Monday, May 27, 2013

The Manor

I've only been to a single strip club in my life, Montreal's Super Sex. I was taken there and didn't have a good time. (Full disclosure: I spent the meat of the night cornered in the bathroom while a new friend told me about the only time he met his father. The stranger--he'd seen pictures enough to recognize the man--picked this guy up from school on his thirteenth birthday, drove him to a farm in Northern Quebec, took a sword out of the trunk, and had him kill a goat. He drove him back, dropped him off at his house, and took off. This guy never saw his dad again and was really bawling about it there in the bathroom.) Prurient ogling with mostly male strangers at mostly girls and women doing the things they do in a strip club was not appealing to me--still isn't. I'm not saying this to chuck my own shoulder, but I think empathy was the wedge that kept me from having anything that resembled a hoot. Maybe if I could've been certain the dancers were there on account of some absolute joy, then I could've tucked in. Maybe. But because I didn't trust that this was the case, I couldn't get over the feeling that my being there, my looking, was somehow ambiently abusive or mean. This is presumptuous as hell, I realize. Assuming that someone has been circumstantially strong-armed into stripping adds up to a whole different kind of objectification. What it boils down to is I think and worry too much to dig into strip clubs.

The Manor doesn't have an opinion about strip clubs, about their rightness or wrongness, or their worth, or any of the other issues that cling to that business. Those looking for a seedy behind-the-scenes peek at Guelph's sole nudie bar might be a smidge let down. In the doc, The Manor exists as both a fractious and connective element, marring the family as much as keeping it together. A subtle triumph of Shawney Cohen's first film is that he didn't make it explicitly about the club. His father, Roger, who bought the place when Shawney was six, might as well be the owner of a fast food joint or pet store. Saved from overt scrutiny, the business is freed up to do the work of both subject and metaphor.

 If it's not a slick-with-sweat look at the machinations of a strip club, then what is The Manor? At the outset, it would appear to have a Godfatherish trajectory, with Shawney (who, we find out, went to the club for a lap dance on his bar mitzvah) reticent about his role in and obligations to the family business, while his younger brother Sammy is gung-ho; there's even the "adopted" family member (not exactly Robert Duvall), law-troubled French Canadian, Bobby. I get the feeling that this might have been the animating idea at the head of Cohen's filming, the dramatic rack on which to hang his findings, but pretty quickly the focus on the qualms of the individual is enveloped in the ensemble strife.

The Manor, essentially, is about people trying to get well and do well, to do and be the right thing in their lives. Roger strives towards altruism and health, Bobby towards lawfulness, Shawney towards a less clear satisfaction. Such processes, of course, demand a certain degree of sustained self-awareness, honesty, and stripping down; personal assessment and overhaul requires moral, emotional, and intellectual (excuse me) nudity. The documentary has plenty of opportunities to become heavy handed, but maintains a light touch--Shawney the director and Shawney the subject even seem to diverge when the opinion of one might weigh down that of the other--with the opinions of the subjects never quite becoming the opinion of the film.

I said that the cornerstone of my not enjoying strip clubs was my knowing nothing about the performers. I realize now that that makes no sense. How would if feel if I knew the person peeling? No doubt I'd be equally, if differently, uncomfortable. A greater distance from the subjects would have left them laughable in a Reality TV way, would have made Roger an oaf and brute, Brenda spacy and stricken as a bird, Bobby FUBARishly thuggish. But because we come to know these people, and understand them a bit, it can become difficult to see them stripped and struggling to make positive changes in their lives, as it would be to watch your own family, yourself. It was of that one weird night I spent in Super Sex that I thought about after seeing The Manor. My watching felt somehow wrong, as though I was objectifying the Cohens. Shawney's sally into his family's life is incredibly personal. They're (excuse me) stripped down to the people we all are. And this is one of the sources of discomfort. We're in a position to leer at this family, to judge them. A few glittered, oiled, gyrating bodies manage to make it into The Manor, but otherwise the bodies the documentary dwells on are those of Shawney's dad and his mother, Brenda, as they struggle with their opposite health issues. It's the presence of Shawney--the reminder that these are real people, real parents--that prevents any veering towards exploitation.

Upping the local ante, the score by Jim Guthrie, equal parts gravitas and levitas, keeps the doc human, the tone empathetic. Obviously its local ties will make The Manor a must see in Guelph, but hopefully that circumstantial draw will slough away quickly, and everyone will appreciate the film for its sheer emotional locality.

- Andrew Hood

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