"Finding no nucleus to which we could cling, we became a small nucleus ourselves and gradually we fitted our disruptive personalities into the contemporary scene of New York. Or rather New York forgot us and let us stay."
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
The New York of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) is a sepulchral city, rife with pimps and politicians and mottled with the filth of moral decay. It now belongs to a bygone epoch, an era when Times Square, not yet a great exaltation of corporate gasconading, was where you went for a peep show and a dime bag. The film begins at night, on a sinister street; stream rises, as if Hell has been paved over with asphalt, and a taxi drifts by while raucous percussion and agonized horns wail. It is a savage, squalid film about a savage, squalid city. Its depiction of stygian street life and the pervasiveness of violence encapsulated how most people viewed New York in 1976. Our narrator, our anti-hero, is a man who traverses the city all night, vesseling people like souls between worlds. He waits for a great rain to come and wash the scum from the streets.
After the success of Taxi Driver, which made $28 million against a $1.9 million budget, the young Italian-American filmmaker wanted to make a more loving ode to his hometown, something that would capture the spirit of the city. (“The island of Manna-hata, Manhattoes, or as it is vulgarly called Manhattan,” Washington Irving wrote in 1809.) That film, New York, New York (1977), also begins with a shot of Manhattan, but now it's a painted backdrop, the city skyline in silhouette, like a miracle suspended from the stars. The music is jubilant, the mood celebratory. It's V-J Day. Droves of people take to the streets. Confetti flies, couples kiss. A lanky, lecherous saxophonist named Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) steps in front of the camera, just for a moment, his hair slick and shoes spotless, then disappears into the crowd as the camera pulls back to show the variegated mass of exultant Americans. Jimmy saunters into a jazz club that is chockablock with bodies in joyous motion. He scouts the room for girls. The din of celebration, of horns swinging. In his Hawaiian shirt and white pants, the saxophonist stands out from the service members garbed in beige and olive, and from the more respectable people in proper dress attire. He is cocksure, a conman. He goes from woman to woman, prowling, esurient, until he meets a USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), who steadfastly refuses his advances. He tries every routine, is unrelenting, as she says, “No, no, no.” 16 times she says, “No.” Still, he persists. From these opening moments, Jimmy is immensely unlikable, and for the next 160-plus he remains immensely unlikable—and Francine eventually falls in love with him.
Writing about New York, during his first visit back in 20 years, Henry James said, "So it befell, exactly, that an element of mystery and wonder entered into the impression—the interest of trying to make out, in the absence of features of the sort usually supposed indispensable, the reason of the beauty and the joy." Something similar can be said of New York, New York, a film devoid of traditional beauty and traditional notions of romance that nonetheless incandesces mysteriously with beauty. It is a bitter romance, unrepentantly earnest yet never saccharine. More than any of Scorsese’s other films, it captures the ache of longing and the devastating capabilities of love, the pain of a heart beholden to a destructive force. (“The War Was Over and The World Was Falling In Love Again,” the original poster reads.) Jimmy blows a mean horn, but he is also a mean bastard, mercurial, narcissistic, and emotionally abusive. De Niro had portrayed Travis Bickle just a year earlier, and as with Bickle, he plays Jimmy as an anti-hero, a man of immedicable flaws and stubborn conviction. But whereas the gaunt-faced Bickle is indolent, almost pitiable, and cuts an indelible image with his mohawk and army jacket, Jimmy is loquacious, slick, unlikeable and unmemorable. Consider Jimmy’s declaration of love to Francine, which takes place in a snowy forest so fake it could be culled from Kwaidan’s “The Woman of the Snow.” He blathers, something like: “I love you. Well, I mean, I don't love you, I dig you, I like you a lot, you know…”
A film of artifice and abstraction, of agony and ecstasy, New York, New York is less a deconstruction of a genre than a modern paean to a classic style of cinema. “Happy Endings,” which has been restored to the film in full, is the progeny of Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley, one of those rapturous show-stopping numbers that defined MGM’s best musicals. (Frank Capra once called the MGM lot "the Bagdad of filmdom.") Scorsese asserted that his film was not a musical but “a film with musical.” In a musical, people break out into song when, in real life, they wouldn’t. “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Francine bellows, as a gaggle of showgirls garbed in red and white eddy around her and John Kander and Fred Ebb's music swells. Minnelli’s eyes gleam like the lights on the marquee, her lips as red as velvet curtains. She commands the audience’s attention with the same deft showmanship as Jordan Belfort does his employee acolytes in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and in this moment achieves the kind of success that the small timers in Scorsese’s early films are desperately seeking.
Yet the film is also imbued with a deep malaise, a sense of the Sisyphean desperation of the ambitious artist (not dissimilar to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, released two years later). Scorsese marries Old Hollywood with New.
“It’s more personal than I thought it would be,” Scorsese said during filmmaking. “Maybe it’s just me trying to figure out something about the past, I dunno. Figure out something about the first marriage. Or parents. What was that all about? It’s a hard thing to do, it’s like being on the road and if the wife is doing something else, she’ll disappear for five or six weeks at a time.
“How does that relationship survive? That’s with established people. Imagine with unestablished people who are trying to make it? We’re trying… we’re trying… to analyze it.”
Scorsese wanted to make a Hollywood film with dignity, one that rejected mainstream standards. (George Lucas reportedly told Scorsese to slap a happy ending onto the film to better its chances of box office success.) After Taxi Driver, Scorsese was a hot director with a failing marriage. The thirtysomething developed a penchant for cocaine, using it to work for days on end, ripping lines on set, in the editing room, at all hours of the night. He was ambitious and anxious. Having been a frangible, asthmatic boy growing up in Little Italy, he wasn't used to getting attention, especially from beddable young women, and felt at once uncomfortable with his fame, yet obsessed with success. Jimmy Doyle has a lot in common with Scorsese: a young artist who is rapidly gaining recognition, who is torn between family and art, who rejects his baby and is honeycombed by self-hatred. Minnelli's Francine is an amalgamation of various women with whom Scorsese had been involved, including Julia Cameron (who would give birth to Scorsese's daughter, Domenica) and Sandy Weintraub.
New York, New York, written by Earl Mac Rauch and rewritten by Mardik Martin, went into production without a finished screenplay. Scorsese, De Niro, and Minnelli would do six- or seven-hour sessions that Scorsese would tape, then bring the tapes home, study them, and come back to set the next day with snippets that he wanted to film. Five hours of improv might become two pages of the script. Compare the narrative to that of Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader, how rigorous and traditional Schrader's is, the sordid slaughter and Travis’s veneration inevitable; the irony of a would-be assassin being heralded as a hero for “saving” a young girl is a grotesque joke, wish-fulfilment. New York, New York is more languorously structured and paced than Scorsese's previous films, comprising a series of garrulous digressions and intricate set pieces. The loose, insouciant structure recalls those abstract jazz compositions that Jimmy's so fond of. Formally, though, this is perhaps Scorsese's most impressive film of the 1970s. It's certainly his most ambitious. Cinematographer László Kovács uses voluptuous camerawork to create a sense of spectacle, yet also turns those ersatz city interiors into claustrophobic, nightclubs into decadent bastions. The blocking and compositions are careful yet never airless, precise yet never persnickety.
New York, New York is, in its soul, a film about a city—the city. In his introduction to the behemoth anthology New York Writing, Philip Lopate notes that New York literature is often obsessed with the city’s “man-made quality: the gigantic built environment and the relative unimportance of nature.” New York, that colossal set of clockworks, with a soul of steel and asphalt veins along which flows so much ceaseless traffic, is a manufactured metropolis. It is a city of memories and impressions, and Scorsese doesn't pretend to peddle in verisimilitude. He embraces the chicanery of cinema, the fictions we tell to keep ourselves alive. In its knowingly false notion of New York, the film searches for more unutterable truths; it pursues the idea of New York rather than the reality of it. In his book A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Kolker opines that Scorsese's “mise-en-scene represents, to borrow a notion from Roland Barthes, a New York-ness, a shared image and collective signifier of New York that has little to do with the city itself but rather express what everyone, including many who live there, have decided what New York should look like.” There’s a hermetic feeling to the film, a sense of solipsism that brings to mind Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
In the final moments, a woebegone Jimmy ends up traipsing along the city streets alone. But even though Jimmy doesn't get what he wants, love has not failed: for Francine, love—of her art, of herself—perseveres. Scorsese’s characters, often men of violence, disreputable deviants, are prone to obsession, to chasing, in futility, after fantasies. Francine, having expunged the disreputable man from her life, is one of the few for whom things work out. Scorsese’s films are rife with amoral men, and his female characters are frequently lovers or wives, maltreated, hopeless in their efforts to change or help their men. The ending of Taxi Driver is, after all, about a man who wants to “save” a young girl. Francine suffers Jimmy’s boorishness, but she is not helpless; she is given autonomy and agency. Minnelli, luxurious and beautiful, as prodigiously talented as she was self-destructive, lived the life of a star, and she brings to Francine a quivering fervor for the glamorous life, a desire for success. (She looks immaculate throughout the film. Her hair was coiffed by Sydney Guilaroff, who worked with Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, and Minnelli's mother, Judy Garland, and her costumes styled by Theadora Van Runkle.)
And yet, we are left, in the end, with an image of Jimmy, his shiny shoes on the sidewalk, harking back to the beginning of the film, as he recedes into the night alone. Scorsese still identifies with Jimmy, the anguished artist. “We didn’t know if this marriage was going to work, because we didn’t know if our own marriages were working,” Scorsese later elucidated. It turns out that no one's marriage worked, but the work remains, and that's what Scorsese really wanted, after all.
Martin Scorsese's New York, New York is showing January 31 - February 6, 2020 at Metrograph in New York.