Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Where were you in ‘92? Maybe you were right in the northwest ‘hoods when Nick Gomez hit Metropolitan Avenue with a mere 30K and a skeleton crew to make Laws of Gravity, one of that decade’s rawest, most authentic indies. Call us old school, but in the ‘90s it was still possible to be riveted by and breathless about a DIY mini-movie made on the streets, about the streets, hold the bullshit, thanks. Released within months of Quentin Tarantino’s decidedly unreal-LA debut Reservoir Dogs, both together initiating an indie wave critic-designated as the Sons of Scorsese, Gomez’s nervous humdinger seems forgotten today, but in the day it was the more respected film—and the more convincing. Today it looks like an evidence file for a fading sense of American realness—the structural genuflection towards Scorsese’s aboriginal Mean Streets (1971) notwithstanding, Laws may have been the last low-budge crime indie I’ve seen that wasn’t poisoned with pretension and posturing.
It’s a bristlingly New York experience, dropping us like parachuters into a small, decidedly pre-hip Brooklyn community of goombahs, itinerant bums, petty crooks and beaten women, focusing on Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Jon (Adam Trese), two buddies teetering perilously on the edge of the outlawry but for two things: the bag of guns their smiling psycho of a friend Frankie (Paul Schulze) wants them to sell, and the inescapable fact that Jon is a violent nut, an accident that can’t stop happening. (Given the stylistic differences, Laws of Gravity almost scans as the “true story” Mean Streets adapted and stylized with expressive lighting, rock ‘n roll, and religious iconography.) Jon may be bad news, but he doesn’t stand out much in this neighborhood: hardly the Scorsese smalltime Mafiosos with Christ complexes, these are the kind of mooks who brag about knowing a “made” man and yet have to shoplift their toiletries. The brightest bulb in the room is Edie Falco, in her first sizable film role, as Jimmy’s wife Denise, turning a laser glare and a bitter tongue upon the collapsing mess of the characters’ lives.
Which transpires with the handheld veracity of police footage—Gomez and his compatriots were mercilessly anthropological, and as it spurts out in complex, nervy, unbroken takes, Laws dares you to half-believe it’s completely unorchestrated. (For budget reasons, most of the movie is exteriors, shot on-the-shoulder and go.) This wasn’t that long ago: the hangout corners of McCarren Park haven’t changed much, but we do get an eyeful of the interior of the Ship’s Mast bar on Berry and North 5th, a near-legendary Williamsburg gin joint that was closed the next year, 1993, and remained a boarded-up storefront until two years ago, when it became a “menswear boutique.”
Generally, this was the last glimpse of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint of squatters’ floors, stripped cars, garbage lots, territorial graffiti, and lingering generations of Italian, Irish and Latino tribes, right before fashion and gentrifying rents began to change it all for good. (The rooted-family Polish and Hasidic communities were cannily left out of the mix.) Crammed with non sequitur, side-life, select local fauna, and hilarious rivers of unaccountable slang—someone is called a “muckaferguson” at one point—the movie is its habitat. If it were made elsewhere, it’d be a different movie.