Film

“Different Rules Apply”: On Pure Filmmaking and 'After Hours'

Zach Schonfeld

Martin Scorsese's singular, absurdist comic nightmare from 1985 demands a second (and third) look.


After Hours

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Tommy Chong, Teri Garr, Linda Fiorentino, John Heard
Studio: The Geffen Company
Year: 1985
US Release Date: 1985-09-13
Pepe: Art sure is ugly.

Neil: Shows how much you know about art. The uglier the art, the more it's worth.

Pepe: This must be worth a fortune, man.

-- After Hours

Some lonely night late in my adolescence, I rummaged deep in my father’s movie collection, pulled out Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and found myself haunted and entranced by its nightmarish vision of an escapeless Lower Manhattan purgatory, where sheer coincidence and hellish misfortune collide in terrible and vengeful ways. There is a seething, sexually charged desperation pulsing through the film -- fueling its absurdist, zigzagging dialogue, its disorienting angles and urban paranoia -- and it lingered for days after that first viewing.

So much so that I originally meant to end that first sentence slightly differently. Something like this:

Some lonely night late in my adolescence, I rummaged deep in my father’s movie collection, pulled out Scorsese’s criminally underrated After Hours, and never looked at film, relationships, or New York the same way again.

That seems melodramatic, maybe, or silly, or trite. But it hints at how sharply this 1985 black comedy pervaded my psyche over the subsequent teenage years, when I returned to it often: how, when social entanglements brought only confusion and frustration, and strangers spoke in riddles and parables and code, I thought of After Hours. How, when Lower Manhattan’s countercultural Meccas seemed too impossible or too tame, too gentrified or nostalgic, I thought of After Hours. And, most of all, how, when forces out beyond the celestial abyss conspired to arrange some relentless cosmic joke, where nothing makes sense and no one’s on your side, I turned to After Hours, for comfort and fascination and vaguely masochistic identification, because maybe, I think, that’s what it’s there for.

* * *

The plot of the film, in its barest sketch, revolves around Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), an uptight word processor (recall, this is 1985) who meets a pretty blonde in a coffee shop and decides for once to take a risk. So he sets out to meet up with her downtown, where he is instead trapped in a nightmarish entanglement of surreal coincidence, false accusation, and bloodthirsty yuppies. Along the way he encounters suicide and murder, sex and S&M, Mister Softee ice cream truck drivers and vigilante mobs, subway stations and punk clubs. They are all packaged tightly into a stylistic blend of tense black comedy and Hitchcockian suspense. So it goes, after hours.

But the plot behind the film, the Grand Personal Relevance for Scorsese, offers insight into the auteur’s somewhat perverse attraction to the project. Having wanted to direct a film about Christ since film school, Scorsese was set to direct The Last Temptation of Christ in 1983, and it was to be his masterpiece--until Paramount cancelled the project during preproduction amidst great religious objection. Furiously disappointed and unsure how to move his career forward, Scorsese saw in After Hours’ script an opportunity for raw, low-budget reinvention -- and a projection of his own overwhelming personal frustration onto the boundless misfortune that befalls poor, hapless Paul Hackett.

So there’s the funny thing. Scorsese is known for making Big Artistic Statements -- sacred cows like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas, critically revered benchmarks by whose standards most all subsequent American cinema is viewed, ranked, debated, and judged. But After Hours, my personal favorite of his 30-odd films, is no Big Artistic Statement. It is not the subject of great critical analysis, of film school theses, of Oscar nominations. It just is.

Or it is, rather, the Gnawingly Bitter Response to the Big Artistic Statement that never was (until 1988, that is, when Scorsese managed finally to complete the film he had meant to shoot in 1983, this time for Universal), aborted midstream by the powers that be (whether God or Paramount Studios). It concerns a void, then, but seeks not to fill the void but to cope with it. It is the spiteful catharsis, a guttural moan of powerlessness and frustration, and it is -- somehow, incredibly -- outrageously funny in a bleak, frightening way, because sometimes, the film suggests, laughter is the only valid response to the senseless and the absurd, to inflated expectations and crushing disappointment.

The studio head who called Scorsese to tell him The Last Temptation of Christ had been cancelled reportedly began laughing on the phone while conveying the news. And Scorsese, in turn facilitating some acidic role reversal, could not keep from laughing on set, as Griffin Dunne acted out one calamity after another.

“I’d just see [Scorsese’s] back, trying to hold back from laughing,” the lead actor recalls in the Making Of feature on the DVD. “He just found it hilarious what was happening to [Paul Hackett]. It always reminded me of that moment he was telling me his picture was cancelled. What are you gonna do? Just laugh.”

I see Paul Hackett, played with meek, everyman likeability by Griffin Dunne, as the blank canvas onto which the director splatter-paints a wretched arsenal of dreadful misfortune. Scorsese did not write this script (Joseph Minion drafted the screenplay for a Columbia University film course), but his sharp direction brings out the mad, hopeless desperation in each of Paul’s ill-fated attempts (in sequence: to get laid, to get home, simply to get the hell out alive), and so he keeps splattering on the colors like a mad, vengeful scientist, eyes wide, laughing madly because it’s all he can do.

For Roger Ebert, After Hours demonstrates the elusive notion of “pure filmmaking”, an exercise in all style and no substance: “It lacks, as nearly as I can determine, a lesson or message,” Ebert writes, “and is content to show the hero facing a series of interlocking challenges to his safety and sanity.” But that lack of substance relates, I think, paradoxically, to the substance itself; After Hours becomes the blank canvas of frustration onto which we -- the viewer -- can, in the right mindset, project any variety of personal frustrations and anxieties, as Scorsese clearly did.

After Hours is not, ultimately, a satisfying film,” claimed the late film critic Vincent Canby in his 1985 review for the New York Times review, “but it’s often vigorously unsettling” -- which, I realize, is more than satisfying enough.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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