There are stars, there are superstars, and then there are gods of the American mainstream consciousness. And among those gods are the big three, the icons of pop culture. You know who I mean. The trio that defined all that was hip for the second half of the twentieth century. I'm referring of course to Andy Warhol, Bruce Lee, and Don Knotts. And on June 19th of this year, when the motion picture The Narrows, based on my novel, Heart of the Old Country, opens at The Pavilion in Brooklyn, I will become a small footnote in their pantheon.
The Narrows tells the story of a photography student (played by Kevin Zegers) from a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn who takes a job from the local mob boss in order to pay his college tuition. His double life becomes dangerous when the two worlds violently collide. The film also stars Vincent D'Onofrio, Sophia Bush and Eddie Cahill and is directed by Francois Velle.
The Pavilion, known to Brooklynites of a certain age as the old Sanders, was where I first saw a movie in a real theater. It was 1964, and the movie was The Incredible Mr. Limpet, starring Don Knotts. I was six years old, and the size and majesty of the fifteen hundred-seat house was overwhelming. The film, with its live action to animation jumps, was ahead of its time, and the combination of cinema magic and cathedral-like ambiance cast a spell upon me for movies (and Don Knotts) that remains to this day.
The Brooklyn we drove through back then from our apartment in Sunset Park to the theater, around the corner from my mother's family on Seventeenth Street, was a diorama of post-war, working class urban life. And it was on the verge of quick irrevocable change. Diane Arbus' photograph, Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, was taken in 1966, and, haunting grotesquerie aside, if you showed it to anyone not familiar with the work they would date it at least a decade earlier. But Steeplechase, the last of the original Coney Island amusement parks, closed at the end of the season in 1964, and the following year the Beatles played Shea Stadium, an event that my parents were convinced signaled the apocalypse.
White flight, Vietnam, and rock n' roll were now a part of the local bar room conversation. We still had a milkman and seltzer delivery guy, but bicycles and car hubcaps were also being stolen, and my mother worked with a woman who had a relative who'd been mugged. My parents fretted that it was becoming an out of control neighborhood in an out of control city in an out of control world. They were right of course, and they were wrong.
As I prepare for the opening of The Narrows in the same theater where I saw my first movie, I chart the changes in Brooklyn, in New York, and in America, by the changes in that theater and the surrounding few blocks. I know, it's a lot of pressure to put on one 'hood, but Park Slope is tougher than it looks.
When I was fifteen I saw Enter The Dragon there, on a double bill with one of the old Hammer horror flicks starring Christopher Lee. A year later I snuck in with a girlfriend to see the X-rated Andy Warhol's Frankenstein. The Sanders was past its prime by then, and many people thought Brooklyn was too. Around the time I got my driver's license and started working for the neighborhood car service, many of my friends and family were leaving for the tamer environs of the suburbs.
When I drove for the car service I kept a notebook under the seat of my car and I'd scribble bits of dialogue or take notes about a particularly bizarre customer as soon as I'd drop the fare off. Years later, these formed the basis for the novel Heart of the Old Country. By the time the book was published in 2001, Brooklyn had changed yet again, dramatically, from the time of the experiences that shaped my story. And by the time The Narrows was filmed, well, you see where I'm going, the place had changed some more. So had I.
I had unknowingly adapted my parent's fears to fit my environment as I entered middle age. They worried about crime and poverty, I sweated the twin evils of yuppies and hipster infestation, and the attendant pricing out of the working class. As the crusty middle-aged grump who never left town, it was easy to see all that was going wrong.
But as I read each new draft of screenwriter Tatiana Blackington's script or toured my old haunts with Francois Velle, the director, I came to learn something that they seemed to already know: what had changed wasn't as important as what hadn't changed. That became the joyful revelation rediscovered every day in some small way on the set of the film.
Demographics change, businesses change hands, ethnic shifts occur, but the vibe of Brooklyn is essentially the same. And though the movie differs from the book, as all movies based on novels must, the spirit of my Brooklyn is in the film. On the street corners where I hung out with Irish and Italian kids, trying desperately to look cool and pick up girls, today there are Asian and Arab teenagers, trying desperately to look cool and pick up girls. If the gift and the curse of America is that it makes us all Americans, then that is true tenfold of Brooklyn.
On June 19th I'll be sitting in the same dark theater where I saw my first film. Where my parents saw the original Ocean's 11. Where I saw the remake. Where I first encountered Don Knotts, Bruce Lee, and Andy Warhol.
Different time. Different film. Same magic.
Cinedigm's The Narrows opens nationwide June 19 and can be seen in New York at The Chelsea Clearview Cinema and The Pavillion, Brooklyn, as well as Grauman's Chinese 6 in Los Angeles. For further information please go to: wwwnarrowsthemovie.com.
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