Guest post: “Brooklyn” is movie of the year, or maybe the decade

This post is by Isaac Seliger; there are some minor spoilers.

Movie buffs know that the end of the year brings Hollywood’s “adult” (not that kind of adult) movie openings. This year Brooklyn fits that slot, and it’s easily the movie of the year if not decade. There’s not a single wasted shot.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who ends up in Brooklyn in 1952: This is not the hipster Brooklyn of today or the “dems” and “dosse” ethnic Brooklyn caricatures Hollywood usually presents. Instead, this Brooklyn is a mashup of hard working immigrant and first-generation Irish and Italians living side by side yet apart from one another. They strive for the American dream but are lashed to the fading memory of a romanticized old country. As the child of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis (Jake never knew his grandparents) who grew up in the 1950s in a not-too-dissimilar neighborhood in Minneapolis, I know these people.

The story swings back and forth from Brooklyn to a seemingly charming Irish village. Or is it charming? People don’t leave charming, happy places. While Eilis longs for the imagined brighter future of America at the start of the film, homesickness fills the middle third. With the film’s resolution, we learn why Eilis can’t go home again and must, as all immigrants/refugees, find a way to build a new home. America’s immigrant nature means that almost every family has an Eilis in their lineage.

Then there is the choice to name the heroine “Eilis,” an unusual Irish girl’s name and the Gaelic form of Elizabeth. Eilis evokes the timeless image of waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Brooklyn includes two scenes set in an Ellis-Island-like immigration arrival hall.

Brooklyn is the best movie about the American immigrant experience since Hester Street that I can recall. Hester Street tells a similar story: A young Russian Jewish woman named Gitl follows her husband to the Lower East Side in 1896. Like Eilis, Gitl struggles with the new land, but Hester Street is darker. The Lower East at the turn of 20th Century presented a much more uncertain future for immigrants than Brooklyn in 1952. The U.S. was much smaller and poorer. The fruits of industrialization and mechanization were less certain. And by the 1950s, the overt and virulent anti-immigrant feelings of the 19th Century had largely faded. The early 1950s America was a time of post-World-War-II optimism and economic growth. Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian immigrants are confident of a bright future.

Unlike many modern bloated films, Brooklyn is only 111 minutes long. Casablanca, my vote for best movie of all time, is only 102 minutes. In contrast, The Revenant clocks in at 156 minutes and The Hateful Eight at a butt-numbing 168 minutes. As grant writers, Jake and I can attest that writing shorter is often much harder than writing longer; I assume the same is true of movie making.

Individual stories humanize mass groups. Today’s news often presents Syrian refugees as a faceless horde with potentially ominous motives. In Brooklyn, Eilis places a human face on the overarching immigration theme. She chooses to come to America, rather than being forced, and choice matters. My parents and most of the Syrian refugees today are really just leaves being blown by The Winds of War. America is a big enough country to shelter many, and Brooklyn implicitly shows why and how.

Links: Why Software Is Eating The World, reading for the plot, Brooklyn, the writer as hustler, Moleskine lies, and more

* Why Software Is Eating The World by Marc Andreessen—one of the most impressive essays I’ve read recently.

* Has plot driven out other kinds of story? The market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions. If anything, it seems like the opposite to me, but that might be an artifact of the books assigned in graduate school.

* How sad: “It’s a Pattern: London Rioters Are Leaving Bookstores Untouched.” Rather sad, this. When I’m in restaurants or out and about, I make sure to take expensive electronic devices with me if I have to leave for a short period, but I leave books on tables; they’re always untouched.

* File this under, “Really?”:

[Brooklyn] may own only a small sliver of America’s attention, but as Mr. Hughes writes, “more people live in Brooklyn than in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Miami put together.”

As I wrote in an e-mail to a friend from the borough, “Maybe one day I will be there, with a $4 latte, a fixie, literary pretensions, and a jaunty hat.” Also, the linked essay, “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It, is fucking hilarious, as my students say.

* What happens to doctors who think outside the box? Answer: nothing good.

* Goodbye, cruel Word.

But: I’m not sure programs like Scrivener will be useful to most people, for reasons tangentially related to this post on Scrivener and Joyce.

A lot of people, based on the amateur writing I’ve seen, don’t need a fancier way of arranging words so much as they need to improve 1) the quality of their sentences and 2) how one event drives another in their plots. I worry especially regarding point 2) that Scrivener lets people work in parallel when they should be working in serial, with one event driving another organically. Too much amateur writing I see is, for lack of a better term, plotless: meandering around feelings, or random encounters, or designed to show how *deep* the author is—instead of telling a story.

Scrivener will help with some things, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I’m not sure it’s really enough for the vast majority of what writers and would-be writers are working on.

* On English as a language:

[. . .] there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong

This reminds me of the Grant Writing Confidential post How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener.

* Do Sex Offender Registries Reduce Crime? Answer: Probably not, or at best modestly, in part because such registries are too broad. As Tabarrok says:

Bear in mind that teenagers having sex with other teenagers, hiring or trying to hire a prostitute and even streaking can make a person fall under the sex offender statutes. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, sex offenders have low recidivism rates, much lower than for most other crimes.

* I Wrote It, Must I Also Hustle It? Apparently so.

* Does a Moleskine notebook tell the truth? Answer: probably not. I’ve been trying various notebooks over the last couple months and have probably settled on the Rhodia Webbie, an unfortunately named but quite nice notebook that appears much more durable than its competitors. More to follow.

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