Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
One of our most dogged and uncompromised chroniclers of modern-day Brooklyn, dark-hat indie auteur James Gray also occupies a borough of his own making—in his world, Brooklyn is a dank, decaying rat maze of back alleys, unlit streets, heaped grave-sized backyards, clashing tribal identities, pervasive malaise, and quietly rampaging sociopathy. In five features so far (plus his screenplay for the overlooked BK indie Blood Ties, from 2014), the Queens-born Gray has pursued this vision as though it were the entire cut-bone truth of it—which would be grim news to Spike Lee and Woody Allen, among others. (Gray’s new film, The Lost City of Z, gets us practically as far from Gowanus as you could be without landing on the moon.)
Gray’s debut, the introverted crime anti-thriller Little Odessa (1994), made when he was 24, presented this idea of Brooklyn in a nutshell: it’s as light-deprived as a forgotten crawlspace. With a story made up of shadows lifted from Dostoyevsky, the Bible and Mario Puzo, the film insinuates us into a collapsing Russian family living in the titular enclave in Brighton Beach, which, like many such communities, is rife with generations-old grudges, nostalgia for their homeland, and loathing for the natives. There’s Reuben (Edward Furlong), a dissolute and completely American teen with a no-future chip on his shoulder and a habit of skipping school, Arkady (Maximillian Schell), his bitter expatriate father ego-crushed by his new country and reduced to running a newspaper kiosk, and Joshua (Tim Roth), a grown son who works as a hitman for an unnamed Russian mob and whose on-the-job return to the neighborhood is the film’s first gear turning. A wily sociopath, Joshua has been exiled from Brooklyn by mobsters for a past hit; his reluctant return triggers the worshipful Reuben’s exploration of the crime life, Arkady’s abusive rage, and his own final confrontation with what’s left of his personal life.
You get a sense of it—Gray is going full-metal Russian-novel here, ass-deep in 70s grit.
(Gray’s kitchens are more authentic than my real kitchen.) The various neighborhoods Gray uses, in the gray thick of winter, never felt more hopeless, and he wraps his cloak of doom around a bunch, Sheepshead Bay and up to Bay Ridge and warehouse wastelands in Red Hook, but predominantly it’s Brighton Beach and its immediate satellites, particularly Coney, that give the film its gloomy specificity. In fact, in his own Xanax-y way Gray is playing tour guide a bit, bouncing us from the aquarium (at night, no less) to the boardwalk to Surf Avenue’s view of Astroland to age-old hubs like the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe on Brighton 6th. For the most part, though, in keeping with the movie’s glowering sensibility and the neighborhood’s ardor for micro-alleys and secret paths (every one with its own name), the city we see is largely an ant farm of back doors, tight hallways, grungy storefronts and side yards, from the the family’s building at 601 Brightwater Court (off Brighton 6th), to the final chase-shootout, which takes place almost entirely in a weedy labyrinth of shitty chainlinked spaces, claustrophobic alleys and indistinguishable plots of hanging laundry and piled detritus.
Was Brighton Beach this dire in 1994? “Little Odessa” itself was at the time a fairly recent manifestation, after the relaxation of Soviet immigration laws in the late 80s, and then the collapse of the USSR entirely in 1989, enabled thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews to plant stakes in Brooklyn, forever changing the face of what was in the Ed Koch years a decaying and drug-ridden enclave. Gray knew this, of course; he simply chose to emphasize the immigrant influx and its dark side over the energetic socioeconomic boost Brighton Beach was beginning to see as a result. Gray was, after all, practically a teenager looking to make a splash of seriousness in the new indie era of the Sons of Scorsese (Tarantino, Gomez, Rodriguez, Drazan, Yakin, Weiss, Burns, etc.), and he cannily crafted a Brooklyn out of his darker dreams.