Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XIII: After Hours

After Hours (1985) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Joseph Minion.
Starring: Griffin Dunne (Paul Hackett), Rosanna Arquette (Marcy Franklin), Verna Bloom (June), Tommy Chong (Pepe), Linda Fiorentino (Kiki Bridges), Teri Garr (Julie), John Heard (Thomas 'Tom' Schorr), Cheech Marin (Neil), Catherine O'Hara (Gail), Dick Miller (Diner Waiter), Will Patton (Horst), Robert Plunket (Street Pickup), Bronson Pinchot (Lloyd), Charles Scorsese (Club Berlin Patron), Martin Scorsese (Club Berlin Searchlight Operator).

Poor Paul Hackett. All this office drone was doing was reading “Tropic of Cancer” when the worst night of his life started. A beautiful young woman starts to talk to him about the book. The flirt, they laugh, she gives him the number of an artist who makes Plaster of Paris, Bagel and Cream Cheese paper weights, if he’s interested. She’ll be staying there for a while, she tells him. Later that night, he gets home and decides to call. She tells him to come right over, even though it’s 11:30 on a weeknight. He does. Why would a girl invite you over to her place at 11:30 if she didn’t intend to sleep with you? And this is where things start to go horribly wrong for Paul.

Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is a surrealistic comic nightmare of a movie, where poor Paul (Griffin Dunne) suffers one humiliation and piece of bad luck after another. Throughout the course of the night he will lose all his money, get creeped out by the girl he went to see, not be able to get on the subway because the fare went up as of midnight, be caught in a rainstorm, flood a bartenders apartment, be pinned down and have people try and shave his hair into a mohawk lose his keys, confront a pair of burglars, get mistaken for those burglars and have an angry mob chase him, and essentially meet one crazy person after another, all of whom seemed to put in his way just to make his life even more miserable. Oh, and he is probably responsible for the young woman he came to see committing suicide. Only in New York would this story seem plausible.

After Hours was made at a difficult time for Scorsese. Filming The King of Comedy had not be an overly positive experience for him, and after devoting a few years of his life to his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ, the studio pulled the plug on the project (we all know that Scorsese did eventually get the movie made a few years later, but he didn’t know that at the time). He simply wanted to make a movie quickly and cheaply, and rekindle his love of making movies. When he was handed the screenplay for After Hours, he decided this would be that movie.

After Hours is the one movie in Scorsese’s career that you could rightly say was style over substance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because a movie like After Hours either lives or dies by its style. If the tone of the movie is quite right, the visual look not right, the performances are off, and what turned out to be a black comedy masterpiece could have instead have turned out to be a painfully unfunny, unbelievable mess of a movie. But Scorsese pulls it off.

From the opening scenes of the movie, we know this movie is going to be different from most of Scorsese’s films. For one thing, his “hero” is a milder mannered, normal guy than we normally see. This isn’t a guy with masculinity issues really, just a regular office drone doing a job he hates. When Paul leaves his apartment and catches a cab into Soho, the cab driver drives like a complete maniac, and Scorsese speeds up the action, as the cab zips in and out of the lanes, eventually causing Paul’s money to fly out the window. The apartment that Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), the girl Paul goes to see, shares with Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), is one of those huge lofts where everything echoes. Kiki’s art is all around, and its strange and surreal. He gets there and Marcy has stepped out to go to the drug store. He talks with Kiki, he seems strange – she is somewhere between coming on to him, and being disgusted by him. Like Marcy, Kiki responds to Paul sexually – and so does every other Paul will meet that night. But there is something off about everyone. Kiki is a little too strong and assured, maybe too comfortable (later in the movie she will talk to Paul while topless as if it’s completely normal), Marcy seems to have mental issues, and could in fact be covered by scars. Julie (Teri Garr), a waitress Paul later meets, is hugely insecure, and trapped in the 1960s – playing Monkees albums and having a beehive hairdo. Gail (Catherine O’Hara) is simply trying to be nice and funny, but she is somewhat deranged. June (Vera Bloom) simply appreciates the company, but soon he realizes she too is messed up. Poor Paul meets no one normal at all during the course of the night.

After The King of Comedy, where Scorsese’s camera uncharacteristically seemed to be bolted to the floor, he and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus just let loose in After Hours. There is hardly a shot in the film where the camera isn’t moving all over the place. Take a brilliant shot where Kiki drops the keys to Paul off the balcony for example. We get a point of view shot from the perspective of the keys, but really it’s simply Scorsese and Ballhaus dropping a camera off the roof tied to bungee chords. After one take, they realized how stupid and dangerous this was (had something gone wrong, Griffin Dunne could have been killed), but they got the shot. In many ways, After Hours is perhaps Scorsese’s purest visual movie. The visuals help to set the tone for the movie, but all by itself, the movie is a treasure to watch. It’s no wonder Scorsese won the best director prize at Cannes that year for this film.

In a very real way, After Hours is Scorsese at his most playful. After two tough experiences, Scorsese felt he had something to prove – to himself more than anyone else. After Hours is Scorsese recharging his batteries, rediscovering why he loves making movies so much. Often when a director does a film like this – and many do at some point in their career – the result is a much more personal film, but one that means more to the director than anyone else. But After Hours is a film that simply grows in my mind as the years have gone by. Each time I watched (and that’s been at least four times by now), I like it even more than the time before. After Hours is one of Scorsese’s lesser known, lesser praised efforts, and yet it is a comic masterpiece. This is a filmmaker who knows New York City better than any other director in history, and in each one of his movies, the city becomes a character. It has never seemed more alive than it does in After Hours.

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