New book: Silver screen casts Brooklynites as losers & terrorists

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In his engagingly nostalgic foreword to the new book "The Brooklyn Film: Essays in the History of Filmmaking," columnist and author Pete Hamill describes Hollywood’s skewed view of his hometown: "Our confidence in all movies was shaken; if they couldn’t understand Brooklyn, why should we trust them about Casablanca or China or the streets of Dodge City?"

"The Brooklyn Film," (McFarland & Company, $35) collects nine essays - plus a foreword and introduction, both substantial - on the Borough of Kings and its relationship with the cinema. They were chosen by editors John B. Manbeck, former official borough historian and a Brooklyn Papers columnist, and Robert Singer, CUNY professor of English and Film Studies.

While the book doesn’t entirely live up to the potential of its subject matter, it’s a commendable and readable effort and a good starting point for future ventures in this area - of which there by rights should be plenty, given our borough’s near-mythological status around the globe.

As indicated by Hamill’s anecdote, a recurring concern of the pieces in "The Brooklyn Film" is the wider world’s contradictory images of Brooklyn derived from movies.

That is a subtext of Manbeck’s own contribution, "Who’s a Character? He’s Just a Lovable Mug," about William Bendix (1906-1964). The beefy, friendly faced actor, despite being Manhattan-born and bred, was typecast by Golden Age Hollywood as the stereotypical Brooklynite of the time, "a likeable chump, ready to be a fall guy, to get the second or third leading lady if any; but more likely to be killed while standing up for his buddy or some principle."

Bendix played such a role in so many movies, such as "Brooklyn Orchid" (1942) and "Guadalcanal Diary" (1943) that his California home was christened El Rancho Flatbush.

Like a number of the pieces in the collection, Manbeck’s is a tad too straightforward for its own good. More critical analysis of Bendix’s image and less raw information and fewer dates would have been welcome. Still, it does fulfill one of the highest functions of a critical piece - it leaves one’s mouth watering to see a sizeable fistful of the films mentioned.

Similarly, there’s a little too much plot summation taking up room in co-editor Singer’s "What Grows in the Hood? Projects, People and the Contemporary Brooklyn Film." But the essay contrasts intriguingly with Manbeck’s piece as it discusses current cinema’s image of the typical Brooklynite: "The unskilled worker, the prostitute, the drug dealer and abuser, the unwed mother the individual in conflict [with his/her environment], as s/he tries to ’make it’ but inevitably fails or settles for less."

Singer briefly chronicles a postwar slide into poverty, crime and despair as an explanation for this shift. But surely those things have always existed in Brooklyn, as in any big city. Why do they now so dominate the borough’s screen image? Singer touches only glancingly on the possibility of a racist and xenophobic reaction to the explosion of the non-white and immigrant population. This possibility is hard to either defend or dismiss on the basis of the evidence here - some of the films he cites are themselves made by minority filmmakers. The growing access of minority viewpoints to the screen, largely due to the indie movement, seems as likely a possibility.

Hollywood attitudes towards race and immigration are directly confronted in Anita Schneider-Ludorff’s "Exploding Multiculturalism in Global Brooklyn: Illegal Moves in ’The Siege,’" the densest and most challenging piece in the book. It dissects the briefly controversial thriller "The Siege" (1998), about a string of bombings in New York by Middle Eastern terrorists based out of Brooklyn, a premise which sparked protests from Arab-American and Muslim groups and lots of op-ed copy. (The editors note, smartly, that this piece was written before Sept. 11, 2001.)

The author notes the film’s strenuous efforts at balance, its P.C. gestures and its condemnation of the ironfisted martial law clamped on Brooklyn in the film’s second half. But she theorizes that "The Siege" encodes in its images and editing its real, if unintended, message: immigrant enclaves like the Arab community on Atlantic Avenue are menacing and people like the Lebanese-American FBI agent character must prove their loyalty to a liberal melting pot ideal.

I have reservations about her sometimes overly pat interpretations of slippery visual cues - her "shot X means Y" certainty. But it’s refreshing to see a writer interrogate the film text in a way few other essays in the book do, refusing to take the story or the filmmakers’ stated intentions at face value.

Sometimes simple pleasures are the best. The most purely enjoyable piece is Cezar Del Valle’s "Brooklyn Moviegoing: A Short History from a Fan’s Perspective."

Del Valle offers an economical but flavorful portrait of how film exhibition developed in Brooklyn, with a focus on the rise and decline of the old-fashioned movie palaces. It’s a bit of a revelation from today’s vantage point to see the role movie theatres used to play in a community, from audience contests and amateur performance nights to WWII bond rallies and scrap drives. Any filmgoer who feels his soul shrink in the sterile boxes of today’s multiplexes ought to feel a pang upon reading Del Valle.

So give "The Brooklyn Film" a thumb-through when you’re feeling complacent about living in Brooklyn, when you start to take its neighborhoods, its parks, bodegas and boardwalks for granted. You’ll be reminded that you live in a legend.


John B. Manbeck and Robert Singer, editors of "The Brooklyn Film: Essays in the History of Filmmaking" (McFarland & Company, $35) will discuss Brooklyn film history at BookCourt (163 Court St. between Dean and Pacific streets in Cobble Hill) on Tuesday, June 10 at 7 pm. For more information, call (718) 875-3677.

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