Director: Josef Astor
With: Josef Astor, Editta Sherman, Jeanne Beauvais, Bill Cunningham, Elizabeth Sargeant (as the Poet–Voice Only)
Lost Bohemia functions as a kind of tangential sequel/prequel to Bill Cunningham New York. Though initially completed in 2010, it was released in 2011 and has been making the rounds across the county–arriving in Miami this past couple of weeks. It partially answers some of the nagging questions I had from Bill Cunningham, like what happened to Editta Sherman.
The story follows the dying days of the artist work/live studios above the famed Carnegie Hall. We are introduced to the many cast of characters that called the Hall their home: photographers, pianist, painters, writers, architects, dancers, musicians. Some, like Editta Sherman, “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall”, and Bill Cunningham having lived there since 1949, and other more “recent” arrivals from the mid-eighties, such as the photographer/filmmaker Josef Astor.
The documentary begins with the “narrator”–the reclusive poet on the 8th floor–leaving a message on the “bird man’s”–Astor–answering machine expressing her concern about the forces in action to destroy their community. We are quickly introduced to the history of the famed hall and the artist community above. We are also introduced to their plight: in 2007 the Carnegie Hall Corporation began to remove the remaining artist, and one by one remove/renovate their old studios into corporate offices. The artist fight back believing the Hall charter will protect them, but without the support of the City they lose the battle. By the end of the documentary only the six rent controlled residents remain, but they to are slowly forced-out–compensated by being moved to another building where the corporation subsidizes their rent to the same levels they had previously been paying.
Along this colorful journey we introduced to some interesting stories and histories. Star Szarek was an eighty-five year old dancer that “lived” in the fire stairwell studio. She was also most likely mentally ill and completely obsessed with classical dance, and most likely homeless–using the stairwell to practice during the day and the communal baths to stay clean. But she was also a good dancer. Half-way through the documentary she was invited to be part of the ballet dance school. Towards the end of the film as the halls and studios becoming emptier, Astor can no longer find her and discovers she hasn’t been seen in weeks. He later discovers from the ballet school instructor that Star has passed. Robert Modica is an acting professor who ran an Actor’s Studio from his studio in the hall; one of his students being John Turturro. His studio was dark with peeling paint, lined on one side with rows of theatre seating, and smelling of years of accumulated smoke from his ever-present cigarette. Jeanne Beauvais was a theatre dancer, and was also known as the “Woman Who Saved Carnegie Hall”–not for the current situation but for one in the past. In an odd way her story has a happy ending by not living long enough to be forced out of her home. On her last New Year she was unable to join the other residents at the main party, but some joined her at her studio.
The overall story is a sad one; younger residence being evicted and older ones forced out. But where the artists still a community? There is a certain melancholy felt when you discover it has been weeks before anyone noticed Star was missing; when Modica, who has been there for decades, doesn’t know who his neighbors are; when the person leading the charge to fight back is not a resident, but one of Modica’s students. You get a sense that the residents who have been there the longest never got to know those who came later. The loss of the artist studios and their history is a sad thing, but the loss of the community may have happened earlier.
Josef Astor as a filmmaker does a decent job. His choice to use the messages of The Poet–Elizabeth Sergeant–as the narrator was genius. Her tone and concern becoming greater as the film progresses. The flaw in the documentary is he left you hanging. What happened to the people after they left? Where are they living? What are they doing?
Grade = B