The world is something that one does not know that much enough.
— Lee Gorewitz
On its face, You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t is a difficult, if not impossible, project. How might a documentary reveal a subject who is losing her sense of self? The subject is Lee Gorewitz, living in an assisted care facility in Danville, California. She has Alzheimer’s disease.
“What is Alzheimer’s?” asks filmmaker Scott Kirschenbaum from off-screen near the film’s start. Lee looks into the lens and begins to answer: “That’s kind of funny for me,” she says, “Weird. I just don’t understand how you could have two together.” She might be describing what you’re seeing, that is, a woman who lives beside herself, metaphorically and a little literally, in a room with photos of herself and her family. In the film, those family members are absent, in real time and increasingly, in Lee’s memories. Lee is also living in her own present, recognizing her past but not always able to grasp it. And so, even as she is the “two together,” she is also not. Contending with the disease’s early-ish stages, she’s aware of who she is and also aware of specific moments, and has plainly agreed to be filmed and to share her experience with others — with Kirschenbaum and with you.
Lee is quite aware that she’s losing awareness. And it’s in these moments, as Lee slips between places and times, that You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t — airing on Independent Lens this month — slips as well, into a kind of representation that is less traditional documentary than an impression, a series of glimpse, pieces. At once keenly observant, carefully assembled, and gently probing, the film leaves open what’s going on, without framing by experts or relatives, observers who aren’t you. In a more regular documentary, you assume some access to truth, however it may be constructed, some honesty or performance of same. Here, what you see is less clear. Who can be seen in such a process and how is the process itself revealed? How do you come to see yourself reflected in Lee, in your reading of Lee, even as she’s increasingly seemingly lost?
The film considers the physical aspects of such loss as it follows Lee during her day. “I forgot to do something else, sitting there like an idiot,” she announces in he bedroom, as an aide helps her with lipstick and a hairbrush. The bedspread is blue with white flowers, and the camera bobbles slightly as they share chocolates from a box in Lee’s closet. “Oy vey,” Lee sighs. “I don’t know.” She thanks the aide and they exchange hugs and kisses, before Lee sets off for the dining room. Here she finds other patients, some anxious, some sedated, in various stages of mobility or cognizance. She tells a few people hello. “How are you today?” an aide asks Lee, as silverware clinks on plates in the background noise. “Not very much,” Lee says.
Lee’s measures make a deeply affecting sense, even if her language is elusive or metaphorical. She spends long seconds looking into people’s eyes, or she dismiesses them because she has something else to do. Lee is especially mobile, walking the hallways, checking in with aides who seem to be on their way elsewhere, and dancing (so beautifully). She chastises a couple of fellow patients (one man in particular tends annoys her, as he flips the finger to visitors). Looking at a card sent for her birthday, she pauses. “It’s for another person who was in another place,” she observes, “because it says ‘Mom.'” But she knows too, who sent it, briefly. “Here it is, my family,” she adds, “who are really doing nothing to help me.” It’s easy to imagine how Lee might feel abandoned: she spends so many hours alone. But it’s also impossible to imagine what’s at stake in each precious and unforgettable instance, how she moves from one moment to another, forgetting, as the film reminds you repeatedly. She is pained but she means not to be.
As Lee’s story unfolds, steps back, press one, she’s collaborating with the filmmaker, but also not. Such work together occurs in most every documentary process, but they are also unable to communicate easily, despite good intentions and for all the time they spend with one another. This makes the film a discomforting experience for viewers: as good as your own intentions might be, as much as you might want to understand, you can’t. She describes her understanding of the process, how she might be authentic as a subject, and she also articulates the in-between spaces. “It’s the truth when I see it,” she explains. “Most of the time, it’s not here at all.”
The film exposes gaps, between self and loss, between means and end. And the gaps help you to think through what any documentary might do, raising questions about the art and possibility of representing anyone as image. If conventionally (and visibly) conscious subjects can compel judgment and sympathy, the less obviously conscious, more shifting subject invites you to contemplate differently, to be aware of your part in processes of judging or sympathizing. Lee speaks to you, but doesn’t, she shares herself, and can’t. You’re looking at her, and you’re guessing where she is at any moment. “What is inside your head is very difficult for anyone to come up with an answer and say something you think it is, when it turns out not to be.”