It is one thing to be angry and quite another to see that anger manifest itself in a sensible—and potentially productive—way. The same is true for any emotion. Of course, try as we might, we can’t always control the ways in which we harness (or don’t) these emotions. That is, we may want to channel our anger/upset/anxiety/etc. into something that will help us, that will move us forward, but doing so is simply not always possible.
Written, produced, and directed by Johnny Sweet, the new documentary, “Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars,” offers up an hour-long look at the lives of several Queens, NY residents who made their living by working at neighborhood bars when the pandemic hit in 2020. Sweet offers up a plethora of talking heads, including various employees/managers/owners of these bars and a number of healthcare professionals as well. No small task, he attempts to not just situate the viewer in the lives of these individuals and the neighborhood they worked in prior to Covid sweeping across the city, but also to tell us how they coped, how the industry coped, and what was happening on a larger scale citywide at the time.
There are a number of touching stories told by the various individuals we meet and more than one moment with the potential to bring the audience to tears. We watch these people as they struggle, unsure, even in the moment they are being interviewed, about what is going to come next for them and for their friends and family and for the city they call “home.”
It is here, in these moments as the story is being recounted even before the ending has been written that “Last Call” could go off the rails. Sweet and the interviewees could easily find a target at which to direct their anger. We could hear about how the shutdown was wrong or how various institutions failed or how the media blew it all out of proportion or how… whatever occurred and that “whatever” most definitely is to blame for every ill that befell this community.
This doesn’t happen. To be sure, there is upset directed at various institutions/entities/individuals, but—amazingly—the documentary operates from a nearly sanguine place. There seems to be an understanding from these folks that the measures taken to protect the population, the measures that cost them their jobs and pulled at tight-knit bonds, were essential; maybe things could have been implemented better, but the idea was correct.
Such a stance for a documentary feels nearly unfathomable in this day and age when we are routinely told, very specifically, what person/institution can be blamed for any given ill. But, as presented, it is certainly the correct way to go – Sweet shows how the city was suffering, how hospitals were suffering, how things had to close down.
Interestingly, this rage-free approach proves to be a double-edged sword for “Last Call.” There is no enemy other than a faceless illness tearing through the population. There is no one at whom the interviewees can shake their fists and yell at the top of their lungs. That tension is missing. What we get instead is the heartbreak of what occurred (is still occurring). We get to see how everyone tries to make their way through it; how they try to cope, and there isn’t always enough happening to sustain the film’s momentum. Crucially, this isn’t the same as saying that the stories aren’t worthwhile and the people we see aren’t hurting and scared and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, just that there is little propelling the documentary forward.
And so, in the end, what we get with “Last Call” is a look at how one community suffered during 2020 and that one community, while specific, can function very well as a stand-in for so many others. We are left with a feeling of loss and upset and distress. We are also left with the sense that the documentary is itself a little hollow, telling a story that is painful, but one that is also incredibly familiar as we all just lived through this moment. There is both a lack of urgency in the story, as so much of what is being talked about is in the past, and a lack of ending as we are still going through the moment and so much is still up in the air. One walks away from the movie (once again) heartbroken and wishing the best for everyone who lost something in 2020 and wishing the canvas for these stories was a better one.
photo credit: Global Digital Releasing