Friday, October 4, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.9: Martin Scorsese's After Hours

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: 89/A-

There’s almost nothing more soul-crushing for a director than seeing a dream project fall apart. Martin Scorsese knows this as well as anyone: after saving his career with Raging Bull and finishing The King of Comedy, Scorsese had his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, greenlit by Paramount, only to see the film canceled weeks before production was to begin. Scorsese would eventually get a chance to finish the film, but first, he had to direct something, anything, to keep his career going.

Enter Lies, a script by Joseph Minion (largely inspired by a Joe Frank monologue) about a man’s comically terrible night in New York. Scorsese liked the script and realized that he could shoot it fast and cheap ($4.5 million). Released as After Hours, the film wasn’t a huge hit, but it showed that Scorsese wasn’t down and out yet, that he was willing to push himself stylistically, and that, given the right material, he could make a damned funny movie.

New York yuppie Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a café. Marcy invites Paul over to her SoHo apartment later that night, but he’s in for a rough night. So starts a series of misadventures: Paul loses his money, inadvertently causes a woman’s suicide, gets accused of a series of robberies, and eventually has all of SoHo after him. All he wants to do is go home, but the city might kill him first.

After Hours plays like a mixture of the early, grungy Scorsese classics like Mean Streets, the dark city horror of Taxi Driver, and his upcoming kinetic masterpiece Goodfellas. Scorsese notably edited the film down from over two hours to just 97 minutes, and the result is a movie that’s all nervy energy, grit and horror, with an added element of absurdist comedy. It’s a film that moves so quickly that it’s hard not to get caught up in the visceral excitement.

Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing actually serves as the punchline to some of the film’s funniest jokes. Paul insists to his cab driver that there’s no hurry, only for the film to enter a sped-up frame-rate that makes it look like he’s racing like a bat out of hell (this also, notably, leads to Paul’s money flying out the window, which strands him downtown). Another cut takes an irate Paul, demanding to enter a club, into a punk-rock nightmare where the flashing lights, crazy-looking kids, and sound of Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum” assault him. The movie’s most inspired joke, though, is a number of jump-cut fades as Paul soliloquizes to a bored listener about his terrible night. It all sounds absurd, and the sound and fury to his speech, combined with the fades, makes him sound nuts to anyone who hasn’t seen just how crazy his night has been.

After Hours is, notably, Scorsese’s first collaboration with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would shoot most of Scorsese’s movies up to The Age of Innocence. Scorsese and Ballhaus make SoHo look simultaneously sexy and nightmarish- it’s seductive to this yuppie, but he’s also too square and too neurotic to not get ripped apart. Ballhaus’ relentlessly agile camera movements- which whip and dolly around with caffeinated glee- only help add to the nervy energy of the film. They’re also great at showing Paul’s neurotic perspective, not to mention how his innocent actions (a massage, a journey to retrieve a barman’s keys) can be misconstrued. It’s as if Hitchcock (whose “wrong man” storyline informs this film) and Buster Keaton had an amphetamine-popping kid.

Scorsese packs his film with a wonderful oddball cast- manic-depressive Arquette; John Heard as a first affable, then distraught bartender; Catharine O’Hara and Teri Garr as a pair of psychotically enthusiastic women who take to, then turn against, Paul; Linda Fiorentino as Arquette’s artist roommate; and Cheech and Chong as a pair of burglars. Dunne, meanwhile, acts as a perfect straight man to all the comic absurdity, both understandably upset and kind of a dick to everyone he encounters. His hilariously pathetic attempts to relate to the crazy people around him (“That’s like that Edward Munch painting…The Shriek?”) only exaggerates how out of his depth he is.

So what’s this all about? Scorsese has pretty much admitted that After Hours is mostly a stylistic exercise, a chance for him to show off all the tricks he’s had over the years to show that he could still make an entertaining film. It is mostly that, but I’d argue that it’s hard not to see some of Scorsese’s own plight in Paul’s night on the town. Here’s a guy who spent most of the 80s scrambling to stay in the business, between his kicking a drug habit, having to force himself through The King of Comedy (which initially bombed), and saw his dream project collapse. Like Paul, Scorsese saw the whole world seemingly going against him. After Hours, then, is his chance to laugh it off.

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