THE SUN HAS set in East Williamsburg, but the street is bathed in light. As I exit the Montrose stop on the L train slightly after 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, I find myself in the midst of sudden activity. The occasional Latin-American celebration blazes through the neighborhood. This is different: It’s never this quiet. Tonight’s crowd has gathered on Meserole Street in absolute silence. People poke their heads out of darkened buildings, hypnotized by the bright lights. I approach with caution.
It’s not some FlashForward plot made real, but a movie set—a big one. I notice papers on a nearby piece of equipment identifying the production: Boy Wonder. It appears to have a sizable budget and actors with major TV cred.
This sort of sight may be common in Manhattan’s photogenic nabes, but it’s unusual here. Then again, Brooklyn neighborhoods hold a separate appeal, maintaining the grittiness that much of the city lost long ago. The urban extremes once found in Times Square and the West Village immortalized in 1970s movies such as Taxi Driver and Cruising have migrated across the river. At the same time, the notably thriving social enclaves of Brooklyn—particularly the areas of Williamsburg and Greenpoint—have grown increasingly gentrified in direct proportion to the down-and-dirty mystique. In that conflict lies a distinct two-headed beast ever-present in the movies of the region.
A few weeks after discovering the production, I meet with the director, Michael Morrissey, at his office in Dumbo. A blond-haired, blue-eyed 39-year-old, Morrissey radiates old-school Brooklyn pride, and his love of cinema is tied to the area. “I went with my girlfriend to see Do the Right Thing in a completely black neighborhood,” he recalls. “I just wanted to get in there, because that’s New York.” Morrissey grew up in the Marine Park area, which he calls “everyday America,” but he’s quick to identify the different neighborhoods surrounding it. “Marine Park is quiet, middle class, filled with cops,” he explains. “Drive for five blocks and all of a sudden you’re in Borough Park. Jews everywhere. Drive a little further, and you can see the hipsters in Williamsburg.”
The crime rate inches up as you travel in any direction from Morrissey’s native hood, a factor he readily acknowledges in Boy Wonder. The movie centers on a young man who, like the filmmaker, grew up in Marine Park. In an early scene, his mother is killed by a street thug in a nearby area. As a disgruntled young adult, he immerses himself in comic books fantasies, and eventually decides to become a masked avenger. However, Boy Wonder does not follow the standard superhero movie routine. Its protagonist lives in the same world as you and me, and his plan quickly backfires when he gets beaten up during a vain attempt to become larger than life. “You can’t be a superhero in the real world,” Morrissey concludes.
Boy Wonder involves an origin story in which multiple parts of Brooklyn play critical roles, as cultures clash within a single hermetic borough. “Every time I see a movie come out about Brooklyn, it’s always guidos and petty cops, guys with baseball bats,” Morrissey rants. “Everything is Goodfellas. That’s not Brooklyn. Brooklyn is this big melting pot.”
The movie, which Morrissey hoped to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January (it was rejected, but now he has his sights on Tribeca in 2010) stars neophyte actor Caleb Steinmeyer in an apparently intense, somewhat mortifying performance.
Morrissey shows me one scene—shot with the ultra-expressive RED camera—in which the actor paints his face black to take on a harmless subway mental case. “We actually spent all our money and shot for real on the subway,” Morrissey boasts. “We shot that scene in six hours, like fucking crazy people. It was nuts; we were running in and out of cars. But nobody looked at us.”
On the set of Boy Wonder in East Williamsburg—if it exists.
Invoking multiple New York clichés, Morrissey’s project bridges the gap between old Brooklyn cinema and a new wave of productions in the borough. Its neighborhood characteristics are key to the movie’s plot— but not overemphasized, either. “There’s nothing in there that’s iconic Brooklyn,” he says. “No big Brooklyn Bridge shot. It’s just kind of ugly-beautiful.”
Many recent Brooklyn movies subscribe to the ugly-beautiful paradigm, although it may soon approach oversaturation. Precise numbers are difficult to determine, but 2009 may have been a record-breaking year for the number of movie and TV shows shot in Brooklyn, which include studio productions like Kevin Smith’s Bruce Willis vehicle A Couple of Dicks and smaller projects like the indie drama Weakness. HBO’s hit new series Bored to Death takes place in a vibrant Fort Greene. (The vibe of the show is “mad Brooklynish,” one of its stars, Olivia Thirlby, told The New Yorker.)
It would be easy to attribute the flood of Brooklyn productions to the recession, given that shooting in an unassuming neighborhood accrues less chaos and allows for lower costs. But New York’s fragile tax incentive program for film and TV productions, which ran out of money earlier this year before getting reinstated in March, has made everyone a little uneasy about whether it’s worthwhile to shoot in the state at all. Nevertheless, New York City Film Commissioner Katherine Oliver insists, “All of New York City is actually experiencing an increase in production. After Manhattan, Brooklyn is probably the most popular choice, thanks to the borough’s beautiful neighborhoods.”
But for most of these projects, beauty matters less than personal connections to the region. Morrissey, for one, says he would have kept his production in Brooklyn even if the program had not made a comeback, given the specific locality of his story.
However, he’s not the only one drawn to the area out of aesthetic necessity. In recent years, a handful of younger filmmakers have developed a keen interest in dissecting Brooklyn on film, resulting in a nascent category of movies that express both resentment and appraisal for the makeshift counterculture. They are uncompromising, yet hip and sassy; at once ambivalent and intensely concerned: The demons of old and new New York rolled into a frenzied package of cinematic expression.
In many recent Williamsburg movies, the protagonists usually spend a lot of their energy intellectualizing while simultaneously mocking their puffed-up demeanors. “We think we’re so much cooler than those tools of middle America who watch MTV, but you know what? We all look the same,” spouts an energized character in 2008’s The Cult of Sincerity, which was shot in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, mainly in bars and cramped studio apartments. As the same character explains: “Anything homegrown is parochial— unless it’s kitschy. Then, it’s hip, because it doesn’t know how not hip it is. What is that?” Answer: It’s the qualifying ingredient of modern Brooklyn movies. Marco Ursino, the founder of the Brooklyn International Film Festival, told me earlier this year that he’s been seeing a slew of self-reflexive stories crop up in his submission pile. That’s a good thing, because he prefers the contemporary approach to showcasing Brooklyn grime. “We are not interested in period pieces,” he says.
Early eras of Williamsburg’s film history presented less contradictory depictions, mainly because the neighborhood was, well, less contradictory. Avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ short films captured the working class immigrant communities that dominated the area in the 1940s and ’50s. The climactic shootout of Jules Dassin’s 1948 thriller The Naked City unfolds along the Williamsburg Bridge. The place was hardly considered a fun hangout.
For the next 30-odd years, Brooklyn offered little appeal to filmmakers when compared to Manhattan’s complex cityscapes. In the 1980s, Spike Lee nailed Brooklyn’s racial tensions with Do the Right Thing’s Bedford-Stuyvesant setting, but the one scene suggesting a bourgeois invasion turned into a misnomer: When Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) confronts a white biker at the door to his building, the exchange concludes with a punchline. “Who told you to buy a brownstone in my neighborhood?” Buggin’ Out steams. “Motherfuck gentrification,” he says. “Why don’t you move back to Massachusetts?” The biker shoots back: “I was born in Brooklyn.”
Even if the white elephant of interracial tension was already on the table, few filmmakers chose to face it. Instead, the counterculture of the borough gradually emerged on the big screen. Nick Gomez’s 1992 indie drama Laws of Gravity portrays a group of vulgar young people hanging out in an unkempt Williamsburg that appears anything but hip. Louis C.K.’s riotous cult favorite Pootie Tang also takes place in a decrepit version of the ’hood, although it arrived in 2001, right on the cusp of a sea change.
Around the same time, The Utne Reader named
Williamsburg the third hippest place in America, just behind New
Orleans and Inner Mission in San Francisco. The following year, the New
York Times ran a story about young people moving to Williamsburg and
having babies (the headline read “The Birth of Cool”). The rise of
Williamsburg’s non-native youth culture over the past decade meant
another era had arrived. The stage was set for new stories to be told.
In last year’s charming romantic fantasy Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Michael
Cera and Kat Dennings dash around NYC in search of a secret concert
that eventually takes place at Williamsburg’s Union Pool. But the
location is identified in the movie as “Brooklyn Pool,” as if imbuing
it with symbolic definition indicative of the borough as a whole. The
climax involves hundreds of trendy-looking young people rushing down
the sidewalk, eagerly seeking entry to the venue. The transcendent
vision makes a relatively normal local event look like Woodstock in its
expression of gleeful unity. It feels warm, fuzzy and unquestionably
fake. (Perhaps as an act of penance, Peter Sollett, the movie’s
director, recently handled an episode of the self-reflexive
Williamsburg-set web series The ‘Burg.)
The fantasy of Nick and Norah sharply contrasts with the authenticity of Andrew Bujalski’s 2005 feature Mutual Appreciation, which
also culminates at a Williamsburg venue, the erstwhile Northsix, which
has since changed owners and been dubbed the Music Hall of
Williamsburg. The aura of the neighborhood comes through in subtle
strokes. “I plan on being a rock star for the next six months, while
I’m still alive,” jokes an aspiring musician. His tone is
characteristically derisive, but tinted with eager-beaver sweetness.
may have met someone in the neighborhood resembling one of these
people, but Bujalski never intended that effect. “I lived in New York
for four months while we were shooting the movie but was never anywhere
near enough a New Yorker to take, as my subject, portraiture of a
specific neighborhood,” he explains. “There was no mention of
Williamsburg locales or the ‘concept’ of Williamsburg, which made it
surprising to me when, upon the film’s release, so many people seemed
to instantly identify the film with that area.”
thinks that because the protagonist is an unemployed guitarist with
scruffy hair, viewers made the “cognitive leap.” “If I had made a film
about idealistic young middle-class parents who enjoy yoga, it would
have been called a ‘Park Slope’ film, even if we’d shot it in Queens.”
The neighborhood also takes on psychological definition in Ry Russo-Young’s admirable character study, You Won’t Miss Me (which
still has no theatrical distributor, but won Best Film Not Coming to a
Theater Near You at the recent Gotham Awards ceremony). The movie stars
Stella (daughter of Julian) Schnabel as a destructive young woman
failing to get her acting career off the ground. Although her character
lives in Manhattan, a close acquaintance lives near Bedford Avenue,
reflecting Russo-Young’s specific understanding of the duo’s
relationship. “There’s that crossover between friends who live in
Brooklyn and friends who live in Manhattan,” she says, explaining that
Schnabel’s character journeys to Brooklyn immediately after she gets
released from a mental institution. “She comes to him in vulnerability.
She would do it at that point. These locations take on meanings in
terms of the characters.”
No other recent Brooklyn product defines its people by the nature of their neighborhood more than Brad Saville’s Williamsburg. A riff on Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Williamsburg basically
unfolds as a series of static shots following various despondent
personalities, each of whom claims to be an artist but fails to produce
any actual art.
a playwright in his late twenties, is originally from Virginia. He
dreamed up his black-and-white condemnation of aimless Brooklynites in
response to a perceived laziness overtaking the neighborhood. “People
come up here looking for something to do and attach themselves to other
people who have like-minded ambitions,” he explains. “They have those
stagnant two years after school where they try to get out of their
system whatever they need to get out of their system, like being an
actor. So they spend a couple years up here, and then they get married
and move away. They form these groups of people who hang out and they
all prop each other up. You surround yourself with seven or eight
people to help legitimize yourself. I think [Williamsburg] lends itself
Saville rejects the sitcom vision of the Williamsburg elite popularized by the shortlived web series The ‘Burg. “It’s
like, let’s take the joke and rape it,” he says in a rant. “OK, I get
it, a stockbroker lives with a guy who has black-rimmed glasses, and
they don’t get along. What’s next? I was interested in doing something
about ambitious people in Williamsburg who were failing miserably.”
a sense, every Brooklyn movie about the modern “scene” is a
self-perpetuated contradiction, a story about anger and confusion
starring people with little reason to gripe. These narratives never
focus on the Hispanic, Italian or Hasidic communities that migrated to
Brooklyn over half a century ago. They struggle to belong in a world
that was never designed to make room for them in the first place. These
migrants, as it were, form nomadic tribes of disillusionment. Everyone
it seems has a little Boy Wonder in them, elements of fantasies where
their inner problems and aspirations matter more than the reality
Only one movie has successfully critiqued this tendency: The delectably mad horror pastiche Murder Party. Director
Jeremy Saulnier’s wry 2007 slaughter-filled comedy follows a lonely
Brooklyn resident eager to join the festivities of a Halloween
gathering in an unoccupied warehouse along the East River. He quickly
becomes the unwitting prey of a few maniacal posers looking to kill him
for their vaguely defined art project. Naturally, the group’s psychotic
pomposity explodes onto itself in a series of amusingly deranged
first saw Murder Party during a midnight screening at Austin’s South by
Southwest Film Festival in 2007. A funny scene in which one of the
villains suggests that they finish off their captive by “stapling a
pancake to his face and throwing him in front of the G train” didn’t
get any laughs since few in the audience were familiar with the
notoriously slow subway line. Other moments that involved broad
slapstick, however, were more successful. The Brooklyn “humor” wasn’t
as universal as some might imagine.
Of course, urban enclaves of twentysomething culture exist elsewhere.
places, however, invoke the paradox of gentrification, in which massive
crowds flock to an area where they can supposedly afford to let the
creative juices flow. Like the solemn decline of the Chelsea
Hotel—which went from a creative utopia to a post-apocalyptic bomb
shelter where aging artists desperately attempt to evade eviction—many
young Brooklyn residents aim to live comfortably in the borough’s
denser residential areas as a collective sense of denial. Historically,
it’s a New York malady diagnosed by the movies. The best of the bunch
capture a sense of innate dissatisfaction as much as they tap into the
passion that keeps people here regardless of the pervasive hindrances.
notes that the Williamsburg manifested in his film has vanished to the
extent that he wouldn’t make his movie today. “I think the
circumstances have changed, and the people have changed,” he says,
Cafe, which used to offer cheap drinks and provided a space for his
production free of charge, no longer exists. “It’s gotten to be so
expensive that I don’t know how anybody that can call themselves
artists and live there. At the time, it was interesting, but I don’t
feel the flame the way I felt it four years ago.”
Morrissey’s Brooklyn memories go back much further than that. He
doesn’t mind the newer faces, he says, but sounds a little surprised by
them. “Nobody’s from here,” he explains, gesturing around his office to
some of his younger colleagues. “I think it’s fantastic, but they
wanted to do film and they came to Brooklyn? That just seems odd to
me.” He wishes the influx of budding artists would expand their stories
to the outer reaches of the borough. “I want to take the kids from
Williamsburg to other areas,” he says. “There’s more stuff going on.”
this juncture, modern Brooklyn movies emphasize a culture of
transience. Eagerness goes in, crushed dreams, lost ambitions and
occasionally smarter, smarmier perceptiveness goes out. Not a single,
fullon celebration of Brooklyn exists in this admittedly small (but
steadily growing) genre. Instead, the films reject sugary celebrations
of New York City prestige.
Audiences that want glamour can subscribe to the carefree outlook of recent city romances like Confessions of a Shopaholic or The Devil Wears Prada, where
everyone wears pricey name-brand attire and imbibes the finest wines
and cocktails. Brooklyn dramas—and the angst-riddled characters within
them—can’t afford such vices. Or at least they hide them well.