Friday, August 30, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.5: Martin Scorsese's New York, New York

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 71/B

When you’re on top of the world, it’s easy for hubris to take over. That’s certainly the case for the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s, most of whom stumbled in the late 70s and early 80s with films that saw ambition overtaking better judgment. It was the case for Spielberg with 1941 and Coppola with One from the Heart, and it’s the case with Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

Scorsese’s passion project was his most experimental film up to that point and unlike anything he had ever attempted before. It was an old fashioned Hollywood musical, but it also tried to inject the realism and grit of New Hollywood. It starred both a masterful Method actor (Robert De Niro) and a musical performer borne of Old Hollywood royalty (Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli). It featured both toe-tapping musical numbers and heavy improvisation, and it was nearly three hours long. In short, it’s an unwieldy movie, and it’s not surprising that the film bombed so badly at the box office, sending an already unstable Scorsese further into drug addiction and depression. But while the film isn’t entirely successful, it’s still a fascinating, fitfully brilliant movie, an often thrilling work of a genius that lacks discipline.

V-J Day, 1945- the war has ended, and sax-player Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) wants to celebrate and get laid. He meets aspiring singer Francine Evans (Minnelli) and pesters her all night, but to no avail. The next day, Jimmy ropes Francine into coming to an audition with him, and they form a partnership. Jimmy and Francine fall in love, but Jimmy’s argumentative nature frequently gets them in trouble. The two get married and Francine gets pregnant, but Jimmy grows increasingly controlling, bullying, and violent, especially as Francine’s star starts to rise.

New York, New York opens with a series of bravura crane and dolly shots that capture the excitement of V-J Day. Scorsese and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs lose him in the crowd, only to highlight his presence when the camera stops near a neon arrow, as if to show his innate loneliness even on a night of celebration. That’s repeated often in the opening- De Niro’s our focus, but he’s just one of the many. A later shot that echoes Taxi Driver shows an empty stairway as De Niro makes a phone call, then shows him walk down as he sees a couple dancing on a train platform. Scorsese

What’s fascinating his how Scorsese opens with a series of formalistic elements only to bring everything down to earth as soon as De Niro sees Minnelli, at which point he goes a smart use of shot/reverse shot to capture the natural rhythms of De Niro pestering Minnelli over and over again. It’s mostly De Niro’s show at this point while Minnelli simply reacts to him coming on like a freight train. It plays in part like an acting exercise- one goes big, the other recedes- but it’s an excellent acting exercise.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the John Cassavetes-style reality of the  improvisations and the Vincente Minnelli-influenced artificiality of the musical and formal elements. More than any of Scorsese’s previous films, New York, New York is about movies, and specifically the psychology behind the genre. It’s a more aggressively downbeat musical than most, but then again, many of the great musicals of Old Hollywood had an underlying sadness. Minnelli’s masterpiece Meet Me in St. Louis was about the deep sadness in a family after the patriarch decides to move the family out of their hometown, where George Cukor’s adaptation of A Star is Born takes the melodrama of a young actress who outpaces her alcoholic husband to dizzying heights and soul-crushing lows.

Minnelli and Cukor’s films were a huge influence on Scorsese, and Scorsese uses that mentality to comment on how musicals were often used as a distraction from pressing, life or world-changing real concerns (The Great Depression, World War II, unhappy home lives). Every set looks splashy and artificial in a gorgeous, Old Hollywood way, but the characters (particularly De Niro’s Jimmy) act like the pricklier, more realistic, less likable people that populated New Hollywood.

Romance blooms out of thin air only to turn nasty and bullying very quickly- Jimmy practically forces Francine into a relationship with him, only to berate her when she tries to inspire their band, keep her on the road when she gets pregnant, and shows clear jealousy and anger at Francine’s rising star. The musical sequences soar while the loud, punishing shouting matches bring us back down to earth. Two scenes illustrate the deep sadness of the world- one of Jimmy’s lame, incredibly false proclamation of love outside a cheap looking fake forest (“I love you. I mean, I don’t love you, I dig you, I like you a lot”), and another where he impulsively takes her to get married, with no proposal, out on what’s clearly a snow-covered soundstage. The way Scorsese juxtaposes cold reality with movie-ness is powerful, and often heartbreaking.

That said, the juxtaposition isn’t particularly clean. The improvisations are often thrilling, but while the circular level of repetition is clearly intentional, it does grow exhausting. De Niro plays his character like it’s a warm-up for Raging Bull (and, to some extent, the more discursive The King of Comedy), throwing any concern for likability out the window early. He’s all wild, storming jealousy, while Minnelli is a passive, put-upon rag doll silently suffering under his fury. They’re both good at what they need to do, but it doesn’t make the film easier to watch.

The film plays more like a collection of scenes tethered to a concept than a clean narrative, and after a while it becomes increasingly clear that there’s no real through line to move things along. Nearly all of the dialogue is improvised, and while it’s all believable, it’s a bit much to take together. Scorsese had allowed improvisation on his previous films, but here he lets it overwhelm the story and go almost totally out of control.

New York, New York was filmed while Scorsese was at the peak of his cocaine addiction, and it shows- it all plays like a wildly ambitious idea that doesn’t allow something as dull as concern for narrative economy. The film feels channeled through Scorsese’s raw paranoia and anger. It’s reflective and self-lacerating (Scorsese admitted that at this point he was given to screaming and throwing things at any sign of argument), but it’s also schizophrenic.

But because the film is a mess doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad. Just as the film threatens to go totally off the rails, Minnelli and De Niro finally, mercifully split. After the loudest, most punishing argument yet leads to Francine going into labor, the film quiets down as Jimmy shows up at her bedside in one of the film’s most moving scenes. The intense shame on De Niro’s face here is palpable- he breaks down before leaving, as if he knows that the child and Francine will be better off without him.

And then, after a number of earlier scenes of Minnelli performing in nightclubs, the film turns into a real musical in the “Happy Endings” sequence (and thank goodness, because Liza can sing like it's nobody's business). Francine, now a movie star, plays an usherette in a movie theater, mooning over the romanticism of the movies, lamenting that happy endings are “only for the stars/not in the stars for me”. Unlike the earlier scenes, there’s a meet-cute between her and a theatergoer, and he gets a chance to see her sing in a nightclub. The film takes on the splashy, colorful aesthetic of the big fantasy sequences of The Band Wagon or Singin’ in the Rain, Francine’s character Peggy knocks her song out of the park, and she gets the good news from her date- “I produce!”

The musical starts to resemble a much quieter and more optimistic version of Francine’s life- just as she gets famous, the man of her dreams leaves her behind, only to reconnect with her later. It’s the peaceful breakup and happy reunion she never had with Jimmy…and it’s all a fantasy, as the camera pulls out of Francine’s diamond-ring and we see her back in the theater, crestfallen. We get a repeat of the producer bit as Peggy gets a happy ending after all, but the falseness of it says it all- even when dreams come true, happy endings aren’t necessarily in the stars for the stars.

That’s proven by the tentative reunion between Francine and Jimmy, now a successful sax-player and nightclub owner but clearly lonely. He’s had a hit with the song he wrote for her, “Theme from New York, New York”, and she’s had an even bigger hit with her sung version of it. But they can’t mend their relationship, and his condescending yet pained “I’m very proud of you, in a way” shows their incompatibility even as Jimmy makes a last attempt to reunite with her. It’s a scene that’s similar to the ending of Scorsese’s more successful The Age of Innocence, Jimmy waits at the curb, outside her stage door before he realizes he’s been stood up. A shot of Francine entering an elevator, the doors closing- she’s made up her mind, and she’s moving on.

A final shot shows Jimmy’s nice shoes on the (fake) pavement, echoing an earlier shot of his cheap shoes on V-J Day. He’s finally made it, but loneliness hasn’t left him. It’s a beautiful, graceful ending for a film that’s often graceless, but rewarding. Scorsese would spiral further down into drug addiction before Robert De Niro brought him Raging Bull, a film that again saw him mixing grim reality with dizzying formalism, more successfully this time. As problematic as New York, New York is, it’s an essential stepping-stone in Scorsese’s career, and it’s hard to imagine his subsequent work being as stunning without it.

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