There’s something about Schenectady; it makes for good films. One that comes to mind is “Synecdoche, New York (2008),” in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director in the midst of a personal tailspin who deploys his newly-won MacArthur Fellowship grant in an unholy bid to undo the fourth wall, setting in motion a bizarre performance art project that metastasizes out of his control, enveloping the entire town, its myriad denizens, and finally the world.
Schenectady’s name means ‘beyond the pines’ in Mohawk. It was once the site of a number of small villages. Briefly overlapping with the Mohawk Nation’s regional tenure came corporate-colonial juggernaut New Amsterdam in the form of Arent van Curler, a Rensselaer cousin and manager of the family’s manor-estate patroonship.
It’s just the sort of place that would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story. Lovecraft, that master of generational decay, with his tales of degenerated Dutch aristocratic lines like that of the eccentric, voodoo-obsessed Brooklyn recluse Robert Suydam in ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ or the spectral Jan Martense, last of a doomed line of Catskills gentry done in by his own inbred cretin-relatives in ‘The Lurking Fear,’ would have felt at home in Schenectady’s claustrophobic, narrow streets of century-old wood houses moldering in the shadows of the oaks, requiem to a proud, long-vanished working class.
Ben Mendelsohn as Robin van Der Zee, Luke’s mentor and business partner.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” grapples with eternal human motives like greed, jealousy, and love in Schenectady’s postindustrial shadow. Ryan Gosling is Luke, a motorcyclist carney, bank robber, and would-be father to a young boy he didn’t know he had. Eva Mendes is Romina, a waitress and young mother navigating two loves and the exigencies of her son’s needs. Bradley Cooper is Avery Cross, a law school grad turned local cop caught between ambition, a desire to fit in, an inclination toward justice, and his machiavellian father’s designs. Behind and about these characters looms the insidious corruption of the local police force, personified in a good-old-boy monstrosity played by Ray Liotta. The film ranges like a greek tragedy over themes of history, class, and fate, but the characters never lose their agency. Their lives are their own.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a multigenerational, small-town epic that, like an old stone well, discloses its secrets gradually, as one peers further and further into its depths.