Meet Lee. She has Alzheimer’s.
Dir. Scott Kirschenbaum, 2012, 53 min, Viewed via Amazon Instant
You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t came out of nowhere and smacked me upside the head. In a very quiet way, it’s funny and poignant and absolutely devastating. The movie truly gets inside what it’s like to live in the haze of a malfunctioning memory. I, of course, have no first-person frame of reference for such experience, but I’ve spent more than a fair share of time among the elderly, and the doc totally nails the atmosphere of a nursing home. It’s a biosphere of faded hopes and dreams, where Death stalks the halls with casual regularity.
In this environment we meet Lee Gorewitz, whose mind is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. The movie follows Lee throughout the course of her regular day. At various points, she seems to recall bits of her past, bits of love and significant experiences or other things. Mostly, though, she doddles through structured activities, sometimes having strange interactions with her fellow residents.
It’s more than a little unnerving how much the lives of the mentally enfeebled resemble those of very young children. At one point, a volunteer sings a song that I’m pretty sure was in fact originally written to be sung for toddlers to a passive audience of adults. It distresses me to see this kind of treatment, and yet, from what I understand, it gives them nothing but pleasure. Speaking bluntly, I’d never want to end up in any kind of situation where I regress like this (and now I fear that I’m sorely tempting fate).
Alzheimer’s and dementia seems to induce this kind of reverse-aging, creating a perverse symmetry in the mental acuity that these people have had over the course of their lives. Lee and the others have on their faces the vacant, uncomprehending expressions of those unspoiled by life, but they’ve seen all that life has had to offer. If they don’t remember any of their presumably rich lives, then what was the point of all that living at all?
But that’s overly pessimistic. Lee is still something of her own person. She’s retained a sense of coarse grumpiness that’s quite endearing. Watching her unload some Jewish sarcasm on various people and objects that she encounters in her day-to-day is delightful. But it’s in the softer moments, like when she cradles a doll and seems to recall a lifetime of memories, that the movie becomes something transcendent. Whole histories gleam in Lee’s eyes, and it’s so beautiful and and heartbreakingly melancholy.
The movie has no real start or end, and wanders like a wind-up toy set loose in a mess of strewn-about objects. But that’s the point. This is what life is like for these people. You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t is an incredibly sad movie that’s oddly uplifting. The subject matter should be immensely depressing, but looking at Lee, Alzheimer’s seems oddly not that terrible. A big factor in this is that the doc studiously avoids showing any interaction between her and her family. As bad as this may sound, that choice means that the movie probably hews truer to her point of view. If she doesn’t feel too bad, should we feel all that bad for her? Does any of that really matter, given that she doesn’t know any better? Who knows.