Thursday, July 26, 2007


I think film critic/blogger Paul Clark may be out to destroy me, to chip away at me from the inside until the only thing left is a hollow, brittle shell which will be that much easier to topple and shatter into a million dull-colored shards. How else to explain why he has lately taken one favorite film of mine after another to the woodshed for a paddling in his Screengrab series entitled “When Good Directors Go Bad”?

But seriously, folks. First Paul and I sparred over 1941. I liked it, he, um, didn’t. It was only after I recently revealed my own personal top 100 favorite films that Paul let me know that, yes, another one of my favorites was about to come under his fire. Around this same time, I was thinking about how my own top 100 was about be absorbed into forming a much bigger project (The Online Film Community’s Top 100 ), and I was looking for a way to create something with my own list rather than just, well, a list. Some comments from some of my readers suggested they too were disappointed I didn’t elaborate on my own choices, the reason being that I had no time to do so when I was compiling the original roster of titles. But I certainly would do so if I could comment on each of my top 100 with a separate post, of whatever length I felt was appropriate at the time.

Thus I decided to undergo an examination of each of my 100 favorite films, making a personal commitment to try to use the occasion to explicate why the film is on my list, and also to try to learn to write shorter, more concise pieces whenever I was moved to do so. Each movie will get the length it deserves as the thoughts come pouring out, and some posts will naturally be shorter than others-- I’m not going to put a 250 or 500 or 1,000 word limit on myself. But I intend to look at each one with a fresh eye, and I won’t write about any of them until I get a chance to see them again and consider them while the film is still fresh in my mind. And Paul has inspired me to start with Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, number 79 on my chronologically ordered list and the latest in his “When Good Directors Go Bad” series.

Scorsese’s movie is a big, self-conscious, experimental movie masquerading as a musical. Rather, it is a big, self-conscious, experimental movie that takes as its subject the structure, the mythology, the experience of the Hollywood musical. More importantly, it replaces the familiar romantic melodrama usually found at the center of such a film with a scenario that resembles what A Star is Born might have felt like had been directed by John Cassavetes. Liza Minnelli looks every bit the brassy, good-natured, ambitious swing band chanteuse as Francine Evans, in what would be her last effective lead performance on the big screen. Paul rightly describes her quality as equal parts tremulous and brassy—often Minnelli seems like she’s going to start vibrating like a gong, either out of sheer performance joy or uncontrollable spasms of nervous exhaustion. She’s used by Scorsese as much for her lineage (her mother, Judy Garland, was often the star in the lush, fiercely emotional musicals her father, Vincente Minnelli, directed for MGM) as for her near iconic visual appropriateness and crackling timing as an actress. And she takes to the sumptuous, pleasurably overscaled production and costume design as if it were her own private dress-up world, one in which she maintains the contrast between the delights of the music of the era and the brutal emotional abuse of her relationship with up-and-coming saxophone player Jimmy Doyle. Robert De Niro plays Doyle, who zeroes in on Francine during a VJ Day celebration and pathologically refuses to quit hitting on her, as Travis Bickle with a bad Hawaiian shirt, a discernible talent and a narrow-minded pursuit of musical integrity. At first De Niro’s approach to the character plays as if he was never consciously able to shake the specter of Bickle, and the choice (and it was a choice) seems like a mistake. The long shadow of Bickle’s present-day paranoia seems initially inappropriate for a brazenly artificial take on the emotional core of the Hollywood musical.

But it’s the contrast between Minnelli’s swing-era perfection, De Niro’s up-front and anachronistic (for the Hollywood genre) psychological instability, and Scorsese’s no-fear examination of what happens when the artifice of a musical world clashes with a warts-and-all character study of two ambitious characters for whom performance is the only way they can adequately feel connected to the “real” world, that allows the movie’s themes, and even its occasional dissonant notes and inconsistencies of tone and pace, to coalesce into a living, breathing personal statement. For Paul (and certainly not just for him), this constitutes one of the film’s major drawbacks. He writes that New York, New York is “a movie that feels at war with itself, in which the musical numbers and the dialogue scenes don’t mesh well”. But it seems to me that this war is, in fact, the subject of the film, the reason Scorsese wanted to make it. That very incompatibility is what fascinates Scorsese-- how these two strains of Hollywood artifice (and yes, Cassavetes’ emotional dramas spun their own kind of artifice) might possibly co-exist. After all, they certainly co-exist in his encyclopedic mind as a cinephile, so what might be wrong with making a movie that acknowledges, in its look, its feel in the very way it gathers momentum and dissipates it between sequences, the attempt to connect these two seemingly irreconcilable approaches to film drama? Even the title of the film reflects the dual sensibilities at work in envisioning a post-war New York City as a place of nostalgic reverie and bitter, uncomfortable emotional truth. (It is astounding too, as Paul notes, that the title tune, so tightly associated with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Minnelli to George Steinbrenner, was not an authentic standard unearthed from some vault and polished up, rights all paid for, but was instead penned for the movie by John Kander and Fred Ebb.)

Screen grab courtesy of DVD Beaver.

All of this might, to some ears, seem like I’m coming awfully close to saying that it’s what’s bad and dissonant and rough about New York, New York, the elements where glossy genre cannot, in the end, compliment or illuminate the gritty examination of the grinding gears of ambition and love, that makes it a fine movie. Not quite. There are indications, even in its much-preferable extended version, clear indicators that the movie has chunks still missing-- the strand involving Mary Kay Place as the talentless singer who replaces Francine in Jimmy’s band is underdeveloped and left to dangle, and even Francine’s rise to stardom in the aftermath of the birth of her son, the both of them abandoned by Jimmy in a devastating, wordless hospital scene— seems truncated, unsatisfying and, most damningly, unconvincing. But the movie, I think, minimizes those moments where the Method imbalances the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer through the sheer force of the conviction of the actors at its heart. It wasn’t long after this movie that De Niro began doing “De Niro,” but here there is still enough of a connection to Bickle and the young Vito, and 1900, and, most importantly, the bottle-rocket unpredictability of Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, to convince us that De Niro had not yet begun to fool around.

And Minnelli, only a year or so away from parody, and self-parody, seems so in her element here that it’s scary, and I mean that as a compliment. She’s frighteningly good and would never again have a role that allowed her to so fruitfully channel the warring elements in her own personality—the illusion of the shining Hollywood star tempered by the knowledge of the pressure, addiction and even madness that stardom can bring—into such rich thematic resonance. She anchors the splendidly bitter and self-referential “Happy Endings” sequence, famously restored from the 1977 theatrical release, which brings the movie brilliantly full circle to a point where kitchen-sink dramaturgy and delirious musical fantasy don’t seem so far removed from each other after all. New York, New York (shot by the late, brilliant cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs) is a gorgeous, daring movie that soars on conflicting styles masterfully choreographed by a director in love not with genre, or the integrity of improvised acting truth, but with the power at the heart of movies. It soars as much on what it says about what we, the audience, see and process within seemingly polarized film styles as it does on the melodrama and emotion woven delicately, and indelicately, into the music that courses through its lush, tension-filled visual design and its glorious soundtrack. New York, New York is about Hollywood reality, and how Hollywood reality can be about life.


Ted Pigeon said...

It's funny you decided to embark upon this, Dennis. I have been toying with the idea of it myself (although I chose 149 movies, a number that has already changed since I initially posted my list).

Part of what I dislike about so many lists and awards is that they seem so arbitrary, especially the ones by committee. The lists I like are personal lists, especially ones that provide some sort of critical response to the movie and why it has its place on a top movies list.

Specifically regarding New York, New York, I haven't had the impulse to see it for many years because of the largely mediocre reviews of it that I've seen. In the last couple years, however, I have come to distrust the canonical approach to cinema which deems certain movies as "important" (especially by auteurs like Scorsese) and other as minor. But I have found that its usually these consensual "minor" movies by revered directors that reveal most and add dimension to the static, pre-digested writings on auteurs. For as much written on Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Hitchcock in both academic and journalistic circles, I feel in many ways they tend to operate under many underlying assumptions about these directors and focus on the same things. Rarely are these consensus takes on directors ever challenged. The first way of doing that I think is to look beyond the typical choices for films to analyze.

For Scorsese, New York, New York is such a film. It is rarely discussed by the critical community, but I've read more about it since I've been reading blogs and gotten more interested in seeing it. After reading your criticism, I have since moved it close to the top of my queue.

I am also considering launching my own endeavor of looking at all the movies I chose in some kind of critical light. Much like you, and Roger Ebert with his great movies column, I want see these films from a fresh perspective and come at them differently, even from the reflexive standpoint of why I felt so inclined to name them as my favorites.

I'm really looking forward to more of these pieces, Dennis.

Greg said...

Dennis and Ted,

I couldn't agree more. I grew up loving films in a time when "the pantheon" was preserved in film books and papers where a select few gatekeepers set the rules. I fell into this way of thinking for many years and feel I missed many a great movie, and conversely saw many an overrated one, because I was all too trusting. I'm not saying I go completely against the grain of the accepted wisdom (from Citizen Kane to The Godfather and on I'm in general agreement) but there are many films I avoided because of a mediocre reception that when I finally saw them felt were pretty damn good.

And as for seeing the movies fresh before writing about them I completely agree there as well. I remember reading Roger Ebert write that he was going to put HIGH NOON on his greatest movies list but then re-watched it and wasn't impressed. I have had many a false memory myself and one of the reasons I've delayed in updating my picks for the best films of late sixties is because frankly I have quite a few I desperately need to see again. Thank god for netflix (as a sidenote, if you've got kids - I have four - this can get thorny. " 'WEEKEND', 'IF', 'REPULSION' Booooring. Can we PLEASE update the queue?")

Glad to see you're doing this Dennis. I'm sure they will be excellent reads. Look forward to reading yours as well Ted.


Anonymous said...

OK, the Rush thing scares me, Dennis -- but "New York, New York" (after the "Happy Endings" sequence was restored) is a masterpiece. I think it would make a nice (loooong) double-bill with "La Dolce Vita" because both movies are about performance -- creating scenes, playing to the crowd, adopting roles, in public and in private. Those brutal hyper-emotional Scorsese confrontations against mockingly artificial backdrops -- genius. And your selection at this time is a fine tribute to the recently departed Laszlo Kovacs, whose fluid "NY, NY" camerawork is positively musical.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Could someone briefly describe the "Happy Endings" ending? I saw a crappy - and old - VHS copy years ago (and didn't much like it) - and I'm not sure whether or not it had this part. If not, I guess it'll just be another reason to check the film out again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Flower: "New York, New York" was released in 1977 at 153 minutes and then quickly cut down by United Artists to 136 minutes when it flopped in NY and LA. This cut lacked the big "Happy Endings" musical number (in which Francine goes from usherette to big movie-musical star, in a tribute to the "Broadway Melody" sequence from "Singin' in the Rain"). It squeezes a whole musical comedy into something like eight or 10 minutes, and provides the contrasting "happy ending" Scorsese's movie inevitably refuses to offer. The definitive version of "NY, NY" (and the one available on DVD) is the restored 1981 release.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim - looks like I better pick up the DVD!

Anonymous said...

"Those brutal hyper-emotional Scorsese confrontations against mockingly artificial backdrops -- genius."

Welcome to Pseuds Corner, Jim. I give Dennis credit for doing his level best to construct a defence of such a lousy film but you know what they say about not being able to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. For me NY, NY demonstrates - as with Scorsese's other attempts at old Hollywood genres that though his personal enthusiasm & eloquence for classical cinema is always a joy to hear, as a filmmaker he simply doesn't know how to recreate them. It obviously doesn't help matters that Scorsese was blitzed out of his mind on cocaine during the shoot & I'd like to suggest to Dennis - or Jim - or Ted - that they try to turn this inconvenient fact into a defence of NY, NY. If nothing else it should be fun to read.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

“It obviously doesn't help matters that Scorsese was blitzed out of his mind on cocaine during the shoot”

All I can say, Anonymous-- if that is indeed your real name :)-- is that if I were to base what I thought of any given movie based on the available backstage stories, however verified or falsified, I’d most often be reviewing a movie that wasn’t the one on screen. And that’s how I feel about New York, New York. Everyone who tends to like to talk about how "blitzed out of his mind" Scorsese was when he made this movie displays a knowledge of the Scorsese mythology, to be sure, but they don’t illuminate a thing about what’s supposedly wrong with the movie that ended up on the screen.

One could certainly say that New York, New York is a movie that doesn’t play as smoothly as some of Scorsese’s other features, an indication that he may have had doubts about whether he was able to pull off a feature on this scale-- New York, New York marked the first big-budget film of Scorsese’s career, and expectations were high coming on the heels of Taxi Driver. Drugs obviously did nothing to stabilize those doubts. But if you’re trying to suggest that the movie displays clear evidence of cocaine-addled judgment, I’d like to hear some specifics.

While we’re traveling down that road, we can begin the long unraveling of the mythology surrounding all the great movies of the ‘70s. Are you, or is anyone else, willing to go through Easy Riders, Raging Bulls again and begin re-evaluating movies like Carrie, Chinatown, The Godfather, Nashville and others based solely on stories about their directors’ alleged substance abuse? (De Palma must have been high when he sped up the action during the tuxedo-fitting montage in Carrie, right?)

And I think your suggestion that “as a filmmaker (Scorsese) simply doesn’t know how to recreate (old Hollywood genres)” is off base too. The point I was trying to make about NY,NY is that the movie wasn’t a simple attempt to recreate a Hollywood genre— I agree that Scorsese probably wouldn’t be too good at that, because it probably wouldn’t hold much interest for him. What the movie actually is, is an experimental attempt to see what would happen when the Hollywood musical genre was deliberately and anachronistically mixed-up with the more searing personal dramas that Scorsese was up till then primarily known for.

Whether it’s successful or not is entirely a matter of one’s perceptions. But to simply write it off as “lousy” based on how accurately the genre was recreated (which was never the point), or because of stories of Scorsese’s cocaine abuse, lends precious little understanding about what’s actually going on in New York, New York.

Anonymous said...

Dennis-- thank you for your thoughtful response to "anonymous" (btw, "a.", I really enjoyed "Primary Colors" (:), and I couldn't agree more. NY, NY is one of my favorite scorsese films, for many of the reasons you mentioned in your original post, and I'll admit that I actually enjoy it more than canonized films like "raging bull" (but then, many of scorsese's best films are his most overlooked-- after hours, king of comedy, age of innocence, etc.).

I know this is slightly off-topic, but any thoughts on Bergman's passing?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yes, Cinephile, and thanks for asking. I justed posted on Bergman and Antonioni, and if you've anby thoughts of your own I hope you'll check in.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

And by the way, A, what is "Pseuds Corner"?

Anonymous said...

I meant to tell you, Dennis, that after reading this piece a week or so ago, I added NEW YORK, NEW YORK to my Netflix queue. Can't believe I've never seen it! I seem to remember my parents having a lively discussion about it when they came home after seeing it, and it's always intrigued me...thanks for leading me back, once again, to one that got away.

Anonymous said...

Chiming in belatedly: So many people thought NY,NY was supposed to be Scorsese's recreation of a classical Hollywood musical. They picked up on the "Hollywood musical" part, but overlooked the "Scorsese." Once you actually start watching the movie, the concept becomes pretty clear. It's as if Scorsese had cast the characters from "Mean Streets" in a studio musical -- raw emotions and ugly confrontations on studio lots, against painted backdrops, on elaborately designed and constructed sets. In a Hollywood musical, we expect the "Happy Ending" but, of course, that's only an illusion we are conditioned to believe in. So, in Scorsese's version, not even the characters who try to live in this movie can avoid a non-happy, inconclusive "ending."

But what about the sheer pleasure of watching it? The neon arrow that picks out DeNiro in a V-J Day street celebration. The way he tries out pickup lines on WAC Liza Minnelli (in a movie that's a tribute to her father even more than her mother) on a huge big-band penthouse ballroom set. The overseen couple dancing in the spotlight of a streetlamp....

And who is Pseuds and why does he get his own corner?