Martin Scorsese’s Most Perplexing Movie: An Assessment at 35
It’s out on the fire escape that a bit of spontaneous Edward Hopper occurs. De Niro’s just struck out with Minnelli–Jimmy’s just struck out with Francine–and he’s waiting for his friend to finish up with his hotel room, lent to him by Jimmy, who it turns out won’t be needing it tonight except to sleep. Jimmy’s fresh back from the war, V-J Day, a festive and celebrant New York night, but right now Jimmy’s out on the fire escape, melancholy-subdued. It’s here that the piece of kineticized Hopper occurs: Jimmy in the darkness in his New York-themed Hawaiian shirt, sharing the frame with two dancers below, spotlit by streetlight. One is a pretty blonde woman, the other is a young Navy sailor in full dress-whites. They’re doing an elaborate dance, with no musical accompaniment. The incongruity of it casts an eerie and moving spell: one standing in the dark, two dancing in the light, while, over it all, a subway rumble provides some found music by way of industrial ambience. When the train passes, the dancers still continue in their dance, inspired by the raw moment in all its obvious affection and spontaneity. You hear their shoes scuffle, scrape, and tap. And then there’s Jimmy: smoking, serene, his gaze both surveiling and appraising.
There’s so much stuff like that in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), stuff that hits you on a visceral level and then stays with you, it’s a shame the movie’s such a damned mess. Scorsese didn’t even understand the nature of his own material, the sympathies and emotions it was liable to elicit in its audience (an audience that proved disappointingly small). Jimmy and Francine eventually get together; then they get married, forming a creative partnership, Jimmy playing the sax, Francine singing the songs; then they have a son and stay married, for a while; and then they don’t. And finally, in the last scene, they almost reunite, but not quite. Scorsese thought their getting back together would be the happy ending, and so it’s the ending he denied his audience, in the name of verity. But long before that point in the movie, any sane human being is likely to see Jimmy as such an asshole, the only happy ending would be for him to die, or worse.
There are reasons Scorsese was blind to this. He had come to over-identify with his male protagonist, and he was way too close to the material in general, on a personal level, to make proper sense of it. The movie was designed to be an allegory of his own marriage (on its last legs at the time of filming), about a couple who can’t make their creative partnership work because of the temperaments tied to their very creativity, as well as all the strains creativity imposes on living unselfishly. Scorsese really believed this was the movie he was making; he didn’t even understand–and still doesn’t seem to–that the movie he was really making was just a punishing three-hour drama about a female stuck in an abusive relationship.
Scorsese’s wife was also stuck in an abusive relationship, of a kind. She helped out on a rewrite of the script, while her husband slept with the film’s co-star, Liza Minnelli. This is not an insignificant thing to mention. The whole movie was conceived and realized as an ironic homage to MGM musicals, especially those directed by Liza’s father, Vincent–except, of course, when it’s being a straightfoward homage to A Star is Born (1954), which starred Liza’s mother, Judy Garland. (As if things could get any eerier, Liza also used the same hairdresser her mother had used for that film, and the same dressing room. In fact, when Vincent visited Liza on set during shooting, according to Vincent Lobrutto in Martin Scorsese: A Biography, “he broke down in tears at how much his daughter looked like his former wife.”) The idea, beyond this, is that the film–by using transparently artificial props and scenery from the big-musical era, as well as a Kodak process that allowed the film stock to resemble the old three-strip Technicolor–would be able to intensify its own reality by superimposing that realism on superficial physical surroundings.
Or something like that. This particular aspect has never been so specifically articulated, all these interviews and DVD commentaries later, even by this most articulate of directors. It’s understandable that such an incoherent film emerged, given the incoherence of its director’s life at the time. Strung out on cocaine, asthma, overwork, and a quickly deteriorating marriage, Scorsese would, as a result of this film, suffer a mental-physical-emotional collapse so severe, he almost abandoned such filmmaking altogether to move to Italy and make documentaries about the lives of the saints.
The strain of making the film–on time, on budget, and according to both artistic standards and studio specifications–was punishing enough; the contempt and indifference the movie received really drove the punishment home. It wasn’t just the audiences who disliked it, either–the critics did, too. The eponymous theme-song, written specifically for this film and performed by Minnelli, has of course become a hit standard for Frank Sinatra and others, but the song has not brought the movie with it into the culture’s canon.
And that’s too bad, because there’s greatness in it. There is real drama in its scenes of domestic disturbance, and there is real beauty in its Hollywood-fake irreality. What this irreality bespeaks more than anything, though, is the incoherence of its schizophrenic stylistic judgments–every one of them interesting and inspired, very few of them achieving aesthetic unity. The whole thing is as creepy, bizarre, rich, memorable, and inexplicable as the knowledge you receive later, after several viewings of the film over a span of years. The knowledge comes to you (as so many things about this film do) through reading in Lobrutto, and when it does, it’s literally scary–it spooks you out, genuinely and in a strangely profound way. And it inspires you to bring yet one more question to this film now full of them:
That blonde woman De Niro watches, Hopper-like, as she does her a capella dance with the sailor under the streetlight–why the hell did Scorsese have her played by Liza Minnelli in a wig?
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