Sunday, May 3, 2009

After Hours (1985) A Film by Martin Scorsese

After Hours is one of Martin Scorsese's most unnerving studies of urban paranoia, but unfortunately is a film that is frequently forgotten amidst more mammoth works such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Mean Streets. Filmed in the mid-80's, it was a decidedly smaller production than most of his films, and as a result has slipped into near anonymity aside what preceded it (The King of Comedy (1982)) and what followed (The Color of Money (1986)). It does not lack the energy that such a fact would suggest however; by contrast, the film is always on the move, its camera an imaginative manifestation of its main character's shifty thoughts.

Bringing to the screen a quick-witted, savvy screenplay by Joseph Minion, Scorsese turns a night for Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a pragmatic guy working in a cubicle, into an insanely unlucky fever dream. When the night is young, Paul meets a charismatic blond lady named Marcy in a cafe through a mutual fondness for the book he's reading. They exchange numbers and soon enough he's being driven by a raucous taxi driver to her friend's Soho apartment, during which his only 20 dollar bill blows out the window. The apartment is the habitat of a classic lower Manhattan art-freak, Kiki, who works tiresomely on obscurely contorted body sculptures and exercises a life of sadomasochism and claustrophobic punk clubs. Paul gradually becomes creeped out by Marcy, tells her off, and later that night discovers her dead body. Following this, he bounces randomly from apartment to diner and back again in search of someone who will either lend him some money to ride the subway - whose prices increased at midnight - or offer him a bed to sleep in. To add to his troubles, the neighborhood's fed-up denizens are forming a clan in response to a spontaneous series of robberies, asserting the frantic Paul as the primary suspect.

Scorsese imbues this harrowing outing with a surreal, fable-like quality and a Kafkaesque sense of perpetually accumulating doom. His vivacious shooting style incorporates subtle, subconscious messages that manage to make the audience feel the same aggravated, discombobulated feelings that Paul has. Continuity will break, such as when the sound and image do not exactly match up during a scene when Paul sneaks into Marcy's pocket book and discovers a cream designed to soothe burns only to quickly slip it back in upon her return, and the camera will exaggeratedly glide towards objects that either propound Paul's terror or provide hope of salvation, on display when a phone rings in an apartment and Paul lunges towards it with rhythm-snapping immediacy. Scorsese also tracks along the seedy Soho streets in a voyeuristic manner behind or beside Paul, sliding across the ground like a snake bushwhacking through the immense amounts of incessant rain and manhole fog.

In a way, the camera embodies the very movement of mischievousness, as if it's involved in an endlessly hostile practical joke played on Paul. Each time he leaves Kiki's discomforting apartment to the sound of Howard Shore's haunting, minimalist synthesizer jingle, the camera wheels by the sculptures in a POV shot, looking as if they're pushing him away while warning him of eternal damnation. However, eternal damnation is eventually what he evades by some unlikely stroke of luck in the slick, devilishly clever finale. With this, Scorsese hyperbolizes the ourobouric flow of urban life: one can always make it back to work in the morning only to begin another seemingly menacing day in the city.


Ed Howard said...

I think this is actually one of Scorsese's very best films, and in fact is probably even my favorite. Its energy and atmosphere are just amazing, and I appreciate how loose and free-wheeling it is in comparison to the bloat and self-consciousness of something like Raging Bull. It's a vision of New York City as both fantasy and nightmare, a twisted internal landscape mapped onto Scorsese's favorite setting.

Carson Lund said...

Yeah, Ed. I think it is one of his best, and certainly the most enjoyable. However, I think it feels just as measured as a film like Raging Bull, which I think is his absolute finest. It's just that it utilizes dark comedy and fantasy whereas Raging Bull deals with far more serious subject matter so it may seem more bloated to some. I can understand that criticism, but at the same time, I think there still remains a comic undercurrent in Raging Bull.