Tuesday, March 19, 2019

After Hours

After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985) "Different rules apply when it gets this late, ya know what I mean? It's like...'after-hours.'"

Radio monologist Joe Frank died January 15, 2018 and several podcasts who have depended on the spoken word for their medium of choice remarked on his passing. 

But, what seldom came up was the lawsuit. 

Joe Frank sued the producers of After Hours for similarities to his monologue called "Lies." Details of the settlement have never been disclosed, but when you listen to "Lies" and you watch After Hours and it is obvious down to some very specific details that the movie's first portion is a bunch of "Lies." I mean, "bagel and cream-cheese paperweights?" That's the sort of detail that can't be dismissed as the coincidence of two competing "Earth-hit-by-asteroid" movies or "Truman-Capote-writes-"In-Cold-Blood"" movies.* That sort of "coincidence" is right on the proboscis.
Lawsuit aside, After Hours is one of my favorite Scorsese films** (and I have several of those) as it perfectly captures the bizarre sense of a city's nocturnal side, especially when one is "up" past one's comfort zone due to circumstances beyond one's control with looming consequences once the sun decides to crash the party. I've had nights like that, wandering for miles in the dead of night in the one section of town that doesn't seem to have a gas station at any close proximity—would it be open if there was? But, stuff happens. It just doesn't pile up like this: 
"My God, Marcy finally met Mr. Right"
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is a corporate drone where he...oh, who cares what he does, it isn't important, but it has something to do with computers or computer training ("I'm just a word processor, for Christ's sake!" he will scream to the heavens at one point). Whatever. It doesn't matter. But, after droning away another day, he goes back to his meticulously arranged apartment, checks out what's on cable—and nothing's on—he goes to eat a lonely dinner at a lonely diner, head down in a book (Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer"***) when he looks up and sees Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) watching him. They nod, they smile, and they start to talk...
They talk about "Tropic of Cancer"—she likes it, can quote from it ("'This is not a book, it's a prolonged insult; a gob of spit in the face of art; a kick in the pants to Truth, Beauty, God' something like that...that's all I remember")—and it seems they have a lot in common...enough to continue the conversation. About the cashier "making these strange movements," about how she's going to her friend's loft downtown Soho and she's a sculptress making plaster-of-Paris paperweights of bagels with cream-cheese. She gives him her friend's phone number and later on, he calls her and she's had a fight with a friend and is feeling vulnerable—why doesn't he come over? She's glad he called.

And that's all it takes.
After a "Mr. Toad's wild-cab-ride" that is so violent he loses the $20 bill he was going to use to pay the fare, he goes up to the apartment of Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino), who is working on a sculpture of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Marcy's not there; she's at the all-night drugstore ("She all right?" "It's under control") although she calls ("Well, of course he's here, you invited him...it's your problem, Marcy, I'm not gonna tell him...) and Kiki asks him to help with the sculpture. His shirt gets messed up and Kiki offers to launder it, giving him a replacement to wear for his "date". They talk about how the plaster is hard work and screws up your shoulders and Paul offers her a massage and after he mentions she has a good body, she agrees, remarking that she doesn't have any scars—"some women are covered with them head to toe...horrible, ugly scars...I'm just telling you now"). He brushes that off, starting a story of how, as a child, he'd spent a night in a burn ward and, before he can get to the meat of the story, she falls asleep. Then, Marcie walks in.
They retire to Marcy's room and her first question is "What'd you do to her?" which makes Paul defensive, and Marcy shrugs it off just as quickly. Saying that she's going to take a quick shower, she asks "I hope you don't have to get up early or anything. Because I think you're somebody I can really talk to. Tonight, I feel like I'm gonna let loose or something. I feel like something really incredible is going to happen here. I feel sooo..excited. I don't know why. I feel it. I'm glad you came." And she laughs semi-hysterically. And then she winks, which Scorsese emphasizes with a forward-travelling shot. 
Marcy's phone rings and Paul hesitantly answers it: "She can't come to the phone now." "Tell her Greg called" and hangs up. Kiki appears in the door-way, stripping off her bra: "She back?" Paul can only lamely answer: "Yeah." She sulks away, and Paul can only shake his head. Weird. He takes advantage of Marcy's shower-time, to look at her bag—the prescription she got was an ointment for second-degree burns, then the shower stops, and Paul hurriedly puts the ointment back in the bag just in time to not be detected. It's then that the conversation takes on what Frank describes as "a slightly pathological cast." "Hey, I thought I told you to stay on the bed..." (she hadn't), then tells him to wait. At that, point Howard Shore's original score kicks in with a back-beat of ticking (Paul is constantly checking the time on his watch) as barely-registered whispers between Marcy and Kiki can be overheard in the next room.
Marcy pokes her head in the doorway, looking troubled. "Did you say something?" (He hadn't) "I thought I heard you say something." (He didn't). Her mood changes and she tells Paul that she'd been raped in that very room. Paul is horrified. "It's alright, it was an ex-boyfriend of mine. I slept through most of it" A change of subject and venue seems called for and they go out for coffee at a diner, run by Peter (the late and sadly-missed Dick Miller), who knows Marcy well. Paul asks about "Franklin" the name on the door-bell of the apartment and she tells him that's her husband. Paul registers another pause, trying not to react—he'll do that a lot. Seems they weren't married very long, that he lives in Turkey and is a film-freak, whose favorite movie is The Wizard of Oz. In fact, on their wedding night, when they were making love, he kept yelling "Surrender, Dorothy!" "Naturally," she says, as he takes his hand "I don't like to talk about it." "Can we get the check?" Paul asks suddenly.
It's then that Peter delivers that signature line at the top of the post. "It's on the house," he says. "After-Hours." Marcy and Paul go back to the Franklin loft, where he tries to make out with Marcy, but she starts to break down, they retire to her room, Marcy has another whispering session with Nikki, and then Paul turns petulant, as if all of the delays, intrigues, and feints have worn thin. He becomes a real jerk and Marcy goes crying to Nikki (ostensibly so Paul can buy one of their bagel and cream-cheese paperweights—"...as we sit here chatting, there are important papers flying rampant around my apartment 'cause I don't have anything to hold them down with!") and Paul goes out into the night where it is pouring down rain, and he becomes soaked. But, he can't get home, even by subway, because he only has ninety-seven cents...and fares go up to $1.50 at midnight.
Paul can't even go the Men's Room without being confronted with dread.
That is just the first half-hour of After Hours, and already it is so filled with a sense of dread, mystery, paranoia, miscommunication and misdirection that if Kafka were in the audience, he might run to the comfort of the lobby to soak his head in hot butter.
Paul will spend the night as it ticks away in an increasingly threatening waking nightmare. During the course of the evening, he will lose $20.00, find another, and lose that and his apartment keys, discover a dead body by suicide and be suspected of murder, as well as being a burglar, a pervert, and nearly having his head shaved, on top of being chased by a vigilante mob who know him because his face has been plastered on ever corner light pole. The very boundaries of Soho are a trap that he can't reach, without being attacked, killed (or worse) being accused of something else, by an increasingly misunderstanding and self-obsessed citizenry.
What makes the screenplay (and resulting film) interesting—and what sets it apart from Joe Frank's original source—is its intricate machinations in setting up this Kafkaesque Soho-scape of incomplete information and missed opportunities. But, it does so in a limited scope where Paul Hackett is only one among the Soho nighthawks who knows the complete story (or as much as he can) and his very knowledge of what's going on in the moving, changing landscape is what makes him suspected of the activities that the people he encounters are sensitive to. He's the stranger in a strange land, walking into an established and tenuously connected environment that he, by his movements—and resulting twists of Fate—disrupts. Soho has a barely functioning cohesion to begin with, but Paul's presence sends it spinning off its axis. He may ultimately be blameless for what happens, but it might not have turned out this way were he not there—making him totally to blame. Consider him the anti-George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life, whose existence determines the difference between Heaven and Hell (or, specifically, Bedford Falls and Potterville). Maybe they should've called this "It's a Horrible Night." 
The world is an intricate mechanism, but throw your shoes into it and you're a saboteur. Rather than be a boon to the community, Paul is the salt in the sugar-shaker, and, as a result, he gets plastered for it. All he can do is retreat to familiar surroundings and know his place, while the rest of the world moves on around him.
After Hours, despite its opening "lifts," is a wholly derivative but amazingly original film. And it's one of my favorites in the Scorsese output.

* Curiously enough, there's an "L.A. version" of After Hours that came out about the same time: the more plot-driven Into the Night, directed by John Landis and starring Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer.

** The first choice of director was Scorsese, but he was embroiled in pre-production of The Last Temptation of Christ, and so producers Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne turned to neophyte director Tim Burton, after they'd seen his short "Vincent." Plans to start went into place and then The Last Temptation of Christ fell through, which put Dunne and Robinson in an awkward position: how to tell Burton. When Burton was told that Scorsese was interested, he immediately responded: "I gracefully withdraw from the project. I do not want to stand in the way of anything Martin Scorsese wants to do." Burton would make his feature directing debut with Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985, and Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

*** A very After Hours section: "One can live in Paris—I discovered that!—on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment—perhaps the best there is for certain people. At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. ... I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: The Untouchables

The Set-Up: Al "Scarface" Capone would never have made it as a motivational speaker, even though he could be quite effective. In this scene, from the David Mamet screenplay of The Untouchables, the further subversion of American values through the mad-house mirror of the Capone regime in Chicago takes place.

Mamet has carefully set up Capone's world from his point-of-view. He has control of the city through bribing the Chicago police and judicial system, and he is treated as a celebrity by the press that hangs on his every word as if he were some philosopher-king instead of a thug. In Capone's lavish world, he is the government, and any legitimate agency opposing him is thus doing harm to the city of Chicago. It's a sociopath's (or, for that matter, any out-of-control entrepreneur's*) dream-world of success, prestige and glamor.

So there's a war going on out there for the hearts and minds of the people of Chicago, and Capone has to get his hands dirty to make sure that his lieutenants know what's at stake. He does so at a typically lavish tuxedo dinner, the kind any head of a big organization might throw for his corporate heads. But the main attraction is an address by the Big Man himself to rally the troops and make sure everybody's on the same page...and the same team...in Mamet's spare, staccato dialogue.

Based on a real incident, it is brutal, chilling, and shocking--and it gives director Brian De Palma and his circling camera (here placed at the centerpiece of a large circular table) another visual set-piece that he can exploit.

The Story: Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) and his team of "Untouchables" (Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith) have just scored a major coup--the first in their mission to "get" Capone, and bring him to justice. A raid on a post-office back-room liquor distribution system has been routed, and the cops celebrate at an Italian restaurant. A lone member of the press, a photographer, is paying attention to the story, and is given permission by the cops to take a celebratory picture--The Untouchables' first splash of publicity. From that record, DePalma fades in on the looming face of Al Capone (Robert De Niro) , as he launches into a speech at a dinner for his team that has just seen its first defeat.


Capone: Life goes on...
Capone: A man becomes pre-eminent, he's expected to have enthusiasms...
Capone: Enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. What are mine? What draws my imagination? What is that which gives me joy?
(Lieutenants chime in: "Dames, Music, Broads! Cards! Booze!")
Capone: Baseball! (Raucous laughter and applause)
Capone: A man. A man stands alone at a plate. This is the time for what? (murmurs)
Capone: For individual achievement! There, he stands alone. But in the field, what? (murmurs) Part-of-a-team!
(The hoods murmur..."Yeah, Teamwork")
Capone: Looks, throws, catches, hustles, part of one big team. (Agreeing murmurs all around)
Capone: Bats himself the live-long day. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and so on. (laughter)
Capone: His team don't field, what is he? (murmurs--"Nuthin'")
Capone: You follow me? No one!
Capone: Sunny day, the stands are full of fans, what does he have to say? "I'm goin' out for myself!"
Capone: "But!...I get nowhere...unless the team wins!!"
(Hood in front of Capone "yes-man's" "The Team". Capone appraises him, then grips that bat and smashes it against the lieutenant's skull. Once. Twice. Four Times. Blood spatters the table.)
Finished, Capone scans the table, looking for disagreement. The blood pools on the table-cloth. Clearly there isn't. He's made his point. Life goes on.

The Untouchables

Words by David Mamet

Pictures by Stephen H. Burum and Brian De Palma

The Untouchables is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

Opening Day is Thursday, March 28th. Play ball!

* This was written long before the Wall Street melt-down, but it's no stretch to imagine Mamet's Al Capone quoting GM President (and Secretary of Defense) Charles Erwin Wilson: "What's good for General Motors is good for America and vice versa."

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Impossible

Written at the time of the film's release...

Disaster Relief
The Tides That Bind

It truly is an amazing story, fully befitting the title The Impossible. The heart-and earth-rending circumstances surrounding the 2004 tsunami are the stuff of nightmares.

The Bennett family* is spending Christmas 2004 in Thailand. They're Australians living in Japan: she's a wife/mother/home-maker for now, a doctor by trade; he's a something or other, attached to his phone and worried about losing his job. The kids are twelve, seven, and five, respectively with the oldest, Lucas, a bit of a pre-teen jerk to everybody—little brothers and parents—and has a bad case of "the surlies" with a lot of growing up to do.

Thailand at Christmastime 2004 is the perfect time to do it. Their seaside resort is pristine, perfect. They spend Christmas lightly bickering, worrying, and considering the future. Man plans. God laughs.
What they can't anticipate is the earthquake that rocks Southeast Asia, or the resulting wall of water that comes crashing through the resort, pushing everything out of its path, slamming everything up-shore, sucking it back to the ocean and then, hammering them again, turning the tidelands into a raging river in both directions, scattering everything in random paths.
That includes the Bennetts. When Mom Maria rises above the wall of water, battered and bleeding, she sees Lucas being carried away to the ocean.  The two desperately risk safety and stability to connect and stay within reach, despite being tossed about like so much silt. When the waters subside they scrabble in bare feet amid the carnage of uprooted vegetation, rubble and broken bodies. 
Maria's leg is torn apart, flesh ripped from bone. A makeshift tourniquet keeps her together, and Lucas becomes parent, keeping her focused through her shock and finding high ground and supervising her trip to a triage center, a hospital drastically ill-equipped to deal with the wreckage of such a catastrophe. What has become of the rest of the family is anybody's guess, but that is for another time, if they can spare it from just surviving.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona (in the credits, he's "J.A. Bayona") manages to keep the focus micro, while presenting a macro canvas. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment, but he has an amazing talent for making things personal and visceral, the scenes of the struggle swept up in the ocean waves is tough to watch, and the inundation of the victims in the tsunami's path, as experienced by Maria is a surreal nightmare of images, that convey panic and horror simultaneously
The details of everything, especially the personal crises of the peripheral victims is in plain view, as much a part of the story as the Bennett's struggles. Their crisis is central, but the individuals' own efforts in providing help to other survivors is reflected by the help they get back. It's a story of one family, but the efforts of all the survivors, native and tourist, to help each other through the overwhelming havoc is knitted throughout the story in an overall arc that is inspiring, and something of a tonic in this movie season.
Watts, McGregor and The Impossible Belon family

* Much has been made of the fact that the Belon's (who are Latinos) are being played by Anglo actors,  something that is much pooh-poohed by Maria Belon.  But, one has to ask: why did a production, headed by Spanish-speaking artists, make such a decision, other than for "sellability?"  I only bring this up, as there is a pattern here, what with the similarly anglicized Argo.  Are Latinos not allowed to be featured in movies because it might hurt the box office (I say this while ruefully noting that a Latino actor and black actor are "inserted" into the all-white Gangster Squad—if one is to be accurate one way, shouldn't one the other—and yet I thought Mackie and Pena were a nice touch, and they're always welcome to see). Yes, as Maria Belon says, the story is "universal"—it has more to do with family than what race that family is.