When it was published in the early '60s, Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn" was a scandal in a culture ripe to be scandalized. This was before the Beatles, after all.
With its stark portrayals of working-class degradation along the rotting waterfront of Brooklyn, its explicit description of homosexual acts, and its shattering scene of a young prostitute having sex with hundreds of guys during a long night's journey into day, it brought both realism and squalor to American literature.
And now it's the '90s. And now somebody has made an amazingly literal film version of the book.
And now the response:
It's not that Uli Edel's version, which opens today at the Charles, is bad, mind you. In fact, it's a fairly ingenious adaptation of a work many thought was unfilmable. And it's not that the performances are bad, though some of them are. It's not that the ideas of the book are bad, though again, some of them are.
It's that what was calculated as an affront to morality is hardly worth a ripple in a society where photos of men with bullwhip handles up their rectums can be considered art. And lacking that edge, that thrust of defiance, the piece soon reveals its fraudulent nature: It's crude, programatic, sentimental, craftless, lurid and phony at once. It's so overblown, it doesn't begin to move you.
The novel was essentially six short stories held together on the principle of geographic unity, rather than artistic unity. Edel, working from a screenplay by Desmond Nakano, does a good job of streamlining these tales into a semblance of a coherent narrative, with the disparate strands reflecting ironically on each other. But he's reduced the six to three: the family travails of a brutish metal worker (played by Burt Young), the adventures of the young prostitute Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the coming out of union shop steward and radical Harry Black (Stephen Lang.)
The Young subplot can be dismissed quickly: It's routine guff, the old one about the beast with the heart of gold, surrounded by a family of seething, emotional Italians. Young phones in the same hearty-peasant performance that has bought him lunch since he pioneered it in the first "Rocky."
Story No. 2 is equally problematic. This follows the self-destructive spiral of Tralala, who makes a career out of picking men up and leading them into alleys where her pals from the bar mug them. But whatever fires stir in Tralala, Leigh is unable to define them. In the first place, the movie achieves a kind of ratty movie-phoniness off the front, by failing to disguise the young actress' beauty. Prostitutes on the Brooklyn waterfront of 1952 never looked like movie stars, bleached hair or not.
But Leigh as an actress is also somewhat a shaky presence: It's not a performance, it's an impersonation. We never understand what's going on inside that degraded brain of Tralala's, what's driving her. Leigh plays her as dumb, not doomed; she's spectacular but shallow.
It's the third story -- Harry Black and the Homosexual -- that's the most interesting. Stephen Lang is an excellent actor, as he's proven on "Crime Story" (he was the idealistic young lawyer who ended up working for the mob) and in a few movies. His specialty is passion -- he's always gritting his teeth and letting his eyes well with tears of anger or pain. He does a lot of both in "Last Exit."
Harry is a small-beer tyrant swollen with power because, as shop steward, he's suddenly become important during a strike. But one day he spies the sylph-like form of an extremely effeminate homosexual and finds responses inside himself that he didn't realize were there and whose name he dare not speak.
As a portrait of a man in the grip of an obsession, this aspect of "Last Exit" is truly interesting, but it's also dated. Its view of homosexuality is problematical: Gay men are all swishes and they delight in seducing and destroying the straight. Once Harry falls for "Regina" (an actor calling himself Zette) he's dead meat, lost on the road to degradation. He ends up molesting a child -- the movie seems not to understand that homosexuality and child molestation are different conditions -- and is finally crucified for his crimes.
It isn't very pretty what a town without pity can do.
Starring Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Directed by Uli Edel
Distributed by Cinecom