Thursday, December 15, 2011

"New York Stories" by Scorsese, Coppola and Allen

New York Stories isn't the only anthology film to take a metropolis as its subject (Tokyo! and Paris, Je T'Aime are two more recent examples). What's notable about this one is that rarely if ever has an omnibus movie been so suited to the sensibilities of its makers. When the three-part film came out in 1989, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen were basically synonymous with the Big Apple, each having made a film named after the place they grew up (New York, New York in the case of Scorsese, and Manhattan in the case of Allen). And while Francis Ford Coppola can be more accurately described as a West coast filmmaker (he's chronicled, along with many other great filmmakers who lived and worked in San Francisco, in the terrific documentary Fog City Mavericks), the director of The Godfather films has given us some of the most iconic scenes of New York life. The young Vito Corleone's arrival on Ellis Island is certainly one of the great New York movie moments, if not one of the greatest movie moments, period.

Despite the seemingly perfect fit of authors and subject, New York Stories is just as much of a mixed bag as any other omnibus movie. Not quite as mixed as this year's horror-comedy anthology, Chillerama, which ranged from the inspired (Adam Rifkin's "Wadzilla") to the unwatchable (Adam Green's "The Diary of Anne Frankenstein"). Still, these short films by Scorsese, Coppola and Allen make for a wildly divergent whole, mostly because Coppola's contribution is so weak. Think of New York Stories as the vital work of two major artists, with a diverting intermission in between.

The films of Martin Scorsese are often associated with a particular kind of New York life: a gritty, violent, pre-gentrification NYC, the one that existed before Mayor Giuliani started arresting homeless people, thus turning Travis Bickle's soliloquy about "a real rain [that] will come and wash all this scum off the streets" into eerie prophecy. As an artist, Scorsese seems to have no real interest in this new New York; the Big Apple movie he made when Giuliani was mayor, Bringing Out the Dead, is a period piece set in the early '90s. His contribution to New York Stories, Life Lessons, is not a quintessential statement on the city like, say, his brilliant 1985 dark comedy After Hours is. But it's set in one of those sprawling studio lofts that seem almost inseparable from the city, and it features one of the director's recurring themes: the artist and his muse.

The 50-minute film reunites the director with Rosanna Arquette, whose character in After Hours may or may not have been the victim of a fire that left her horribly disfigured. (It's difficult to tell how much of what occurs in that film is the result of an overactive imagination on the part of its hero.) Arquette sports wounds of a more emotional kind in "Life Stories", playing Paulette, the assistant and former lover of a celebrated abstract painter named Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte). The subject matter is thoroughly unpleasant, depicting what is perhaps the most tumultuous affair the director has ever given us outside of Casino. It's clear Lionel needs Paulette to fuel his art, but Scorsese, screenwriter Richard Price and a grizzled Nolte refuse to make him into a monster; he's genuinely lovesick. ("You think I just use people. You don't know how involved I get or how far down I go.") This sour love story is distinguished by the splashes of color on Lionel's canvas, Scorsese's unmistakable camera moves and one of the director's most haunting soundtrack selections: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" played endlessly on a paint-spattered boombox.

Paulette is partially tied to Lionel because of the economic reality of living as an aspiring artist in NYC. Her situation is quite a contrast to that of the lead character in Coppola's Life Without Zoe, which could be renamed "The Suite Life of Zoe Montez". We follow 12-year-old Zoe (Heather McComb), a one-percenter who lives in the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel without parental superision. The movie is annoying and head-smackingly unfunny when it tries to be amusing.

More than anything, though, it's wrecklessly indulgent. Coppola wrote the script with his daughter Sofia when she was in her teens, making this the first of two disastrous collaborations between the two. (The following year she would appear in The Godfather: Part III, for which she won a Golden Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress.) "Life Without Zoe" shares a lot of attributes with the screenplays Sofia wrote for Lost in Translation and Somewhere, in that they're about spoiled rich people living in swanky hotels in the world's most beautiful cities. Those later films prove what a gifted artist she turned out to be. And while "Life Without Zoe" marked the beginning of a decades-long downward slide for Francis Coppola, he's rebounded nicely in recent years, delivering the kind of experimental art films (Youth Without Youth, Tetro, Twixt) that he and George Lucas have talked about making for years but that only Coppola has made good on. Still, "Life Without Zoe" has to be a career nadir for both Coppolas, with only Jack as its rival in infamy.

“Everyone that I know that is compulsively funny for a living seems to have had a similar kind of mother. I guess it’s the ultimate result of being raised by a heckler. You learn how to have a lot of comebacks.” — Merrill Markoe, author of Cruel, Calm and Contentious

If "Life Without Zoe" is the unfortunate result of a doting father, then Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories, Oedipus Wrecks, seems to have been inspired by a much less encouraging parent. In the recent must-see PBS documentary American Masters: Woody Allen, we see the auteur’s mother criticizing his career choices. I know Allen often resists comparisons to his work and his real life (Stardust Memories was unfairly judged in this way; critics seemed to think that, by casting himself as a movie director named Sandy Bates, Allen had relinquished any right to make a work of fiction). Still, it’s hard not to think there’s at least a little autobiography involved in "Oedipus Wrecks", which features perhaps the most comically unsupportive parent in movie history.

This is how the mother in "Oedipus Wrecks" greets her son Sheldon (Allen) when he brings his fiancĂ©, Lisa (Mia Farrow) over to meet her: “Gee, you look terrible.” As played by the wonderful Mae Questel, Mrs. Millstein is a living nightmare for Sheldon. “I love her,” he tells his therapist, “but I wish she would disappear.” That’s exactly what Mrs. Millstein does when she attends a magic show with Sheldon and Lisa, only to reappear later as a giant face in the sky. I love the surreal aspects of this film, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Allen’s latest, the great Midnight in Paris; in these movies, magic doesn’t have to be explained. The sight of Mrs. Millstein hovering in the Manhattan skyline and scolding her son in front of everybody is one of Allen's most memorable set pieces, a scene of public humiliation that’s a quintessential New York moment if there ever was one.

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