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DOC NYC: 'Lost Bohemia' Is A Failed Attempt At Capturing Artistic History

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 27, 2010 at 11:45AM

Josef Birdman Astor's exposé on Carnegie Hall's artist evictions, "Lost Bohemia," is less successful than his profound middle name suggests. The famous concert hall had studios above it, catered to artists and housed greats such as Marlon Brando and Paddy Chayefsky, much as creator Andrew Carnegie had intended. When Birdman moved in, he felt not only honored to be part of this exclusive clique, he decided to capture the unique living experience by filming all tenants in their respective spaces. It's a portrait of various aging artists, but also a good look at artistic history. For instance, Editta Sherman, a photographer who has taken pictures for Cecil B. DeMille, recounts a cute story of a phone call she had with DeMille where he confessed that she was his favorite photographer. One tenant was a concert pianist that has played with various singers, namely Duke Ellington, and another was an acting coach for the previously mentioned Brando and Robert Redford. The pleasant trip-down-memory-lane atmosphere grinds to a halt when it is discovered that the landlord is planning to renovate, disposing of the studios and instead building office space and classrooms for a proposed educational program. The team try to fight back by starting legal cases (of which we never see), even recruiting John Turturro (who studied with the acting coach) for some publicity. They spread the word but it's all for naught, and residents begin dropping one by one like flies.
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Josef Birdman Astor's exposé on Carnegie Hall's artist evictions, "Lost Bohemia," is less successful than his profound middle name suggests. The famous concert hall had studios above it, catered to artists and housed greats such as Marlon Brando and Paddy Chayefsky, much as creator Andrew Carnegie had intended. When Birdman moved in, he felt not only honored to be part of this exclusive clique, he decided to capture the unique living experience by filming all tenants in their respective spaces. It's a portrait of various aging artists, but also a good look at artistic history. For instance, Editta Sherman, a photographer who has taken pictures for Cecil B. DeMille, recounts a cute story of a phone call she had with DeMille where he confessed that she was his favorite photographer. One tenant was a concert pianist that has played with various singers, namely Duke Ellington, and another was an acting coach for the previously mentioned Brando and Robert Redford. The pleasant trip-down-memory-lane atmosphere grinds to a halt when it is discovered that the landlord is planning to renovate, disposing of the studios and instead building office space and classrooms for a proposed educational program. The team try to fight back by starting legal cases (of which we never see), even recruiting John Turturro (who studied with the acting coach) for some publicity. They spread the word but it's all for naught, and residents begin dropping one by one like flies.

Select residents each get a rather detailed back story in a short amount of time, and while the efficiency of their history is commendable and more than satisfactory, it feels more like their "Greatest Hits" on the big screen. And despite the fact that they've all lived together for a few decades, there's a complete lack of communal feeling in the film, as there are a few eccentric characters filmed separately rather than an interesting clique of neighbors. Rarely is anyone ever documented together. There's no camaraderie felt, and this all might be due to the director's insistence to place himself in the film, with the camera strictly focused on his POV. While it's understandable that the director is part of this tragic situation, a fly-on-the-wall approach would've served the film better as it would've allowed the subjects to interact more.

Birdman does a decent job, depressingly enough, at contrasting what the spaces looked like pre and post takeover. Beginning introductions have the residents in their respective spaces, and each home is bloated with wonderful decorations and personal belongings. When he returns to these places in the second half of the film, the studios are stripped bare and the lack of life is really felt. In place of people, there are various garbage bins lining the hallways and rooms, giving it a sense of foreboding doom. A voiceover by a resident poet, who sounds an awful like Todd Solondz adds a very wise but pessimistic tone as shots of the former studios are shown. Perhaps this idea could be driven home more — the atmosphere is there, but where are these older folks to go, and why isn't this focused on?

Which brings us to the real heart of the film, the one that is unfortunately too lightly touched upon, "out with the old, in with the new." Birdman rarely shows much of what each tenant is currently working on, leaving a feeling of artists that are past their prime. When he does display one continuing their work — such as an aging dancer — it's fleeting yet beautiful, very poignant. A few questions, such as what it means to continue art when you're past your prime, are raised but never pressed (big surprise). Another great way to delve more into this topic would be to show the new classes with young, fresh new faces, highlighting the new generation of artists that replaced the older tenants. While it's a bit out of line for to suggest completely new sequences to make the film better, the fact that a potentially deep layer of the subject is completely overlooked is a major fell stroke.

As it is now, "Lost Bohemia" doesn't explore anything intriguing, it doesn't succeed as a "Damn the man!" piece, and doesn't delve deep enough into the people or their relationships for a connection to be made. It's about as hollow as those empty studios are after the tenants moved out, which is a shame, because there is so much potential for this film to really flourish. Birdman opts to document the experience in the space during its last few months to a tee, and what was meant to be a portrait of a century of artistry in New York is utterly forgettable. [D]


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