Friday, May 13, 2011

After Hours

Since New York City has provided content for so many of the entries in this blog, I thought I'd revisit Martin Scorsese's 1985 AFTER HOURS as a possible next entry in "The Great Overrated" series. Perhaps I wouldn't respond so negatively to it as years have passed, age has provided a bit more wisdom, my tastes have sharpened (yet widened). The first few times I watched this movie I twitched and fidgeted; it seemed deliberately conceived to aggravate viewers. On some level, I can appreciate that. However, the annoying film in question must also be defensible on some other level (technically or otherwise). I can find little to no cause to celebrate Scorsese's film.

So disheartening! It seemed like a good exercise for the director, who at the time was in the midst of preparing for THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. A chance to loosen up and be more playful after all the serious (and landmark) films in his canon. Many great directors do one-offs like this, but this time it just feels like a misstep.

I always judge a film's success on whether the creators have realized their goals, goals which should be established in the first reel. Whether or not I like it or if it moves me in some way has nothing to do with its quality. I can be terribly objective. Given that, I wonder why I don't like AFTER HOURS. It seems that Scorsese wants to irritate us with a gallery of assholes who do questionable things. The overall vibe is that of nausea. It makes sense, too, that some dialogue between our poor protagonist, Paul (Griffin Dunne) and a doorman is straight out of Kafka.

But then I thought, "OK, Scorsese and writer Joseph Minion are saying that life in SoHo is just absurd, random." No argument. As Roger Ebert said in his glowing review of this movie, parts of this film will play like a documentary to many New Yorkers. Subway fares can change at the stroke of midnight, bouncers at a club could take a pair of clippers to your mane, the girl you met at a cafe might commit suicide after she invites you home. In NYC, nothing is surprising, nothing, especially in the 1980s. And, in another existential moment, having a mob form in the streets to hunt Paul down also makes sense.

So I should at least admire AFTER HOURS, no? I just can't. I can't appreciate its weirdness because it's not weird enough to sustain interest. I mentioned that the characters are assholes - yes, but they're boring assholes. Teri Garr shows up and freaks out, but she's the sort you would rightly walk away from in mid-sentence 'cos she's just so vapid (Paul is too nice to do that). I can't appreciate the film's NYC slice of life documentation for similiar reasons. Also, because the film is such a tease. Trying to be completely straight-faced can be funny and effective. But, trying to achieve that and be oddball and teasing just creates a stew of frustration. "Stew of frustration": was that the filmmakers' intention?

Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY, shot a few years earlier, was another such stew, a film which deliberately provided no catharses at key moments but yet it worked beautifully for me. When I compare KING and AFTER HOURS, I begin to see the problem: the earlier film is a tight riff on alienation and celebrity, the latter film seems to have no aim, like we're just watching someone's bad night. That can work in cinema, of course, (director Kelly Reichardt is a current master of this), but in AFTER HOURS it's just tedious. I don't need a point, per se, but I do need an agreeable alternative to recaulking my bathtub or watching cement grow.

If so, I think the film still fails because it wasn't bad or dull enough to make me stop watching. It is kind of like the train wreck scenario of which people often speak. I was also interested in seeing what a very diverse cast (including Rosanna Arquette, Verna Bloom, John Heard, and even Cheech and Chong) would do with this material. The ending is actually kind of clever and logical, but reaching it provided no satisfaction, not even relief. Just shrugged shoulders.

Part VII, The Great Overrated
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