Wednesday, February 3, 2010
I know I wasn’t the only one who noticed that during the impressively assembled tribute to Martin Scorsese on the Golden Globes a few weeks ago there wasn’t a single image seen in the entire montage from his legendary 1977 musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Not the title card, not a single shot of the two leads, nothing. The reasons for this feel mysterious unless there was some sort of legitimate rights issue (still, RAGING BULL is also UA and that was certainly in there) and for all I know the director himself requested its absence but even so it was hard not to notice that when Scorsese made his way to the up to the stage the band even played the legendary theme from the film. In spite of the harsh reception the film received at the time, just one year after the triumph of TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese has always addressed the subject of the film fairly in interviews, at times acknowledging the flaws in the work. The final result, whatever else you want to say, could certainly be seen as a stepping stone to what Scorsese and star Robert De Niro later achieved so brilliantly in RAGING BULL and beyond so in that sense the effect it had on their careers was positive in the long run. And it has to be pointed out that some of the film remains genuinely impressive and monumental years after it was made. So much so, that it makes me wish that I actually liked the thing.
Despite the fact that after multiple viewings through the years I’ve never gotten much pleasure out of the experience of watching NEW YORK, NEW YORK I sometimes feel drawn back for another try to see if all the extravagance and genuine passion will finally click for me. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet—and with some films that turnaround has—but I’m still waiting, hoping. That passion for cinema that bleeds through in every single frame Scorsese directs here certainly has that kind of effect. Shots stay with me for weeks, moments linger through the years but the whole thing feels like it goes on for a day and a half with the overall effect I get from the experience coming off as such a pummeling that I begin to think that having De Niro in character as Jake La Motta yelling at me for two hours straight would almost be preferable. The unresolved feeling I have towards it makes it seem as if Scorsese never found the correct balance between the lightness of the classic Hollywood musicals he was so inspired by and the darker nature of his own thematic interests. The love for those old films that he is obviously aping comes through but he seems to be missing some key ingredient, like a vital part of the DNA necessary to its success never got added. The experience of sitting and watching it sometimes feels like trying to lift a piano over your head all by yourself. After a while you have to stop trying and just go outside to take a break.
The film was released in June 1977, one of several troubled auteur releases during a month which also included John Boorman’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC and William Friedkin’s SORCERER. Each of these films turned out to be commercially problematic (SORCERER, at the very least, is remarkable nevertheless) and that response wasn’t helped by the blockbuster success of STAR WARS at the time. The business was about to change fast and with the films they had completed pretty much rejected by the public Scorsese, Boorman and Friedkin weren’t doing anything to stop it. As it turned out, the major contribution to popular culture by Scorsese’s film was giving the world the title song, “New York, New York” which became legendary in 1979 when covered by Frank Sinatra. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it—this song that feels like it’s been around forever only comes from 1977? Even crazier is that it didn’t even receive an Oscar nomination for Best Song (the winner that year? The immortal “You Light Up My Life”). Maybe everyone back then really did think that it came from the era the film is set in and they’d heard it before in some bizarre dream, one that NEW YORK, NEW YORK had itself made an appearance in. The final film is about that dream state we associate with the movies we love and the cracks we sometimes see in the worlds that they present. It’s a daring thesis, but one that Scorsese and company possibly could never reconcile with what they were actually making.
Presented in the style of a musical that might have been made at MGM in the late 40s, NEW YORK, NEW YORK begins on V-J Day at a massive celebration where saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) meets Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and though she doesn’t respond to any of his advances she soon realizes that she can’t get rid of him and once he learns that she is not only a singer but a really good one, he’s hooked. He follows her off on the road where she sings with a traveling big band and with both of them clearly turned on by the others’ talent it isn’t long before they fall in love and get married. But Jimmy’s insistence on playing his music his way gets in the way of things making both sides of their relationship ever more tempestuous and things are only exacerbated when Francine reveals she is pregnant which drives yet more tension between them.
The postmodern tone of NEW YORK, NEW YORK which apes not only MGM but numerous other styles from the period was an early example of a film that would somehow attempt to recreate a style associated from older Hollywood movies (and elsewhere—Jimmy Doyle’s habit of checking into hotels as M. Powell namechecks Scorsese’s hero, the director of THE RED SHOES), attempted through the years in disparate projects from Joe Dante’s GREMLINS to Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN among others. The film isn’t really about the city of New York or even a hazy memory of what New York was but of memories provided by movies set there but always and only shot on Hollywood backlots during the 30s to the 50s. Scorsese was working on what was then still the old MGM backlot, with the presence of Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli playing the female lead no doubt adding to the intense desire to recreate what came before. Stylized to the extreme during every minute with impeccable cinematography by Lazlo Kovacs and production design by Boris Leven, the often empty backlot streets never strive to look anything like what they actually are, rearscreen projection is made obvious and the sets have a distinctive heightened tone throughout that makes their basic falseness readily apparent. In attempting to clash these settings with the more naturalistic performances that Scorsese was interested in achieving during these days it’s clear that he was trying to combine the type of film that he loved while growing up with the type of film he made, whether the two things matched up or not be damned. It’s a fascinating idea but something feels like it never quite connected during the process. NEW YORK, NEW YORK has remarkable moments throughout that you can’t quite shake but something feels almost top heavy with how it’s put together almost from the very first minute making it a tough movie to get a hold of.
The improvisatory nature ultimately never disguises how the issues of the relationship between the two leads never really feel like they were solved on a script level (Story by Earl Mac Rauch, Screenplay by Rauch and Mardik Martin who also co-wrote MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL). Part of it feels like a dry run for how De Niro’s Jake LaMotta treated Cathy Moriarty’s Vicky in RAGING BULL and that type of hostility combined with a queasy charm in this context sounds compelling but we never can buy into why anyone would want to be around this guy. In the context of his own world the Scorsese-De Niro incarnation of Jake LaMotta is much more compelling. Jimmy’s own feelings about his music are never quite articulated in a way that we can connect with beyond just having a few nightclub owners complain about what they’re hearing so all we get is De Niro’s hostility to everything that’s said to him. Looking at it now it’s obvious how he really represents Scorsese, who himself could very easily submit to giving the studios and audiences what they want and reap all the glories but has little interest in capitulating to that. But since the character can’t quite put those feelings into words Scorsese can’t quite portray that cinematically. Pointing at his saxophone while talking to Francine Jimmy says, “If I can’t do this I’m not good for you and I’m not good for anybody,” which is something but not really enough.
The use of Liza Minnelli in this context is certainly striking—she’s essentially playing a version of a role her own mother might have played in something directed by her father Vincente Minnelli but the character can’t seem to understand that she’s not really in one of those movies and is instead caught up in something else, a much grimmer and possibly more resonant film than we would expect. Seeing this figure in such a context is fascinating but the heavy improvisatory nature of it all turns out to be extremely problematic—some sequences play by fine by themselves but when put all together, particularly during some nightclub scenes in the second half, it just goes on and on into infinity. Even when taken by themselves the scenes sometimes go on way too long and as a result the film begins to feel like it was edited in slow motion by people extremely groggy after having not gotten enough sleep the night before (there was apparently heavy drug use going on by Scorsese at the time, but I’m just going to sidestep that issue). CASINO is actually twenty minutes longer than this film and winds up feeling about two hours shorter, with a much stronger and clearly defined dynamic between the husband and wife in the leads as well. Even some establishing sections near the beginning seem to go on forever and yet something about Scorsese’s direction never seems quite as dynamic as we think he could go. It’s like he’s resisting the more extreme elements of his style so that it will correctly replicate a 40s movie—maybe he should have gone for the post-1955 CinemaScope look instead.
Only occasionally do the elements connect—when Jimmy’s being dragged out of a nightclub through a hallway filled with lightbulbs that he kicks out the feel of total cinema comes alive for a moment and one band rehearsal scene on the road seems to encapsulate all the musical and romantic tensions in a way that feels just right, giving the impression that they were able to break down what the actors came up with during rehearsal and put it on the page into something coherent. I was impressed in the commentary to hear Scorsese comment that he also felt it was one of the more successful sequences in how it correctly worked the improvisation into what was necessary to the story. But the film is so focused on what is going on with the characters that it never quite does justice to the world (real or unreal) around them—there’s probably a lot to mine in the story of the big band era’s end but it winds up buried here in the Doyle character’s own uncompromising insistence on the music he wants to play. Every now and then some dialogue—written or improvised, who knows, maybe both at times—connects (I like when Lionel Stander says, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so I’ll make another one. This one’s on me.”) but the movie seems to spend too much time wandering in its own wilderness to get to those moments. The degree to which the film is problematic makes it linger in the mind longer than if they had made just decided to make a simple homage to old musicals—it’s almost haunting how close it comes to greatness—but it’s hard for me not to remain frustrated by it ultimately.
The problematic history of the film at the time of its release included the issue of the legendary “Happy Endings” number, a nine-minute musical sequence late in the film which is intentionally kind of a combination of “Born in a Trunk” from A STAR IS BORN and “Broadway Melody” from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN combined with who knows what else, holding up a mirror to everything that has happened in the film and what our own expectations from it probably have been. A favorite of the director all through shooting, the number was cut shortly before its unsuccessful release in an attempt to get the running time down but was finally restored when the film was reissued in 1981. Much of the problem is really structural—the sequence comes almost immediately after the character of Francine takes control of her life as represented in singing “The World Goes Round” and there’s still the climactic rendition of the title song to come. It’s all overpowering in that patented Liza style and each of these numbers in rapid succession almost becomes too much by a certain point, diluting the overall impact until we’re close to losing consciousness. This is especially a problem because even in saying all this the sequence feels absolutely necessary both in resolving the romantic conflict and as the ultimate statement of what Scorsese is trying to say with this film—it’s both a commentary on what this type of sequence represents and it’s truly earnestly trying to just be one of those scenes. There is something about it that feels like it just misses the mark that I can’t quite put my finger on (maybe because 70s filmmaking technology can only look so much like what was done in the 50s) but even the use of a blatant jumpcut near the end feels somehow correct—I know there’s an old musical that has something similar but can’t recall what. Maybe SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN?—as if Scorsese has no problem admitting how much he loves even this sort of technical imperfection in those movies. The sequence should probably be cut for our own sanity yet it absolutely needs to be in there for the film to make any sense. This issue alone feels indicative of how much the movie clearly wound up out of control at a certain point, lost to its own artistry and unreality. The imperfections haunt the film, like the hallway Liza Minnelli plays her last scene in which seems like just about the only naturalistic setting in the entire running time and stands out that much more as a result like splashing a tub of cold water on our faces after all that time. Whether it’s intentional or not, I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter. I wish I could love the film. Sometimes I can’t stand it. It remains harshly, completely fascinating. Even the alternate ending on the DVD coming after years of dissatisfaction with the resolution is fascinating to finally see in how much of a revelation it is yet also in how it feels absolutely, completely wrong.
The performances are not the issue here unless one has a basic problem with De Niro’s basic approach towards this type of movie, which after all is partly the point. He doesn’t look like someone who would have starred in one of these movies during the late forties and his intensity would have been too much for someone playing a minor gangster in one of them. His goofy charm sometimes shows through but his drive to succeed on his own terms, damn the whole world trying to stop him, is impossible to ignore. It’s not Travis Bickle, it’s not Jake LaMotta—it might be the closest to Robert De Niro, circa 1977 that we ever got onscreen. Whether successful or not, how his style clashes with Liza Minnelli is sometimes fascinating to watch and the actress is fearless in how she seems willing to match him even if she knows she might lose. Say whatever you want about Minnelli and her performing style she dives head first into this approach and it works beautifully. Among those appearing throughout Mary Kay Place is Francine’s inadequate replacement in the band, Lionel Stander gets some nice moments as Francine’s agent, De Niro’s then-wife Diahnne Abbott (also in TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY) sings an enticing version of “Honeysuckle Rose” at the Harlem Club and the legendary Dick Miller turns up in the first of two Scorsese appearances as the owner of the Palm Club.
Even looking at some of it now I’m torn between thinking some of it is extraordinary and the desire to stop watching it immediately, never to put the disc back into the player. The very nature of it all—an examination of the movies that a person grew up watching, exploring the notions of why someone loves them and how it connects to their own lives means that there are few films that I wish I loved as much as I wish I loved NEW YORK, NEW YORK. But the film’s almost willful self-destruction, like what is occasionally exhibited by its characters, makes that desire impossible and as it is I’m not even sure that I like it all that much. It says something about my own attraction to this type of minutiae that the film’s final shot is just about my favorite thing in it—as the credits roll, we see a deceptively simple image of a deserted street in darkness somewhere on a studio backlot as a heavy rain falls. It gives the impression of a dark corner of some long-forgotten film that haunts our very dreams long into the night and never quite fulfills our desires the way we wish it would. That’s what these films do sometimes and when you come right down to it there’s very little reason in trying to figure out why. If I knew, I probably wouldn’t be writing any of this anyway.