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Class of 1985: ‘After Hours’

by on September 30, 2015
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Griffin Dunne and Teri Garr star in Martin Scorsese's 1985 comedy "After Hours."

In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (the extra coming in last month’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.

Martin Scorsese couldn’t make a film about Christ, so he made one featuring God.

From who else’s perspective could the rocket-launched tracking shot that opens 1985’s “After Hours” possibly be? To whom might nebbish professional Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) otherwise beseech salvation while down on his knees in a SoHo hellscape? What other force might, just for fun, mangle a mundane man in modern life’s machinery?

Travis Bickle asked the universe for a rain to wash away New York’s scum. Here, the universe puts its finger over the sprinkler head to spray point-blank at one New Yorker’s face. Playful isn’t the right word for any of Scorsese’s films, but “Hours” comes closest despite the pervasive paranoia that plagues its protagonist … and perhaps Scorsese.

Made for Warner Brothers between “The Last Temptation of Christ’s” collapse at Paramount and its resurrection at Universal, “Hours” might seem like an idle-hands diversion — Scorsese’s upmarket spin on the yuppie-nightmare comedy of mainstream films like “Into the Night” or “Blind Date.” It’s more like the midpoint of a walkabout decade in which he dabbled after delivering an all-time great to kick it off (1980’s “Raging Bull”).

First, 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” a prescient parable about the perils of celebrity worship whose due eluded it until years later. Then, in 1986, an episode of prime-time TV (“Amazing Stories”) and a sequel (“The Color of Money”) to a film released when Scorsese was still a teenager. One year later, a Michael Jackson video (“Bad”). In 1988, finally, “Christ,” the natural controversy of which chilling interest rather than churning it up as it likely would today. And in 1989, Scorsese directed his first fictional short since 1968 as a third of the anthological triptych “New York Stories.”

Scorsese’s lawyer allegedly introduced him to “A Night in SoHo,” as screenwriter Joseph Minion’s film-school thesis script was then titled. Said attorney may have played a part in litigation over “Hours” that ended with a settlement to radio artist Joe Frank, from whose 1982 “NPR Playhouse” work “Lies” the film is partially derived. After this, Minion wrote Scorsese’s “Amazing Stories” episode and 1988’s “Vampire Kiss” (in which Nicolas Cage eats a cockroach), directed a Roger Corman cheapie and then fell off Hollywood’s map.

At the time, Tim Burton was set to direct “Hours” but stepped aside for Scorsese and, of course, jumpstarted his career elsewhere at Warner Brothers with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” After Scorsese failed to mount “Christ” the first time, it’s easy to see what beckoned him to this story of a social Sisyphus — forever foiled by mounting absurdities and his own self-sabotaging buffoonery in pursuing a passionate one-night fling far, far from his Upper East Side sanctum. A comedy, yes, but also a vehicle of redemptive catharsis with which Scorsese could run down his own anxiety over a film he’d sought to make for years … and perhaps feared he never would.

Because it’s a Scorsese picture, you suspect “Hours” will erupt into graphic violence at any moment. It does, but as macabre comic relief. “I’ll probably get blamed for that, too,” Paul quips as a woman guns down her presumed husband in an apartment across the street from his vantage point. Despite that, “Hours” never quite spins out into as much wheel-of-fate anarchy as you’d expect … or maybe hope. Not unreasonably, Paul becomes a suspect in a rash of residential burglaries, but even the mob chasing him feels muted — always a half-block away instead of nipping at his heels. Overall, the film is more daintily aligned with an opening-credits soundtrack choice of Mozart than Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum” (heard later in a nightclub where Paul is nearly Mohawked). It also runs out of subtextual steam after an hour … right around the fourth woman in whose hands Paul is putty.

It is upon this most milquetoast of leading men — and his office’s “beige fog,” as Scorsese called it — that cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s camera rests after the aforementioned humdinger opener. The German best known for vertiginously swooping pans in Scorsese behemoths (“Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Departed”) first paired with the director here … and to look back at their first shot together suggests the greatness that would come, both in this film’s hyper-real hustle and bustle and their later works. Watching it is like riding a pair of dice blown on by God, rattled and rolled at a man he’s chosen to mess with today.

Paul is a word-processing specialist who shapes other people’s creations into neat, tidy electronic formats. He handles neither form nor function, just making sure it fits day in and day out. His thanks for mentoring a new employee (Bronson Pinchot)? A suggestion from the newbie that Paul’s career is a joke. As Paul leaves for the night, he slips through his building’s gates like a con sprung from prison and makes his way to another type of cell, a 91st Street apartment with 57 channels but nothing on.

“Hours” was Scorsese’s first fictional film since 1976 without Robert De Niro as his leading man, but De Niro’s suavity and confidence would have been all wrong for Paul Hackett. Like a Woody Allen surrogate, Dunne is a perfect doppelgänger for an anxiety-plagued Scorsese (sans the facial hair), from his squiggly unibrow to his jittery countenance. He’s also slimy enough that, as the night wears on, you shift your allegiance away from Paul as the recipient of undue persecution toward a guy getting his just desserts.

As a last-ditch effort to keep himself entertained, Paul decamps to a 24-hour coffee shop with his book, Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” and strikes up an unexpected conversation with the newly single Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). She shares Paul’s love for Miller’s controversial tale and paraphrases this quote to him before dropping her number and disappearing into the ether:

“No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will.”

That could just as easily describe the night about to descend on Paul. Scorsese sets up the darker side of most administrative-professional desk jockeys’ Walter Mitty daydreams: That we must make the most of the off-hours we have to ourselves. To not fill the next day (and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that) with disappointingly unrealized fantasies.

Under the painfully false ruse of ordering a papier-mâché paperweight from Marcy’s artistic roommate, Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), Paul dials Marcy’s number in hopes of hooking up. The sexual undertones approach a level of social satire a la “American Psycho”: Paul most certainly wants to get laid, but only if he can seize a wild story beside it, an anecdote of achievement for a one-up at the next party. Where better to seek safe sexual adventure than the bohemian bowery of SoHo?

But then Paul loses nearly all his cash out the window of his speeding taxi; as the cabbie, Larry Block slays with only 30 seconds of mostly silent, wide-eyed, enraged screen time. (The clip’s in French, but no translation is necessary.)

When Paul does show up at Marcy’s place, she’s out running an errand and Kiki is working in just a bra and miniskirt. Fiorentino built her career on women who eat men alive; Kiki dines well without even working up an appetite. Within minutes, Paul tries parlaying his pleasure principle into a romp with sore-shouldered Kiki, whose bra straps he gingerly drops to deliver a back massage. Just as he moves his head to meet her for the kiss he’s sure she’s seeking … we see he’s put her to sleep with senseless small talk. Fiorentino’s subsequent topless, oh-well shrug once Marcy returns is an uproarious moment of sorry-not-sorry comic timing.

Marcy seems the easier prey for Paul, her kewpie-squeak laugh and on-the-rebound vulnerability having lit his wires in the restaurant. But on her turf, she’s the predator. Marcy teases the promise of a hot night of excitement … then douses it with a cold-water recollection of her rape (that, she later admits, was actually six-hour consensual sex with an ex during which she dozed off).

Nasty burns appear to scar Marcy’s thighs … or do they? Then there are the conspiratorial whispers she shares with Kiki in the hallway; are these women gaming him for their own amusement or is Paul — whose every empathetic feint is met with a jab of emasculation — conjuring reasons to get himself out of there?

Paul mimics cruelty as a pretense to vamoose, but neither Marcy nor Kiki nor SoHo itself is done with him yet. Drowned like a rat during a rainstorm, Paul learns the subway raised its fares effective at midnight; his pleas for sympathy fall on deaf ears of an ethically upright attendant (Murray Moston) in a scene Bill Murray would mimic several years later, albeit on a bus, in the similarly anxious “Quick Change.”

From there, Paul’s evening spins sideways into a Kafka-esque series of misread signals, blown opportunities and ceaseless humiliations. If you don’t get it by the time a Mister Softee truck driver (Catherine O’Hara) taunts Paul for no presumed reason, there’s bar-wall graffiti of a shark biting a man’s penis, a “V”-shaped shattered door frame Paul scrambles through and spotlighted mouse traps in the apartment belonging to Teri Garr’s bored waitress to underline it. (Paul also runs afoul of males — Will Patton as an S&M aficionado, Cheech & Chong’s possible thieves, John Heard as a kindly bartender, Victor Argo as a surly cook.)

Had Mel Brooks not used “High Anxiety” as a title, you sense Scorsese would have grabbed it. You also wish he’d have let the first hour’s deeply menacing suggestion that the universe has made Paul its plaything stand more firmly on its own — keying more into a Howard Shore score that sounds like satellite transmissions from a surreal, undiscovered dimension and less into the obvious symbolism that is rarely his forte. (The shot of a scurrying rat in “The Departed” clanged loudly 20 years after this.)

Garr is the only woman with anything approaching a tender sympathy to Paul’s plight. He is, of course, uninterested in her and is summarily punished for slighting her. As Paul digs deeper into shit of his own making, he starts to feel less like Job and more like Gob. Scorsese reportedly demanded that Dunne refrain from sex or sleep during filming to realistically convey paranoia. As Chaplin might say, the close-up tragedy and long-shot comedy drips from Dunne’s sweat glands in an increasingly harried and hampered turn.

And yet through it all, Paul clings to the dream of sleeping with some woman, any woman, to salvage a night gone south. He deploys dime-store moves and Peggy Lee on the jukebox on a wallflower artist named June (Verna Bloom) who seems an easy mark until she shuts him down more sufficiently, and perhaps more permanently, than anyone else.

Eventually, Paul winds up where he started — outside his job where the gates, under the merciful dawn’s early light, now look practically pearly. When Paul plops down in his office chair (the first person there to boot), you sense this night has cowed him into staying there forever, that he has cast aside existential anxiety about being a follower and embraced the mediocrity he once outwardly mocked but so wholly embodies.

Perhaps this is the same fear that skulked around Scorsese’s mind when he signed on for “After Hours”: Could “Raging Bull” be his pinnacle after just a decade of directing? Would his failure to get “Christ” off the ground consign him to coloring only within the lines that he knew or that were drawn for him? The last 30 years have, of course, proven such worries unfounded. As absurdist comedy, “After Hours” isn’t flawless, but as Scorsese’s way of using art to shake off bugaboos, exorcise demons and bounce back stronger, it’s its own sort of masterpiece.

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