End of the Line:
Stefan Nadelman's Terminal Bar
October 13, 2002 | New York is far too big to ever encapsulate in one film. That's why the best films about New York concentrate on one small subject: One person, one place, one day. Even Ric Burns' 14 hour New York: A Documentary Film was built on individual stories. Stefan Nadelman's soulful Terminal Bar looks at the patrons of one bar over a ten year period and, at 22 minutes, it's one of the finest portraits ever made of the city. The film will screen as part of the traveling RESFest film festival. It will play in New York Thursday, October 17. (See the bottom of this page for more screening dates and locations.)
Stefan's father, Sheldon Nadelman, was a bartender at the Terminal Bar across the street from the Port Authority bus terminal from 1972 through 1982, when the bar closed. During that time the bar was owned by Murray Goldman, Sheldon's father-in-law. "My dad grew up on the Lower East Side and has been a New Yorker all his life," says Stefan. "He met my mother in Queens when she was 18 or so. They got married and had my brother, Cary, in 1970, then me in 1972. It was in 1972 that he started working for his father-in-law's bar because he needed the extra money. So it's all my fault, really."During the time Sheldon worked there, the neighborhood was a mess of drugs and crime, mired in poverty and reeking of despair. The bar itself was named the roughest in the city by New York magazine. Over the course of his ten years at the bar Sheldon snapped thousands of photos, many of them portraits of the patrons of the bar. What emerges from this stunning collection is an impression of a city in pain, of some of the most miserable, lost souls ever to sit for a camera. "Our house [was] basically my father's gallery," remembers Stefan. "I grew up looking at these faces of the Terminal Bar. My father would also paint on the matte around the photos to further make his point. He used a lot of wordplay...like GRAPE/RAPE/APE (the effects of wine). Each picture had its lesson or story and I think they subconsciously warned me of the ramifications of heavy drinking. Looking back, I can see how odd it may have seemed to have your house's walls filled with 16x20's of drunken strangers."
The photos themselves tell the story of the bar. Here's the old boxer, face swollen from years of abuse. Here's the smiling old man, happier with a drink in his hand than he'd be anywhere else. Here's the pathetic wino, eyes bugged out and face filthy. The consistency and endlessness of the photos is similar to the photo collection Harvey Keitel's character keeps in Smoke, one shot of his store every day for decades. The collection is overwhelming but each individual image is its own world of history and heartache.
The genius of Stefan's film, however, is that he doesn't merely present these fascinating images. The piece itself is a multimedia kaleidoscope which combines the photos, Sheldon's stories, text from articles about the bar, an excellent soundtrack and Stefan's virtuoso editing and animation. Each image enters the frame in its own unique way. Sometimes photos break apart into their different components, other times multiple photos join together to create a new image. Stefan's camera pans and zooms around Sheldon's frames, searching for truth and detail. Every element (music, image, voice, background bar sounds) joins together to create a heartbreakingly sad, but still energetic and funny, total.
According to Stefan, the reaction to the film has been "mostly amazement. Some people are blown away by the photos, some people love the music. The most common remark I get is how even though the film is mostly comprised of still pictures, it seems so alive by the way it flows and animates." There is an intensity to the film, which tracks the bar during years when it lost its older tough guy customers to age and alcohol-related illness and became a gay bar. The glares of the subjects couple with Sheldon's unsparing descriptions ("nasty-ass wino," "asshole," "junkie") leave a powerful impression, and Stefan's unique editing scheme puts it all together.
His ability to cut to the heart of the film seems to have been molded by his years staring at the photos. "I was aware of Terminal Bar growing up but my parents pretty much kept me away from the establishment. I was brought there a few times and my memories of it seem black and white, like the pictures."
As Sheldon says in the film to explain his photos, "If you don't put it down on paper, nobody knows." The lives on display in Terminal Bar may be largely forgotten but Sheldon's photos and Stefan's film imbue them with a little bit of dignity. Stefan feels that no matter how many Terminal Bars shut down things never really change. "If you look hard enough you'll find everything today that was around then. New York will always house the extremes. I have always believed that this city has everything, and that this everything is either the absolute best or worst. There is no middle. Black or white, really."
As for the film itself, with the "to be continued" at the end, it seems like Terminal Bar is only the beginning. "I believe RES may put it on DVD at some point. When I finish the other Terminal Bar installments I'd like to make a deluxe DVD, but maybe I'll leave that for my children to do."
Terminal Bar is showing in RESFest's Shorts Program #7. The showtimes
for the following stops on the tour are:
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