Tribeca Reviews — Great Expectations to be Left at the Door: Lloyd Handwerker’s Tribute to ‘Famous Nathan’
As a Midwestern kid, my imagination ran wild with what, to me, seemed the end of the rainbow: Coney Island’s seashore, the legendary boardwalk, human oddities, roller coasters, and a Nathan’s Famous frankfurter slathered in thick, zingy mustard. Thus, I seemed destined to spend a better part of my 34th birthday — my first in New York City — riding the subway to the infamous “island.” As I was living in Inwood at the time, the furthest north one can be and still be considered as a resident of Manhattan, this was not a journey for the faint of heart. My new city lumbered past me through scratched out subway windows, and my childhood expectations exploded. I was, after all, playing hooky from work. And for what better reason!
It turns out I was about four decades too late. The boardwalk was littered with Burger King wrappers; the amusement park shut down (some signs noted seasonal operations; others barely readable from years of UV fade-out); and the only folks stirring were a few Russian-speaking New Yorkers hawking their wares in a makeshift flea market. Shivering from the brutal November winds whipping off the coast, I sought the iconic cornerstone building situated at Stillwell and Surf Avenues — Nathan’s Famous. There it was in its golden glory! But even that seemed worse for wear: lukewarm frankfurters with no “snap,” packets of mediocre mustard, and day-old crunchy buns.
So much for great expectations; I’ve yet to return, although the annual Mermaid Parade keeps tugging, urging me to reconsider.
It was with deep fascination, then, that I sought out Lloyd Handwerker’s documentary, Famous Nathan, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Perhaps, finally, I could experience, at least on the silver screen, what so many New Yorkers before me had and, more importantly, how Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, had succeeded in making frankfurters as American as apple pie.
What was that again about expectations?
The 96-minute film is the first full-length documentary for Lloyd, Nathan’s grandson, who shot the film over a span of 20 years and spent the last four piecing it together. We quickly meet the cast of characters — family members and long-time employees (some over 40 years in employment) — through grainy, yellowed footage that, when placed on top of one another, resemble a stack of old baseball cards: there’s some statistics; there’s some success stories; there’s some definite rivalries; and there’s some old memories — but just as the young boy who’s collected every Yankee card of the season, the question becomes: what now?
It’s hard to tell.
We know a few things — perhaps. Nathan and his wife Ida ran a tight ship, held high expectations (there’s that word again) for their sons and their employees, but they were also, it appears, loyal to those who were loyal to them. And, as evidenced by old stills and dizzying footage from bygone eras, millions of people loved Famous Nathan’s. So much so, that Nathan would pay the police $2 a day not to harass the double and triple parkers dashing in to carry out mounds of frankfurters.
But we never hear from those patrons of Nathan’s Famous. Grainy footage shows hordes of people corralling at the street, waiting to eat an all-beef frankfurter, but they don’t get a chance to share their stories. With millions and millions of wieners sold for nearly 100 years, it would have been interesting for the director to have checked-in with customers to discover what their initial draw was and what kept bringing them back. But Nathan’s Famous patrons are neither at the center nor even on the periphery of this documentary. The film is set up to portray the immigrant experience of Nathan and his successes in his new homeland.
Sadly, the film merely skims the surface of what is not only an iconographic story of the immigrant who makes his way in America, but also the toll that such success can take on a family. It’s no fault of Lloyd’s; he was simply too close to his subjects. This family connection provides us with a few treats, though: a never before heard interview with Nathan, as he recalls his early days in Poland and his journey to America, runs parallel to the main narrative; and touching scenes with his young sons tasting citrus and Nathan dancing a jig are the stuff off which family home movies are made.
And while these add depth to the portrayal of Nathan — the father — the nuanced questions of a seasoned and disconnected filmmaker could have teased out information the audience so desperately wants to know, once we’ve sat through so many talking heads: what really happened to destroy the family? What impact did that have on Nathan and his wife Ida, or on Lloyd? Is the immigrant, whose desolate life draws him to America’s shores, filled with such great expectations that a fall is inevitable — perhaps, not in the first generation, but the second or the third? And if so, how can one reign in such expectations so as not to continue chasing the illusory American dream?
There are other poignant, if not sentimental, scenes that one would expect from a family tribute: Lloyd behind his grandfather’s desk, searching for meaning after his death; Lloyd filming himself eating a hotdog in the kitchen while a longtime (disgruntled) relative recalls the glory days; and the reunion of the two estranged Handwerker brothers — Sol (Lloyd’s father) and Murray — after over 20 years.
But in the end, it feels as if it is a film about a single family, for a single family. And the family on both counts is the Handwerker family. There is no doubt that Nathan Handwerker’s tale is one that will go down — and should go down — in the annals of New York City history. Time will prove if it is this film that will do just that.
Rating: 1.5 out of 4 Stars
“Famous Nathan” is making its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 16-27 and can be seen during the following dates: Monday, April 21 at 7:30pm, Bow Tie Cinema Chelsea; Friday, April 25 at 8:30pm, Bow Tie Cinema Chelsea; and Saturday, April 26 at 3:30pm, Bow Tie Cinema Chelsea. For more information about the film, including tickets, please click here.
Video Courtesy of Tribeca Film.
Featured image: Nathan Handwerker and Ida Handwerker, at the 50th anniversary of Nathan’s, 1966. Photo Credit: Daniel Farrell.