Bombast: Williamsburg on Screen
Last week I was writing about the particular quality that James Gray’s films have of etching very specific, transient qualities of tone onto the screen, something that requires a level of attention and patience that very few artists have. For example: I don’t believe that I fully understood what Gray had done in The Yards (00) until I had myself crossed Sunnyside Yard in Queens, from which the movie derives its title and where its fatal action takes place, and seen it in daylight and dusk. The fact that actual experience was required to “complete” the movie may indicate a failure on Gray’s part to some—isn’t it part of cinema’s job, after all, to transport us with minimum inconvenience of travel?—but to my mind, movies, not less than any other art, exist to complement, embellish, and deepen the experiences of the real world, such as it is.
It is for this reason that I have a particular interest in films that show places that I have been, or could be, and this week I would like to say something about films shot in North Brooklyn, particularly the precincts of Williamsburg. I am in something of an elegiac mood, because I am in the process of leaving the apartment where I have lived for eight years, located near the Grand St. subway stop, precisely on the historical border between Williamsburg and Bushwick, which expanded illimitably to the East at some point in the mid-Aughts, but seems now to have contracted, as Bushwick has acquired some real-estate cachet of its own. Recently, while sitting at a neighborhood bar and looking out at the window at the familiar intersection of Bushwick Ave. and Ainsle St., it occurred to me that I had spent approximately a quarter of my life in this neighborhood. This thought was sobering, because the neighborhood really is pretty horrible: I was contemplating the enormous, hazardous-looking nests of wiring, serving ambiguous functions, haphazardly strung from house to house; the dreadful vinyl siding, once omnipresent, now being peeled away and replaced with equally dreadful EIFS finish, as if to justify the metastasizing rents; the scrofulous-looking trees, their scraggly limbs strung with bodega bags; and the memorial white bike on the corner, whose 27-year-old rider my then-27-year-old ex-girlfriend saw die on the street, shortly before moving back to Texas, having decided she didn’t want to die in Williamsburg. And who can blame her?
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Insofar as I can tell, the old Fourteenth Ward has never been a particularly tony neighborhood. In his Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller, who grew up a little ways west, between North 1st and North 2nd on 662 Driggs Ave., goes into rhapsodies about Humboldt St. (“the most mysterious and the most promising street that I have ever seen . . . ample, luxurious, gleaming”). Humboldt is quite near where I’ve lived for the last eight years, and though I’ve tried my best to see what Miller saw, in all of that time I’ve found nothing to particularly distinguish it from its neighboring streets. That the neighborhood is chiefly something to be got out of is a fact taken for granted by the archetypal Williamsburg film: I am referring to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Elia Kazan’s 1945 adaptation of the 1943 novel by Betty Smith which recounts a thinly fictionalized version of her own hardscrabble girlhood, concerning a certain “Nolan” family of Lorimer St., very near where Smith was raised. It’s essential viewing for real-life alcoholic Jimmy Dunn’s soulful, absolutely unself-conscious performance as the Nolan patriarch, a singing waiter who’s a tragic tippler and a charming Irish fabulist, though I don’t remember it containing much in the way of real Williamsburg scenery. (Kazan was later a great champion of location shooting, but this, his first film, was largely confined to the 20th Century Fox studios.)
Betty Smith came from the same Brooklyn-German stock as Miller, that 19th-century wave from which rose the brewmasters who would later build their mansions further down Bushwick Ave., and who would in time be displaced by new waves of immigration. These include the interborough refugees who would cross from Manhattan on the new Williamsburg Bridge—scene of the climax of Jules Dassin’s 1948 The Naked City!—mostly Italians and Jews, the latter whose incursion Miller bemoans in Capricorn using language that is perhaps just a wee bit injudicious in 1939. (Among Williamsburg’s new arrivals were the parents of the man who was the logical inheritor of Miller’s tradition of lusty appetite and splenetic gusto, Al Goldstein.) The hordes of the Lower East Side disgorged into Brooklyn by the safety valve of the Bridge in 1903 were followed by then another wave, that of the Displaced Persons who would arrive in the years after the Second World War. Among this crowd were future avant-garde filmmakers Jonas and Adolfas Mekas, who settled in Williamsburg in 1949. In Jonas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (72), which revolves around his return to Semeniškiai, the village of his birth, you can also see views of street life in Williamsburg, where the Church of the Annunciation on Metropolitan still offers a Mass in Lithuanian.
In the Eighties, the precincts of North Brooklyn, which could scarcely have been any less ugly then than they are today, were popular among filmmakers looking to conjure blight. William Lustig’s 1983 Vigilante, for example, contains a somewhat interminable chase scene during which Fred “The Hammer” Williamson pursues Willie Colón around the abandoned McCarren Park Pool. (The park is named for Pat McCarren, a politician who owned the saloon where Miller refilled the family beer bucket as a junger Mann.) I also seem to recall a fair amount of Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront in J. Michael Muro and Roy Frumkes’s 1987 Street Trash, a film of which I can remember nothing else but the line “I’ll bite your heart” and a game of catch being played with a homeless man’s severed wang.
I’d certainly seen Street Trash by the time I was out of high school, though I believe that the first time that I saw North Brooklyn on screen, well before living there, was in Nick Gomez’s 1992 Laws of Gravity, a slice of indie neorealism concerning two small-time hoods, Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Jon (Adam Trese). The movie is more concerned with quotidian anecdote than incident, and gives a good feel for the white, blue-collar criminal caste of the neighborhood, the vestiges of which can still be found in certain corners of Williamsburg—there is on my soon-to-be-former street a genteel drug-dealing culture consisting of middle-aged men who have been selling weed to each other since the Dinkins administration, though from rougher days my building’s super still carries the sobriquet “One-Punch John,” which is apparently all it takes for him to put you to sleep. Laws of Gravity belongs to that era, a period when the connotation of “Brooklyn” was rather different from the “très Brooklyn” that the cob-nobblers at The New York Times were trying to peddle a few years ago. One exchange in particular got a big laugh at a screening of Laws of Gravity that I programmed a couple of years ago:
Jon: “Listen, you got cable?”
Jimmy: “Ay, this is Brooklyn.”
Laws of Gravity
This exchange actually remains relevant as long as the human refuse who are Time Warner Cable remain in business, but regardless, Laws of Gravity is a very funny movie, full of free-associative, half-buzzed street-corner patter of the Scorsese school (“He’s a Bazooka-chewin’, non-comic-readin’ faggot…” “Bazooka… what?”), and full of recognizable locations. The “Bazooka-chewin’” bit takes place in the Pvt. Sonsire Triangle*, where you can see in the background an empty storefront that would become the bar Royal Oak. There, circa 2003, one could see undergraduates on co-op frugging to Phoenix’s “If I Ever Feel Better”; later, changing ownership and name to Bellwether, the same building appeared in the second episode of Girls. (Apparently the bar is called Over the Eight now—the things one learns from Pinterest board “The Unofficial Girls Guide to New York”!). Elsewhere in Laws, Jon takes a swipe at his girlfriend (Arabella Field) during a picnic at McCarren, while the bar that much of the film’s action revolves around is Gallagher’s Ship’s Mast at North 5th and Berry, which closed in 1993, but was fully intact as recently as 2012. Google Street View shows the four-story, corniced building housing Gallagher’s under a shroud of scaffolding, which doesn’t bode well for its future—across the street is the blue-glass box NV building at 101 North 5th St, billed as “A Boutique Building with Big Building Attitude,” more typical of the Neo-Williamsburg architecture. Today the whole of the waterfront and adjacent blocks have become the Casino Night Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog, a pleasure zone for the bro-hemian caste—the last time I was out there, I saw two white limousines in the space of five minutes. But at least we rallied to preserve that “a symbol of Brooklyn’s industrial legacy,” the Domino Sugar factory, right?
After Laws of Gravity and New Jersey Drive—which also makes use of Williamsburg locations—Gomez lost control of his auteur narrative, though now he appears to make a good living directing episodic television, a Blue Bloods here, a Chicago P.D. there. Some people follow the paychecks and move with the times while others, like Gomez’s old associate Hal Hartley, resolutely do not. Gomez graduated SUNY Purchase alongside Hartley, and has editorial credits on both Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (89) and Trust (90), though for our purposes I’m interested in 1991’s Theory of Achievement**, in which Gomez appears in cigar-and-shades Jean-Luc Godard drag, on the periphery of a gang of “young, middle-class, white, college-educated, unskilled, broke, drunk” Williamsburg bohemians indulging in the whole host of Left Bank affectations. Among their number is an accordion player who solos on a song called “Let Me Win Lotto Tonight.”
Theory of Achievement
Theory of Achievement begins with a monologue delivered in the shadow of the dingy Brooklyn-Queens Expressway by Bob (Shooting Gallery producer Bob Gosse), extolling the virtues of Williamsburg to a couple of resolutely blasé friends:
“Look, I know the neighborhood doesn’t look like much, but plenty of people are moving out here to Brooklyn. Writers, painters, filmmakers, rock ’n’ roll musicians. I mean, it’s just a matter of time before this neighborhood becomes the art capital of the world. New York, SoHo, that’s all in the past. I mean, an art capital needs to be a place where people can afford to live, who can afford to live in New York City. Look at Paris in the Twenties. You think Hemingway lived in a six-room duplex on the Champs-Élysées? Naw. He lived in squalor. I mean, it’s just a matter of time until they start opening up cafes along the BQE.”
Bob self-identifies as a writer, though his girlfriend, Ingrid (Ingrid Rudefors), calls him out as a “low-rent real estate agent.” Their contentious dialogue, typical of Hartley, is a stylized staccato of epigrams:
“You are what you do.”
“No, you do what you can’t avoid; you are whatever you can get away with.”
“You do what you need to survive, and then you are what you become.”
“I’m bad at my job on purpose. If I was any better at it, I might become what I do for a living.”
In the words of Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker”: “I’m working / But I’m not working for you.” Hartley’s breakthrough roughly coincided with the emergence of slacker-dom as a pop phenomenon, as exemplified in “Slack Motherfucker” (which appeared in 1990), Linklater’s Slacker (91), the ongoing adventures of Buddy Bradley in Peter Bagge’s comic Hate, and so on. Much of Hartley’s work, like Miller’s, is grounded in the experience and painful memory of a working-class upbringing, and Theory of Achievement is directly concerned with the idea and the ultimate value of labor, the playful indulgence of its subjects accompanied by a quiet abhorrence at the idea of making an honest living. Theory of Achievement isn’t a cash-in dated to a peculiar early-Nineties/Gen-X reference point, like Beck’s “Loser” (93) or Kevin Smith’s Clerks (94), but rather linked to a national tradition which is the inverse of the fabled American work ethic, which is at least as old as fellow Long Islander Walt Whitman’s “I loaf and invite my soul” and the work of Thoreau, who is quoted here, alongside Hartley’s original pensées. (“We must love our work,” says Elina Löwensohn in the film, “or our labor will devour us whole.”) Hartley traffics in a bohemianism which doesn’t carry much weight today, when “careerist” has ceased to be a dirty word, and even onetime admirers now tend to regard him with slight embarrassment, like the older kid you used to think was so cool because he said mind-blowing things like “We must love our work or our labor will devour us whole,” back before you found out the way the world actually worked. In brief, Hal Hartley is understood to be one of those things you grow out of—like living for art alone, or Henry Miller.
Theory of Achievement
“Henry Miller was born in Williamsburg,” Bob says, continuing his pitch. “If he was alive today, he’d be living right here in Brooklyn. In Williamsburg in particular.” This seems unlikely, given that there was never any love lost between Miller and his hometown. In Tom Schiller’s short 1975 documentary portrait of Miller, Henry Miller Asleep & Awake, after giving a guided tour of his bathroom, the author refers to his hometown as “That old shithole, New York . . . the ugliest, filthiest, shittiest city in the world” while strolling the city’s “streets,” which appear to be stuck at the turn of the last century. (In fact he is toddling around the set for the 1969 Hello, Dolly!)
Assuming that Theory of Achievement’s Bob stuck to real estate, he would’ve hit the Lotto alright, and might today be occupying a posh office at AptsandLofts. His “it’s just a matter of time until they start opening up cafes along the BQE” is meant as a punch line, though it’s closer to attainment than Williamsburg becoming “the center of late-20th-century art.” As for 21st-century Williamsburg cinema, growing alienation has tended to push me towards movies that reinforce Miller’s impression of the place—say, Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me (09) or Rick Alverson’s The Comedy (12). It is for this reason that I have had to say Goodbye to All That, and to undertake a massive uprooting. Yes, gentle reader: I have moved to Queens.
* Private Frank Sonsire, born in Rome in 1889, was a resident of 233 North 5th St. who died in action in the Battle of Argonne, two days before Armistice and three days after Germany had requested a truce. Per the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website, the space “serves as a lasting memory to an immigrant who died in service of his adopted land.”
** Along with another 1991 short, Ambition, Theory of Achievement is included on the Possible Films DVD release of Surviving Desire—though you can also watch it here and further contribute to the impoverishment of America’s artists.