Year: 1989
Director: Uli Edel
Writer: Desmond Nakano (from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel)
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stephen Lang, Burt Young

Based on Hubert Selby, Jr.’s 1964 novel, the film is set in New York’s working-class Brooklyn in 1952. This is the Brooklyn of Selby’s childhood, peppered with thugs, drug addicts, prostitutes and transvestites. Desmond Nakano’s strongly thematic screenplay turns Last Exit to Brooklyn into an ensemble piece with three main plot lines, all of which relate to the breaking of a community’s sexual rules. Two of the plot lines have down endings, showing the punishment meted out to the offenders. The third has the façade of a happy ending—a wedding; perhaps the most powerful of a community’s binding agents—providing validation and positive reinforcement for the community’s tough stance on what it regards as sexual deviance. This, however, is in all likelihood a tinsel ending: there is no reason to believe the marriage will be either happy or lasting. The result is a bleak and uncompromising film whose saving grace, like Boys Don’t Cry, is its refusal to moralise.

The backdrop to the story is a strike at the Brickman Metals Company and the community in question is that of the workers, many of them Italian immigrants, who man the picket lines. The strike, into its sixth month as the story begins, has united the workers through communal suffering. It has also heightened tensions between the cash-strapped locals and the free-spending soldiers transiting through Brooklyn on their way to the Korean War; the two communities coexist uneasily and fighting is commonplace.

But the strike has made one man into a big shot: Harry Black (an intense Stephen Lang), formerly an anonymous union official at Local 3392 of the Federated Metal Workers, now in charge of the strike office and a union expense account. Although Harry’s star is in the ascendant at work, at home it’s a different matter: he’s lost interest in his wife, who is saddled with a baby and whose only relief from boredom is sex. Harry rebuffs his wife in favour of a beer and a cowboy show on TV but she’s still awake when he goes to bed, lying in the dark, waiting to be galloped. Harry obliges with a brutality bordering on violence, using sex as punishment as already seen in Boys Don’t Cry and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The rough sex and the preceding scene’s street fight between locals and soldiers signals that Last Exit to Brooklyn won’t be easy viewing.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

The second plot line centres on Big Joe (Burt Young, Curly from the 1970s classic Chinatown), an Italian-American family man whose overweight daughter Donna (Ricki Lake) won’t leave the bathroom. The scene opens comically with Joe relieving himself out of his apartment window onto the neighbours below. Things get serious when Joe discovers that Donna is pregnant. The trinity of boundary, violation and reaction triggers Joe into a shame-based response. Echoing Lynda’s father in Wish You Were Here, his immediate concern is not his daughter’s or the baby’s welfare but the identity of the culprit—for it’s not just Donna’s hymen that has been breached; so too Joe’s sexual boundary: he believes that childbirth outside of marriage is unacceptable. More significantly, so does the entire immigrant community to which Joe belongs. This majority belief creates a communal sexual rule or taboo that Joe and his family are implicitly beholden to.

These communal rules are not written or openly taught yet they apply as if they were cast in concrete, creating two things: community-wide unconscious sexual boundaries and an unspoken agreement among the majority of the community to uphold them. Over the last century such communal conditioning has been given a number of monikers. Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, referred to the ‘communal super-ego’, while Carl Gustav Jung thought in terms of the ‘collective unconscious’. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to describe culturally transmitted behaviour, while theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake used the concept of ‘morphic resonance’. None of these terms has widespread use; they sound too academic, too abstruse and too distant from the sticky reality of everyday life in general and from our unconscious, instinctive sexual conditioning in particular. They convey no sense of just how powerful an undertow these communal taboos exert on our attitudes and behaviours. In Sexcatraz these covert rules are referred to as sexual covenants.

Sexual covenant

Covenant: “a solemn agreement.” (Oxford English Dictionary) A solemn, unconscious agreement of what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour within a given community and given social situation.

The word ‘covenant’ itself has some interesting attributes that support its use in this context: it derives from the Latin ‘convenire’, come together, which highlights the communal nature of these agreements: they represent our individual sexual boundaries aggregated at the group level. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary lists another relevant meaning: “an agreement held to be the basis of a relationship of commitment with God.” As Last Exit to Brooklyn’s Catholic Italian-American community demonstrates, sexual covenants go hand-in-hand with traditional religious beliefs. Today’s sexual covenants are far less rigid than those of 1950s Brooklyn, yet they exist nonetheless and are central to understanding the imprisoning nature of our current sexual paradigm.

The existence of these invisible sexual boundaries turns every expression of sexuality into a political act that either conforms to or conflicts with accepted community standards. A pregnancy out of wedlock cannot be ignored in Joe’s community and the weight of responsibility bears heavily upon—to use the Catholic term—the sinning couple. The word ‘sin’ derives from the Old English ‘syngian’, one of whose meanings is ‘to transgress’. The religious notion of sin dovetails perfectly with the concept of sexual boundaries and their violation. Sexual covenants don’t just exist for the sake of respectability: children raised within a family that follows a community’s practices are more easily inculcated with its values, including its sexual covenants, than children from broken families. This perpetuates the community by transmitting its values to the next generation. Joe’s son Spook, who obsesses over having a motorcycle, reveals that Donna’s impregnator is another striking worker, Tommy.

At the next strike meeting, as the workers collect union-supplied groceries, Big Joe attacks Tommy (John Costelloe). They crash into the stalls, spilling the grocery bags. Donna’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy threatens the fabric of the community, as does the spilling of precious groceries. Intentional or not, it’s a nice visual metaphor. Like Brandon’s rape in Boys Don’t Cry and the bonnet sex in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Joe’s attack on Tommy serves multiple purposes, all relating to the violation of sexual boundaries. On the surface it’s purely for show, a public extraction of honour for the premature defloration of his daughter. More importantly, Joe signals to the community that he disapproves of her behaviour, just as Lynda’s father does in the Paris Café in Wish You Were Here. By asking for a hiding from the much stronger Tommy, Big Joe also accepts punishment for his failings as a father; he unconsciously wants a shiner from Tommy as a very public mea culpa for raising a sexually wayward daughter. Tommy obliges by knocking him out with a chair. It’s left to Joe’s brother to do the serious business of reminding Tommy that Donna “comes from a good family.” The punishment for the young lovers is that they must marry if they are to remain accepted members of the community.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

The third plot strand in Last Exit to Brooklyn centres on Tralala, a local moll superbly played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress seemingly devoid of boundaries who, like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, immerses herself in the most challenging roles. Tralala has no known abode or employment, prides herself on her ability to pull a man within a count of ten, and makes her money by luring unwitting soldiers into sexual honey-traps where they are easily robbed by her male associates. Despite Tralala’s disagreeable modus operandi, young Spook idolises her and promises her the first ride on the back of his motorcycle when he finally gets it. Tralala offhandedly agrees; it’s a moment that will come back to haunt the impressionable young Spook—and hammer home Last Exit to Brooklyn’s thematic point—at the film’s end.

Harry Black’s life veers into dark waters with the introduction of the next character, Georgie, a transvestite who gets taunted by the local thugs and ends up with a knife in the calf outside Harry’s office. Although new characters come thick and fast in the film’s first half-hour, it stays true to its theme: anyone who challenges the sexual orthodoxy gets hurt. Struck by Georgie’s androgynous looks, Harry goes to the rescue. It’s an involvement that will cost him dear.

Although new characters come thick and fast in the film’s first half-hour, it stays true to its theme: anyone who challenges the sexual orthodoxy gets hurt

Last Exit to Brooklyn segues seamlessly between its multiple plot strands. From the stabbed transvestite it cuts to Donna’s wedding plans, which involve a dress made from a huge swath of curtain lining. Spook earns a clip ‘round the ear from Big Joe for saying he’s seen his sister’s bush, and the general furore induces her waters to break. (For all its bleakness, Last Exit to Brooklyn is in places darkly comic.) Joe yells that it’s too soon for Donna to have the baby: “She ain’t married yet.” Once again the need to belong—or, more importantly, to be seen to belong—trumps all concern for individual wellbeing.

The black comedy continues when Tralala lures a sailor into the docklands for a blowjob. She kneels dutifully and unbuckles the sailor’s belt, waiting for her associates to KO him with a bottle—except that they do nothing more than watch. Tralala’s only recourse is to satisfy the sailor while her associates collapse with suppressed laughter. Despite this, they still demand their share of the purse. Incensed, Tralala hits the nearest bar, tugging her blouse off her shoulders for added effect as she goes into full man-magnet mode. She’s soon on her way to swanky Manhattan with a soldier. Tralala gives her one-time business partners the finger as she leaves in a taxi, driven (in an all-but-invisible cameo) by novelist Hubert Selby, Jr. When Tralala’s first mark passes out she hits on Steve (Frank Military), a naïve Second Lieutenant from Ohio who has never met anyone like Tralala; based on a statistically invalid sample size he declares her tits “the best in the Western world.”

But Tralala isn’t the only one in the deep end. Harry Black goes to a party with Georgie and meets Regina (Bernard Zette), a money-hungry transvestite who sniffs his union cash and lures him into bed. Harry’s picked the wrong night: after six months of inactivity, a convoy forms at the Brickman Metals Company—and Harry, ostensibly in charge of Local 3392’s strike office, is AWOL. He turns up later in the day as tension mounts and the cavalry appears. Tralala, resplendent in a low-cut, easy-peeler raspberry blouse from a Manhattan boutique, parades down the street with a troop of mounted police behind her. It’s a gorgeous shot in a well-crafted film that is directed with unobtrusive style throughout.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

The film’s centrepiece is a night-time clash between the police and the strikers as the convoy leaves the metal works. Desperate to atone for his earlier absence, Harry becomes the hero by jumping onto a passing truck and beating up the driver. Harry celebrates with another night at Regina’s, his wife and baby all but forgotten. However, the next morning, union bigwigs descend on Local 3392 for a post-mortem on the riot. Harry’s absence and expenses come under scrutiny; within minutes he goes from workers’ hero to unemployed zero. Harry’s first port of call is of course Regina, but minus his expense account he’s of no interest to the gold-digging transvestite.

From there it’s all down hill for Harry Black. Another atmospheric shot has him on the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, looking worse for wear. He finally gets home to his family, but his eyes—and his life—are empty. Harry gets drunk again and that night wanders down to the ol’ strike office, where a cosy party is in swing. Gone and already forgotten, Harry collapses in the street. A teenage boy gives him a helping hand. Harry shepherds the boy into a secluded yard and angles for sex. The boy flees and calls the mob. The trinity of sexual boundary, violation and reaction already seen at an individual level in previous films here occurs at the group level, as Harry Black learns to his cost. He tried to violate two of his community’s sexual taboos—homosexuality and sex with a minor—and ends up crucified on a fence, barely clinging to life. Then he’s simply cut from the script.

Having unceremoniously disposed of Harry Black, Last Exit to Brooklyn wraps up its two remaining plot strands by a contrast of right and wrong choices—relative, that is, to the community’s sexual covenants. First, it’s the positive reinforcement and smiles all ‘round of the combined marriage of Tommy and Donna and the baptism of their child. This represents the official rehabilitation of the transgressing couple as much as a celebration of either the wedding or birth. Spook, meanwhile, has finally got his bike but it won’t start. He cuts a forlorn figure as he tinkers with his recalcitrant Harley while everyone else celebrates the joyous announcement that the management of the Brickman Metals Company has caved in and the strike is over.

Tralala, meanwhile, has fallen on hard times since the highs of Manhattan. Steve has sailed for Korea, promising his undying love in a letter, but it’s hard currency she needs right now, not the ink-on-rose-scented-paper promises of a starry-eyed Second Lieutenant with a limited life expectancy: cash to buy oblivion, the only exit left to her in Brooklyn. As the film’s title implies, Brooklyn is itself a prison and Tralala tried to use sex as a way out. Her gambit failed and she must pay the price. As seen in Boys Don’t Cry and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the currency of her fine will, naturally, be sex. Hell-bent on self-destruction, Tralala pops open her easy-peeler raspberry top, announcing its contents with Steve’s tagline, “the best tits in the Western world.” After getting tossed around like a rag doll she is goaded into more than showing off. “I’ll do you, all of you,” she screams.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

Tralala is carried shoulder-high to the docklands where the entire male population of the neighbourhood forms an orderly queue. Her demise may be self-inflicted, but it is rooted in the community’s deep-seated antagonism to her excessively overt sexuality. Spook gets his bike running and goes in search of Tralala. He finds a ravaged, discarded doll, used and abused by dozens of men. Steve intones his love in a sonorous voice-over, but for Tralala there’s no exit from Brooklyn, not even to the oblivion of war. Spook covers Tralala’s bruised and glistening body and cries his heart out. He knows, albeit unconsciously, that in a few short years he will have assimilated his community’s entrenched sexual values. If the situation arises, he too will participate in the ritual fucking over of tarts like Tralala with ideas above their station. Like Harry Black, left impaled on a fencepost, there’s no indication of what Tralala’s future might hold.

And that’s partly the point of the film. As well as demonstrating how communities fight to maintain their sexual covenants, how their Spooks learn the facts of life and how their Tommys and Donnas are brought into line, Last Exit to Brooklyn also shows how the Tralalas and Harry Blacks of this world are treated for violating their society’s sexual taboos. Partly this is done as punishment, partly as a warning to others to express their sexuality in acceptable ways, and partly it’s done to discard those who have shown themselves not to belong. It is sobering to think that, while Last Exit to Brooklyn is a fiction, some Western societies have until very recent times responded to perceived violations of their sexual covenants in even more draconian fashion.

Next: The Magdalene Sisters

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