If you live in Guelph, Ontario, the establishment known as The Manor has what you’d call a reputation. On the outside it still looks like the century old mansion that once housed the local brew master and politician George Sleeman, but the inside, for more than three decades, has housed a Gentlemen’s club with an attached hotel where many of the dancers stay. The implication is that the place is seedy, but in the documentary about The Manor, which I finally got the chance to see recently, the eponymous establishment isn’t seedy at all, but home to a colourful cast of characters who happen to be mostly a loving Jewish family engaged in the adult entertainment business.
Fascinatingly, The Manor has all the makings of a sitcom, a tragedy, or a tribute to the endurance of the modern nuclear family depending on the timeframe and your viewpoint. Told through the cautious ambivalence of Shawney Cohen’s lens, the film follows a year in the life of the business and the struggles in the lives of the family that owns it. But Cohen’s lens has an inside view, because Cohen is the eldest son of Manor owner Roger Cohen and has been working at the club since his not-so-innocent youth; he wanted hockey pads for his bar mitzvah, but instead, he laments, he got a lap dance.
Joking aside, there are some serious dilemmas facing the Cohen family. Roger struggles with his weight, tipping the scale at 400 pounds and looking to shed some of that girth with out-patient surgery. Cohen matriarch Brenda has the inverse problem, an eating disorder where she’s wasting away to a stick thin 85 pounds, a problem that she seems unwilling to address. Shawney’s little brother Sammy is also around, and in a departure from this elder sibling, he loves working in the adult entertainment business, and despite company policy, even dates one of the dancers, a nutritionist in training named Gill. Amongst the club’s extended family is Sue, who runs the 32-room hotel attached The Manor, and Bobby, an ex-con who’s a kind of Jack-of-all-Trades and de facto third Cohen brother.
Between the personal struggles, there’s the ups and downs of the strip club business: personnel issues, sagging sales, and all the usual headaches involved in running a bar, hotel and entertainment venue, all combined into one beast called “The Manor,” are par for the course. Don’t think that the movie is tawdry though (all there are incidental occasions of nudity), Cohen grounds everything with unflinching honesty and a dark, if not slightly perverse, sense of humour. Cohen looks at his own family and shows them with all their warts, but he’s also fairly brutal to himself and his own hesitancy about the family business. In one scene he allows the camera to film his break-up with a girlfriend over cell phone; no histrionics, yelling, or melodrama, just two souls deciding to head in different directions, and there was something kind of uncomfortably intrusive about it.
There is, however, plenty of drama from the rest of Shawney’s family, and I, for one, am astounded by their allowance of such access to his cameras. Despite his 400 pound girth, Roger comes across like famous TV mob boss Tony Soprano, not just because they’re both based out of strip clubs, but because one gets a definite sense of authority, they are the kings of their particular castles and demand to be treated as such. Reversely, one can’t help but be touched by Brenda’s plight, particularly an incident that happens off camera where she falls and breaks her hip while ice skating. Other characters in the story have their own struggles, Bobby gets arrested for a shouting match with his ex that summons the police, and Sue struggles with substance abuse, a struggle that inspires Roger to turn the inn into a halfway house for people trying to recover from their addiction. (This segment also features a cameo by the Guelph Mercury’s Troy Brigman, by the way.)
But in so much as all this drama is captured by Cohen’s unblinking eye, there’s an occasional feeling of how was his camera in just the right place, at just the right time. For instance, there’s the very dinner theatre way that Sammy and Gill discover Brenda’s collection of laxatives, and later when a naked stripper cuts in to talk to Roger while Shawney is introducing his new girlfriend to his father. There maybe a preoccupation to up the shock value, because for a movie about a family of strip club owners, there’s something very identifiable about it. As Tolstoy once wrote in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No one in your family maybe dealing with food issues, but whether you’re the family that works together or the family that just loves together, you’ll see a bit of yourself in the Cohens.
The perspective of the average Guelphite maybe that The Manor is a blight, but in watching The Manor movie you may have that perspective shaken up a bit. You may not like their business, but there’s something admirable about the Cohens, a Canadian success story if there ever was one. The film leaves the future of the family on a somewhat ambiguous note, oddly reflecting the future of The Manor itself. Shawney and Sammy aren’t sure that they want to inherit the business, but there are eager condo developers looking at the land according to Roger. The film that captures this moment though is both heartfelt and insightful, a rare convergence of sentimentality and self-analysis. An outstanding feature debut for Shawney Cohen and his co-director Mike Galley.
The Manor is available for rent or to own on iTunes. It will also air again on TVO on Wednesday January 8, 2014 at 9 pm and midnight.