Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Article: Up All Night

"Kids, your grandma always used to say to me, "Nothing good happens after 2:00 a.m.," and she was right. When 2:00 a.m. rolls around, just go home and go to sleep" – Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother 

After spending a lot of my younger life in office jobs and still being in one now, the idea of living for the weekend is a common and desirable aim. Whatever you do in your glass and concrete cage it matters little when the clock hits quitting time. It’s your time to spend. It’s precious. This is clearly obvious for Paul (Griffin Dunne), a word processor and protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s spiraling midnight farce After Hours. The opening moments are so wryly put together. Paul’s wandering eye gaze over the seemingly never-ending piles of paper being carried around to nowhere. His colleague: Lloyd is a new blood trainee who bores him with his mundane chatter about not wanting to be stuck in this humdrum world forever. We all know the type. Especially when you work in an office in your mid-twenties.  It’s clear Paul wants to break free from the shackles of the working day. Very soon the gates that keep him trapped will open and he’ll get his chance of freedom. The trouble is after tonight will he really want it? 

After Hours is usually the first film of the various movies I think of when I hear the overly recycled argument that “Marty only makes gangster films”. Such is the quarrel that I’ve heard for nearly 20 years. After Hours is as old as me, so god knows how long others have had to listen to such lazy claims. Paul this lonely, bored office drone, meets a slightly kooky, bohemian girl, Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) in a diner after work. They bond over the book he’s reading. She’s a little off, but not as much as the weird cashier who they both laugh at. Paul is clearly looking to spice up his life with a lady. Forget about his job for a bit. Looking for an escape from the monotony, it seems there might be something between the two of them. She invites him back to her place in Soho. She lives with a punk artist who makes paperweights. He could have one. Although he’s sure that’s not what she’s inviting him for. That said. What’s the worst that could happen?

In revisiting After Hours, I couldn’t help but snicker at the glee the film has in hiding everything it can from Paul who hasn’t got the facilities for the Soho life. He is not supposed to be there. He does not fit in and it shows in the conversations, the glances. The film isn’t a large-scale clash over social culture, but After Hours makes it clear that Paul is the kind of button-pusher that shouldn’t be hanging around Soho at night, least he found him plummeting into bohemian purgatory. It's not really paranoia if they're really out to get you and the clues circle all around him while he stumbles throughout his urban nightmare. 

Often considered a “lesser” Scorsese, it was a project that the director took up after admitting that he was out of touch with a new blockbuster led world. Both Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1982) had failed financially and Scorsese’s pet project The Last Temptation of Christ was abandoned by Paramount at that point. With this as the background, Scorsese moved towards smaller more independent fare. 

Smaller? Yes. Independent? Indeed. Lesser? Not by a long shot. Rewatching After Hours only highlighted how much of an anaconda of a movie it is. Full of the high running anxiety which bleeds through so many of his movies. Watching Paul squirm and struggle after each minor inconvenience wraps around him and becomes a larger problem is something of a macabre joy. Looking back at the one-two punch of this and the King of Comedy, I am fascinated by the amount of dark humour Scorsese gets out of the pervading menace of the urban night dwellers of the New York streets. Like Greek Theatre, Scorsese sees both the tragedy and the comedy in machismo. He still toys with masculinity in later movies (GoodFellas, The Wolf of Wall Street) however it is within earlier works such as this that feel somewhat more defined. Possibly because Paul is only one step up from a two-bit putz. Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort both have the charm to spare. It’s easy to see why people consider their actions in their respective movies to be glamorised. In After Hours, Paul is not so lucky. Late on in the movie, Paul witnesses a murder in a nearby apartment window. “I bet they’ll blame it on me.” He remarks. The crazy thing is, he is so deep into the inner-city sludge, a lot of it his own doing, we would more than likely agree. 

After Hours falls into the strange small sub-category of films in which our protagonists often stuck in a rut in their regular lives, endure madcap hijinks over the course of one night. Other features include the likes of John Landis’ cameo loaded Into the Night (1985), Doug Liman’s kinetic three-storied Go (1999), and perhaps my favourite movie House Party (1990). It’s a sub-genre I find myself enjoying due to the unpredictability that comes with the territory. Paraphrasing from the opening quote nothing good happens after 2 am. The lure, however, is seeing what happens to *these guys* at that time. Watching the cranks start to turn and the oddballs slide out of the shadows, with everything falling under a tightly wrapped cage of controlled chaos. It is the type of film that allows filmmakers to flex their muscles with economy and pace. If Scorsese was feeling frustrated at the idea of blockbuster movie making at the time, he conquers it here with a film that still harbours all his visual tics and themes. Hell, it even allows him to throw in shots reminiscent of the short silent Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). 

New Jersey writer Joseph Minion seemed to have a passion for the oddballs that wander New York City at night. Along with After Hours, his other feature screenplay of note is the Nicolas Cage vampire vehicle Vampire’s Kiss. Watching Cage as a literary agent slowly descend into hallucinatory madness is eventful, yet despite Vampire Kiss’s holding comparable surreal darkness to After Hours, along with similar anxieties towards women and yuppiedom, Minion’s work holds far more presence and control under the gaze of Scorsese and his crew. Vampire’s Kiss lacks the punch in the storytelling that the likes of Scorsese provides, allowing an overacting and irritating Cage lord all over the material. Amusingly it is no surprise that one of Cage’s best (and more subdued) performances comes in Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Another film which deals with New York in the dead of night. It’s also a film that flopped commercially yet was well received by most who did see it. Additionally, there are no gangsters in sight. 

It’s interesting reading reviews of After Hours (Paul Attanasio and Vincent Carnby are examples) which state that the film “fails to satisfy”, that in itself brings around a small measure of humour. The film itself is almost entirely wrapped with male anxiety and the wish to please and satisfy women. The amusement comes from watching this office type flounder in front of all these women who are clearly more creative and process more control in their destinies. To quote The Rolling Stones “You can’t always get what you want” and that within this turn of events is not only funny but satisfying in its own way  

It would be wise to take note that the demise of one character does come off as unjust from a feminist reading standpoint, helping confirm what many already feel about Scorsese as a male director. Particularly after recent discourse over Anna Paquin’s character’s silence within The Irishman. However, I cannot say that this one aspect confirms the entire whole of the twisted universe of After Hours, in which the other female characters hold their own spikiness. Scorsese has never been the type of director I would look towards for certain female representation and I’ll try not to go back into the likes of his filmography to try and retcon the matter. However, I do find the women that appear in After Hours to be entertaining and sharp in the film's own special way, even if they are not the focus. Linda Fiorentino’s Kiki, for instance, may not feature in many scenes, but her “fuck you” attitude coming 9 years before The Last Seduction (1994) is certainly holds its charms.

The spotlight is however on Paul who holds a type of guilt which is common with Scorsese films of its ilk. Paul’s “blame” comment is funny because while his punishment doesn’t fit the crime, the film suggests this simps arrogance within the earlier segment of the film; courting Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) while hitting on rock chick Kiki, when Marcy steps out briefly, is more than enough to set the wheels of fate turning. It is the type of butterfly effect turn that has the film in common with Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991). Someone is going to pay for that somehow. It is little surprise that The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Goodfellas (1990) are quick to get picked on when looking at Scorsese's work. Their asshole protagonists have little care in guilt or shame, which can make them dangerously glamourous to some. If only Paul was as brazen, he was in the earlier scenes. Then again, it’s clear he doesn’t know that nothing good happens after hours. He should have just gone home and slept.