“Lucky”: a film worth watching twice

Friday, March 13, 2020 (Friday the 13!)

“Lucky”: a film worth watching twice

Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton died a few months apart from each other in 2017, and I thought of the former last night as Linda and I watched, at home, a Netflix DVD of “LUCKY,” the final film in which Stanton acted. It was first screened at a film festival in March, 2017, and it should have been nominated for far more awards and honors than it received. It’s a minor classic, with a screenplay that has dialogue worthy of a playwright in Shepard’s mould. It even features a monologue, delivered with astute poignancy by David Lynch, about the desert tortoise that would not at all have been out of place in one of Shepard’s plays.

Stanton plays a 90 year man in a small desert town who phlegmatically sneers at the dying of the light. He appears to have outlived all but a handful of people his age in his vicinity, and even those within striking distance of his longevity do not possess his nimbleness. He starts each day with a modest yaga regimen and never fails to take a long walk around the town. If he has surpassed his generation’s expectations for male life span, it is not because he has been vigilant in following the directives of the Centers for Disease Control. He smokes cigarettes at a fairly steady pace, and he is probably only saved from cancer by a combination of a genetic constitution worthy of Keith Richards and living out in the desert, where air pollution is at a minimum (unlike Long Beach, where the air is utterly rancid with the effluents of chemicals).

Lucky survived World War II, even though he was stationed on a U.S. Navy ship with the acronym of LST, which he recalls his fellow sailors rebranding as “Large Slow Target.” The theme of fortitude in the face of daunting odds has an indefatigable counterpoint in “LUCKY”: a desert tortoise slowly rambling amidst the scattered brush both opens and closes the film. Outside of the tortoise’s escape from captivity, there is little “story” in the film as such other than Lucky’s peripatetic routine of stoically sauntering from home to restaurant to bar and back again. Towards the end of “LUCKY,” he attends a birthday party for the son of the store clerk where he purchases his cigarettes, and he launches into an a cappella rendition of a song in Spanish, which three mariachi musicians join in on about halfway through the lyrics. It’s possible the woman who invited him knew that he was capable of such a performance, and that she invited him as one of the surprises for the friends and family who gathered for the celebration. It is astonishing how a film without a plot can nevertheless be so replete with interwoven motives.

One of the most poignant moments in “LUCKY” occurs when he is approached by a woman outside a store that has animals available for rescue. Stepping inside, he finds that it is a bird store, with dozens of birds making an irritating racket. He walks over to a box that has quieter inhabitants: crickets. The owner informs Lucky that they will be sold as food. The next scene shows Lucky falling asleep at home to the sound of the crickets he has rescued from the store. In less grizzled hands, this might seem sentimental. In Stanton’s face one sees an oblivious indifference flickering within his mask of casual compassion.

No matter how old you are, this film is worth watching twice as soon as possible, and you should hope that you have the good fortune to watch a third and final screening at some point in the distant future. I can’t think of many final double-bills that I would rather watch than “Baghdad Cafe” and “Lucky.”

*. *. *

According to an article in the NYT this morning, there are 30 times as many people in the world over the age of 85, in 2017, as there were a century ago, when the last major influenza epidemic on a global scale chalked up 20,000,000 deaths. This exponential increase in the human population of the old and very old means that the number of vulnerable people, at the current moment, is on a scale far beyond the resources of the world’s medical authorities. The Center for Disease Control is anticipating that the Corvid-19 pandemic could kill as many as 1.7 million people in the United States. That is a worst-case scenario, however, and the actual number might be ninety percent lower.

Much of the outcome depends up the leadership of President Trump, whose party is resisting the efforts of states to make broader use of Medicaid funds in order to tamp down the spread of the disease. Apparently, a declaration of a national emergency would be required to access Medicaid funds, but Trump does not want to make that formal declaration, even though everything from popular culture to high culture research is being shut down. Broadway theaters in New York have gone dark; all major professional sports have put their seasons on hald, and I just received a notice that the Getty Research Institute’s library has been closed until this flu recedes.

In addition, his party is also refusing to acknowledge the value of paid sick leave as a way to mitigate the economic impact of this pandemic on working people.

Trump and his minions and lackeys need to get a clue. This crisis our leaders to put saving lives above saving face. One doesn’t make up for acting slowly in response to a crisis in the making by acting even slower when the crisis hits head-on.


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