Tuesday 7 March 2017

On a Thousand Walls #6: After Hours (1985)

All you have to do with some directors is to say the name and the average cinema fan will immediately have a picture in their head of the sort of films the director in question makes. Tim Burton has his signature aesthetic, so much so that it arguably chokes all the good out of his later movies; you could probably say the same for Wes Anderson. David Lynch and David Cronenberg raise expectations of certain sorts of tension by simply having their names on film posters. But what about Martin Scorsese? He's of the same generation as Spielberg, but unlike the latter, who makes all sorts of movies and isn't pinned down to any stereotype, when you think of Scorsese movies, you think of mean streets and wise guys, good fellas and mobsters; you think of New York hustlers, you think of wannabe kings of comedy and vigilante taxi drivers demanding to know whether you're looking at them. You think of something gritty and grimy and street level, full of flawed antiheroes and the painful consequences of violence.

And this is something you get in reviews, even reviews by critics in respectable newspapers, and this is almost completely wrong.
All I could think was, "that's Balki off Perfect Strangers."
While Scorsese's early run of New York-based films starring De Niro are iconic (and like Scorsese, there's someone else who only needs to be introduced by his surname for you to know who I'm talking about), even early on, people tend to forget that between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Scorsese made a musical (although yeah, Robert De Niro was in that one, too). Scorsese is also the man who directed Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Shutter Island, Hugo, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ. He has voiced a cartoon shark. He directed a video for Michael Jackson. He's made a ton of documentaries. The point being, Martin Scorsese has never really been the gritty street-level guy he's painted as. There's always something more going on. And while his films are often (not always) good, they're always interesting. And "interesting" is, you'll probably guess, something that draws me like... like... like a film writer to an interesting film.

Sorry. That slipped right out from under me.

Anyway. When one of my best friends told me that if I was doing a series on urban wyrd movies, I should really take a look at Scorsese's After Hours, and described it as a nightmarish, Kafkaesque black comedy, I immediately took the "wait, the Martin Scorsese who does the naturalistic, gritty street movies?" line which everyone does, even the people who know that that's not really a summation of Scorsese. After Hours turned out to be great, but then it would be; what I wasn't prepared for was just how odd it was.
Oh yeah, Cheech and Chong are in it.
So in a few very deft scenes, we are introduced to Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne, who I knew best from  An American Werewolf in London) who works in an office doing some sort of data entry job, and he's supremely self-absorbed, but like a lot of self-absorbed people, Paul mistakes his self-absorption for philosophical depth, which makes him a little bit of a jerk. But then, you can forgive him for that, because he's just like the rest of us, really. And this is important, because even though Paul doesn't really have much in the way of redeeming features, we still spend most of the movie on his side, even in those parts when we probably shouldn't. He stops for a coffee after work, and strikes up a conversation with an attractive if slightly kooky woman called Marcy (Patricia Arquette) who gives him her phone number on the promise that he can buy a paperweight from her artist roomie that looks like a bagel.
When it dawns that Marcy is, to put it mildly, Not Right.
Of course they (and we) know the bagel paperweight is a pretext for getting laid.

Paul waits the shortest possible time he can before calling Marcy and then takes a cab downtown. But his money flies out of the window and the cab driver roars off in fury, and he's only got 95 cents for his train fare home. But he goes to find Marcy, and then she's not there and he ends up making a papier maché statue for Kiki, the slightly weird artist roomie (Linda Fiorentino) and then thinks he might get lucky with her instead only she falls asleep while he's giving her a back rub, but it's OK because Marcy turns up only she's even weirder than Kiki so he thinks he might ditch her only when he gets to the subway station he finds the fare went up to a buck fifty after midnight and he's trapped in SoHo.
The statue in the attitude of terror turns out to be important.
Then things get really odd. Except the oddness was always there right from the beginning, and the city has been presented in this film as so very weird, with the coffee shop waiter practicing dance moves behind the counter, for example. But now the oddness of the city after dark becomes a malevolent thing. All Paul wants to do is to get home to bed, but he keeps getting dragged further and further into the city's clutches. He's lost, soaked, nearly forced to get a mohawk haircut, humiliated, betrayed; he finds someone dead. Every opportunity for aid that Paul takes ends up dragging him further down the rabbit hole, until the whole local community turns on him and he ends up the quarry of a mob of locals hell bent on lynching him. The final act of the movie enters a sort of delirium; the ending of the film is somehow right, a darkly humorous return to right where we started. And it's funny, all the way through, the absurdity of Paul's predicament, and we wince with him, and cringe for him, and all the time recognise that he's a pretty awful guy.

Throughout the film, the camera obsesses over tiny details, extreme closeups of tiny objects: watches, the awkward scratch of a ballpoint pen on the page of a book; small things make grating noises. A patch of skin on a dead body. The title of a book. Everything suggests neurosis, anxiety, right from the beginning. The structure of the film, circular rather than progressive, leads us only to a single conclusion: the city eats us up and spits us out, and Paul's comic nightmare isn't a descent into the pit followed by a return, it's an unveiling of the hidden truth: the city itself is a comedic nightmare, and we are all trapped in it. 
Now it's a buck fifty.
After Hours is in that sense a precursor of Thomas Ligotti's book My Work is Not Yet Done in its identification of the everyday grind and the uncanny urban underworld as the same essential thing and the black humour it takes from that. It reminds me too of its contemporary Repo Man (a film I'm going to write about soon), in the way that it has these sprawling networks of coincidences that drive the crazed descent of the narrative into the weird. And After Hours is very weird, about as wyrd and as urban as you can get. The way that sympathetic people turn into a baying mob, the matter of fact moments of death and violence, and most of all the absurdity of a world that hasn't gone mad, but is only showing you the truth about how mad it always was, all of these things make for an unsettling, but very funny movie.