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Reel Life

by Jo Page on May 15, 2013


As somebody who lives in Schenectady, though still new to Schenectady (and then again, not new at all), I’d heard a lot about The Place Beyond the Pines. My neighbor was in it; her house was the locus of much of it. Other neighbors went to the premiere. During shooting, I got yelled at by a crew member managing a scene while I was trying to do some banking (it wasn’t the same bank that Ryan Gosling was robbing—I had got that much straight).

I’d read some reviews, many of them dismissive, others lukewarm, but some positive. I knew the movie had a reach that exceeded its grasp. I knew that the screenwriter was from Niskayuna, causing a friend of mine to observe that it was written from a Niskayuna-ite’s point of view. And maybe there is some truth to that, since I’d lived in Niskayuna for ten years before my move to Schenectady last June and have first-hand knowledge that some Nisky kids hold skewed views of their nearby neighbors.

I’d known about a lot of the location shots: the “Trustco on Brandywine” (that’s a quote from the movie, by the way), the Route 7 Diner where Eva Mendes serves fare and mops counters, and Vale Cemetery where a kind of Jason Bourne car chase occurs. And there are all those gorgeous aerial shots of the place—St. Adalbert’s spire in the foreground, the Schoharie hills as backdrop.

So I didn’t think I’d find much I didn’t know or hadn’t been told about in The Place Beyond the Pines. I went to see it with my daughter Linnea and figured, hey, let’s see how our hometown looks on screen.

Turns out that though I was well-prepared for the story of the movie, what I wasn’t prepared for was the movie itself.

And if I were reviewing this movie I would definitely say the following things, none of them spoilers: It is flawed. It is flawed chiefly because an entirely unbelievable character who is supposed to be from Troy (and why?) with an accent that is half-Bronx/half mumble/half young Marlon Brando/old Marlon Brando shows up midway through the film and functions henceforth as nothing other than a device to advance the plot. In other words, he has no “his-ness” as a character (yes, I just made up that word. And I like it.)

The other criticism I would raise is that the screenwriter tries to do something that is, if not from Shakespeare, then at least from Conrad, in “The Secret Sharer,” creating doubles of characters. And it almost works. But it doesn’t (in large part because the character mentioned in the above paragraph has no “his-ness” to him, as previously observed.) But it is a notable and worthwhile attempt that aims at being convincing.

When the movie was over, Linnea shared her feeling that she wished she’d watched a movie on the geography and history of Schenectady, in which she is very interested, but that as a story, she found The Place Beyond the Pines hugely unsatisfying.

My feelings went in another direction.

I felt sad after this movie. No, not sad because parts of Schenectady are presented as seedy and corrupt—particularly since parts of this movie are dedicated the kind of gritty beauty and strength of spirit that continues to inform the place.

I felt sad because so many of the characters end up living hard, hard lives. And that has nothing at all to do with Schenectady. It has everything to do with how people live. And that’s as true of characters on screen—who are not real, of course—as it does with the characters we live and interact with—who are real, after all.

The Place Beyond the Pines features two mirrored families whose socio-economic realities could not be more different, but whose woes are similar or somewhat parallel or at least somehow echo each others. Surrounding them are more minor characters whose hard-wrought circumstances seem almost as compelling and almost as real.

I came away from the movie with a heavy heart, as if these characters were my parishioners and I had to somehow do something to make them feel better—though as a parish pastor of many years, I know that impulse is a fool’s errand and the best that can be done is to stand next to someone in the midst of their sadness. But you really can’t stand next to movie characters since they’re not even real

And what I’ve wondered, as the days have passed since I’ve seen the movie is this: do I feel this way about these characters because they were so well-formed in the script and well acted? Or do I feel this way because these characters were, for a time, representative of and living in my home-town?