Martin Scorsese’s After Hours: A Tale of Two Cities

     |    Wednesday January 8th, 2014

Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated (and controversial, see FrankZ’s blog post) The Wolf of Wall Street opens in Germany on January 16.  The latest Scorsese opus, his fifth collaboration with thespian-muse Leonardo DiCaprio, is an over the top satire of corporate raiders in early 1990’s New York, then as now the capital of the financial world. The colors of money have regularly figured in Scorsese’s films, from shadier hues like the mob (Mean Streets; Goodfellas; Casino; The Departed) or sports & gambling (Raging Bull; The Color of Money) to the contrast between technicolor and pitch black in show biz (New York, New York; King of Comedy; The Aviator). Yuppies and art world-driven gentrification, those 80’s phenomena, are at the center of  the maestro’s less canonical After Hours, which in retrospect is a prelude to the developments that reach a dizzying peak (or nadir) in The Wolf of Wall Street.

I had first seen After Hours when it was released in West Germany in early 1986, dubbed and at Berlin’s Zoo Palast multiplex (re-opened in December 2013 after almost two years of renovation). It was part of a weekend ritual – catching a late show before heading on to a Goth club called Linientreu to meet friends and dance into Sunday morning to Wall of Voodoo, The Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, Sonic Youth goof side project Ciccone Youth, The Cure, Fad Gadget, DAF and offshoot Liaisons Dangereuses, pre-”Don’t You Want Me” Human League and the odd Prince tune. (The minimalist funk of his just released album “Parade” really worked alongside the post-punk and proto-industrial tracks.) In light of this, After Hours particularly interested me because it was set in the New York downtown post-punk milieu that had so captured my imagination. I probably chose the Zoo Palast and didn’t seek out a screening in the original version because of the theater’s proximity to the Linientreu. (Fun fact: the name Linientreu is an ironic reference to an adjective describing people, in this case  in reference to the GDR, who were particularly “true to the party line”. This was, after all, the front city West Berlin during the last hurrah of the Cold War.)

Club Berlin, actually shot in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Scene from After Hours.

Back to the Zoo Palast a few buildings down the street. Although I really admired After Hours‘ clever structure, set during one increasingly harrowing night with recurring motifs and a circular plot, I was ultimately disappointed. I compared the film unfavorably to Susan Seidelman’s less complex, more commercial, yet ultimately endearing Desperately Seeking Susan, released about eight months prior to After Hours, although actually shot later. (Full disclosure: I was also pretty smitten by Madonna’s performance, but that’s another story.)

Like After Hours, Seidelman’s film also showed a close encounter of the third kind between hip downtown New York (the East Village as opposed to SoHo in After Hours) and squaresville (here Jersey; Midtown and the Upper Eastside in Scorsese’s film). Seidelman even cast some of the same actors, like Rosanna Arquette and Will Patton. She staged the culture clash as a quirky but sweet screwball comedy, with Arquette playing the heroine as opposed to her catalysing, but ambivalent role in After Hours. And Seidelman’s debut Smithereens proved that she, a NYU graduate like Scorsese, came from ‘the scene’ or at least seemed to have gotten it, including its seamier aspects. Which at the time I thought Scorsese absolutely hadn’t.

Susan Seidelman (center) directing Madonna and Rosanna Arquette (right) in Desperately Seeking Susan.

 

Sometimes I revisit films that I really was into at a specific time to see if they still speak to me. Desperately Seeking Susan, incidentally, has aged well. With After Hours, I wanted to see if the movie and I could even start a conversation. My chief criticism in 1986 was that the quintessentially 70’s Scorsese seemed out of touch in the following decade and was miscast as director of a film that in “hipper” hands might have become a classic. In hindsight, that was based upon a misunderstanding. Indeed, Scorsese was struggling to get his head around the changes he was witnessing in his city, in the way people interacted with each other, in the direction (pop) culture was going. And that’s what the film is about. After Hours was not another paean to downtown deadpan, nihilist chic that I guess I was craving to see back then. Perhaps that’s why the nightmarish and Kafkaesque black comedy isn’t a dated 80’s curio, but rather a valid rendering of a specific time and place, anchored by universal themes.

The first pleasant surprise was lead actor Griffin Dunne’s likeable and nuanced performance as the “word processor” Paul Hackett (up until the late 80’s real live people were identified with this task before it became a software function). After Hours marked the erstwhile end of Scorsese’s decade-long collaboration with Robert De Niro (to be reprised in the 1990’s for three more films: GoodFellas, Cape Fear and Casino) and saw Scorsese working with a younger generation of actors, including Dunne in his first starring role. He had made an impression in indie films like Chilly Scenes of Winter (starring John Heard, who plays a pivotal supporting role in After Hours) as well as John Landis’ cult horror movie An American Werewolf in London. Scorsese knew Dunne through Mean Streets female lead Amy Robinson, who became a producer and founded Double Play Productions with the actor. (He and Robinson also co-produced After Hours.). Dunne later made a name for himself as a director.

Griffin Dunne in After Hours

Dunne is much more attractive (in a boyish, nerdy way) than I remembered him. He ably carries the film as a (scared) straight man to the oddball, needy and downright threatening women he encounters. Marcy (Arquette) commits suicide after an aborted date fraught with misunderstandings, setting Paul up for possible problems with her estranged bartender boyfriend (John Heard) and the law. Female victim as passive-aggressive menace? Later on, beehive-sporting waitress Julie (Teri Garr) offers Paul shelter and tries to turn him on with music from the 60’s (The Monkees and Joni Mitchell), only to then turn on him. Ice cream truck driver Gail (Catherine O’Hara) at first also takes a shine to Paul but then leads a vigilante mob when in the course of the night’s twists of events, he is mistaken for a burglar. Sculptress June (Verna Bloom) saves Paul from said mob by disguising him as a life-sized paper maché statue. After the coast is clear, she doesn’t free him, but slaps on more plaster. The only female character not out to get Paul and with her shit remotely together is Marcy’s tough roommate, artist Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino). But even she emasculates Paul in a way, falling asleep while he administers the backrub she requested. Kiki also dozes through Paul’s revelation of a traumatic childhood incident that sounds somewhat banal but will prove significant for the story. Unlike the film’s other women, Kiki is in a seemingly stable and monogamous relationship, with her S/M partner Horst (Will Patton). Ironically (or perhaps not so), the most self-confident and independent woman is an old-fashioned girl at heart, willingly submitting to her man. (It’s Horst who has her tied up in their bondage games, with no indication of fluctuating roles. Paul misreads the situation and thinks burglars subdued her.)

Verna Bloom and Griffin Dunne in After Hours

Kiki’s judgement lapses when she leaves the dangerously distraught (and unbeknownst to her already deceased) Marcy to her own devices, thinking Paul’s return will straighten her out. He doesn’t consciously hurt anyone, but like J.R. and Charlie, two characters played by Harvey Keitel in earlier Scorsese films Who’s Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets, Paul is ill-equipped to deal with physically and emotionally scarred women. J.R.’s and Charlie’s hang-ups are rooted in Catholic guilt; the only thing we learn about Paul’s background is his abhorrence of burned tissue (the traumatic childhood incident). Paul is more a signifier (white, middle-class, male, with vague boho inclinations) than a full-blooded character, although Dunne fleshes out the role. Does After Hours reflect the general shift from psychosexually and socially grounded modernism to semantically driven postmodernism? (Scorsese’s work nonetheless has always been laden with references and referentiality.)

After Hours is both influenced by and critical of 80’s postmodern culture. Again, the Kiki character serves as a vehicle for this critique. She is the quintessential new wave, ironically distanced artist – creating, in a SoHo loft, saleable ready-mades like plaster bagels (with cream cheese) and more elaborate works such as humanoid paper maché sculptures (which remind Paul of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, or as he calls it, “The Shriek”).  Kiki’s originality is questioned by the appearance of the older June who makes similar sculptures. Has Kiki been lifting June’s ideas? Or is this what the downtown art scene boiled down to in Scorsese’s and screenwriter Joseph Minion’s minds – plaster and paper maché? “Life Lessons”, the Richard Price-scripted short Scorsese contributed to the 1989 omnibus film New York Stories, offers some clues. That film’s main character Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) is a successful (abstract) expressionist suffering from painter’s block a few days before a major opening. Rocky romantic relationships (most recently with soon to be ex-lover and assistant Paulette, played by Rosanna Arquette) and driving music – Puccini arias and classic rock by Dylan, Cream and Procol Harum – fuel his creativity. Lionel fetishizes (illustrated in Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharply edited montages of gazes and isolated body parts) and exploits women, yet his talent is authentic, life-affirming and for the ages; Scorsese clearly identifies more with Dobie the macho modernist than the po-mo poseurs and clever yet faddish performance artists Paulette also gravitates to.

Michael Ballhaus and Martin Scorsese

 

“Faddish” is a word that has sometimes been used to describe the cinematography of Scorsese’s longtime D.P. Michael Ballhaus. After Hours marked the first film of a two decade long collaboration which culminated in The Departed, which won Scorsese long overdue Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Ballhaus had previously worked in West Germany with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He came to the United States in the early 1980’s, shooting John Sayles’ Baby It’s You (a 60’s set romance starring Vincent Spano and Rosanna Arquette as lovers ultimately separated by class and differing aspirations. Perhaps Arquette recommended Ballhaus to Scorsese?) and music videos like Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach”. Ballhaus’ camera is not cinema vérité fly-on-the-wall – it calls attention to itself with intricate, often spectacular movement like circular tracking shots. (In the recent German indie comedy KLAPPE COWBOY! the put-upon auteur Cowboy implores his inept D.P. to “do the Ballhaus” when shooting a tricky scene of his “art porn” film.) Ballhaus’ cinematography creates mood and sensations. Some people find his camerawork gimmicky. It is – gimmicky in the same way that certain 80’s synth pop tunes are full of inventive instrumental hooks and aural signatures that make the songs what they are. French band Nouvelle Vague made a career with bossa nova covers of post-punk or synth pop classics like ”Love Will Tear Us Apart Again” and “Don’t Go”. The radical workovers are fun and reveal the originals’ strengths as songs. Nevertheless, “Don’t Go”’s urgent opening chords and “Love Will Tear Us Apart Again”’s desperate guitar strumming in alternation with the funereal synth-carried melody, not to mention the voices of respective singers Alison Moyet and Ian Curtis, form the essence of those songs. Just like The Color of Money and Goodfellas would be different films without the pool table POVs or seamless restaurant kitchen tracking shot. Ballhaus’ lens sets the tone and determines spatial relationships of characters among each other and to the cinematic world they inhabit.

Ciro Cappellari and Michael Ballhaus IN BERLIN, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church across the street from the Zoo Palast.

 

After capping two decades of a successful Hollywood career, Michael Ballhaus returned to his hometown Berlin, while stepping into the director’s chair for the very first time at age 73. Co-directed with Ciro Cappellari, the documentary IN BERLIN explores the rapid changes in the German capital and portrays some of the city’s movers and shakers: Mayor Klaus Wowereit, actress Angela Winkler, techno impresario Dimitri Hegemann and TV journalist Maybrit Illner, just to name a few. Ballhaus can’t take his eyes off  Berlin, much as Scorsese will always be transfixed by New York…