Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A-Z: After Hours

I was feeling a bit of blogger’s fatigue for a stretch this November. So I tried a bit of an experiment. I took a DVD from my shelf to represent every letter of the alphabet. The rules were simple it had to be a film that sparked in me a desire to write about it (Though I reserve the right to cover a film as a "Scenes") and I had to select them in order.

In other words if I selected from my shelf Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, and knew that Traffic was on the shelf above, I couldn’t pick it, instead having to look for the T titled film on the shelf below. After a few circulations through the shelves I ended up cutting such an unlikely swatch through my film collection that I couldn’t help but get a little giddy thinking about it. Established members of the canon sitting next to pure schlock, all time favorites next to “Why the hell do I own this again?” none more mainstream films next to voices from the underground.

Trust me, if you my fellow bloggers are having a bit of writer’s block I can’t recommend this little experiment enough and please feel free to co opt it. Even if you don’t do it as a column, but rather as an experiment you might be surprised to see what titles you shake loose from your collection. And I'd certainly be interested to see what you come up with.

I did have an ulterior motive in starting this list, I knew that I would literally have to force myself to watch After Hours again.

I just wanted to go out on the town. Maybe meet a nice girl. And now I have to die for it?

-Griffith Dunne-

“Do you at all sense the pressure here?”

-Catherine O’Hara-

After Hours is after all my least favorite Scorsese film (which isn't to say I think it's his worst), and the one I’ve watched the least (Read under a half dozen times. A distinction it shares only with New York New York. Though I think I can at least be partially excused as thanks to its length, watching it is nothing less then a commitment.) Not that I think it’s a bad film mind, quite the contrary. After Hours is so good at what it does that both times I sat down to watch it, it triggered nothing less then a full on panic attack. The film left me so shaken that I was actually palatably nervous about seeing it again.

Fueled by a backbeat that is half cocaine paranoia and half Old Testament rage, After Hours is the one of the most relentless cinematic accounts of unfortunate events this side of A Serious Man. For the terrible crime of wanting to chat up a pretty girl Dunne pays with everything short of his life and sanity, and both of those are certainly on the chopping block at various times. When speaking about the film Detour Scorsese defined Film Noir thusly “No matter which way you go, fate sticks out its foot to trip you.” That might as well have been the tagline for After Hours, except fate does nothing so passive as stick out it foot for poor Paul. Taking him instead at something more like a running tackle. It’s the cinematic equivilant of that old gag were in Job asks God why these things are happening to him and God replies “Something about you just pissed me off.”

Yet unlike A Serious Man’s impersonal thundering God Of Abraham, The malignant deity in After Hours is so clearly Scorsese himself. It is he who, with palatable glee, contorts the universe against our hero reducing him to finally running through the hostile streets at four in the morning screaming “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!!!” And in one of the all time great director’s cameo’s finally literally begins chasing the poor bastard around with a floodlight of omnipotence. There’s no escaping his vision, in any sense. Much ink and chin stroking has been spilled over the concept of the filmmaker as God. This is as far as I know the first to posit the filmmaker as a vengeful petty God.

The film plays like a silent comedy that has curdled. In a silent comedy when disaster after disaster are hurled at the hero a kind of manic joy builds up. In the apocalyptic ending of Seven Chances for example, the joke is not that boulders are hurtling down on Buster Keaton, but that Keaton is so nimbly and improbably avoiding the boulders. After Hours is that joke in the inverse, its not so much that Dunne keeps narrowly escaping each new disaster. It’s that there is always a new disaster. Every time he thinks he’s broken out of the box, he finds a new bigger box already built around him. There’s always some unforeseeable disaster waiting in the wings and they will Never. Stop. Coming. When an impromptu reenactment of Kafka’s “Before The Law” makes one of the most soothing sequences in the film you know the thing will make your blood pressure rise.

The film never allows the tension to dissipate. Even when nothing outright horrifying is happening, Scorsese fills the soundtrack with whispers in adjacent rooms, the frame with things half seen, and the environs with that perfect off putting detail...

The whiff of dreaded conspiracy is omnipresent.

Griffith Dunne makes an able punching bag for the world. But it’s the female cast headed by Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Linda Fiorentino and Catherine O’Hara, who really tap into the bizarre current running underneath the film. Will Patton and John Heard also do fine work, and Michael Ballhaus (glancing at IMDB is there a greater cinematographer who has shot more truly shitty films?) in his first collaboration with Scorsese knocks it out of the park.

So how was the experience as a whole? Was I able to make it through After Hours without taking several breaks to breathe deeply into a paper bag?

Yes, but only because I forced myself to watch the film at a remove that I usually do not. Seen at a distance I like admire After Hours much more. It’s almost perfect in its way. A movie that does exactly what it’s built for. But I don’t think it’ll ever make its way into heavy rotation in my film diet the way rest of Scorsese’s films have. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Monty Python’s Spring Surprise. Sure one has to admire anything that does what it was designed to do with such brutal efficiency. But what it was designed to do is maim you.

Post Script:

Let’s go ahead and take a head count on where we are on my pledge to revisit every Scorsese film before my blog's 3rd Anniversary.

A bit of clarification as to the perimeter’s of the project. I am for the sake of sanity sticking to Scorsese’s feature films. This WILL include his documentary work as long as he DIRECTED it (so no Val Lewton The Man From The Shadows). And I’m certainly not ruling out covering career oddities like Mirror Mirror, Italian American, The Key To Reserva and American Boy. Or short films like The Big Shave and It’s Not Just You Murray. But one of the things about Scorsese’s career is that there’s just so much of it. And if I had to dedicate myself to tracking down every bit of ephemera you’d probably see little else on the site for the coming year. Also just because I have written about a film, doesn’t mean it won’t pop up again. Gangs Of New York will for example make up the next installment of Scenes and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Last Temptation Of Christ also made an appearance, they are two of my favorite films and I've never been quite satisfied with what I've written about them (Inversely I reserve to right to cover a film as Scenes entry).

The best way to think of the below list is as a road map. This is what I intend to cover, but that certainly doesn’t mean I won’t take the occasional detour.

So without further ado, The Master List:

Who’s That Knocking At My Door
Boxcar Bertha
Mean Streets
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Taxi Driver
New York New York
The Last Waltz
Raging Bull
The King Of Comedy
After Hours
The Color Of Money
The Last Temptation Of Christ
New York Stories
Cape Fear
The Age Of Innocence
A Personal Journey Through American Movies With Martin Scorsese
My Voyage To Italy
Bringing Out The Dead
Gangs Of New York
The Blues: Feels Like Going Home
The Aviator
No Direction Home
The Departed
Shine A Light
Shutter Island
Boardwalk Empire
A Letter To Elia
Public Speaking (Pending DVD Release)
Living In The Material World (Pending DVD Release)

So there it is. And if there’s something you don’t see here that as a Scorsese fan you feel that I just HAVE to cover, then let me know about it. Personally though I think it looks like a damn good year of films ahead.


David B. said...

I honestly had never heard of After Hours until Ebert added it to his "Great Movies" list last year. So I tracked down the dvd and instantly fell in love with it.

I made a group of my friends watch it and one guy had to literally cover his eyes and found it painful to watch.

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad to know I'm not alone.

That's one sadistic screening. There's no denying it's a great movie. But it takes fortitude.