Where I live is very important to me . . . even if it’s a hole in the wall, it’s my hole in the wall.” — one of the residents of the Century Plaza
Eric Lahey, the production assistant on Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) whose artwork was used, spent more than six months at the Century Plaza in downtown Portland, Oregon, in order to make this brilliant documentary. Once a hotel catering to traveling salesmen, it deteriorated into a complex of single room occupancies for transients, prostitutes, parolees and others trying desperately not to join the army of the homeless, up from whose ranks some have risen. (Such residencies for the poor are disappearing in the U.S.) Compassionate, nonjudgmental, unsentimental, Lahey is very much Van Sant’s disciple—and, incredibly, a mere 25 when this film, which he also photographed and edited, was released.
Rico, an orange-and-white tabby, is the main character. Rico roams the hotel’s corridors and various rooms, both witness and spirit. Visually he projects a continuity amongst the members of the fragile, somewhat shifting community of residents. Rico also constantly implies the immense loneliness that he assuages, accounting for the residents’ openness to allowing him into their private domains.
We hear about another cat. This belongs to Bob, one of the residents. Currently he is boarding this adored pet at an animal hospital. A convicted child molester, Bob is haunted by what he has done; he figures that the nine- and ten-year old boys he molested, who would be in their thirties now, are still traumatized by what he did to them. Bob is vigilant in his self-monitoring, to keep from acting on his urges. When at the end we are given a summary of resident outcomes, we learn that Bob was sent back to prison because he went off his medication, taking which was a condition of his parole. We wonder whether the cost of his cat’s treatment prohibited Bob from keeping current with his own medication. We recall Bob’s account of his criminal history. “I think that’s enough for today,” Bob tells Lahey, who is invisible throughout and who applies to the image of Bob a slow fadeout—tactful, respectful, deeply moving.
Lahey shows us and interviews a host of the hotel’s residents, a tangle of raw-end lives. There are a dissolving young couple, Chastity and Manuel, and their young son, Devin. “My life,” says another resident, Greg, “[revolves] around Mormonism and drugs.” We learn at the end that went back to Salt Lake City, Utah, leaving his roommate, Mahesh, from India, homeless. A philosophical defeatist, the one resident we see reading books, contributes some of the film’s best lines: “Obviously there is something damaged that happened in my life to bring me to this”; “a long boredom broken by panic”—his definition of life. Another resident, Isaac, assaults and kills a cockroach with the sole of his shoe. This is how good Lahey is: We see the approach but only hear the whack; Lahey cuts to an hilarious shot of Rico tearing down a hallway.
A loose railing from one of the floors to the next effortless symbolizes the state of these people’s lives as another accident waiting to happen.
We see Rico roaming in the alleyway adjacent to the hotel as well. Indeed, Lahey musters poetic shots of the exterior of the hotel and Portland streets at night—poetic; not poetical. Like Van Sant, young Lahey is a soulful artist. His every shot, however, turns our minds toward the nearly lost souls who are the film’s reason for being.