Filmmaker Ralph Arlyck's I Like It Here Finds the Poetry in Mortality | Film | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Getting old. For most of our lives, it's not something we spend time thinking will happen to us. And then, before we've had a chance to even pay attention, boom: We're there. That's assuming, hopefully, of course, that one actually gets to get old. And in exchange for being able get old, unfortunately, he, she, or they must increasingly contend with loss and the personal physical changes that come with aging. That's the unavoidable deal. Yet, along with the varying shades of beauty in the physical world that continue to surround us in our later years, there's a kind of beauty in the process of aging itself. Blink and you'll miss it. But it's there.

I Like it Here, area documentarian Ralph Arlyck's latest film, is a quietly moving meditation on mortality that manages, with artful elan and gorgeous views of the Hudson Valley, to capture that beauty, and, in an unassuming way, celebrate it—although that wasn't what he set out to do when he began making it in 2018.

"I started out to make a film about my neighbor Ernie [Erno Szemes], this Hungarian immigrant who was really old—he was 91 when I started it—but then it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, he didn't want any part of it," says the independently funded Arlyck, 82. "And he was an outlier who lived in a shack in a junkyard with no heat or electricity; since he was a hermit, he was not experiencing old age the way most of us experience it. So then I thought, 'How am I experiencing aging? How am I confronting it?' And that, naturally, led me to not only talk in the film about what I was thinking, but also to talk to my other local friends and neighbors and find out what they were experiencing with it. Films need to marinate. If you know exactly what you want to do, you can probably be very articulate about it and you can probably write a good proposal and get some money to make a film. But, for me, I want to discover what the film's about in the making of it."

Opening Credits

Arlyck was born a red-diaper baby in Brooklyn. When he was five his parents moved their family to Bayard Lane, a utopian community in Suffern founded in 1935 as the School of Living. "Downtown there was the Lafayette Theater, which is still open today," the filmmaker recalls. "When I was in high school, my best friend and I would just say, 'Hey, let's go to the movies' without even knowing what was playing, and we'd go to the Saturday matinees. They'd show cartoons and a newsreel before the main movie. One day we went, and the feature was Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which just blew me away." But although the movie house was a central preoccupation, there would be some experiential time for him before the idea of entering the cinematic world himself came along.

click to enlarge Filmmaker Ralph Arlyck's I Like It Here Finds the Poetry in Mortality
Lou and Pat Ambrico of Tivoli, married for 60 years, with their horse Savanah. The couple (and the horse) are featured in I Like it Here.

After graduating from Colgate University in 1962 with an English degree, Arlyck worked for a year as a reporter at New Jersey's Bergen Record. With the Vietnam War ramping up, he joined the Peace Corps and spent 1963 to 1965 teaching English in Senegal before returning to New York to attend Columbia University. "At that time Columbia had a one-year journalism program," says Arlyck. "So I did that, but it gave me an ulcer—it was really hectic, taking classes during the day, writing papers at night, eating all of my meals at Chock full o' Nuts. Like the Peace Corps, though, [the ulcer] helped keep me from going to Vietnam. But those things didn't exempt you from being drafted, they just delayed it." He credits his Columbia professors with deepening his interest in film by introducing him to the work of D.A. Pennebaker, the French New Wave directors, and others. In 1966, Arlyck graduated Columbia and "entered real life."

Go West, Young Man

Just as California's '60s counterculture was fully flowering, he landed in San Francisco. "I'd seen a story about [pioneering public-supported TV station] KQED, so I drove out there to see if I could get a job in documentary filmmaking there," says Arlyck, whose interview with the broadcaster didn't result in a position but did lead to his enrolling at San Franciso State, where he studied film with the Grammy-winning Irving Saraf (1991's In the Shadow of the Stars). While living downstairs from an eccentric, idealistic couple who'd opened their Haight-Ashbury district house up as a de facto drop-in center for nomadic hippies, he got to know his upstairs neighbors' then four-year-old son. The boy became the titular subject of Sean, Arlyck's 1969 debut, an 14-minute black and white documentary.

click to enlarge Filmmaker Ralph Arlyck's I Like It Here Finds the Poetry in Mortality
Sean Farrell, the youngest member of a family living above Arlyck in Haight-Ashbury in the late `60s was the subject of two Arlyck films: A 14-minute black-and-white short, Sean in 1969, and of Sean and, 25 years later, Following Sean in 2006.

A simultaneously charming, sympathetic, and unflinching glimpse at the lost innocence of the hippie dream, the verite-style Sean sees the streetwise kid (last name withheld) running barefoot on the San Francisco sidewalks, using power tools, living among speed freaks, and talking about smoking pot—at age four. So off camera, was Arlyck ever concerned for the child's wellbeing? "Not at all," he says. "He seemed like a really well-adjusted kid. I knew his talk about pot smoking was largely bravado. He was not neglected; was cared for and supervised by his parents but he was also not shielded from life in the crash pad. It was also an earlier time, so what might now feel like neglect just felt like plain old free-spirited California living then."

Generating awards as well as controversy, the film made its way to the London Film Festival and was even lauded by its maker's hero Francois Truffaut. "I submitted Sean and it was shown with [Truffaut's 1970 film] The Wild Child," Arlyck says. "After the festival I wrote to Truffaut about the possibility of interning with him, and he wrote back, 'Mr. Arlyck has nothing to learn from me.' [Laughs.] But of course, I took that as a huge compliment." In the wake of Sean's achievements, the burgeoning cineaste created two well-received shorts: 1970's Natural Habitat, a humorous skewering of grinding daily work routines, and 1973's Acquired Taste, a wry examination of the notion of success in America.

click to enlarge Filmmaker Ralph Arlyck's I Like It Here Finds the Poetry in Mortality
Arlyck's neighbor Erno Szemes, an obstreperous 90-year-old, Hungarian immigrant who lives off the grid, having his first medical checkup in 20 years. He opens and closes I Like it Here.

Reunion and Reflection

With the novelty of the San Francisco scene wearing thin, Arlyck rejoined the Peace Corps, which took him to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There he met his future wife, Elisabeth, a French national who'd come to the US to teach language. The couple soon headed east to be closer to Arlyck's elderly parents and settled in Poughkeepsie, where Elizabeth took a professorship at Vassar College. Two sons, Kevin and Matthew, eventually arrived, and Arlyck kept making films—the historical Hyde Park (1977); Godzilla Meets Mona Lisa (1986), about Paris's Pompidou Center; Current Events (1989), a look at liberal causes—some of which, besides playing at arthouses and festivals, became staples on PBS TV.

For 2006's Following Sean, Arlyck reconnected with the star of his 1969 breakthrough, who was by then in his mid-30s. Another fascinating film, it, like much of Arlyck's work, views the subject at hand through the metaphorical lens of his own experiences, chronicling them while doing the same for Sean's concurrent life. "I'd stayed in touch with him over the years," says Arlyck about the Californian, a single father who became an electrician. "It got me to go back to San Francisco several times and it was great to reconnect with him. What's surreal to me is that he's now middle aged and is contemplating retirement."

Perhaps unsurprisingly to local readers, Arlyck and his wife have been regular patrons of long-running indie film mecca Upstate Films in Rhinebeck since their Poughkeepsie arrival. Such was the theater's pull that in 2011, after Elisabeth had retired and the couple had decided they'd like to be somewhere significantly more rural—and closer to Upstate—they bought a house right up the road from the cinema, in Tivoli. "I think a lot of what makes Ralph such an iconoclastic filmmaker is that he's also an excellent journalist," says Steve Leiber, who cofounded Upstate Films in 1972 and appears in I Like It Here, discussing his having survived a heart attack. "He's extremely articulate, not just with how he captures his images and edits everything, but also with how he narrates. What he does is hard to pull off, and his films really strike home."

And for Arlyck home is here, permanently: In one of I Like It Here's many poetically reflective scenes, he and Elisabeth visit Tivoli's idyllic Red Church Cemetery to pick out plots and even have a laugh or two with their guide. "The title of the film has a double meaning," he explains. "It's saying, 'Hey, I like life' and it's also saying, 'I like where I'm at.' And that's how I feel. I'm not ready to stop yet, I'd like to make another film. I'm not going anywhere."

I Like It Here will be screened at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on November 5 at 11am. A Q&A with the filmmaker will follow. Tickets are $11 (members $7).

About The Author

Peter Aaron

Peter Aaron is the arts editor for Chronogram.
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