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Harry Dean Stanton is himself, living independently

Friends and readers,

Companionship. What I miss most of all is my husband’s companionship. This past Sunday was another “session” of the Film Club held at the Cinema Art Theater in Fairfax, a semi-art movie-house. Once again, our “guide” is Gary Arnold, a movie-critic, now retired, who used to write regularly for the Washington Post. I wrote about this film on my Sylvia blog, but, after thinking about it, I decided I wanted to recommend it to as many people as I reach.

Lucky focuses on the real man who acts the character in the center: the film is a homage to Harry Dean Stunton by the film-maker and actor, David Lynch, presumably Stanton’s friend. Stanton was a known and respected character actor in Hollywood for decades, a singer of American labor and mainstream songs — he would sing in Spanish and we see him talking Spanish. It a story of great courage in the face of aging and death ever nearer: we are not spared the least wrinkle on his face; he looks every inch of his 90+ years; yet the emphasis pictorially as well as narratively is this man lives alone, having (apparently) been married, divorced and had no children. The theme of aloneness, of loneliness, the longing for companionship is parallel in the story of Howard (David Lynch) whose turtle (tortoise, Howard insists) has wandered off, and that of Fred (Tom Skerritt) who says he’s been rescued from a hollow meaningless existence, a nadir, because Elaine (Beth Grant), the owner of the bar he sits in each night, has become his partner.

What happens is we follow Lucky’s daily routine with him. We hear his alarm, we see his hand push the button, put on his radio, reach for a cigarette. We see him pushing his body to exercise. He goes into his kitchen, makes himself a bowl of cereal, cooks bacon, has bread, and drinks instant coffee he just made. Each day he goes to a diner mid-morning for more coffee where he talks to the same people — who know more then I do probably about his life. Each day he watches these inane game shows where all that is said is about winning money, with the word money repeatedly endlessly as goal (more of it). He also takes a paper with him with crossword puzzles and is endlessly doing that. He takes his crossword puzzles everywhere but the bar he goes to at night. He then goes to the same CVS (?) drug-store for milk and talks with a Hispanic woman whose son is having a birthday party on a near Saturday. Her son is the center of her existence it seems, and she invites Lucky to come too, but he demurs.

At night he goes to the same bar with the same people — a white Trump-follower type man (tattoos, all muscle, chains across his T-shirt, in his fifties), a black man who serves in the bar; the owner, Elaine, a tough “old biddy” of a lady (in sexy sequined clothes); Howard, her partner (or perhaps husband) who says he was suicidal and nothing without her — so whatever she does is right. Meanwhile Howard is grieving because his tortoise, whom he named President Roosevelt (FDR?) left the compound. Disappeared for now. But he lives in hope, and buys insurance from Bobby (Ron Livingston) and leaves all his money to President Roosevelt. He misses his turtle very much. This is quietly wildly parodic and yet we are not supposed to laugh. The acting is so earnest, sincere.


Lucky listening to Howard telling how much the turtle meant to him and how he wants to provide for it

Not that Lucky sits still for this. He insults continuously the insurance man for conning Howard. He wants to fight him outside but would obviously lose, and everyone in the bar becomes excited and stop the coming fight. It’s silly. A little later the man comes into the diner and sits next to Lucky and is almost tempted to start his thieving spiel on Lucky. He stops himself in time. Lucky is tolerated because everyone realizes how alone and vulnerable he is — and they are too. This communal feeling of desperate togetherness characterizes the film.

As with Waiting for Godot, we have this minimal note of high hope at the end: when the movie began we saw Mr President moving slowly off the scene to the left; when the movie ends, we see Mr President coming back.

The movie starts out so grim, but as it proceeds, we feel cheered or buoyed up because Lucky carries on. About half-way through he is visited by the black women behind a cash register in the diner; he is suspicious she has been “sent” (shades of Hamlet against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) but she says no. They smoke some marijuana together as they watch a game show. He ends up going to the hispanic lady’s son’s birthday party, and being the only white there (if you categorize Puerto Ricans good enough rise). He seems to enjoy being surrounded by people who are happy to be alive. He sings a Spanish song spontaneously and the band surrounds him back him up. These two incidents are the high happy moments of the film. When accosted about his smoking, or talking with others about his age, in daily social situations Lucky is not cooperative in pretending to believe in the world as good or meaningful. He insists outside this life there is nothing; he feels hollow. He won’t allow cheerful false cant or sentimentality – and ires people.

It reminded me so of a film I saw in the spring, Paterson, also shot on a low budget, also with no high tech pretensions, or fancy furniture: by Jim Jarmusch, featuring Adam Driver, about the daily life of a poet who lives in New Jersey and drives a bus for a living each day. That too took us through the days of this man’s life with the Hispanic young woman he lives with. Both ultimately hopeful. Patterson gets to have a book of his verse published. Lucky is lucky to be alive; the film comes out “for life” as F.R. Leavis would say. The film suggests it’s good to be alive even though …. Gary Arnold who chose it for the film club this month said Stanton recently died and Arnold felt that it might just have a general release because of this. Stanton was well-known and well-liked and he really did live in a small house in the San Fernando valley where we see him walking amid the desolate streets of a town fallen into deep economic desuetude.


Lucky leaving the bar

Lucky is alone most of the time and when with friends or acquaintances, in company, stays mostly shallow. He doesn’t ask too much of them. He finds sources of comfort in being alive. So it did my soul good to watch this man endure life.

A third important element in the film prompts me to recommend it. Each time we have a movie, Gary Arnold gives a brief introduction, and after the movie is over, tells about the director’s career, once in a while the director is also the script writer. Then we are told about the chief actor’s life — it is usually an actor, for like other males I’ve come across in these art worlds I find he is apparently unconsciously wholly masculinist. He has yet to show a film by a woman, yet to show a film where a woman’s life is at the center. He then speaks briefly of the movie’s content and art, and throws the time left into discussion.

Sometimes there is almost nothing, often there are some comments, but (as you might surmise) I’ve become someone who usually speaks, and as a result of what I say others respond and threads emerge. He asked for any comments. Silence, no hands. He looks disappointed when this happens, and so I raised my hand. He smiled, recognizing me. I stood up and said it began to grimly but gradually a cheerful even uplifting note began to dominate and then (more or less spontaneously) I referred to an independent film of this type (low budget, a genuine statement from someone) he showed last summer which unlike this was all white. The film purported to show a slice of US society among working people in the southwest and yet all were white. This film presented a world of several races, ethnicities. And those who reached out to this lonely aging white man were a Hispanic youngish woman and an African-American slightly older one. In the second case, he responds by sitting in front of his TV with her, smoking and talking; in the first he becomes part of the songfest.

See this film. It has that old-fashioned superb characteristic of the best stories: true to life. The video below suggests the character of Lucky — plain, non-hypocritical, common sense, kind — is the one Stanton played throughout his career. He’s famous for a hymn-like song in Cool Hand Luke.

Ellen

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