Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
• Grace Wang in Toronto, whose four-part video interview with Chung is below her essay.
Lucky life isn't one long string of horrors and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.
- Lucky Life by Gerald Stern
Ringing true to the poem the film is inspired by, Lee Isaac Chung's "Lucky Life" avoids the typical horrors of cookie-cutter narratives, and belies itself to moments of peace and pleasure that lull within its memory-shaped form.
The beach house. Alex (Richard Harvell). Jason (Kenyon Adams).
In between whispers and casual remarks, we glimpse the relationship between these four people. We learn that for these old friends, this may be their last year together at the beach house. This year, Jason is terminally ill.
The tragedy looms over the healthy ones, through the drive down, through the shitty wine they pick up at the rest stop, through the bridge and tunnels they inevitably pass through. Heartbeats hang in the air. Words carry an echo. When they get there, Mark is late in getting out of the car.
Memory is a fickle thing. In movies, tragedies are always heightened, focused upon. The drama welcomed. The tears exemplary of human experiences. In reality, people don't live that way. Most of us don't want to remember the sadness. We can't bear it. We prefer to focus on the brighter events that bracket tragedies. We forget our tears. Our memories are self-protectively selective. We live our lives in an air of normalcy. It is a defense mechanism thing.
And tragedies strike us all. In moments where we least expect them. In moments where we are utmostly unprepared. In moments of traditions, anniversaries, milestones, now forever altered by those small but irreparable breaks from normalcy. And as slowly as you are coming to grasp with the change, the change has undoubtedly come to taken a hold of you.
"Lucky Life" is created out of a longing for clarity in these moments of indescribable sadness, as stated by Chung in his Director's Statement, who wishes to reflect processes of memory and lived experience. And so he does.
The film opens with a lingering shot of a home. Surveying through the rooms, it sweeps across tables, chairs, a vanity countertop, familiar spaces. The camera pans across photos encased in frames, moments of joy captured to last forever, eventually coming to a rest on Mark (Daniel O'Keefe) and Karen (Megan McKenna), a married couple. Along the way, loss is articulated before we even first set eyes upon the characters, and just as soon as we are introduced to the joy of these memories, we are simultaneously reminded of their fragility.
We are invited into Mark and Karen's home, and we watch them go through the little details that shape their life together: the way he warms her feet between his knees, the way she rubs lotion onto his face, the way she takes apples out of the fridge - two of them, because their lives are now so closely entwined that almost everything is shared, and from that intimacy spawns a quiet strength that they both attempt to draw from as they prepare to go on a trip they dread, a trip they have taken every year prior...but this year, it is different.
Lucky I don't have to wake up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
on the hill overlooking Union Square or the hill overlookingKuebler Brewery or the hill overlooking SS. Philip and Jamesbut have my own hills and my own vistas to come back to.
Each year I go down to the island I addone more year to the darkness;and though I sit up with my dear friendstrying to separate the one year from the other,this one from the last, that one from the former,another from another,after a while they all get lumped together,the year we walked to Holgate,the year our shoes got washed away,the year it rained,the year my tooth brought misery to us all.
This year was a crisis. I knew it when we pulledthe car onto the sand and looked for the key.I knew it when we walked up the outside stepsand opened the hot icebox and began the strugglewith swollen drawers and I knew it when we laid outthe sheets and separated the clothes into pilesand I knew it when we made our first rush ontothe beach and I knew it when we finally saton the porch with coffee cups shaking in our hands.
My dream is I'm walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,and I'm lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,by memory, which statue of Christopher ColumbusI have to look for, the one with him slumped overand lost in weariness or the one with himvaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe inone hand and a compass in the other.
My dream is I'm in the Eagle Hotel on Chamber Street sitting at the oak bar, listening to two obese veterans discussing Hawaii in 1942,and reading the funny signs over the bottles. My dream is I sleep upstairs over the honey locust and sit on the side porch overlooking the stone culvert with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.
Dear waves, what will you do for me this year? Will you drown out my scream? Will you let me rise through the fog? Will you fill me with that old salt feeling? Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand? Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study the black clouds with the blue holes in them? Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year? Will you still let me draw my sacred figuresand move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?
Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to. Lucky you can judge yourself in this water. Lucky you can be purified over and over again. Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone. Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life. Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.
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