«I’m wondering how much my friends are thinking about the upcoming end of the days we are all walking through. About the absolute finality of what will soon happen», says Ralph Arlyck in his latest documentary feature, I Like It Here. «No one here gets out alive», sang Jim Morrison, and this finality of human life is like a veil, or a fog, wrapping up and penetrating all things human, an intrinsic part of the human condition. In Chungking Express, the film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, the protagonist, a cop dumped by a girlfriend, collects pineapple tins with a short expiration date, thus confronting the finality of love, hoping that he too will eventually fall out of it. Another person I know in real life confronts any situation with «it will pass», and she pronounces this phrase with both resignation and bitterness, unmistakably pointing out that not only headaches or bad weather are of limited durability, but people too. Destined to die from the moment we were born.
The last box of pencils
People rarely confront the reality of dying directly, but on the other hand, it has become quite a common reference. Even more so, the fact that the societies of the global north are ageing is increasingly becoming a matter of our daily, personal experience, from the tragic losses of our loved ones to the multiplication of health problems. And because, like it or not, death has become part of our life, I would never have thought that a shot of a box of unused black pencils on a writing desk, with a sign that there are 36 of them in the box, would cause a sadness so strong I almost felt physical pain, as the narrator explained, «I don’t go through that many pencils. So it came as a shock when I realised that this is surely the last box of pencils I’ll ever buy.»
People rarely confront the reality of dying directly
In the same boat
I Like it Here is a moving film, but this should not be a surprise. Its’ director is Ralph Arlyck, a figurehead of the American independent documentary film. He has produced and directed over a dozen films that have received awards at festivals worldwide. Among them are Current Events (1991), an examination of the ways people respond to the stream of horrific events on the nightly news, and the short An Acquired Taste (1981), a look at American culture’s obsession with success, both considered a classic of independent cinema and personal filmmaking. I Like it Here again proves Arlyck’s outstanding mastery in showing the most eluding traits of the human soul by carefully balancing complete openness with great caution. Because, as his voice-over points out when introducing one of his friends, documentary filmmaking is just as invasive as a surgical operation. So, precisely as a surgeon, Arlyck intertwines his testimony with the narration about his neighbour Ernie, a Hungarian refugee living off the grid on Social Security, with the testimonies of his friends and family. Bringing to the fore the point, vividly expressed by his friend Jack Barron, «you are in the same boat we all are, and you can crap out before me, right? We don’t know.»
The desire to stay
It is hard to imagine the precise balance of engagement and neutrality that Arlyck created in this film. Actually, it is balanced in almost everything. It is about the reality we all must eventually face, yet the focus is on how he reckons with it. He is meditative about it but not bitter or sad. And yet, there is an emotion that prevails – the desire to stay. The film’s title has a double meaning. The «here» that Arlyck likes is the countryside where he lives, the fields, water, his neighbour to the East who has an old horse, the couple to the South with a few dozen chickens, and Ernie to the North. But the «here» he likes is also life itself. One blends into the other by how this film is filmed, constructing a more revealing look than the world. The look that is almost tangibly trying to hold on to all there is, the old friends and people he knows for ages, but also to the sky, the lawn, the animals,… to hold on, not let go, stay just for a little longer. What seems to be a model of impartial observation actually turns out to be an honest cry to defeat the inevitable.
I Like It Here screens as part of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival International Competition.