Reel Brooklyn is a monthly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
They finally adapted Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1964 cult classic Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1989, after the nostalgia for the 1950s that began with George Lucas’s American Graffiti became calcified into dinosaur bone dust with the Reagan administration, and it still took a German production to make it happen. Selby’s notoriously foul, working-class portrait of 1952 Sunset Park, chockablock with riots, petty crime, dope, drag queens, gay bashing, gang rapes, and brawls of every domestic variety, remains rich stuff, and rode its way to Grove Press publication only in the wake of the obscenity trials that dogged Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. By 1989, it was an established paperback classic, the kind we weren’t supposed to read in high school, and therefore the kind literate punks read instead of Salinger.
It’s hard to imagine an American-made version that wouldn’t have tried to put a rosier glow on Selby’s squalor. As it is, in many textural ways Uli Edel’s movie feels like a foreign film—a fuming, emphatic, very-80s Euro-simulacrum of what a period Hollywood lit adaptation might look like. Certainly, the acting and staging have a strange, overripe feel to them, as if Edel had learned everything he knew about Brooklyn from watching The Bowery Boys, The Honeymooners, Welcome Back Kotter, and, well, Walter Hill’s The Warriors. He might well have, just like the rest of the world (and America), but the film’s disassociated feel is doubly odd, given that he shot it almost entirely on one block in Red Hook—Beard Street, largely between Richards and Van Brunt.
Red Hook stands in for Selby’s Sunset Park here—as the movie’s title would suggest—using local warehouses to stand for the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which in the story periodically emits Korean War conscripts and shore-leave soldiers into the neighborhood, always with dire results.
But look what Edel did with this monolithic harborside spread: he took it over completely and essentially turned it into a giant soundstage, degrading it a few decades, and laying out the characters’ trajectories—Jennifer Jason Leigh’s boozy floozie, Stephen Lang’s repressed gay union thug, Burt Young’s frustrated patriarch, Alexis Arquette’s gay hustler, etc.—upon the two intersections and stretch of street between them as though it were an arena for bloodsport, lit up at all hours of the night and frequently seen in long lonely stretches, with denizens of this terrarium frequently waiting on distant street corners for the story’s bad fortunes to reach them. An hour in, you start to marvel at how Edel could exploit one city block in so many different ways, and still create the sense of a holistic—if completely artificial-feeling—place and time.
The result is a West Brooklyn made up of pulp daydreams and working-class mythologization, not as authentic or ethnographic as Edel might’ve intended, but pretty well saturated with Selbyesque angst and a jaundiced nostalgia that puts paid to any number of sighing memories of how quaint and family-friendly the ‘hoods used to be. It’s a real Brooklyn transformed into a Brooklyn of the mind, in homage to Selby’s erstwhile Sunset Park, itself a skewed and hyperbolic vision of the past. If you’ve never been here, it might just ring true