiantly said “No.” She laughed and said “Call me in 10 years.”
But over the course of filming the documentary, I met and interviewed—whether it be by phone, email or on camera—over 200 people. Some who said they’d “never do anything”; others who said the same but more ambivalently with loopholes, and of course, many who said “bring it on!” As I really started living with the characters in the film and following their stories, my perspective changed. I quite naturally became more empathetic.
One of my favorite interviews was with Simon Doonan. He said, “In the near future, not having your hair dyed or your face tweaked – that will be the new punk.”
Buy tickets to Youth Knows No Pain (which will include an onstage Q&A and reception with the filmmaker): Tue April 28: 6:30
Visit the filmmaker’s official site.