Last Exit to Brooklyn

The book Last Exit to Brooklyn is something of an underground classic, a collection of loosely connected short stories by Hubert Selby, Jr. When it was published in 1964, it became the subject of some drawn-out obscenity trials, both here and in England.

The new film made from the book will not cause any obscenity hearings. You have to be pretty explicit today to raise that sort of fuss. But the movie suggests why Last Exit to Brooklyn disturbed people. It isn’t just that the book and film present shocking material; it’s also that the material is so very discouraging and depressing.

The film was shot in the grimy Brooklyn neighborhoods that Selby used as inspiration. There are three separate stories going on, which bump into each other occasionally. The most compelling follows a union organizer (Stephen Lang), unhappily married and prone to drink, who gets involved in an equally unhappy homosexual relationship.

Then there is the story of a hooker named Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works for her pimp Vinnie (Peter Dobson) until she meets a nice young soldier. But her story ends horribly, too, as she gets involved in a brutal sex scene with dozens of soldiers.

There’s also a no-nonsense union leader (Jerry Orbach), a burly striker (Burt Young), and his chubby daughter (Ricki Lake), who is about to have a baby out of wedlock. This is not a happy group.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is an overwhelmingly depressing film. Somehow, the actors – Lang and Leigh are particularly good – keep it watchable. Director Uli Edel, who made a similarly horrifying German film a few years ago called Christiane F., puts a lot of care, indeed passion, into the locations and their authenticity. The characters and their terrible situations recall the hard-drinking, disillusioned, blue-collar people from John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. books: Sad, but with the ring of truth.

First published in The Herald, May 1990

I must’ve been reading Dos Passos at that time. The stories in Selby’s book remain shocking, and there’s plenty that was left out of the movie – I don’t think anybody could actually make a film out of what he wrote. Christiane F. is the movie that featured a stunning use of Bowie’s German-language version of “Heroes,” by the way. We should note here the existence of Seattle’s fantastic (and for many years lonely) beacon of coffeehouse culture, The Last Exit on Brooklyn (1967-1993), which was situated on Brooklyn Avenue in the University District. There will never be another place like it.

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