The Perfect Brooklyn Film is a Myth

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Christopher Campbell, a movie blogger for Spout and Cinematical, says defining the perfect Brooklyn movie is impossible because the borough is so diverse. (Evan MacDonald/The Brooklyn Ink)
Christopher Campbell, a movie blogger for Spout and Cinematical, says the perfect Brooklyn movie is a myth because the borough is so diverse. (Evan MacDonald/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Evan MacDonald

There is no such thing as the quintessential Brooklyn movie.

Sure, plenty of films have been made about Brooklyn. “Saturday Night Fever.” “The French Connection.” Spike Lee’s entire filmography.

But ask someone who truly knows films, and they’ll tell you that picking the perfect Brooklyn movie is impossible.

Christopher Campbell is a movie blogger for the websites and He grew up in Connecticut, but moved to the borough about 10 years ago.

Campbell says it’s impossible to define the Brooklyn movie because the borough is far too diverse.

In the past, he explains, many Brooklyn movies were gritty, focusing on themes of racial tension, organized crime, gang violence, or poverty. But with the gentrification Brooklyn has experienced over the past few decades, those themes don’t necessarily hold true today.

He gives the example of “Saturday Night Fever,” a 1977 movie in which John Travolta’s character longs to escape Brooklyn for a more posh lifestyle in Manhattan.

“If you made ‘Saturday Night Fever’ now, I don’t think you’d necessarily even set it in Brooklyn,” he says. “People don’t associate Brooklyn as much with that ‘need-to-get-to-Manhattan’ American Dream story. That seems like more of a New Jersey thing.”

“The Squid and the Whale,” a 2005 Noah Baumbach picture about a middle-class family from Park Slope, is an example of how the Brooklyn movie has evolved. The film is about the struggles of two young, middle-class boys as they deal with their parents’ separation.

“If I didn’t live in Brooklyn and didn’t know Park Slope, it would seem like a weird movie to be made about Brooklyn,” he says. “It just doesn’t fit with the mythology of Brooklyn.”

Marco Ursino, the co-founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Film Festival, agrees with Campbell’s sentiments that no single movie can define Brooklyn.

“Saying that one film represents Brooklyn is like saying that Brooklyn is one thing,” he says. “But there are many Brooklyns that coexist at one time.”

Ursino, a native of Italy, came to Brooklyn in 1988 to study film at St. John’s University. He co-founded the Brooklyn Festival in 1998, and has seen many movies over the years that focus on Brooklyn stories and characters.

Ursino says the burgeoning film community in Brooklyn is directly related to the resources available in the borough. Nowadays, he says, a movie can be shot in Brooklyn using Brooklyn actors, edited in a Brooklyn studio, and produced by a Brooklyn company.

Brooklyn neo-realism, as he calls it, comes from the fact that many of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods — Williamsburg, Park Slope, Red Hook, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, to name a few — offer unique characteristics to cinema.

“They all gratify diversity,” he says of the neighborhoods. “You can find a different language, a different scenario, or a different idea depending on which neighborhood you are in.”

Nick Shimkin is a curator for the Kings County Cinema Society, which holds screenings every Wednesday at various local theaters. He agrees that showcasing a neighborhood was essential for a Brooklyn movie — something his two favorite Brooklyn films, “The French Connection” and “Do The Right Thing,” did very well.

“They use some of the great Brooklyn locations,” he says. “It’s an excellent use of local flavor when you incorporate actual streets. ‘Do The Right Thing’ was really shot on Stuyvesant Avenue.”

To Shimkin, the most important quality in a Brooklyn movie is that it stays true to the neighborhood it takes place in.

“Brooklyn movies are more low to the ground, and don’t have that sweeping Hollywood arc [in the story],” Shimkin says. “They’re much more concerned with character, and defining a neighborhood.”

To Campbell, meanwhile. the essential quality for a Brooklyn movie is quite simple: It just needs to make a point of celebrating its Brooklyn-ness.

“So many New York movies define themselves as being from Manhattan, and are located centrally in Manhattan,” he says. “So for a movie to be a Brooklyn movie, it has to define itself as being different from that.”

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