Immigrant stories shine at Film Center


Brooklyn, now one of New York City’s trendiest locations, provides the locale for the movie “Brooklyn,” set in the 1950s and foreshadowing the borough’s current popularity. It is a welcome reminder of the positive role immigrants have played in this country. The film is screening at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, along with the documentary, “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a different kind of immigrant story.

In “Brooklyn,” Saoirse Ronan plays the charming young Irish woman Eilis Lacey, who makes the journey from County Wexford to a new life in Brooklyn. Her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) pulls strings for Eilis’s new home and job in a country with a lot more prospects than Ireland. After a rocky, stomach-turning boat trip, Eilis lands in a boardinghouse, shared with a stable of other single young women. Her job at a local department store pays the bills and allows her to save money for a return visit to Ireland.

One promising opportunity after another follows. The kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) helps Eilis take accounting classes at Brooklyn College, and before long she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber with an eye for pretty Irish girls. Romance follows, helping cure Eilis of her homesickness. When an unexpected crisis sends her back home, she finds herself enticed by the familiar life she left behind. An accounting job pops up, along with a very appealing suitor. Eilis’s dilemma becomes clear: Where is home? The choice is not as clear as it might seem.

In the current era, when immigration is fraught with controversy both in America and abroad, “Brooklyn’s” simple tale of 1950s immigration has great appeal. The plot, well written by Nick Hornby and ably directed by John Crowley, includes enough twists and turns to enrich the story, and the emphasis on how an already settled immigrant community supports its newcomers adds depth. Eilis meets Tony at a parish dance, and her exposure to Italian food with Tony’s family spices the narrative with humor.

Ms. Ronan shines as Eilis, with an equally strong performance by Mr. Cohen. “Brooklyn” is also peopled by a slew of interesting minor characters, including Eilis’s department store boss (played by “Mad Men’s” Jessica Paré) and her boardinghouse’s matriarch, Mrs. Kehoe (played by Julie Walters of PBS’s “Indian Summers”). All the ingredients in “Brooklyn” add up to enliven a basically conventional story with a much-appreciated happy ending.

Peggy Guggenheim: A woman passionate about art

Although not herself an immigrant, Peggy Guggenheim came from an immigrant family of Jewish peddlers who rose to great wealth. Lisa Immordino Vreeland, granddaughter-in-law of the fashion icon Diana Vreeland and credited with “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” directed “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.” She based her new film on rediscovered audio interviews with Ms. Guggenheim by biographer Jacqueline Bogard Weld, as well as interviews with prominent members of the art community. The film follows the chronological trajectory of Ms. Guggenheim’s life.

In 1921, Ms. Guggenheim moved to Paris, then the capital of the international art scene, and stayed until 1938, amassing a collection of the leading surrealist and modernist artists long before they became recognized. She befriended and bedded many of the era’s leading artists, exhibiting their work at her gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, and the museum that followed.

Particularly in her early years, Ms. Guggenheim was written off and even ridiculed as a dilettante who relied on the judgment of the men in her life, rather than being appreciated for her foresight about important trends in art. She helped many artists escape the Nazis, and saw that their art was safely transported to the U.S. She acted as a patron in an era when other means of support were not available to avant-garde artists. Returning to New York in 1941, she opened Art of This Century, one of the first galleries to combine European and American modernists. She is best known for discovering and promoting Jackson Pollock, and her exhibit “31 Women” became the first to celebrate European and American women artists.

By 1951, Ms. Guggenheim had moved to Venice and opened the Peggy Guggenheim Collection with support from her uncle Solomon Guggenheim, who founded New York’s Guggenheim Museum. With 326 works by more than 100 artists, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most visited museums of modern art in the world. This unique woman’s notorious promiscuity, extensively covered by the film and in her several memoirs, obscures her importance in introducing modern art to the world. For anyone interested in 20th century art, “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” is a must-see.

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