The Stairs ★★★★


It's an unfortuate fact: The Stairs is precisely the kind of film that it's too easy to take for granted. This is because for a while now we have been stranded in a media landscape saturated with the feckless, watered-down remnants of Direct Cinema. All manner of television programming bears the superficial look of Wiseman or the Maysles, with the unstable camera, limited background music, and above all the streamlining of any and every social problem into the plight of a few select "characters," individuals who adhere to type and are easily packaged for maximum brand appeal.

In light of this, it isn't at all surprising that many critics and programmers don't quite know how to respond when Hugh Gibson offers us the real thing. The Stairs is an effort that displays both exceptionally deft filmmaking and patient, sensitive reportage, and this combination is a rare one these days. It's somewhat more common to find one or the other. Errol Morris's docs, for example, are always beautifully made, but they sometimes run roughshod over their subjects. On the other hand, a great many issue-oriented documentaries are careful and meticulous in their fact-checking and ethical approach, but are moribund on the screen.

Gibson, however, spent five years building a rapport and collecting footage in and around the Regent Park Community Health Centre in Toronto, a resource clinic for drug users. His film quite clearly displays the extent to which he became, not a "fly on the wall," but a confidant of those in front of the camera. In the course of making The Stairs, Gibson came to focus on three primary subjects, each one a social worker at the Centre and a former addict.

These three individuals - Marty Thompson, Roxanne Smith, and Greg Bell - all bring their personal histories to the table, when dealing with CHC clients, when talking with Hugh, and as they struggle with their own crises in the present. We spend a fair amount of time with Greg (and his particular situation becomes a key factor in the the final third of The Stairs), and shy Roxanne is given one pivotal scene in which she explicates the particulars of her own story.

However it's Marty whose personality tends to set the tone for Gibson's film. He and the filmmaker appear to have the easiest rapport, and he tends to see himself as a caretaker for the other employees at CHC, especially Greg. The gentle, gregarious side of Marty that we see throughout The Stairs is belied, or at least cast into some doubt, by the fact that a woman at the center has accused him of assault. Gibson remains neutral with respect to these charges, although they do seem like a regrettable misunderstanding.

What can be said with absolute certainty is that Marty's demeanor, the nervous rapidity of his speech and actions, implicitly set the pace for Gibson's film. This is one of the defining formal aspects of The Stairs, one of the things that sets it apart from the overwhelming majority of well-meaning drug recovery docs. Just by dint of its motility - the fact that it moves - The Stairs implies a kind of hard-won hope for the future, while at the same time selling no false optimism. The world is a bitch, and bad days are always waiting to drag you back down.

"The stairs," in fact, are Marty's primary metaphor for the slide back into using. It comes from a story when he needed a hit so badly that he slept in a dirty stairwell, on the concrete landing, waiting to get fixed up. Gibson is shrewd (and a good listener) to adopt this idea as his film's title. Most people would think of "the stairs" as a positive image, one of climbing up out of the darkness. But that's the view of the naïve and the privileged. Stairs go up, but they also go back down.