Different Rules Apply: On Pure Filmmaking and Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’

After Hours becomes the blank canvas of frustration onto which we can project any variety of personal frustrations and anxieties, as Scorsese clearly did.

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.