After Hours (1985) and Scorsese’s Cinematic Purgatory

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Assume what you will, but After Hours is the Scorsese movie that feels most firmly planted in the 1980s. It’s of its time and functions quite differently than what we have come to expect from him. Mind you, this is hardly a criticism. More so, it shows his range and the eclectic road his career has taken.

A jaded word processor (Griffin Dunne) is teaching a young idealist the ropes. He still has dreams of being a publisher — to create a magazine as a forum for writers and intellectuals — and he’s not planning to be stuck behind a desk his entire life. Paul Hackett starts to zone out. As it happens, he won’t be sitting at a desk for much longer either. At least for a night…

Next, is the beginning of what can be described as the plot. It gives the sensation of a meet-cute as he starts talking with the pretty young woman (Rosanna Arquette), sitting a table way, as they bond over an appreciation of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. And yet even this conversation already feels somewhat uncanny. It doesn’t function quite as we expect and this is just the beginning.

After Hours will only spiral out of control dispensing of all pretense when it comes to straightforward narrative. There is a sense this is precisely how screenwriter Joseph Minion conceived it as he was penning his thesis at NYU film school. It functions as the worst night ever in Soho as our hapless stand-in, Paul Hackett, visits a girl’s apartment and then tries with all his might to get home. The evening gets in the way.

When the rain starts, a waitress (Terri Garr) invites him over to her apartment, but she’s not impressed with his “doom and gloom” attitude and soon takes affront at his treatment of her. If it were possible, he’s being over-accomodating. And so he flees as soon as he can. But he has no money.

He can’t get on a train. So he has to walk, but that poses unimaginable complications. Already you see the treadmill he’s on. Every step forward is a few more steps backward and sideways — to the same diner, a bartender’s apartment, or the Club Berlin. Is it a spoiler to point out Cheech & Chong also show up?

If you would allow me the shorthand After Hours exists somewhere in the ballpark of Kafka and Hitchcock. The perplexing plotting is an abstruse roundabout of after midnight mayhem. The Hitchcock element is supplied by Martin Scorsese as he busies himself with numerous camera movements executing a visible showmanship behind the scenes. There are a few obvious nods as well from dolly zooms on telephones that might as well come out of a film like Strangers on a Train or Dial M for Murder. Likewise, there’s even toilet bowl cameos reminiscent of Psycho.

What’s more, after Hackett is caught out on the street and labeled as a burglar by the local mob of residents led by Catherine O’Hara, a momentary man on the run thriller is created with no concrete conclusion because that is never the point.

Inevitably Hackett falls down on his knees, in the middle of the street, head raised to the heavens saying, “What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor!” It’s as if God is laughing at him and deigns to keep him in this constant state of New York purgatory. Will the madness never end?

If it’s not apparent already, form is so closely tied to function in After Hours and its conjoining worldview. Watching a movie like this makes one beg the question: What’s the point?

Scorsese proves his skills once more under very different circumstances and if you watch After Hours off the cuff, it shows the breadth of his filmography. It was a period where he had to get creative as far as funding and the projects he pursued.

But, regardless, it still feels like a bit of an outlier, and it never engages with me in the same manner as his other works. It has nothing to do with it being slow or prozaic. Those are not words I would use to describe it. But as with anything Kafkaesque (I admittedly haven’t read Joyce so I can’t make that comparison), there’s a pervasive all-compassing sense of fateful pointlessness.

In one manner, it’s so very much of the ’80s in creating and establishing an environment for its main protagonist. And yet it goes beyond any sense of reality, gladly becoming this bleak, otherworldly metaphor for life. Minion happily takes the story to surreal digressions of dark and still comic proportions.

It lacks the timelessness of Scorsese’s greatest and most personal achievements and there is not the same human connection. Certainly, being different is not always bad. There are few qualms with enjoying the utter lunacy. However, somehow it only manages to be something to be admired from an aloof distance. Like a paper mache statue or a bit of Mozart or Bach, at least how they are applied here.

They impress me, but in a manner of speaking, I never feel touched and animated in any way. If we are to consider the film’s remaining metaphor, we do not leave the movie changed. We are right back where we began no doubt asking ourselves, where does this leave us? I suppose it’s better than being encased in paper mache for eternity. That’s some consolation.

3/5 Stars

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