Thursday, November 12, 2009

Late 20th Century Period Piece: AFTER HOURS directed by Martin Scorsese

I revisted Scorcese's AFTER HOURS recently after having not seen it for a very long time. I initially remembered liking it a lot, thinking it was far better than the "meh" response it was given by critics at the time (Vincent Canby, in his 1985 New York Times review of the film wrote that it was "at best, an entertaining tease" which will "leave you feeling somewhat conned"). Apparently Scorsese took on AFTER HOURS after his first failed attempt to get LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST off the ground. It was his bid to do something, anything, that would take him away from the nightmares of big studio pre-production politics and return him to his independent roots.

The screenplay was written by then 26 year-old Joseph Minion. The script itself was a thesis project he wrote while studying at NYU film school. As a film, AFTER HOURS is both incredibly dark but also very funny which winds down to a not entirely satisfying conclusion. On one hand, the final image of Griffin Dunne's beleagured Paul Hackett works as visual punchline. On the other the film seems to demand something darker in it's resolution. Or maybe some sort of reconcilliation in the protagonist's mind over everything that transpired over the course of one evening in downtown New York.

Of all of Scorsese's flicks, AFTER HOURS seems to be referred to the least even though it did appear to inspire a mini-genre of film that included John Landis' INTO THE NIGHT, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, VAMP (the "supernatural-horror" take on AFTER HOURS) and, to a certain extent, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF. But it's a very interesting film with exceptional cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (the look effectively veers from still, sinister Noir to zany, slapdash aggression) and memorable performances by Mr. Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, John Heard, Will Patton, Teri Garr, Catherine O'Hara and, alarmingly, Cheech and Chong. And both Scorsese and Ballhaus capture in look and tone that paranioa of uncertainty when entering a situation outside of one's comfort zone. Dunne's character is somewhat sympathetic but realistically self centered in a way that's relatable. He wants to get laid (don't we all) but he doesn't want to be saddled with a potentially psychotic situation either (Griffin Dunne is a great foil to Rosanna Arquette's possible pathological liar). But as the evening wears on, and the deck is stacked, effectively road blocking every attempt the hero makes to move forward, that balance of frustration, paranoia and manic desparation begins to work in effectively humorous ways.

So was it as good as I remembered? I would say "yes." But what struck me most was how period specific AFTER HOURS really is. It captures a time and place that no longer exists but seems recent enough to be vaguely recognizable. To position this area of Manhattan as some sort of Wonderland (with Dunne's character being the Alice who fell through the rabbit hole) could come across as dated to this resident of New York City. For one thing, SoHo is currently the least threatening area of Manhattan, possibly even in the world. It's just blocks and blocks of shopping district, restaurants and bars that even at three in the morning seems fairly populated now. And knowing the geography (hell, I work very close to some of the locations Scorsese shot his film at) I couldn't help but ask myself "why doesn't Griffin Dunne just walk home?" Yes, it is raining outside... but it'll let up. And there is a moment -- a very funny one actually -- where Dunne's character approaches a stranger on the street asking for help. The stranger responds favorably because he thinks he is being propositioned. During that moment not only did I recognize the small building behind them but also the exact corner intersection and street. They were on Broadway, near Houston street. All Dunne had to do was continue north on Broadway, leaving Houston behind ("SoHo" stands for "South of Houston." And for those uninitiated, "Houston" is pronounced "How-stun."). It's easy. I walk that route all the time. Take him 10 minutes to get to Union Square.

But I guess it was a different time then when one area of Manhattan would seem exotic to another. Dunne's character lives on what is known as the Upper East Side. Which is approximately two and a half miles north of SoHo. And He is stuck transportation-wise because the money he had went out a taxi cab window. Speaking of which: twenty bucks. That's all he had. In 1985 that may have amounted to a dinner for two, a coffee, a few drinks and money left over for another cab ride home. Today, that may get you a meal for ONE and nothing left after that. And he does not have enough change for the subway because, inconveniently, the fare went up mere minutes before Dunne thought he had found his way out (I was surprised at the price: $1.50. That does seem a lot to me for 1985. Because I recall the fare being about that much in the mid 1990s. Today it is almost three dollars).

But somehow the film doesn't feel dated. Because intentionally or no, Scorsese sets the audience up with an introduction to Dunne's generic life. We see the specifics. His creature comforts. Dunne's character is a word processor at a nameless firm and right away we know this isn't the 21st century. The computers are mere data entry machines without a user interface. In his boring apartment, Dunne switches through a limited amount of tv channels by way of his box clicker (the kind that would have a button or switch per station). Phones are mostly landlines and rotary. So when we are first hit with these details we immediately know we are in a different time and place and therefore accept the rules Scorsese lays out.

If the film were made today, Griffin Dunne would have to travel as far as Brooklyn to artist/hipster enclaves like East Williamsburg or Bushwick to experience an adventure exotic enough. But even then a full evening could get cut short by the simple use of a cell phone (unless the deus ex machina of a dead battery is applied) which would render the whole theme of consequence kind of moot. So, yeah, a film like AFTER HOURS would have to be period specific to work and thus should be approached as a period piece.


  1. The final Steadicam tracking shot has always stuck with me. Interestingly, the operator also did the Kill Bill restaurant tracking shot.

  2. Ever seen Mystery Date, starring a young Ethan Hawke? It's sort of a teenage version of Afetr Hours. Though not as good, I enjoyed it at the time. But somehow I seem quite alone in this. Hell, perhaps I was just young

  3. i remember Mystery Date it was a inferior version of After Hours. So is the film Trojan War. but myster Date i remember as a teen really wanting to see in theaters and being colassally disappointed

  4. After Hours is my favourite Scorsese film. Sure he's done better, as far as more streamlined, powerful character studies such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, etc., but After Hours introduces a wonderful Kafkaesque element to the already surreal plotline (there are several Kafka references, the most apparent of which is the infamous "nightclub doorman scene" which is practically verbatim from "Before the Law."

    In line with this Kafka aspect, After Hours is similar in a way to Orson Welles' The Trial. Both films were released about midway through both filmmakers' careers and, in my opinion, are the most understated and visually arresting films of these two filmmakers' careers.