‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Transcends Time and Place

CityBeat's tt stern-enzi writes that Edward Norton's "Motherless Brooklyn" transcends time and place — it's just life

click to enlarge Edward Norton in "Motherless Brooklyn" - Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.
Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.
Edward Norton in "Motherless Brooklyn"

There is a difficulty with watching period films, in that sometimes I struggle with placing myself in those established moments. There is specificity to a particular place and time, one that generally messes with my understanding of context and history. It often reminds me of the very real limitations and lack of privilege I have based on race, because I’ve never truly been able to imagine a place or time, especially in any real or fictional version of the United States, where I could look forward to being anything other than what I plainly am: a black man.

I’m too old to embrace the current trend of appealing to identity culture as a means of attempting to burn down the social order and remake it in some kind of more inclusive utopia. I don’t believe that’s possible now or that it ever will be. There will always be people on the margins who are exploited or denied access to rights, resources and recognition of their worth.

But for a brief moment at the Toronto International Film Festival, while watching Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, I began to appreciate Norton’s understanding, his carefully considered and lived-in sense of empathy for those on what Ralph Ellison dubbed “the lower frequencies.” It could be because protagonist Lionel Essrog, played by Norton, is a uniquely marginalized figure himself. Essrog is a fictional icon of sorts, a private investigator in New York City during the 1950s, part of a genre with deep cultural resonance (in both film and books). 

Essrog finds himself set apart due to Tourette’s Syndrome. He’s prone to uncontrollable verbal outbursts, scratching and remixing words and phrases into new patterns and forms that most of those around him can’t decipher. He also repeats certain behaviors or actions. In one scene, while attempting to light a woman’s cigarette, Essrog strikes a match, extends it to the tip of the cigarette, but blows it out before the flame ignites the tip. He does this several times until the woman gives up walks away.

Saddled with this collection of tics, Essrog isn’t the typical gumshoe (who in the genre is?). But he’s been able to stake out a place for himself thanks to his mentor and friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), head of the private agency Essrog works for. Minna obviously saw something special in Essrog, something in the tics that could be focused, making his protégé into a potentially formidable and reliable asset. He pushed Essrog into seeing how his behaviors were a means of reframing the world and its details into digestible elements. When ordered, they become clues that lead to facts capable of determining guilt or innocence.

When Minna gets killed while following a series of disparate threads, it’s up to Essrog to weave those left behind strands back together. He dutifully follows the leads wherever they take him, which means into Brooklyn’s history and politics at a time that feels foundational. 

NYC has an illusory appeal, as if it has always been “New York,” but it has been built on the sweat and blood of people from all corners of the globe. It is, quite possibly, the most central example of a capitalist city. The masses have been exploited by canny operators (businessmen, crooks and politicians — all the same, if you think about it). 

Essrog hits the streets and uncovers a secret so fundamental that it grounds the New York of his moment and paves the way for a host of artful surprises and deals to come. He can’t let go — his mind won’t let him — which drives him further into this place. At a point, it feels like the dawning of a new period. With each puzzle piece that he uncovers, Essrog recognizes a sense of the past and present merging to create the future, which ultimately will just be more of the same.

In this realization I was able to latch onto meaning more so than with other period films. Call it a peculiar cynicism, but in Motherless Brooklyn Norton captures the sense of acceptance that those on the “lower frequencies” live with every day, something they’ve done for generations. It transcends place and time. It is just life. (Opens Nov. 1) (R) Grade: A-

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