Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Shawney Cohen, Mike Gallay.
Screenplay: Shawney Cohen, Mike Gallay (Documentary).
Runtime: 80 minutes
Cast: Shawney Cohen, Brenda Cohen, Roger Cohen, Sammy Cohen.
Viewed as part of the Stronger Than Fiction Film Festival.
Plot: ‘The Manor’ is a strip club and hotel owned by the father of the director Roger Cohen, and an institution around which the family have arranged their lives for three decades. Younger brother Sammy manages the club and dates stripper Gillian, while eldest brother Sammy is less comfortable working there. The family is ruled over by father Roger, while loving mother Brenda slowly wastes away from an eating disorder.
Review: What happens when your family structures its life exclusively around one institution, and that institution happens to be a strip club? This is the surprising question that Shawney Cohen and Mike Gallay’s excellent film The Manor asks. The answers that the film provides over its short running time are equally surprising; I found myself wanting to spend more time in the company of these fascinating people, despite the quiet tragedy at the centre of the family. The Manor is an impossible film to describe, as all the individuals it documents are such deeply contradictory figures they can’t help but come across as genuine, deeply conflicted, and worthy of understanding.
At the centre of the film resides patriarch Roger and his strip club meets hotel. Running the institution as a tyrant for thirty years, he is given an opportunity to sell and retire but seems reluctant. Roger practices a policy of tough love; housing many of his strippers in the hotel, but intolerant of disputes or weakness. This toughness covers a deep well of vulnerability, as 370 pound Roger takes a last, desperate gamble on stomach surgery. The impact of his struggle is palpable in the reactions of his family and long-time associates; reacting as if an old giant is slowly crumbling before them. Roger is assisted in managing the club by his two sons, eldest Shawney and younger Sammy. The latter is perfectly comfortable with the life and the success he enjoys from the club, director and star Shawney remains deeply uncomfortable with his place in Roger’s orbit.
The portrait is as unflinching as it is fascinating. Shawney’s closest friend at the club is gentle giant Bobby Ranger, who works as Roger’s assistant and surrogate son. But Bobby has a bad history of violence, and must navigate assault charges during the course of the film. Full of fascinating stories, he claims to have gone to jail for a robbery worth $3.9 million. Bobby has a quiet charisma, and gives the impression of a good man in a tough spot; sadly, the film is so short we spend a fleeting amount of time hearing his difficult story. Life is similarly tough for most of the associates who surround the Cohens, particularly Susan, who performs the thankless task of managing the hotel. The Manor gathers together many of these heartbreaking stories and hints at more; one gets the impression that Cohen and Gallay could have a career full of outstanding films simply by exploring the circumstances under which these individuals have found themselves working at and living in the club.
But the heart of the film belongs to mother Brenda Cohen, and her devastating struggle with an eating disorder. The Manorperforms the almost miraculous task of bringing her struggle to life, and throughout the film the audience desperately yearns for her recovery. Brenda’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and one of the few disappointments of the film is that this is not further explored. It is left open for the audience to decide the source of Brenda’s tragedy; Shawney speculates that her unhappiness and difficulties began with the acquisition of the strip club. Whatever the conclusion you may reach, The Manorcommunicates these issues with a compassion and comprehensibility that is outstanding. Those of us with little experience or understanding of the anguish and slow negotiation that families confront in helping each other come to terms with life-threatening problems such as these have a lot to gain from the film.
The rest is best left unsaid, as part of the pleasures of viewing the film. When the credits roll, one is simply left with the wish that Shawney finds his niche; that Sammy get outs from under his father and succeeds; that Bobby finds peace; that Susan finds comfort; that Roger sells the damned club; and most of all, that Brenda finds happiness and health. To leave a documentary with such strong wishes for people we don’t even know is the highest compliment that can be paid to these two talented filmmakers.
Rating: Four stars.