Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Brooklyn--a movie you can live with

What I liked best about Brooklyn, the movie, was the exceptional graciousness of its characters, all of them really. Only one, an old Irish scold, is made of cardboard in this blessed period piece. Everyone else is prompted along the way by motivations that are, quite simply, good. If there is evil in this movie, in it's ourselves, not our neighbors. 

The people on the streets of Brooklyn are, well, good, not sweet--this isn't Sound of Music. The dilemma which Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) faces by the end of the story is difficult for any immigrant, I'm sure, but not constructed of her own victimization. She brings the most profound conflict on herself by choosing not to tell her friends and family in Ireland that she was married in America, that she has a husband. When a local bachelor begins to show more than passing interest, it's impossible for her not to entertain the possibilities of how good it might well be to go back to the homeland and live out comfortable, native life. She has to make a heart-wrenching decision, nicely created by a script that's emotionally generous Eilis, as it is to the entire cast, without being sentimental. 

Okay, I loved Brooklyn, but then I'm a sucker for historical fiction that creates a world that's no longer here but somehow understandably liveable--a 1950s Brooklyn neighborhood where just about everybody is Irish, the kind of neighborhood that exists only where recent immigrants cluster to try to make it in a new land by, at least in part, remembering fondly "the old country" together.

Eilis can put her aching homesickness in the U.S. of A., behind her only when a man comes into her life, a man who loves her, an Italian-American named Tony who explains his presence at a Irish church dance by telling her, simply, that he likes Irish girls. When you sit in a theater and a white guy steps onto the screen--a young white guy, an Italian young white guy--you can't help but think, today, that trouble is waiting on the other end of the block. He's going to beat her.

Well, he doesn't. He loves her.

I'm also a sucker for writing that sneaks up on people falling in love and lets us listen, that uses dialogue and setting and characterization to make you smile simply because you know yourself how love feels, even if you don't know. 

In Brooklyn, you quite literally find yourself right there on the streets, not because you're a New Yorker (I'm not) or Irish or Italian (I'm not) or even in love (I'm an old man), but because what you share with the characters is the simple fact that you're human (I watched it with my granddaughter). You're as much of what the characters are as is anyone in the theater who's watching. Brooklyn isn't a great movie because of its jaw-dropping spectacle; it's a great movie because somehow it's about us, not simply at our best either but in our own mysterious somehow lovable humanness. It's real. 

In an extended review of the 1965 novel Talk, Linda Rothfeld, writing in The Nation, explains old-fashioned realism and its longevity as a rich source of human understanding. I'm a sucker for realism too. Rothfeld brings up the novels of Henry James, who is not, by any means, my favorite 19th century American novelist. ("I'd rather be damned to hell than read a novel by Henry James," Mark Twain once said famously.) Not so Ms. Rothfeld. 

But what Rothfeld says helps me to understand why I loved Brooklyn.
Works like [James's] The Portrait of a Lady present us with a paradox realized: In substantively realist fiction, we are privy to much that we are structurally occluded from witnessing in real life. We observe the characters unobserved; we are with them even when they’re alone.
That kind of realism, she says, offers an intimate blessing. 
Stiff though they may be, James’s novels fulfill an impossible yearning for deep interpersonal connection. They yield the sort of emotional intimacy that eludes us in everyday life, where human encounters always contain at least a trace of performance. What we want from fiction is often precisely this: a chance to be the audience as well as act in the play.
If, like me, it's altogether too clear to you that most of contemporary cinema is meant for popcorn lovers other than yourself, Brooklyn may well be worth much more than the price of admission. 

Brooklyn is the kind of movie you can live with. 


Clint said...

My wife and I enjoyed this very much this past weekend. So much emotion, so beautiful to look at. Great performances by Saoirse Ronan and (as always) Jim Broadbent.

oakleyses said...
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