Only the Dead Know It

Brooklyn  A film by John Crowley

Brooklyn is like a dream.  Like Bridge of Spies it takes place in 1950’s America (apparently the year is 1952, because our young couple sees Singin’ in the Rain), and like that earlier movie it gets the look of the era right.  But while Bridge of Spies focused on a down side of America, a paranoid vision of how we were headed inevitably toward nuclear war and anyone around us might be a spy—Brooklyn sees the promise of America, the cruelty of the place but ultimately its hope as well.  It’s interesting that the novel was written by an Irishman, the screenplay by an Englishman.

There is a scene early in the film when Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), the young Irish woman at the film’s center, has made the difficult passage from Ireland to the United States, then has negotiated the problems of Ellis Island, so that she passes through customs.  She opens a door to exit, and the light that shines through at that moment is the light of hope that every immigrant felt when coming to this country, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, all of the groups that populated the Pittsburgh of my youth.  Reality soon set in, of course.  But the idea of America was that it was a better place to be than wherever they had left.

It isn’t absolutely clear why Ellis has to leave.  She has a lousy job working retail with a crabby boss who is prejudiced in favor of wealthier customers.  Her older sister has done better; she has an office job, and is able to care for their widowed mother.  It seems that Ellis wants to better herself, and a priest in America says he can find her a job, and a place in a good boarding house.  So the young woman takes a chance, and gets on the clunky boat that will take her to this promised land.

One can’t help reflecting on the plight of immigrants today, coming not just to this country but to Europe and all over the world.  It’s a similar stab in the dark, but there’s no kindly Irish priest to help them, no boarding house full of Irish girls to show them the ropes (and make fun of them and mock them at the same time).  There’s no job being a clerk in a big department store.

I often think back on a factory that I worked at in Pittsburgh in the summers between two of my college years.  It wasn’t huge, just a couple of floors in a moderately sized building on Penn Avenue.  The place made marking products, everything from ink to hand stamps to the machines that put a stamp on bombs.  My job was to push a hand truck around the factory—picking up parts from one place and taking them to another, picking up finished products and taking them to shipping—so I saw literally everyone in the factory every day, and what an ethnic mix it was.  Every kind of name, every kind of person, and it isn’t as if everybody liked everyone else, or didn’t have prejudices.  If you got people started on that subject they’d go on forever.  But they had decided to co-inhabit the place.  They had a decent job and had decided to work with the situation.  They even accepted the college kid who was only there for the summer.

One time I was standing at the loading dock with three guys who ranked above me (the whole factory ranked above me).  Their names were Sciuli, Howard, and Moffitt.  They were looking at a six foot crate.

“Just big enough for one dead dago,” Moffitt said.

We all laughed, I rather uneasily, and Howard said, “Which one o’ yins is goin’?”

Sciuli exploded in mock anger.  “Don’t call him a dago.  He ain’t no dago.  He could only wish to be a dago.”

Moffitt worked in the offices.  Sciuli was down with us.

The most difficult thing to be in that factory—and in this country, I would venture to say—was African American, what was then called black, but what most Pittsburghers continued to call colored, pronouncing it kellered.  That summer the factory was trying to integrate, because there was a directive from the federal government, and I trained three black guys to do my job, from which they immediately transferred to better things.  As soon as they transferred, everybody in the factory asked the same question.  “Where’s the kellered kid?”  (The kellered kid and the college kid.  We were quite a pair.)  When I announced that they’d been transferred, they said, “They moved them up there already?  Huh.”  As if to say, they never did that for no hunkie.  Or wop.  Whatever they were.

There were two older black guys who had worked in the factory for years, ate lunch in the little group of ten or so guys that I ate with.  I don’t know that even those guys were fully accepted.  The group probably thought quite highly of themselves for eating with the kellered.

I used to think, the only way this is ever going to change is if we all intermarry, and everyone becomes a shade of brown.  I figured that would happen (I see it happening all around me now, fifty years later), but when I mentioned it to my mother she—the daughter of a farm boy from West Virginia—was horrified, even though she was not “prejudiced” and wanted black people to have equal rights.  Marriage, to her mind, was taking it too far.

But there always seems to be an attraction between people of different groups.  You don’t want another Irish person.  That’s boring.  You want somebody from that other group.  Somebody that doesn’t look or act like you.

That’s what Brooklyn is about, this story that is as old as the Montagues and Capulets, as the Trojan war, as old, I’m sure, as mankind perceiving differences.  Ellis has her life in her boarding house, the job at the department store, goes to dances at some kind of Irish church group.  It’s all dull and rather grim.  But an Italian guy named Tony (Emory Cohen) comes to the dances because he likes Irish girls, and over time he and Ellis fall in love.  It’s not a relationship without its obstacles.  When she finally goes to dinner at Tony’s and eats that difficult dish known as spaghetti (her girlfriends at the boarding house have given her lessons about how to twirl it onto her fork), Tony’s little brother pops out with the innocent comment, “We don’t like Irish people.”  And when his father whacks him, he says, “It’s a well-known fact,” probably my favorite line in the movie.  People overcome those “facts”; that’s the point.  They overcome them with love, sexual attraction, whatever that mysterious thing is.  This is a movie where Tony walks Ellis back to her boarding house and says good-night to her, and they don’t so much as touch, but you can feel the emotion flowing off the screen.  It’s palpable.

Eventually—predictably—Ellis is called home for a family emergency, and the whole question of the movie comes down to whether the pull of home will be greater than the pull of Brooklyn, and of Tony.  To the film’s credit, there’s a real pull to home, including another romantic interest, not just because things have changed in Ireland, but because something has changed in Ellis.  It would be a crime to reveal how this dilemma resolves itself, because the whole emotion for the viewer is being torn between the two things, seeing the attraction of both.  I had no idea what Ellis should do.  I knew what I wanted her to do.

My title alludes to a short story by a famous American writer, who grew up a five-minute drive from the site of the photos on my website.  Every time I go to the Y, I see a plaque commemorating his birthplace, which is now the middle of the Y parking lot.  I’ve read the short story, and can’t say I recommend it.

But I highly recommend this movie.