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Hell Is Other People #11

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PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS IN AUDITORY SCIENCE, SITUATIONAL AWARENESS, AND THIS ONE JAGOFF IN PARTICULAR

Here’s the thing about coffeehouses. I’m not alone in the practice of, well, frequenting them alone. And if you’re there to do a little reading, a little journaling, or to get some work done, the best you can hope for is one of two conditions: either complete, monastic silence or a wall of sound.

The former condition is typically the result of either a mostly empty coffeehouse or one occupied by multiple solo patrons who aren’t looking to be bothered or to bother anyone else. It’s its own kind of bliss.

The latter condition can exist at any decibel level, amid any degree of activity, so long as every brick in that wall — every patron, every barista, every appliance, every ambient noise, the music being played overhead, the traffic noise outside — is constantly equalizing its contribution toward some semblance of balance. In other words, every sound cancels out every other sound. Particularly conversation.

Because if you’re alone in your thoughts or, as I was today, attempting to concentrate on a David Foster Wallace novel containing some fairly acrobatic sentence structure, the last thing you want is other people’s words and thoughts invading that space.

Today, after I ordered my drink, I claimed the remaining table, and now each table in the coffeehouse had a lone occupant, as did the seating area with a couch and chairs at the front. These would be ideal conditions for monastic silence, though the music coming from the back was a little louder than usual or necessary today, and for some reason the TV in front, which is typically muted and closed-captioned, had its volume up. I was sitting nearer the TV, so I was kind of making an effort to project my focus toward the music, if that makes any sense, to better cancel the two in my head.

Now to my left — I hesitate to call it a conversation, because one participant was seated and mostly silent while the other was standing in front of him and doing all the talking. It was effectively a monologue, performed for a guy sitting two feet away but projected back to the cheap seats.

The monologist is another regular. I mean, inasmuch as I’m a regular, I see this guy maybe every third or fourth time I’m there. He’s an older Hispanic gentleman with a bushy mustache and pretentions, at least, toward being a musician. He almost always has a guitar case with him when I see him. Today he’s speaking to this other man in what I’d call Reverse Ugly American. You know the stereotype of the tourist who speaks only English thinking he can make the foreigner understand him if he just says the same thing louder and slower? That’s this guy in his heavily accented broken English trying to make sure the other guy understands the words that are coming out of his mouth.

During the 15 minutes or more that the monologist is performing for his captive audience — which, in a way, is, you know, all of us — a woman and her young daughter enter and join the guy at the rearmost table, a double that can accommodate as many as six people.

Both mother and daughter are so quiet as to be unnoticeable, but shortly thereafter another man and another woman arrive and join the table, and the woman, who begins by calling out her order from the table instead of going up to the register, launches into a story and continues talking animatedly and loudly enough to be heard throughout the coffeehouse when her friends are right there at the table.

Meanwhile, the monologist has returned to his table, where a small notebook computer is open alongside a comical tangle of more cables and cords than should be required for the operation at hand. He is wearing earbuds, and at some point during the ongoing chatter from the rear table, he takes out a harmonica and begins playing half-assedly, as though he’s attempting to accompany whatever music he’s listening to in his earbuds.

This isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. The last time, about a month or so ago, he was singing.

So, not content merely to be a loud, obnoxious pain in the ass who lacks self-awareness, he has now retreated into his own private auditory world and found yet another way to be an obnoxious pain in the ass, altogether oblivious to how it might sound to the others occupying this space.

So now we have Steve Harvey yammering away on the TV, one of the baristas running a smoothie blender or grinding beans (which was almost loud enough to be a kind of salvation), music playing over the coffeehouse’s stereo, this jackass playing harmonica completely devoid of any musical context to which the rest of us can attach it, and this woman at the back who is talking nonstop as though she just got off an airplane and her ears haven’t popped yet.

I am a largely nonconfrontational person. You wouldn’t suspect it, what with the bourbon and all the profanity, but it’s true. And yet I find myself wanting to get up, make an announcement as though I’m getting ready to rob the place, and begin to orchestrate the sound design in the space and reshape the chaos that has sprung up around me, seizing control of the onsite media and imposing martial law on loud talkers and generally inconsiderate asshats as I see fit.

Sometimes it’s the establishment’s fault. You’re out for dinner or drinks and everybody seems to be yelling and you can’t hear your own conversation, and you want to beseech the hostess or the manager that if they’d just cut the volume of their music by half, their customers wouldn’t have to yell over it to be heard at their own table, their servers would get fewer orders wrong, you could still probably hear the music, and the restaurant wouldn’t sound like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

It occurs to me now that if I’d had more cash on me, I could’ve Sonny Corleoned the monologist — ripping the harmonica out of his hands, throwing it on the ground, stomping on it a few times, then peeling off a few bills and throwing them at the guy before returning to my table.

Maybe next time. Because I’m pretty sure there’ll be one.

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Written by Shepcat

February 22, 2018 at 11:32 pm

A Maow Story — #3 in a Series

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Last night, for only the most trivial and arbitrary reasons, I didn’t want to eat my dinner from a full-size bowl. Too big for what I was eating, didn’t want to dirty it, whatever.

It so happens that the only clean, appropriately small bowl I had — which then proved to be almost too small for what I was eating — was Maow’s old water bowl, an off-white ceramic bowl with a small base and fluted sides. It’s been clean for the last two months, stored in the same cabinet with the rest of my bowls, but I’ve avoided it almost unconsciously. Until last night.

Even as I was ladling my dinner into the bowl, I felt wrong about it. The bowl is very much hers and was from the minute we first set it down for her. Of the three water bowls we initially placed throughout the house, to encourage hydration when we were most worried about her kidneys, it was the one she drank from most frequently, the one situated on the landing of our staircase. I once placed a different bowl there while it was in the dishwasher, and I think we both felt weird about it. They were swapped back as soon as the fluted bowl was clean.

The bowl is in the dishwasher now, and 16 hours or so later I still feel weird about having eaten from it.

Later in the evening, I dozed off during a movie I was watching, and I dreamed about Maow.

She was happy to see me the way dogs are happy to see you when you come back into the room after five minutes away, bounding over to me with uncharacteristic intensity. It would have been disorienting had she done it in real life.

At one point, she climbed up on my chest (which she also never did) and kissed me repeatedly, inasmuch as a cat can kiss, bobbing her head and planting little pecks on my cheek. However disorienting this too would have been, I recognized the moment it referred back to.

When my eldest niece, the first grandchild in our family, was born, we were all giddily obsessed with her and lavished affection on her constantly. We joke that for the first two years of her life, her feet never touched the floor, because someone was always holding her.

On what may have been her first birthday, if memory serves me correctly, I was holding her in one arm in the kitchen, where the whole family was gathered, and every so often I’d kiss her on the cheek or the top of her head. Then someone placed a bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of me, and with my free hand I took a couple of bites before putting a smaller amount at the tip of the spoon and raising it to her lips.

She loved it. And she thanked me with a tiny kiss on the cheek.

I gave her another bite of ice cream. I was rewarded with another, bigger kiss. Soon it became clear that she thought if she kept kissing me, I’d keep giving her ice cream. We ate the whole bowl this way, with me receiving a kiss every time she took a bite of ice cream.

This is how Maow kissed my cheek in the dream.

That was the second time I’ve dreamed about Maow since she left us. I believe it was entirely circumstantial, owing to my dinnertime dilemma. I don’t believe she was somehow addressing me from beyond to let me know it’s OK for me to use the bowl. I’m still going to feel weird about it for a while, and I may avoid the bowl more consciously until a little more time passes and I realize that for the love of God it’s just a bowl or that using it makes me feel more connected to her. I don’t know why it should be this bowl, of all things, that makes me feel this way, but there you have it.

In any event, I hope Maow keeps turning up in my dreams.

Written by Shepcat

January 10, 2018 at 11:16 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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The Insignificant Detail #10

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A WALKING ATM

One of the joys of my trip home this past Christmas was watching North by Northwest with my dad, who kept up a running commentary of the make and model year of virtually every car that appeared on-screen (with the exception of “Laura’s Mercedes”). He was positively Rain Man–like.

Then a couple of days later we were out shopping, and I happened to mention that, though I make a lot of daily purchases with my credit card, I still feel a sense of security having some cash on hand at all times. “Like Cary Grant in the movie the other night?” Dad said. “How he never ran out of cash?”

I’ve seen all or part of North by Northwest at least 70 times (conservative estimate), but until just then I’d never really considered how Roger O. Thornhill’s inexhaustible cash on hand qualifies as an Insignificant Detail, not unlike bullets in a John Woo gunfight.

Remember: Thornhill is abducted in the first four minutes of the film1 and spends the next four days either in the custody of or on the run from or toward his captors. So in 1959, decades before the advent of the automated teller machine, when would he have the time to stand in line at a bank (during regular daytime business hours, no less, while also being widely publicized as a fugitive from justice) to make a withdrawal?

With that in mind, here is a running account of every time Thornhill greases a palm — on camera and off — over the course of the film’s 136-minute running time:

DAY 1

  • 0:02:32 Thornhill buys a newspaper in the lobby of his office building with change he removes from the side pocket of his suit jacket.
     
  • 0:04:16 He pays the cab driver to return his secretary, Maggie (Doreen Lang), to the office.
     

DAY 2

  • 0:26:11 Thornhill presumably pays the Glen Cove police the $2 drunk-and-disorderly fine.
     
  • 0:26:49 He and Mother (Jessie Royce Landis) arrive at the Plaza Hotel in a cab.
     
  • 0:28:06 He bribes Mother, first with $10, then with $50, to get George Kaplan’s room key at the Plaza. After berating him, she takes the $50.
     
  • 0:30:59 He tips the hotel valet for the return of George Kaplan’s dry-cleaned suit.
     
  • 0:34:17 Abandoning Mother, he escapes the Plaza in a cab, which he takes to the United Nations.
     
  • 0:38:24 He escapes the U.N. in another cab, which we see him sprinting toward in the overhead matte-painting shot. He presumably takes this cab to Grand Central Station.
     
    However, quite a bit of time must elapse in the interlude because the next scene shows the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his staff discussing the matter in Washington, D.C., where the fugitive Thornhill’s picture appears in the afternoon paper. This scene takes place the same day, because the newspaper article references his appearance in Glen Cove police court “earlier today.”
     
  • 0:41:43 At Grand Central Station, we first see Thornhill on a pay phone, talking to Mother. He references having called the Plaza Hotel and learned that Kaplan checked out en route to the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago. So that’s two phone calls, apparently made with pocket change.
     
  • 0:51:59 Aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, he hastily tosses some bills on the table as he and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) exit the dining car when the train makes an unscheduled stop.
     

DAY 3

  • 1:02:31 The red cap Thornhill “assaulted” at Chicago’s Union Station appears to count out at least four bills that he was paid in exchange for his uniform.
     
  • 1:06:11 Thornhill presumably pays cash for his Greyhound bus ticket to Prairie Stop, Highway 41.
     
  • 1:24:21 He would pay and tip the valet at the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago after he sends his pesticide-dusted suit down to be sponged and pressed.
     
  • 1:25:23 He takes a cab from the Ambassador to the auction house at 1212 North Michigan Avenue.
     

DAY 4

  • 1:40:40 Thornhill views Mount Rushmore through a coin-operated viewfinder. Pocket change.
     
  • 1:42:37 Just before the sitdown with Vandamm (James Mason), he buys a cup of coffee in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Pocket change.
     
  • 1:55:13 Finally, Thornhill takes a cab from the hospital in Rapid City to Vandamm’s house behind Mount Rushmore, a trip of at least 20 miles.
     

By my count, that’s 17 times in four days that Thornhill dips into the pocket at the end of the rainbow and pulls out cash. Not for nothing is his gray suit widely regarded as the greatest suit in film history.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Excluding credit sequence. All subsequent timestamps refer to the full DVD runtime.

Written by Shepcat

January 9, 2018 at 9:52 pm

My Favorite Things — #3 in a Series

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PLEASANTVILLE

Writer-director Gary Ross’ Pleasantville is a practically perfect movie. God, I love every frame of it. I had almost forgotten how much.

Before these latest viewings, it had been several years since I last watched it. Which is astonishing even to me, given the title of this continuing series. (I had begun and abandoned another version of this piece some years ago.) But now, some 19 years and change since the film’s release, it is arguably more relevant than ever. We find ourselves at a juncture in history during which a nostalgia not unlike that which the film both celebrates and satirizes is being wielded against us for more insidious aims.

In the abstract, in its most charitably innocuous interpretation, the phrase “Make America Great Again” might conjure up in our collective imagination that same midcentury, postwar America that gave us such gentle domestic comedies as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — the amalgamation of which forms the basis of Pleasantville’s TV series–within–the movie conceit — as the cultural yardsticks against which American families measured their happiness and prosperity.

But there was a dark side to that happiness and prosperity, because midcentury, postwar America was also Cold War America. And Jim Crow America. And it was “postwar” for only about five years before we became embroiled in the Korean conflict, with Vietnam faintly visible on the horizon. Our innocence, illusory though it was, was soon to be trampled amid the turmoil and unrest of the 1960s.

To geeky, good-natured ’90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire), though, the Parkers of TV’s Pleasantville — father George, mother Betty, siblings Bud and Mary Sue — represent a more personal form of escapism, the perfect nuclear family as counterpoint to the broken home he shares with his divorced mother (Jane Kaczmarek), vulnerable and looking for love, and his cooler-than-thou sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), rapacious and primed for sex.

The film is sometimes criticized for being too on-the-nose, but the milieu lends itself so readily to metaphor that Ross would just as likely be criticized for any low-hanging fruit he left unpicked. (In this regard, Ross’ script is every bit as watertight as, if not somewhat inspired by, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future screenplay.) Yes, the opening is a little slow and the contrivance that sets the plot in motion is a little clunky, but these criticisms are abated by the perfect casting of Don Knotts as the mysterious TV repairman whose timely intervention results in David and Jennifer’s being transported through time, space and cathode-ray tubes into the bodies of Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

The time-travel trope of doing one small thing that totally alters the course of history is turned on its ear here when sex-positive Jennifer introduces original sin to this monochromatic Eden and that life-changing, mind-altering knowledge literally inflames the town and pinballs through its once-innocent population like dopamine run amok, opening their eyes to rapturous art, racy literature, jazz and rock and roll, their own unrealized potential, and the thrilling, dangerous, unknown world just beyond the horizon. Had circumstance dropped David alone into this perfect world, one imagines that he would employ his encyclopedic knowledge of the TV show as would an omniscient god, enforcing predestination to ensure that all the actors hit their marks and the daily life of Pleasantville proceeded according to its intelligent design, as originally televised and repeated ad infinitum in syndication. But Jennifer fell with him, and in the guise of Mary Sue brought free will to the citizens of Pleasantville.

As Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville, the late J.T. Walsh exudes glad-handing menace from the moment he first appears in the doorway of the barber shop, in the first of many low-angle shots in which Ross frames him. While his introduction comes after Pleasantville has experienced its first post-Jennifer aftershocks, there is an uneasy reverence toward Bob among the ordinarily cheerful townsfolk that implies he has always been a looming presence, a disingenuous strongman, a benevolent despot who gives but also takes away, who might turn on them at any moment.

Of course, through the lens of 2017 it’s all too easy to view Big Bob as a Trumpian reactionary who throws his weight around, stirring up outrage among “all true citizens,” then claiming to restore order by enacting restrictive ordinances aimed at those whose otherness has suddenly upset the normal life of the town, “to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” Never mind that they’re the same people he’s lived and worked alongside all his life, friends and neighbors who likely elected him in the first place; he is enraged by their departure from the norm and their perceived rebellion against his magnanimity and authority.

Of all the film’s various relationships, my favorite is the one between Maguire’s Bud and Joan Allen’s Betty, at once maternal and conspiratorial. Because while Jennifer’s intercession unmoors all of Pleasantville from its axis, it is Betty, of all the characters in the film, whom David was sent to set free. It takes the complete undoing of his ideal world to show David that he also has the power to change it for the better, and his empathy for Betty’s circumstance ultimately leads him to facilitate the unraveling of the nuclear family he idolizes, which in turn gives him a deeper, more compassionate understanding of his own mother back home in the untelevised present.

In all the family sitcoms of the 1950s, the father goes to work, the kids go to school, and the mother stays at home to keep the whole operation running smoothly and looking picture perfect. So the father has co-workers, and the kids have classmates — mirrors they can hold themselves up to — but Ross cannily observes that the mother, left alone for hours at a time, is the one most likely to have an interior life, to while away the days contemplating her needs and desires and what her life might have been but for the one defining choice she made. So while George Parker (William H. Macy) is steadfast and true, if a bit daft and guileless, cut from the same gray flannel as Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson, one can easily imagine Betty Parker (or Margaret Anderson or June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson) as a melancholy Douglas Sirk heroine, presenting a cheerful façade, resigned to her rote, routine roles as wife and mother even as she imagines a different, vibrant, more complex and intoxicating life.

We feel this undercurrent the first time Betty locks eyes with Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), Bud’s artistically inclined boss at the soda shop. There is a history in their shared gaze. We understand instantly that Bill is Betty’s road not taken. And her inevitability.

Nostalgia, whether wistful or moralistic, might have us believe that these couplings and uncouplings, these little disobediences and larger acts of rebellion, this submission to and eventual embrace of chaos represent a tipping point at which our shared values began to erode and the fallout became irreversible.

But Ross reminds us that the world was never really that black-and-white, or even gray, to begin with. It has always been vivid and chaotic. The volume and variety of our values didn’t end at the few we shared in common and presented to the world. And a challenge to the status quo by one was an invitation to any of us to challenge the status quo, to turn the world upside down and remake it in our own image, painting with all the colors in our palette.

Pleasantville does fill me with nostalgia, but for Pleasantville itself. It is so many things at once — a time-travel story, a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, a “woman’s picture,” a social satire, a race allegory, a broad comedy — that it should by rights be a tonal train wreck. But Ross somehow balances all these elements and blends them seamlessly into a thoughtful, funny, warm-hearted picture that, like Pleasantville itself, is almost too good to be true.
 
 
 
Honorable Mentions:

  • The unintended supernatural effect of Joan Allen pleasuring herself in the bathtub for the first time.
  • Macy’s various readings of the line “Where’s my dinner?” each one funnier than the one before it.
  • The remarkable Walsh, who left us entirely too soon, uttering the line “Well, we’re safe for now. Thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley,” then having his Patton moment in front of the overhead projection of the scorecards.
  • The destruction of Bill Johnson’s soda shop, in its own way as startling and upsetting to watch as the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
  • The courtroom scene and its echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the “coloreds” sitting in the balcony.
  • The look on Witherspoon’s face when she hears that, under the town’s new Code of Conduct, “no bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.”
  • The incredible Don Knotts: While he once, in the pages of Esquire, referred to Deputy Barney Fife as his greatest achievement, his performance here as the ubiquitous TV repairman is the perfect culmination of his career, never more so than when he’s losing his shit over the havoc David and Jennifer have wrought on a world that he, Knotts, helped build.

Written by Shepcat

December 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm

A Maow Story — #2 in a Series

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I wanted my and Maow’s last day together to be as peaceful for her as possible, and for the most part it was.

I folded a bath towel so she’d have something soft to lie on, then lifted her onto my lap, and for the better part of six hours we sat in our chair together, listening to podcasts at low volume while I stroked her fur, scratched her ears and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

Later that evening, when it was time to leave for the veterinary clinic, I placed her in her open carrier and held it up near my face so I could talk soothingly to her as we made our way down to the car. She hated car trips, but this time she wasn’t enclosed in her carrier — she was now too weak to have made any attempt at escape — so I hoped that it would be a nice, calm, easygoing ride.

We got into the car, and I was a moment too long getting her carrier situated in the passenger seat before turning the key in the ignition … which was my aging vehicle’s cue to trigger its alarm, the insistent, repetitive stab-stab-stabbing of the car horn, shattering any semblance of serenity we had enjoyed up to that point.

I’ve never actually timed it, but it takes somewhere between 30 seconds and a freaking eternity for the car to register that it’s being driven by its rightful owner, who opened and started it with its original factory-issued key, rather than hijacked by a common criminal who breached it with a coat hanger or a brick and hot-wired it under the dash.

Once the horn finally quit blaring, the rest of the drive entailed more fur-stroking and soothing conversation, as I attempted to reclaim our serenity en route to complete the saddest of all possible errands.

Flash forward to this afternoon, three weeks later. The clinic called to notify me that Maow’s cremains were available to be picked up, so I made that drive one last time.

After signing and dating the cremation registry, I was handed a small box containing Maow’s remains, an envelope containing a cremation certificate, and a clay keepsake with an impression of Maow’s paw. I thanked the receptionist one last time, and Maow and I left together, headed home.

Once outside, balancing these items in one hand as I got back into the car, I was a moment too long getting them — getting her — situated in the passenger seat.

I set off the damn car alarm again.

This has been a Maow story.
 

Written by Shepcat

December 5, 2017 at 11:03 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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A Maow Story — #1 in a Series

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It should surprise no one that I have an occasionally volatile temper and a frequently expressed penchant for profanity. The luxury of working from home for as long as I did is that I could express the upper registers of my outrage and artistry without shattering the presumed civility of an office environment and being summoned to H.R. for a lecture or my dismissal.

The downside of this arrangement was the proximity of my lone, entirely innocent office mate: Maow. When jackasses at work stressed me out, it caused me to stress out Maow, which was the very last thing I wanted.

So after unleashing a torrent of obscenities, I would often find myself kneeling down to Maow, stroking her fur to calm us both, and apologizing to her as soothingly as possible: “I’m not mad at you. I could never be mad at my Maow.”

Flash forward to the terrible last month of her life. She had spent an entire week, more or less, in seclusion behind the gold brocade chair, but as time went on and she rebounded a bit, she returned there only periodically, instead spending most of her time in the dining area or on the couch with me.

I wasn’t working then but would from time to time drop an F-bomb or spew a flurry of invective — a computer crash here, a Trump sound bite there.

On at least three of these occasions, my outbursts prompted Maow to emerge from behind the gold chair, as though she knew I needed to stroke her fur and come down from my anger.

Pets. What did we ever do to deserve them?

This has been a Maow story.

Written by Shepcat

November 16, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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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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