The second entry in a new and on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
Martin Scorsese once said (while shooting Cape Fear in 1991) that it’s hard to show characters walking out their front door, going over to their car while talking about something or other, and getting in. Hard to make that visually, dramatically, cinematically interesting. Hard to ingeniously compress it, or elide it altogether, as his master (one of many masters) Alexander Mackendrick would have done. Hard to manoeuvre in every sense—to do it well, and then fit into its exact, best spot in the whole film, the total structure. Such scenes, strung together in a jazzy, Spike Lee-style curve over two or three hours, constitute a narrative archipelago in Scorsese: a pattern of disconnected islands, not a whole, smoothed-out landscape.
We know from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) that Scorsese is not terribly interested, moment to moment, in narrative. He likes a big arc, yes—riches to ruin, fame to incarceration, celebrity to schmuckdom. But not every step of the journey—or rather, not the patient logic of that kind of plot/destiny movement, like we see in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It is rather the case that Scorsese loves incident—and when he hits one that he can really invest his directorial energy into, he expands it is as far, and as big, as it will go: the driving-on-Quaaludes sequence, for instance.
In After Hours (1985)—a somewhat forgotten and overlooked work in the director’s ‘80s corpus, in that curious ‘lull’ period between the radical extremity of The King of Comedy (1983) and the good-to-go, epic-chronicle energy of Goodfellas (1990)—there is both a tight, small narrative (the catastrophe of an evening) as scripted by Joseph Minion, and many scenes of the nervy/nerdy hero, Paul (Griffin Dunne), having to get in and out of apartment buildings, cars, clubs … doors at every turn.
Fortunately for everybody (Scorsese included), After Hours is virtually nothing but incident, packed wall-to-wall. It’s a busy, busy movie. Scorsese gets to manoeuvre, endlessly: look at how the simple act of hailing a cab becomes a strange, gestural journey for a hand floating free in space, flagging down and then connecting with the vehicle’s door handle. Ceaseless manoeuvring is also what the main character does a lot, which makes Paul the perfect mirror and vehicle for the director’s neurotic motion: look at this poor guy hopelessly trying to circle around a bouncer to angle his way into a club, or talk his way through to a discount ticket for an oncoming train …
In her great 1995 book The Scorsese Connection, Lesley Stern describes this auteur’s work (it is also a prevalent contemporary, American style) in terms of a free-floating, ever-insistent deixis: that’s not just style as underlining, but as aggressive pointing—a non-stop pointing-out that renders everything, even the most normal or everyday thing, odd, offbeat and fascinatingly mysterious. There is manic energy in the air, a dramatic gravity, an aura of meaningfulness—but these are affects given more by the hyper-restless camera, by the insistent cutting to insert details, by the music (here composed by Cronenberg’s regular collaborator, Howard Shore), by the overlapping voices and noises (it’s a screwball soundscape where nobody much listens to anybody else), by the irrational fright, tension or shiver registered by an actor – not necessarily by the strict content of a scene as scripted. The net effect is infectiously weird, creating that type of frenzied, nerve-jangling, utterly paranoiac high which links up Scorsese’s main men—whether they are popping upper pills (like Jordan Belfort and Henry Hill) or not (Paul)—into one, big, unhappy family.
How can a film about the night’s seduction become a film about the nightmare of the unknown? How can a film about relief become a film about anguish? After Hours is a movie (as Stern saw well) full of tiny, complicated patterns: networks of exchange, spirals of circulating objects, hallucinatory substitutions. It’s The Earrings of Madame de … (1953) gone berserk, off its leash. The simplest thing becomes a problem—a big problem—for Paul. Keys fall from the sky, multiply, and create more problems once they let him in somewhere. Push-buttons, coin slots, doorbells, toilet flushers trigger cascades of unstoppable stuff. Getting in and getting out of anything, anywhere, becomes nightmarish. The normally coded zones of social space, public or private, switch without warning: entrance ways lead to prisons; illicit havens become potential tombs.
Throughout it all, our hero finds himself running, running—turning that ordinary gauntlet of everyday passage (out the door, down the street, into a car) into a nocturnal hell: the ‘night out’ that becomes, at every point and with each step, more closed-in. How can a film about going out become a film about getting trapped in? We offer ‘A Key to After Hours’.