Hot Docs 2013: The Manor

Prior to the screening, I must admit that it was a bit eyebrow raising that the Hot Docs Film Festival planned on opening with a film about a strip club, and the dysfunctional Jewish family that runs it, in rural Guelph, a tiny University town just outside Toronto. Was the festival going for titillating, or as the programme intimated, a bit of character driven slice-of-life, in lieu of the usual activism, art and social issues with their opener. A film from a first-time director, no less. Of course, now having seen the film, indeed, it is a great choice for an opener, which relies less on showing gyrating strippers and the peeler bar itself, and far more about the effect of putting a family unit (and business) in that environment for so long a time. While not a social finger wagging type of film at all, it does demonstrate the rather profound effect that the breadwinning business has on each family member appetites and values, both literally and figuratively. Slotting The Manor as the kick-off film shows a festival gleefully breaking with tradition, just as it hits its 20th year, and delivering something subversively crowd pleasing, at least for those with a twisted sense of humour.

The Manor is a castle-like structure with large stone lions and a barren parking lot out front sandwiched between a low-rise housing building, a Bible Chapel and a nondescript stretch of Ontario Highway 6. On the inside is the usual fluorescent den of sin in line with expectations of a typical adult entertainment establishment. Attached to the bar is Sue’s Inn, a collection 32 hotel rooms where many of the strippers live, and whose manager (Sue, naturally) indicates that drug addicts are not welcome to stay there. Of course, Sue has a drug habit herself, and at one point exits both employment and residence due to an overdose. Such is the dodgy nature of running this type of operation. Nevertheless, this makes the night club and Hotel owner, Roger Cohen fairly irate, as he is used to getting his own way both at work and at home. Roger’s son Shawney is the filmmaker behind the film that is loaded to the gills with moments from his strange family in their strange line of business, something he grew up with for all of his conscious life; the past 30 years the Cohen’s have occupied the premises and put lady-flesh on display for paying customers.

And yet The Manor as a film title, is less about the strip club that bears its name, and far more about the Cohen family domicile which in probably no coincidentally, also features grand stone-lions at the end of the driveway. As the heavy-set patriarch, Roger looks like Ocean’s Eleven era Elliot Gould if the actor REALLY let himself go, and carries himself with the flat-out authority of Harvey Weinstein. In his office there is a photo of himself kissing his dog, at home, I think I spotted a painting of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Roger’s wife of many years, Brenda, couldn’t be more different, visually, she is reminiscent of Joan Rivers, that is, if Ms. Rivers were timid, flighty and uncomfortable performing in front of the camera. The younger son, Sammy lives in the basement with his trophy girlfriend (one of the clubs employees) and moussed coiffure. Within 15 seconds of seeing him, I already realized that I wouldn’t like him as a human being and I wasn’t cured of this notion by films end. My guess is that early into shooting, Sam may have realized that the camera (or his brother, the director) isn’t going to capture his good side so stays out of the frame for much of the picture, despite living on the premises. Shawney narrates the picture with the droll humour of Steve Buscemi or Mark Ruffalo, and while is doesn’t spend as much time under the unforgiving lens of his own camera, one might argue that filming all of this as his own on-camera therapy session is the douche-iest move of all. Particularly when you see his fragile and anorexic mom ice-skating for the camera, what you think is going to happen, is going to happen. And yet the film is frightfully entertaining and full of heart. Folks is Folks – that is to say, aren’t we all just full of contradictions.

Roger over-eats, whereas his wife Brenda, doesn’t eat anything at all, content fuss over preparing far too much food for everyone else in the house. She keeps stashed a secret supply of laxatives for what one is left to assume, is her own personal purging on occasion. On screen we only see her eat a couple of bread crumbs and imbibe mainly Coke Zeros. Roger has his stomach stapled at one point in the film, while Brenda is dragged by Shawney (kicking and denying) to a therapy session on anorexia with a therapist that is just a tad over-weight – I guess she is good. Instead of continuing with the therapy, Brenda, citing cash flow as the primary issue, instead buys a new stainless-steel fridge. Sammy frets over whether or not to buy a Jaguar or a Range Rover. Meanwhile at the strip club, characters such as the greasy haired Québécois bank-robber-slash-assistant manager starts dealing heroin and gets chewed out by his boss and eventually we see him in prison-orange. There is a parking lot car-fire extinguished by the local authorities that constitutes one of the most beautiful shots of the year. That it looks like a man ejaculating on the smoking wreck may be co-incidence, but maybe not as this is pretty much the state of adult entertainment these days. The Manor certainly has its doses of kitsch and vulgarity, it goes with the territory. But there is also an odd sense of endearment to the whole thing, often a laugh to prevent from crying kind of vibe. Roger and Brenda may not talk to each other, but like the swans in their back-yard, have mated for life and their own precarious way to keeping things wobbling along. Cohen has a wicked sense of (deadpan) comic timing, and it is tinged with more than a slice of empathy. Even as we watch Roger mock an overweight stripper in one scene to be followed by his own fat spilling over a John Deere riding mower as he cuts his own grass. We get to watch his son Shawney, in a manner, cut his own grass.

Photo Credit: AARON HARRIS / FOR THE TORONTO STAR

Upcoming screenings:

Thr, Apr 25 9:30 PM
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Mon, Apr 29 11:59 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 12:00 PM

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.

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