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My Survey of Scorsese: After Hours

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Generally and subjectively speaking, eight films into the burgeoning young career of Martin Scorsese, a pattern has emerged: Every other picture is pretty good, if not great, and the ones in between are sort of average, if not awful. To recap:

  • Who’s That Knocking at My Door: an auspicious feature debut
  • Boxcar Bertha: some promising technical development, but not a good movie
  • Mean Streets: his first certifiably great film
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: a departure in style and form that breaks even — good performances, but not a showcase for Scorsese
  • Taxi Driver: his first legendary film
  • New York, New York: an ambitious misfire
  • Raging Bull: acclaimed as the best film of the 1980s
  • The King of Comedy: an almost deliberately unlikable film

Among these titles, Bertha and Alice are easily written off as good early learning experiences, but New York, New York and The King of Comedy are the miscalculated failures of an assured, now-formidable filmmaker who should have known better, albeit one whose personal life was somewhat fraught during this period. The former feels as if it’s trying to be too many things at once, the latter as if it’s not trying to be enough.

One would expect that Scorsese’s ninth feature should be something great, not only according to the pattern but, well, because it sort of has to be to keep him from spiraling into a slump. And at the time, he was trying to launch what would be one of his most ambitious and controversial films, The Last Temptation of Christ, but financing fell through, the production unraveled, and Scorsese found himself without a film.

Enter actor Griffin Dunne and his producing partner, Amy Robinson (previously Harvey Keitel’s love interest in Mean Streets), who bring Scorsese a script that would become not a great film, exactly, but something that Scorsese perhaps needed even more at this point in his career: a kick in the pants, a complete break from form.

After Hours marks Scorsese’s first film without either Keitel or De Niro; in fact, he doesn’t cast a single actor he’d ever directed in the past (to wit: Cheech and Chong). If his signature movies are “New York movies,” this one is a SoHo movie, distilled down to the particular weirdness of the neighborhood where the story is principally set. If his films to date have all been novels with powerful themes and overarching dramatic arcs, this is a short story that takes place entirely in one night. Call it wacky, call it surreal, call it Kafkaesque — After Hours is the best of the outliers in the Scorsese canon, the right film at the right time to shake Scorsese out of his routine in the best possible way.

Because it’s a “short story,” cubicle drone Paul Hackett (Dunne) wants less than any other Scorsese protagonist: In the first scene, he can barely sit still to listen to his co-worker Lloyd (Bronson Pinchot) talk about his own outsize ambitions in the publishing industry. By contrast, Paul wants only to get out of his apartment for the night. Once he’s out, all he wants is to get back to it and go to sleep.

Paul wears a tan suit with a white dress shirt, works in a white office in a beige office building, and returns home to the beige furniture and white walls of his apartment. (Even the brand name on his watch, we see later, is “Khaki.”) He’s a drab man with a drab life who, were it not for his red necktie, might disappear into his surroundings altogether, never to be seen again.

But we don’t need Paul himself to be a dynamic figure, because on the heels of the dull, static King of Comedy, first-time Scorsese lenser Michael Ballhaus’ camera is alive from the very first frame. Literally the opening shot of the movie is a fast dolly zoom across an entire office space, through employees, over desks and past equipment, ending on Paul seated at a desk alongside Lloyd. We are signaled from the very beginning that we — Paul and the audience — are about to be taken on a ride.

As two custodians close a pair of giant gilded gates behind him, Paul doesn’t appear to be exiting his office building so much as being banished from some nondescript paradise, as though he is about to descend into the underworld. Which isn’t so far from the truth.

Paul escapes his drab apartment to eat in a diner, where he re-reads a dog-eared copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. We pull back from him to include Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in the shot: the meet-cute.

Ballhaus’ camera is rarely still. It dances around the characters the way they dance around each other, as though looking for an angle, a way in. Paul is oblivious to Marcy at first, but once she makes conversation about Paul’s book, the camera moves to bring them together in the frame as she makes the first move to be near him. When she tells him about the bagel-and–cream cheese plaster paperweights her loftmate Kiki makes, it’s her ploy to give him her phone number.

Paul is in a constant state of being acted upon. He is an entirely passive and resigned protagonist, a shlemazel. His boldest move is to call Kiki later that evening about buying one of her ridiculous paperweights, perhaps hoping without even knowing for sure that it will reunite him with Marcy, which of course was Marcy’s plan all along:

“Maybe you should come on over, Paul.” PUSH ZOOM to Paul’s alarm clock: 11:32 p.m.

Inanimate objects are freighted with meaning here and photographed with forceful intent. There seem to be more zooms and smash cuts to telephones here than in any other movie ever made. We see Tom’s top-hatted-skull key fob in close-up on more than one occasion. (It matches the tattoo Paul sees later on Marcy’s inner thigh.) Objects carry as much visual weight as Paul himself precisely because they’re practically characters in their own right, moving Paul through his nighttime hellscape, away from and toward salvation, as much as the five women Paul encounters do:

  • Marcy, the mysterious flibbertigibbet who lures Paul to SoHo in the first place;
  • Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), the sculptress and bondage aficionado whose loft Marcy is staying in;
  • Julie (Teri Garr), the disgruntled cocktail waitress with the beehive hairdo and two dozen cans of Aqua-Net on a shelf in her apartment;
  • Gail (Catherine O’Hara), who injures Paul as she’s exiting a cab, then ends up chasing him in a Mister Softee ice cream truck; and
  • June (Verna Bloom), the aging beauty who lives beneath Club Berlin and who ultimately effects Paul’s deliverance from his nightmare.

If one were educated in the classics and could make a more studious dissection of the movie, these women possibly represent the Furies of ancient myth, sent to punish and destroy Paul for his sins.1

The plot is also driven largely by coincidences, many of which would seem too convenient or contrived if the story didn’t take place in an area of about 40 square blocks. For example, the $20 bill Paul loses, idiotically, during the most hellbent cab ride of his life cannot possibly be the same one he later finds papered into Kiki’s sculpture. Or can it?

Certainly Paul couldn’t know, as he tells Kiki his story about being moved to a burn unit to recover from tonsil surgery as a child, that he would soon stumble upon evidence that Marcy may have recently suffered second-degree burns. Right?

Or what about the bartender Tom being Marcy’s boyfriend and his name being on a bottle of pills in her apartment? Or the unwittingly on-the-nose thing Tom says to Paul just before he answers the phone in the bar and receives bad news?

Or the fact that Kiki and June — who get Paul into his predicament and help him escape it, respectively — are both papier-mâché artists?

Or maybe I’m overthinking it. It’s late, and I just want to go home and get some sleep.
Random Observations:

  • The only things about the movie that make it seem dated are:
    • the desktop word-processing computer we see in the very first scene, with its bright green dot-matrix monitor that is only sexy now because of the Wachowskis’ Matrix films;
    • the fact that Paul has only a $20 bill at the beginning and is stranded after he loses it, either because ATMs are not yet widely used in 1985 or the movie willfully ignores them in order to advance the story; and
    • Paul identifying himself as a “word processor,” which in 1985 was an actual job title.
  • When the yellow taxi Paul hails pulls to the curb, one’s first thought is “Travis Bickle,” but then it takes off careening through the night the way the ambulance would several years later in Bringing Out the Dead.
  • Julie’s guest-check note to Paul and the face she makes when he glances over at her are perfect.
  • It’s fun to watch how Paul manages not to have to pay for anything when he’s down to his last 97 cents.
  • Because both movies hinge upon their protagonists being swept up in a case of mistaken identity, one can’t help comparing Paul’s beleaguered tan suit — which over the course of a single night is rumpled, plastered, rained on, bloodied and plastered again — to Roger Thornhill’s iconic blue business suit in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which goes from New York to Chicago to Prairie Stop, Route 41 to Rapid City, South Dakota, and is retired in more or less immaculate condition, having only once been tended to by a Hotel Ambassador valet to sponge the dust and pesticides out of it.
  • Other characters are constantly asking Paul why he doesn’t just go home. Had the story not come full circle to arrive at its conclusion, a great sequel would comprise all the things that could happen to Paul after he decides to just walk home, from SoHo to his apartment uptown on East 91st Street.
  • A great double feature from 1985: Scorsese’s New York–set After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, set in Los Angeles and starring Jeff Goldblum as an insomniac drawn into international intrigue after a chance encounter in an LAX parking garage with damsel-in-distress Michelle Pfeiffer. Landis’ film is much busier, more frantic and features a dozen or so cameos by himself and other directors. Both films are sort of perfect in their own ways.
  • After the bitter slog that was The King of Comedy — I mean, seriously, I bogarted that Netflix disc for six months — these feel like the easiest 1,800 words I’ve ever written. Thanks, After Hours!

Coming soon: The Color of Money (1986)
1 I, on the other hand, was lucky to escape the University of Kansas, Paul Hackett–like, with the education I have, so this is not that film review.


Written by Shepcat

March 2, 2015 at 2:10 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Movies

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