The eponymous establishment in Michæl Dominic’s documentary “Sunshine Hotel” will not be found in any tourism or convention guide to New York City. Despite its jolly name, the establishment is actually a dark, dismal flophouse located on the Bowery, the section of New York long regarded as the last stop for skid-row denizens suffering from alcoholism, mental illness, poverty or the failure to fit into the ebb and flow of society.
The residents of the Sunshine Hotel sleep in a warren of 4′ x 6′ cubicles with flimsy wooden walls that stand 7′ high and carry chicken wire coverings. The chicken wire is five inches from the actual ceilings and this gap allows the establishment to skirt housing laws since the cubicles cannot be classified as rooms because they lack ceilings. One wishes such clever thinking could go into improving the lives of the Sunshine residents.
Chances are no one would want to visit the Sunshine Hotel, let alone stay there for years and years. At the same time, it is difficult to know if anyone would want to visit the film “Sunshine Hotel” either. Not unlike its subject, the film is uncomfortable and dismal and frequently tests the endurance of those who come into its path. While the film is deserving of respect for providing a rare glimpse into the world of contemporary poverty (a subject which is conspicuously lacking from today’s cinema), “Sunshine Hotel” often seems like a missed opportunity rather than a cogent commentary on an ill-considered subject.
One key fault with “Sunshine Hotel” is the decision to give the narration and the heart of the film to the flophouse’s resident manager, Nathan Smith. A Bowery fixture for 20 years, Smith is an unsentimental ex-cabbie and musician who wound up homeless after being evicted from his apartment. However, Smith is a poor raconteur who relates stories of his own experiences and the lives of his fellow residents with an indifferent attitude and a voice which never conceals his boredom. Smith’s lack of interest in his work and life is evident in a bizarre scene when a fistfight breaks out in front of his wire-enclosed front office in the flophouse lobby. As the antagonists duel with shoves and slaps, Smith makes no attempt to stop that fracas and only adds to confusion when he cries out with mock-concern: “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Please, my heart!”
In fairness, the press notes to “Sunshine Hotel” warns that “not every resident of the Sunshine is a paragon of virtue or a fount of homespun wisdom.” Yet at the same time, what is the point of making a film about dull people who are uncomfortable on camera? The film’s interviews are not insightful and filmmaker Dominic rarely gets to the heart and soul of the people he is interviewing. For example, one resident is described as a philosophy student and he casually drops the names of Lao-Tze and Emerson. Yet the film never bothers to inquiry into the education of this unlikely philosophy student, let alone ask how the principles of such great philosophers fuel his life below the poverty level. Another resident is a Vietnam War veteran who states his economic downfall is the result of nerve damage stemming from stepping on a landmine during battle. Yet the obvious question about why he is not receiving the treatment he deserves at a Veterans Administration hospital is not asked here.
Furthermore, the owners of the Sunshine are mentioned in passing. Yet if any attempt was made to track them down for an on-camera interview, it is never shown on screen. The camera captures various vermin who crawl about the establishment, yet it is never asked why insects and rodents are allowed to keep residence within the flophouse. If Nathan Smith is both the manager and a resident, wouldn’t it make sense to ask him why he runs and lives in such a filthy establishment?
Strangely, one lengthy sequence is devoted to a gabby gofer who insists that he can walk faster than most people run. The camera chases him on an errand to pick up cigarettes and coffee for Nathan Smith…yet from the material which survived the final cut, there is absolutely nothing to suggest this gofer has Road Runner speed. The audience is left with a pointless slice of shaky footage which has nothing to do with the story at hand.
In fairness to “Sunshine Hotel,” the film provides an interesting history on how the Bowery gained its infamous reputation and it offers a rare chance to see how the lowliest of the have-nots survive in a city which is maniacally obsessed with success and fortune. Some of the men interviewed on camera relate various degrees of embarrassment at their lives in a flophouse. However, the embarrassment truly belongs to a society which would prefer to forget that poverty is very much alive and thriving–albeit out of general sight and away from mass consideration, like an undetected cancer. Whatever the deficiencies of the film’s interviews and focus, its bravery on turning a light into this dark and forgotten corner makes this a worthwhile production deserving of notice.
Hopefully, Michæl Dominic will continue to make more documentaries on subjects that demand attention and force audiences to remember that all is not well in our little world. “Sunshine Hotel” deserves the proverbial “A” for effort and Dominic is clearly a filmmaker whose progress deserves to be followed.