November Full of Films #1: Martin Scorsese's After Hours

Much of my taste in film can probably be attributed to the technology of my youth. If I were a movie-loving teenager today, I’d have the full arsenal of digital quality and semi-legal access to nearly any movie I wanted. It’s hard to say, in that welter of pristine copies of Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Le Samourai, what I would have found to love and claim as my own.

Growing up in a small Nova Scotia town in the ’80s, though, meant that scarcity defined many of my movie loves. Scarcity and crappy quality: between flimsy copies of maximumrocknroll mags and scratchy Husker Du records, being a fan was sometimes an act of will. Back then, we did the work of listening around the scratches and scrutinizing the photocopied concert photos until the thing we loved snapped into view.

So it was with movies. Every so often I went to the theatre in the city, but these were usually mainstream films; at home, my appetite was fed by videodisc and VHS rentals. Videodiscs, an older sibling to the laserdisc, generally developed skips and scratches, particularly in spots to which people had rewound repeatedly (the scene where Uma Thurman takes off her top in Dangerous Liasions was a complete mess); and VHS, that undeserving Prince John to Betamax’s Richard, made a hash of movies. At the time I didn’t really know how terrible VHS was as a format, but I think its inherent awfulness - the smeary, jumpy image, the usual pan-and-scan format - made me a more devoted watcher.

All this is to say that I probably would have loved After Hours even if I’d seen a restored print transferred to Blu-ray and sold with a Glad bag of cocaine. Of all the Scorsese films, it’s the most wilfully strange, the one where his playfulness with the camera hadn’t devolved into flashy nostalgia. Griffin Dunne plays Paul Hackett, a bored Manhattan office worker who bumps into a lonely-looking and pretty woman named Kiki in a diner (Rosanna Arquette). Acting on impulse, he accepts Kiki’s invitation to visit her at her uptown loft. And that’s when the trouble begins.

Did I say trouble? Maybe I meant nightmare of sexual persecution. That’s troublesome, right? Once Hackett hails a cab, he abruptly enters a night world in which events become random, God seems to have forsaken him, motivations are mysterious but hostile, and sexual fulfilment hovers tantalizingly close but never quite lands. It’s a perfect dramatization of the overlong fever dream of adolescence, played out by an adult in the ubercool cityscape of pre-Giuliani Manhattan. I probably wanted to be Paul Hackett.

 

 

The comedy works like any good farce - by layering bizarre elements on top of each other until you’re immersed in a complete clusterfuck of the inexplicable. If you walk into After Hours three-quarters of the way through, it won’t make any sense; all you’ll see is a panicked yuppie in a filthy suit running from an ice cream truck. That’s how these films get you. They feed you one implausibility after another until your defenses are stripped away. Then, when all Hell breaks loose, you accept it. This is Hell, and you’ve been in it for the last hour.