Michael Dominic’s documentary SUNSHINE HOTEL takes us to one of the last of the flophouses that once teemed in New York’s Bowery. From a high of two hundred half a century ago, there are now only eight, housing tenants in cubicles with chicken wire instead of ceilings, tenants who cling to those cubicles as an escape from the reality few of us would be strong enough to face. Filmed anti-intuitively with a lush color saturation and elegant cinematography that adds a wistfulness to the stories of lives gone wrong and dreams that only prolong misery, it offers a unsparing look at what it means to hit bottom and stay there.
The tour guide is Nate Smith, long-time resident philosopher and the manager of the Sunshine. Nate has the soul of a poet and the pragmatic viewpoint of a guy whose luck ran out a long time ago. He sleeps in the same bed where the previous manager blew his brains out and while he says that doesn’t bother him, he does make a point of saying that he has changed the mattress. His piquant counterpoint is Ray. A desk clerk and former crack addict who copes with life on the skids by flinging barbed doses of reality out at whoever crosses his path, doses that hit the mark without doing the recipient much good.
In profiling the tenants, Dominic lets us get to know them the way he did, by listening to them talk about whatever comes to mind in a stream of consciousness that reveals much. There’s Bruce, who pluckily approaches his job of running errands with all the intensity and planning of a commando raid. And L.A., a shell-shocked veteran who has become so uninterested in his own life that he talks impassively about stepping on a landmine in Vietnam.
The film is structured in riffs. How the men got to the Sunshine Hotel, how they get through their days, how they plan to leave, and, in a heartbreaking finale, why they probably never will–something we can figure out, but they haven’t. With each riff, we get to know the tenants a little better. But in a downward spiral that echo the tenants lives, the riffs become more bitter, and the tenants monologues drift further from reality. The seemingly functional hear personal messages from television broadcasts, and the barely functional horde an arsenal for the nighttime attack that theyre convinced is coming. Delusions lurk behind every word, fights punctuate friendships, and an overdose in the bathroom barely causes a ripple. At the end, Dominic asks Nate where he would you like to be in five years. Alive, says Nate, succinctly summing up what life comes down to in his world.
As Nate says, you haven’t really seen life until you’ve been in a flophouse and he’s right. The SUNSHINE HOTEL shows us life as it is almost impossible to imagine. Even though it focuses on people that we would likely turn away from should we meet them in the street, Dominic’s infinitely compassionate take on his subjects inspires the same emotion in us. We empathize with the pain and mourn the waste of their lives. We see them as individuals clinging to the last scraps of their dignity with a bravado that is at once courageous and crazy.