By Christopher Sharrett.
One of the most important films of the 1990s, certainly the best about poverty and the plight of the homeless.”
Tim Hunter’s 1993 film The Saint of Fort Washington enjoyed some applause in its day while having a limited release and poor commercial performance. Today, it seems almost forgotten, but it should be seen as one of the most important films of the 1990s, certainly the best about poverty and the plight of the homeless. More crucially, it is a snapshot of a moment in time, as New York, the representative city and the modern Babylon, began in earnest the project of gentrification – and the criminalization of poverty. Under city rulers like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (now a stooge for the hyper-corrupt Trump crowd) drove the poor underground, making their grim means of survival – like washing windshields of motorists – declared a criminal nuisance and cause for police to push the homeless into so-called shelters, or the sewers.
The film is shot entirely on location (as far as I can tell), capturing the tail-end of the thirty-year period of New York’s physical decline, the backdrop of which was used in innumerable films, most famously Taxi Driver (1976), where the city is portrayed as an inferno of depravity. This image of New York recurs insistently. This interpretation, of a culturally rich and racially diverse city, always the signifier of liberalism to reactionaries, has stuck as New York’s eternal portrait. (Those interested in the conscious destruction of New York as a major industrial port should read The Assassination of New York, by Robert Fitch. I can’t think of better instruction on the coming of a financialized economy and deindustrialized society.)
The visuals of The Saint of Fort Washington, captured by cinematographer Frederick Elmes (who assisted the visions of David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, and others), might be accused of inaugurating the “ruin porn” genre, the coffee-table photo books that glory in images of decay in Detroit, Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere, providing a kind of frisson and somewhat guilty pleasure to those saying “I told you so” concerning the excesses of capitalism – even though economic causes are not much at the root of the ruin porn or “urban exploration” hobbies. The drastic decay of the city is certainly on display in Hunter’s film, from the first image of the destruction of a huge red brick tenement called the Jefferson Arms (allusions to the nation’s founding are a constant), but, contra ruin porn, The Saint of Fort Washington is concerned with human consequences of the neoliberal project. One scene has a character walking down the notorious portion of 42nd Street known in its time for grindhouse cinemas, porno shops, and prostitutes. Here, the theaters are dark, empty hulks, signifiers of a demise that will finally spawn a new, more garish world of juvenile, corporatized entertainment, the previous fare deemed unprofitable to the corporate sponsors that will decide the city’s fate. Instead of being debauched, the citizens will be infantilized. We also see Times Square, vulgar as always, but in 1992 almost quaint compared to the space now chocked with mammoth electronic signs, so as to remove from the human mind anything of creative human mentation
The stars of the film, Danny Glover and Matt Dillon, as homeless men Jerry and Matthew respectively, have been acknowledged as talented actors; here they are luminous, revealed as gifted artists aware of their characters’ every nuance, developing them with discerning intelligence. Jerry and Matthew discover each other on the streets, and after a little friction become fast friends; in the process they replicate the older man/young disciple construct of literature and especially American cinema, but here it is overturned with remarkable sensitivity. Jerry, a Vietnam veteran with shrapnel in his right knee, teaches Matthew, a schizophrenic, the most basic skills, not just of street survival but everyday existence: how to hold a coffee cup, how to hold a squeegee mop. He boosts Matthew’s sense of self, telling him he is a visionary rather than a schizophrenic, equating him with Moses and Joan of Arc (but with cynicism that Matthew doesn’t see, Jerry’s manner conveying his true thoughts about religious myth – he tells Matthew later that Johnson & Johnson, makers of his pain killers, are the true gods, and that the churches and synagogues are “just propaganda”). Jerry slowly takes a turn, functioning pretty well in Jerry’s company.
At one point Matthew massages Jerry’s bad leg to good effect; the film doesn’t glance away from the emotional bond of the two men. Later, when Matthew does a laying-on of hands for an arthritic friend at Jerry’s request, Jerry uses rainwater to anoint Matthew “the saint of the homeless people.” A beatific scene occurs that the film doesn’t have to cajole us to accept. But the anointing and Jerry’s lessons come to nothing for both men, as material reality rather than the Wisdom of the Father prevails.
The essence of Jerry’s story is emphasized perhaps too often; he partnered with a fellow veteran to create a greengrocer business sabotaged by the partner’s gambling. Jerry loses wife, family, car in a modern but archetypal narrative of catastrophe. The notion of a single paycheck keeping one away from homelessness is distilled in various ways, from motorists calling them and their friends “bums” to other homeless reiterating Jerry’s argument. Still, they aren’t wrong, and Jerry’s fate poses questions about the American economy; although financial whiz kids tell us that Americans don’t save money, how is this possible? We are told by the same people to consume what is sold to us down to the last dime, regardless of the consumed object’s usefulness. Pensions as such hardly exist in the private sector. The ones still around are often tied to the stock market, which in recent years has seen “volatile” periods when the elderly often lose everything.
The film gives us a world where pensions serve the privileged few, quite obviously, as the camera takes us on a tour of a New York avoided by brochures. We see the edges of the city that are kept where they are, more or less, even as they bleed into boroughs. Empty lots are filled with rubble, trash fires, and rotting vehicles, including one Jerry used (or thinks he used) to deliver vegetables. We see Classical Revival architecture marked with graffiti by youth gangs without a future. Statues of past white power brokers are passed without notice. And we find out what our society means when it speaks of “shelter.”
Jerry and Matthew go to the mammoth Fort Washington Armory, transformed into a men’s homeless shelter. The building informs us of what we define as shelter and concern for the common good. It is a foreboding, cavernous structure with a Romanesque entrance, located at Fort Washington Point in uppermost Manhattan, a location once important to the Continental Army. That the American experiment has failed drastically is made obvious by a shot of the main floor of the Armory, with what must be a thousand military cots arranged in neat rows. Banks of fluorescent lights click off in succession, plunging the men into darkness, as cries, odd catcalls, and a generally threatening atmosphere prevail. Meanwhile, sadistic predators like Little Leroy (Ving Rhames) rob and murder the sleeping men. In the huge, filthy bathroom, Leroy stabs a man for his watch. It is here that Jerry adopts Matthew as his son, momentarily confusing Leroy, thrashed by Jerry for assaulting the boy, putting to use his military training for something useful beyond his past role as cannon fodder. The credits tell us that these scenes are populated by actual homeless men, some of whom act out scenes. One can say that this is exploitation as much as recognition (and some money?); whatever the case is, the moments are consistently effective, unnerving, always blanched of any joy.
The dream of opening a new produce business informs the film with a pastoral sense always in the background of American literature, sensibly so in this story of people wanting to escape the filth and destruction of the city. The idea is often tied to the American myth of the nation as the place where one reinvents the self, here thoroughly demolished. Matthew has a vision of him and Jerry driving down a country road framed by orchards, with tableaux of homeless friends, like Rosario (Rick Aviles) and Tamsen (Nina Siemaszko) in clean new summer clothes, like the ones Jerry and Matthew have. There is also a little old man holding a postcard, previously seen when he approaches Matthew in wretched shape. What is on the card? Matthew retrieves the picture from the old man’s cot after his sudden death. The image appears to be of ruins in an ancient European city. The man may have preserved a golden moment of his life, or is the card the film’s insistence that the Old World has visited its worst evils on the new?
The film may be interesting to a certain type of cinema scholar interested in voyeurism, the “apparatus” and such. Matthew carries an empty 35 mm SLR camera, snapping images of the passing scene that are nothing more than phantasms. He once had a photograph published. Matthew gets a roll of film from Jerry (expensive for a homeless man) that he doesn’t want, but which is ultimately kept and used by the younger man as he creates an album he never sees. Jerry has told him he knows he is a great photographer, without having seen any evidence. Like Matthew, Jerry has transcendent vision, not needing a concrete referent to understand the nature of things. There is a point where one realizes that much of what we see is through Matthew’s eyes as much as Frederick Elmes’s. There are numerous portraits and vignettes (a bleeding, crying man in a toilet stall, the verdant fields by the highway in Matthew’s mind) that, by the end, become the substance of the film, revealing the collision of the ideal with the real, and the deliberate destruction of the human subject and its potentials by late capitalism.
There are triumphant moments in the film, such as when Matthew, newly empowered by Jerry, takes command when a discouraged Jerry is ready to die on a bench. Matthew makes his partner get back to work on the windshields, earning money side by side so that the two can get their imaginary apartment and new station wagon – for the resurrection of the fruit and vegetable business. Jerry, who had concocted the fantasy, has surrendered it; his only interest now is Matthew’s companionship, and the boy’s status as his “son.”
The film doesn’t end well. Matthew is murdered when Jerry isn’t there to protect him at the hellish armory. The film’s ending would be very clear-eyed, were it not for treacly music, including a vocal entitled “Shame,” which reminds us that we should be ashamed of the circumstances of human society. It is a moment of very bad judgment, where the filmmaker accedes to Hollywood notions of the soundtrack as the place where the artist tells the audience emphatically, and very stupidly, what it should feel. Tim Hunter, or someone in charge, seems not to have noticed that the images and script tell all.
Jerry follows Matthew’s body to the upper tip of Manhattan, where a truck is waiting on a barge, where it will go to Hart Island, the home of Potter’s Field, the last stop for the rejected. There are ironies to the island too numerous to discuss here. It has in the past contained several prisons, a tuberculosis sanitarium, a mental institution, and a training camp for United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Wikipedia informs me that during the Cold War it housed missiles. And it is the site of a million-person cemetery, everyone buried in mass graves without markers. Today, the place is used for mass burials of homeless COVID-19 victims. What must remain marginal and forgotten by the white middle class is on Hart Island.
The ferryman (the Styx is noticeable but not obtrusive) is cordial to Jerry, but his information is grim. Jerry cannot ride on the barge. The dead on board will be placed in a mass grave, without markers. There will be no funeral service. No one can visit the dead.
Jerry observes the truck on board and its contents – plain pine caskets, the type used for tearful funerals in Westerns like Shane. The settlers could afford nothing more. Here, the meanness of the affair is based solely on cost and convenience to the city. Jerry notices a number of tiny boxes. He is informed these are dead infants, “little homeless babies,” as Jerry notes. Knowing that this replicates well the truth, one’s grief is mixed with revulsion. Jerry becomes a stowaway on the barge, arriving with the death cargo to Hart Island.
The scene at the Island recalls the Expressionist/Romantic grimness of Caspar David Frederich, the sky overcast, a bit of foliage in the background. The scene is one of overwhelming horror that resonates the past and present, as we see an enormous trench dug by heavy machinery. The caskets from the barge fill only a tiny portion at one end of the chasm. The sense of horror derives from Auschwitz images, or Vietnam. Indeed, all of our evils have come home.
Jerry has managed to follow the truck, and even to go down into the trench. He thinks he has located Matthew’s coffin; he sits by it and speaks a sincere eulogy. He speaks to “my sweet Matthew,” and then “my very own.” Jerry has had developed the snapshots of the single roll of film used by Matthew, a family chronicle of their brief time together, alone and with their friends. It is a sublime performance by Danny Glover, restrained but overwhelming, after which Jerry returns to the street, momentarily happy as he draws on Matthew’s memory – but can he sustain this? He pauses from his window-washing to consider things as the film ends.
The Saint of Fort Washington does what the best cinema does: question the normal and the abnormal, the monstrous and the benevolent.”
Is the relationship between Jerry and Matthew gay? Perhaps so, but should one ask the question? The assumption there would seem to be that we are other than sexual beings. This age of identity politics, where people are categorized down to the last jot, does away with human solidarity and the basic idea that every moment of our lives has a sexual aspect. Jerry and Matthew sleep together, need utterly each other’s presence, “have each other’s backs” except for the dreadful moments when they cannot. Do they touch each other’s genitals? Probably, but what does this answer? Their intimacy and fellow-feeling is far beyond any elements of postmodern bourgeois society, so stricken with alienation it is most certainly about to collapse. In case we miss it, let me say that The Saint of Fort Washington does what the best cinema does: question the normal and the abnormal, the monstrous and the benevolent. And in a time when the essential human qualities seem moribund, expedited by the public’s electing – indeed, even entertaining election – of Donald Trump to public office, this film refers us to an evil moment, yet one that still held, by the film’s very existence, some degree of hope. Here, the homeless find a home in each other, what people of normal Judeo-Christian society (mentioned by Jerry) are supposed to do. But these outcasts must be disposed of anyway.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International and has a book forthcoming on the series Breaking Bad.