2005-09-23 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance Local Filmmaker Chosen For Tulsa Festival

Rockaway Artists Alliance
Local Filmmaker Chosen For Tulsa Festival

by Susan Hartenstein

No Rooms Lobby is a film by Robert Sarnoff, editorial cartoonist for The Wave newspaper that was shot almost exclusively in the 116th Street area — on the street and in one of its SRO’s. Sarnoff’s first film, it is now an official selection of the Bare Bones Independent Film Festival to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma from October 13 to October 16. So intriguing was the movie’s back-story that the director has also been asked to be a guest speaker at the festival. He describes the film as “a poignant, tender portrait of a modern-day Ulysses, living on the fringe.” Referred to by Sarnoff as “a culmination of a lifetime devoted to the arts,” No Rooms Lobby, made for $500, just under 20 minutes long and filmed on a digital video camera, weaves together creative, thematic and professional threads that have run through the director’s life. Ironically, it stars a man from Rockaway who is well acquainted with the subject and theme of the movie as well as its controversies.

Robert Sarnoff is fascinated by the human condition – its comedy and its tragedy. In all aspects of his creative life, he attempts to peel back the many layers of our (individual) lives and souls. “There are hidden layers to all of us. Buried treasures, dark secrets,” says Sarnoff. Sarnoff is an exhibiting artist and a published author and playwright whose works have been performed on Theatre Row, in The Village and in Chelsea. His teleplays have been optioned for television. He has directed his own stage plays and was lead actor in a NOVA award-winning movie. In 1994 he was art educator of the year. Sarnoff was the director of an arts program at a shelter for homeless men in which he taught various media that included video. He came to know these men and their histories. Sarnoff is intrigued by the stories of people living on the fringe. For several years he has been working on a stage play, “Men of Substance,” which covers this same ground. “There is something wrong in this country,” he states. He sees what he describes as “an epidemic.” People, he says further, don’t want to see the homeless or the marginal, perhaps because they are afraid that this could potentially happen to them. So they are rendered invisible and are mistrusted, as is the main character in No Rooms Lobby. But Katrina and the T.V. cameras awakened us all to the conditions under which those on the edges live. Sarnoff made this film in order to tell their stories. Without fanfare or sentimentality, he has peeled back the layers of the life of an invisible man so the audience sees a human being of dignity and determination. And he cleverly hints at hidden parts of his life the audience is teased to guess at.

How close “the fringe” can be is a common theme in Sarnoff’s work. In the three paintings he has entered in ARTSPLASH 2005, which are titled collectively, Family Album, the artist has distorted one feature on the face of the characters pictured, making them grotesque. “There is a fine line between beautiful and not beautiful, or what is considered beautiful,” states the artist. There but for the grace of God…” He quotes, “One paycheck away.” In the same way, the marginal people Sarnoff has encountered may not be so far away from the edge, on one side or the other. No Rooms Lobby draws its sensibilities and story from the stories of the homeless men of the shelter, from a lifetime of observing his fellow human beings and from the realities its director discovered during filming.

Sarnoff’s original idea for particulars of the film’s plot and for a bland main character changed when he met the man whom he eventually cast in the lead, John Baxter. But the concept of an invisible, faceless man who works hard for little money, in order to come home to his one room castle – his refuge — remained the same. Baxter, as most readers of this newspaper know, is the owner of an SRO on 116th Street. That SRO, the subject of a recent New York Times article about the pressure to tear it down, is in Sarnoff’s words, one of the stars of the film. It is where the majority of the movie was shot. The building and its environs lend grit and authenticity to the story. Sarnoff believed that Baxter understood the character of Charlie and identified with him, since he had lived in an SRO when he first came to this country as an immigrant from Ireland. Indeed, Baxter told Sarnoff that his SRO provides a clean, decent place for people to live who can’t afford more. Political debate aside, Baxter is, in fact very good in the film. He appears to “be” the character rather than “acting” him.

Two of the series of paintings in Family Album by filmmaker/artist/writer Robert Sarnoff. Others in the series appear in RAA’s ARTSPLASH 2005 now at Fort Tilden. Opening reception Suday, September 25.Two of the series of paintings in Family Album by filmmaker/artist/writer Robert Sarnoff. Others in the series appear in RAA’s ARTSPLASH 2005 now at Fort Tilden. Opening reception Suday, September 25. After John Baxter was cast, the film, says Sarnoff, took on a life of its own. It evolved organically from the original screenplay. Though there was still a formal script, the director was smart and open enough to allow the experiences of his lead and the physical setting to change and shape that script. His cast included the inhabitants of the SRO and the streets. John Trainor was a resident of the SRO whom Sarnoff heard one day being “poetically belligerent” and cast him prominently in the film. He kept his camera running as scenes were improvised and actors made mistakes that were more “genuine” than the original. The director believes he “learned a lot by just listening and watching.” He also credits his editor, Nick Barbieri, with doing a fantastic job of capturing moments that lent a stark reality to the film – for example, the poignantly, unstaged sequence of a ragged homeless man playing his keyboard on the street.

One year after No Rooms Lobby was shot, John Trainor has died violently and another member of the cast is dead; John Baxter is fighting to keep his building from being demolished; thousands in our South desperately struggle to put back the pieces of their existence. And Robert Sarnoff’s first film, weaving together the elements of lost and found lives, is part of a festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Does art imitate life, or does life just keep raising the bar for art? Robert Sarnoff may be emailed at: royalfur@yahoo.com and is available for interviews through The Wave. Reminder: ARTSPLASH 2005 opening reception is Sunday, September 25, 1-3 p.m. in sTudio 6 and 7, Fort Tilden.

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