The story follows a trio of junkies in contemporary Brooklyn--Harry, his girlfriend, Marion, and Harry's friend, Tyrone--and their mutual descent into the warm, loving arms of heroin. What starts out as a way to make a buck turns into a nightmare of increasing addiction. Things go from bad to worse when the streets of New York turn dry and the trio gets desperate.
Harry's mother, Sara, brilliantly played by Ellen Burstyn, takes the same trip but on a different flight. Her dream of appearing on television sends her into a haze of diet pills--blues ones, red ones, green ones--and soon apparitions appear in her living room and the refrigerator becomes a quaking monster.
The film's frenetic editing technique and repetitious operatic score mimics the rise of need, bursting into a high-speed finale of disturbing proportions. Halfway through the film, I felt an urge to go out and score, but by the end, I just needed to get outside for a breath of air. The fast-moving edits and the harsh realities of the characters, as well as the crescendos of music, created a nauseousness that stayed with me throughout the night. So much for heroin chic.
Now 72 years old, Hubert Selby Jr. is a small, frail man, eloquent and charming, a sober ex-barfly with a sinister laugh. (Selby plays a cop at the end of the film where his signature laugh is introduced as part of the creepy soundtrack.)
We met in the conference room of his publisher's (Thunder's Mouth Press) office.
"When I first started writing, I wanted to take the reader through an emotional experience," he said, while scooping rice and beans out of an aluminum tray. "When I wrote the beginning of The Queen is Dead, I identified with Georgie and what I identified with was his alienation. This was 1949, on the Brooklyn waterfront, and here's this flaming drag queen, six-foot-two, 110 pounds, a crazy whacked-out kid with glitter on his eyelids.
"A year and a half later I met somebody in the neighborhood who said Georgie was dead, that he OD'd in the gutter. It moved me very much and I wanted to do something for Georgie, so I finished the story."
Published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn remains one of the most fearsome books on the shelves. After talking with Selby, one realizes that all his characters have been lifted from the streets and portrayed in all their ragged glory. "Tralala came from sitting at the bar and one of the guys saying, 'Remember the time Tralala put her tits on the bar? Remember when we found her naked in the lot?' It took me two and a half years to write that story." He says the Harry character, who appears in nearly all of his books, is not based on anyone but he got the name from a young woman who used to hang out at the bar. "She never said 'yes' or 'no', she said 'fuck you, Harry.' That was the extent of her vocabulary." Selby was a longtime barfly, but gave up drinking in 1969 "because it was interfering with my life," he said. "I was living to drink."
Requiem for a Dream was written during his sober period and in his new neighborhood, West Hollywood. The novel is set in Selby's old stomping grounds, near where he grew up, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. His mother died a few weeks ago and so Selby's return has been both joyous and sad. He never made it out to Coney Island.
"I really wanted to taste one of those Nathan's hot dogs. It's all I could think about on the way out here."