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The Manor (2013)

Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions
Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions

In one of this film’s first scenes, a manager tells a stripper “I’m fining you $20 because I’m so pissed at you,” while handing her a $40 payment for a shift. She tells him she was scheduled for one shift, she showed up for it and he couldn’t “fine her” or withhold her pay. “I can do whatever I want,” he says. 90 seconds in, and I already have a grudge against the people running this strip club.

Director Shawney Cohen tells us that The Manor, which opened the 2013 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, is not a documentary about the titular strip club—it is about his family. Shawney’s parents bought the Manor, a combination strip club/downmarket residential hotel in Ontario, when he was a child, and now it’s run as a family business with their two adult sons. The film is more mystifying than revealing, as it cites connections between family disorder, dysfunction and the running of a strip club which are never really clarified.

Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014)

Sin City 1, via fanpop via huffington post Imagine a city so bleak, so hopeless, so full of darkness, that only criminals and social rejects have a fighting chance to survive living there. Imagine villains so desperate, so foul, so vile, that the ugliest death for them still wouldn’t feel like justice. Now imagine heros who are so full of vice, rage, and demons that they are not much better than our villains. Picture a city that doesn’t have a violent underbelly, because its entirety is a violent underbelly. This is the setting Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have built for us with Sin City and its sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Based on Miller’s comic book series of the same name, the two have constructed a nightmare town that is terrifically gory and hellbent on destroying every person who enters it.

The characters that seem most equipped to survive Sin City are its sex workers. (Spoilers ahead.) 

Gore and Psychic Wounds: Nicole Witte Solomon on Horror, Phone Sex, and Film

Solomon with the star of her short, Manini Gupta, on set. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Witte Solomon)
Solomon with the star of Small Talk, Manini Gupta, on set. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Witte Solomon)

Nicole Witte Solomon and I have kept up with each other online for a while, dating back to the era when she was a young phone sex operator/film student, just beginning to pitch her clever writing on topics ranging from vegan cooking to feminism in pop culture to a variety of venues. As the years have gone by, she’s fulfilled many of her dreams, from directing a video for her favorite Jewish post-riot grrl band The Shondes to co-founding writers’ site The Stoned Crow Press. Having followed the making of her phone sex horror movie short Small Talk since its inception, it’s exciting to get a chance to interview Solomon about it as it finally makes the festival rounds.

What attracted you to horror as a genre? What sort of opportunities do you think horror provides for feminist artists?

I’m attracted to horror as a viewer because it has the potential to make me feel a wide range of intense emotions within a controlled and hopefully safe environment. A great horror director is much like a great domme; of course I gravitate towards the genre as both a viewer and filmmaker.

The whole reason Small Talk happened is I was writing a phone sex memoir and got the image in my head of a PSO taking a phone sex call while dismembering a corpse. It felt a lot more compelling than a long, tedious recounting of autobiographical detail. Horror allows us to break into the supernatural where needed and requires no happy endings.

It was enormously therapeutic for me to make this film. I had some unresolved feelings and then I exploded a couple [of] people in a movie and now I feel fucking great. I am a huge proponent of filmmaking as a form of narrative therapy and encourage any and all sex workers who have unresolved feelings to make art about it, if for no other reason than my own selfish one of I really can go the rest of my fucking life without reading, viewing or otherwise consuming a sex worker narrative by a non-sex worker, and god knows everyone else is apparently starved for them [narratives by and about sex workers] and—

The horror community has been by far the most welcoming of the film. I submitted it to a ton of “women’s” film festivals and not a single one has wanted to touch it. One festival that rejected me offered to send a summary of jury comments for free and the comments were basically like “It was well shot and acted and all but it was about a phone sex operator and it was so disturbing and suddenly people were exploding and I don’t understand why and our audience will be so disturbed and upset.” That was the consensus of why my film was a bad choice for their festival.

I was impressed with how Manini Gupta, as the phone sex operator protagonist, Al, was so versatile with the affect of her voice as she worked the line. And I empathized with her so much as she rolled her eyes through most of those calls. What were you looking for in the actress that would play the PSO? What was most important for you to say about being a phone sex operator in your movie?

It was not easy finding someone who could do all the things you mentioned, and the most important thing to me was that the actress I cast be believable—to me. That was the litmus test. I needed someone who could 1. Convincingly play all those things on the PSO fantasy end—sound like a believable, good PSO while also 2. Play the Al character’s own, usually conflicting reaction to what’s going on. Manini was totally on the right track from the first audition, whereas most people I saw couldn’t really do either, let alone both at the same time.

In terms of what I wanted to say about being a PSO—I guess I wanted to portray it as a challenging job involving a particular skill set. I wanted to show some of the less savory aspects of the job without demeaning it in any way. I wanted to open up to the world about the specific aspects that can be difficult and sometimes emotionally damaging in a way that contextualized it within a broader service industry—looking at race and gender dynamics within capitalism in general, not just the sex industry specifically or the phone sex industry in particular. I meant this film as a kind of valentine to other PSOs, honestly. Our labor and skills are so commonly undervalued and misunderstood, and what we do is so tricky, if we do it well.