Film: “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home”
Director: Thomas Q. Napper
Writer: Christine Triano
Length: 77 minutes, documentary
Release Date: June 2010 (Los Angeles Film Festival)
Buy the DVD: On Amazon
Cast: Lee Anne Leven, Kevin Cohen (a.k.a. KK), Danny Harris, Manuel Compito (a.k.a. OG), Linda Harris, Terri Hughes (a.k.a Detroit), Catherine Keener (narrator), Albert Olson (a.k.a. Bam Bam) and Steve Richardson (a.k.a. General Dogon)
Dedicated To: Cseh Tamas, who had not just a Czech name, but also a Czech heart; those who survived Lidice and those who did not; and Robin C., the prostitute who is a direct descendant of General Robert E. Lee, with whom I bunked in a homeless shelter in El Cajon, California.
“Let this conduct be reversed; let the light be cold.” – Sir Joshua Reynolds, Ronald Sutherland Gower, Thomas Gainsborough, 1903, pp 77-78.
“We’re not here because we’re homeless; just less of home, baby.” – Terri Hughes (“Detroit”)
“This is a song about downtown Los Angeles. And this is dedicated to all the little boys who are far away from home. There’s a little park about two blocks off Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, where a lot of the gentlemen of the area congregate around the 14th of April and do their taxes every year. And mostly all they talk about is Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving and birthdays.” – Tom Waits, lyrics transcription by David Smay
Much has already been written about the redeeming social values of “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home,” hereafter “Lost Angels.” I won’t repeat what others have written. Rather, I wish to underscore that director Thomas Napper (@macnapper on Twitter) sheds new light on an important social category that most of us take for granted: work.
We accept the notion of work as natural and as given. We forget that not only is it socially produced, but also that each of us plays a part in its fashioning and in its undoing. Especially, those whom Frantz Fanon calls “les damnes de la terre” (the wretched of the earth).
Napper reminds us that those who lack higher education, good health care, a bed to sleep on and the promise of daily bread need to be heard from. Now more than ever.
Napper is best known as second unit director for films like “The Soloist” and “Anna Karenina.” He has also done stunning commercial work that features British beauty Kate Moss. “Lost Angels” is his first full length documentary. Napper chronicles the stories of eight remarkable individuals on Skid Row, also sometimes called the Nickel.
In “For Some, L.A.’s Skid Row Is For Beginnings,” broadcast on National Public Radio, April 20, 2009, Ina Jaffe reveals why locals often call Skid Row “the Nickel.” Jaffe quotes Monica May, a chef and part-owner of a downtown Los Angeles diner named the Nickel on the origin of the moniker of the eponymous neighborhood. I will sometimes refer to Skid Row as the Nickel here.
Napper highlights that although the neighborhood is unique, its stories cast a bright and cold light on what lies far outside its boundaries. First, I’ll introduce the cast and highlight themes related to work as social labor.
Lee Anne Leven is the Cat Lady. She loves to collect trash. Napper notes that “it’s very true that Lee Anne has a job. I think the fact that she is so tireless and energized to feed the stray cats on Skid Row is somehow emblematic of something quite hard to describe, but it is an action almost touched by a kind of grace. It is certainly selfless. She barely eats herself and yet she feeds those cats rain or shine.” Her fiancé is KK, also known as Kevin Cohen.
KK also has a job to do. He protects Lee Anne. He loves horses. His dream is to have a ranch to enjoy horses where Lee Anne will be able to take care of cats and store trash.
KK was killed early on Easter morning, 2009 at age 49 in a Single Room Occupancy hotel on Skid Row. Napper is unsentimental about KK’s passing and dedicates the film to him.
Danny Harris is a 1984 Olympian and track and field coach who wound up homeless as a result of drug addiction. Currently, he is Group Manager of Administrative Services at The Midnight Mission on Skid Row. He told me that it was a blessing to have been able to see what he called “both sides of the street” — the good life of an Olympic athlete flush with cash from endorsements, as well as the low life of being an addict.
Danny stole my heart when he told me that. I feel similarly blessed to have too much alphabet soup after my name, a past career as a corporate lawyer, and yet also the experience of homelessness and domestic violence.
Manuel Compito, also known as Lord Mayor of Skid Row, runs the OG Services Skid Row Brigade. He cleans streets and has a wry wit. His comments implore us to rethink established categories like addiction and religiosity. As for addiction, he says, “I don’t know. It’s like when you start clearing streets. It gets addictive.”
Thus, drugs and booze are not the only vices of compulsion in the Nickel. Instead, an act of charity shares qualities with workaholism. Manuel Compito transcends ready-made theories of canned redemption available in so many films. For Manuel, redemption is not guaranteed by good acts or good faith. Rather, he must work hard every day to save his soul. Saving his soul will be his legacy.
Linda Harris sings gospel as well as karaoke at the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene. She has a rare congenital skin disease, suffers from depression, and lives at a Los Angeles-based nonprofit for the homeless called Lamp Community.
General Dogon was sentenced to 18 years in state prison. He did nine years with six in solitary. He told his brothers that when he got out, he would return to the community that he had harmed and make amends. That is exactly what he did.
He is now the lead human rights organizer at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN). As another member of LA CAN notes, Dogon may well be like Malcolm X. One day Dogon may be on a postage stamp.
Terri Hughes a.k.a. “Detroit,” is Napper’s personal hero. She ran away from home at 16, and at 17 got a job and paid rent on her own. She then married, had children and fell on hard times after a divorce. Today she works on being the best mother that she can and is a role model at Lamp Community.
Albert Olson, a.k.a. “Bam Bam,” is the only veteran in the film. I wish that there were more. I know from firsthand experience living with homeless veterans in more than 20 homeless shelters across the United States and a handful of domestic violence shelters that the official numbers are far too low. Many homeless veterans do not show up for events like the well-known Stand Down in San Diego out of embarrassment. Such men and women have ample survival skills from their military background to do without free hair cuts, free combs, free toothbrush and toothpaste hand outs, offers of gratis minimal dental work, and other crumbs offered to those who have served their country, but lack a home.
Homelessness among veterans is not a new problem on Skid Row. The well kept archives at Reverend Andy Bales’ Union Rescue Mission — where I stayed for a month owing to domestic violence — show that homelessness among veterans goes back at least as far as WWII.
Bam Bam is a great placeholder for all veterans without a home, those who are counted and those who are not. He served in Vietnam. He is transgender, brash and has had a crisis of faith so extreme owing to mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness that it brings to mind Hazel Motes, the forlorn WWII veteran featured in Flannery O’Connor’s first novel “Wise Blood.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER: NAPPER’S EXPLORATION OF WORK AS SOCIAL LABOR
Work, as a social category, gets naturalized perhaps more than any other category except for biological reproduction. Social labor is very hard for anthropologists and sociologists to grasp. Very few work places allow open social scientific inquiry. Most social scientists, moreover, lack experience in occupations outside of academia. Therefore, they lack a practical frame of reference even when they do gain access.
Napper skirts these problems because of his sympathy for the work of the homeless and for the work of those whose job it is to clothe, feed, police and house them. For example, Napper makes sure we know that, for the most part, the police take care of the mentally ill.
Police Officer Dion Joseph is a “fixture.” He talks not only about drug trade on San Julian, but also about the homeless who come to him for job references. Thus, a police officer tasked with enforcing crime is critically involved, as well, in defining work. As for the firefighters, what they do is no less critically important. “As first responders to emergency calls, the Skid Row fire station is the busiest in North America.”
Most emergency calls have nothing to do with fire. Rather, they are public safety and health emergencies. The firefighters, then, just like the police, do far more than what we typically think of as their job descriptions. They go where angels fear to tread. They deliver water on the hottest days of summer when the homeless are parched and stricken with sun stroke. They perform first aid when there are no doctors. Their social labor is often a labor of love. Napper does not let us forget it.
A particularly colorful character named Redd quips the following: “Arresting a homeless person for being on the streets is not a solution … there’s no one that I’ve run into yet that has ever told me when they were in the fourth grade and they were talking about career day that they were going to wind up on Skid Row.”
Thus Redd puts a new spin on what is meant by “career homelessness.” As a rule, demographers, economists and urban planners mean those who will never come in from the street when they refer to career homelessness. For Redd, however, career homelessness is a plan never made in grammar school.
Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and longtime advocate for homeless families in the Nickel, notes in the film that “all those uptowners who want to come and have their sort of Disneyland Manhattan experience have other options. The poor don’t.” As Skid Row lies in the shadow of Disney Hall, Callaghan’s remarks are particularly poignant.
She also asks the following: “Who in the private or the public sector builds housing for a single adult whose total income is a two hundred and twenty-three dollar General Relief check?” Who indeed. Certainly not most of those who work in real estate who frequent Disney Hall. One Disney Hall-related real estate baron, in particular, is famous for track housing. But not track housing for the homeless.
I have underscored here that we have a lot to learn — thanks to Napper and his cast and crew — from the homeless and the police and firefighters who serve them. Much of what I have talked about has been the theme of “work.” In this regard, Napper tills the field and tills it hard and well. He makes it easy for you to discover the inner city in new ways.
I urge you to do just that. Staff a bread bank. Volunteer at a domestic violence shelter. In Phoenix, Arizona, at a domestic violence shelter where I once lived, firefighters and their family members gave up their Thanksgiving holiday to feed survivors of domestic violence. They did this on Thanksgiving itself. Most shelters hold holiday feast days not on the holiday itself, so that volunteers can enjoy the holiday with friends and loved ones. But in Phoenix on Thanksgiving not too long ago, a greater sacrifice was made on my and others’ behalf.
If you don’t feel like joining a group, do what San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit does. Make healthy food and hand it out on the street yourself. You can also find out which missions are well run and deserve your donations of food, money and clothing — especially children’s clothes like diapers. Then donate. If Napper’s film is not ample impetus, then nothing is.
Additional Note: Napper has a fine arts background that has been too little addressed. Unfortunately, I lack the screen grabs and space here to do redress. It is precisely his training as a painter and connoisseur and a practitioner of a wide array of photographic genres that allows him to ask important questions. He studied painting before he came to film, and before he came to film, he immersed himself in photography.
“It was always about character,” he told me when I asked about the influence of his background in the fine tradition of British portraiture and in a broad array of photographic traditions on his work. “Totally face to face interviews. Very close to the camera. Confrontationally close. Photo-real everything … A way to make the people not-invisible.”
Danish photographer Jacob Holdt has had a lasting influence on Napper, as have Lee Friedlander, Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Walter Evans. I don’t have enough space here — it would take yard upon yard of the finest silk thread — to weave together the kinship network that binds these artists. I urge you to explore these ties that bind for yourself.
One can feel these and other influences in Napper’s work. Especially the imprimatur of Sir Thomas Gainsborough, an eighteenth century British portrait and landscape painter. Gainsborough’s best known work, “The Blue Boy” (1770), hangs just miles from Skid Row in San Marino at the Huntington Library. If you see “Lost Angels” in Southern California, I urge you to visit the Huntington afterwards and see for yourself.