Arts & Events

Motherless Brooklyn as Film Art

Reviewed by Charlene Woodcock
Saturday November 09, 2019 - 08:36:00 PM

An unexpected example of film as art (to quote Rudolf Arnheim, UC Press, 1957) is Edward Norton’s just-released Motherless Brooklyn. Unexpected because the reviews don’t hint at the core of the film—Robert Moses' drive to eliminate poor neighborhoods, especially poor colored neighborhoods, to remake New York City to serve the wealthy and the automobile. Nor was I prepared for the gorgeous cinematography, the 1950s period detail, and a jazz club with great music. With Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis. 

I decided to see Motherless Brooklyn because Edward Norton seems to involve himself with interesting projects; for this film he wrote the screenplay, based on Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, directed, and plays the major role. You wouldn’t learn it from the promotion, but besides being a detective story, it’s about Robert Moses (called Moses Randolph in the film) and his willingness to sacrifice a place and people to his megalomania. It’s the story Jane Jacobs told in Death & Life of a Great American City. Beautifully filmed as a period piece, it bears similarities to Chinatown in both content and style and its ambitious scale: a 50s noir, featuring a barely-making-it private detective office, a black jazz club (and very good music, with Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet), and the dinners and balls of New York's rich and powerful. Norton (and Jonathan Lethem in the novel) adds the challenge of giving his loner detective Tourette’s Syndrome. So the film gives us a beautifully-shot period detective story but it also shines a light on the Robert Moses character and allows him a speech to explain (if not vindicate) himself. Throughout the film we see the Norton character’s difficulty with speech and tics as well as his photographic memory and capacity to observe details missed by others. Norton's presentation of high intelligence co-existing with Tourette's Syndrome does a great service to us all.