Arts & Culture
12:50 pm
Mon May 5, 2014

Rob Edelman: Brooklyn Chic

These days, Brooklyn is a hot commodity on the American cultural scene. Plenty of films and TV shows not only are set in the New York borough but feature the word "Brooklyn" in their titles. And this, surely, is a smart marketing ploy.

You have BROOKLYN RULES and BROOKLYN'S FINEST, BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN BROOKLYN, and THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN. In fact, the first image seen in the trailer for THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN, which is set for release later this month, is neither Robin Williams nor Mila Kunis nor any other recognizable cast member. It is a shot of Grand Army Plaza, which is situated by the main entrance to Prospect Park, one of the borough's centerpieces. The assumption seems to be that moviegoers will be drawn to the film simply because of this visual.

Indeed, according to the Internet Movie Database, a feature film, scheduled for release next year, which tells the story of a "young Irish immigrant (who) makes her way in New York during the 1950s," is titled simply BROOKLYN. I would bet that, had it been produced even a decade earlier, the hip young twenty-something women in GIRLS, Lena Dunham's HBO TV-series, would be residing and hanging out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, rather than in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

The Borough of Churches has of course not always been so stylish. In fact, for decades, it either was a comical punchline or a locale that only the dead know. This lack of respect for Brooklyn and Brooklynites was depicted in so many movies which are loaded with broad stereotypes and caricatures.

Back in the 1940s, for example, were all Brooklynites Caucasian, working class, lovably thick-headed, and positively fanatical about their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers? Also, did these Brooklynites all speak with thick, funny accents? Did they all pronounce "thirty-third-and-third"-- "toidy-toid-and-toid"? Well, if your worldview was impacted by what you saw and heard in the movies, your answer would be a resounding "Yes!"

In the more recent 1980s and 90s, Spike Lee aside, were all Brooklynites black and Latino drug dealers? One example of this is found in GHOST, released in 1990, which stars Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg. I am referring to a supporting character whose name is Willie Lopez, and who is played by Rick Aviles. Or were late-20th-century Brooklynites poor, lonely Caucasian women whose lives were in chaos? These women did not reside in a neighborhood or a community, like Flatbush or Greenpoint, Park Slope or Williamsburg. Instead, they were wasting away in a "generic place called Brooklyn." In AS GOOD AS IT GETS, which dates from 1997, Helen Hunt plays a husbandless mother who lives in a "generic place called Brooklyn." In THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION, from 1998, Jennifer Aniston plays a single woman who is desperate for love and who lives in a "generic place called Brooklyn." If only these characters could find true romance. Surely they would be happier, and part of that joy would entail their moving far away from that "generic place called Brooklyn."

In such films, Brooklyn is akin to purgatory. In 1998's YOU'VE GOT MAIL, one of the supporting characters is a clerk in a small Upper West Side Manhattan bookstore. This young woman is faced with possible unemployment: a thought that horrifies her, she declares, because if she is jobless she may be forced to move to that "generic place called Brooklyn."

This is not to say that all cultural stereotypes are fabricated. For example, there are Brooklynites and who do speak with funny, "toidy-toid-and-toid" accents. But not all of them do and, today, not every Brooklyn neighborhood is trendy and not every Brooklynite is chic, hip, and well-heeled.

That is the key point. The bottom line is that there is everyday reality, and then there are the stereotypical impressions and generalizations that are products of our popular culture.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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