Saturday, August 06, 2011

Film Analysis: New York Stories





This is an anthology film, broken into 3 segments. I recall liking it in college so I wanted to revisit the movie and write about it here. It was released in 1989 by Touchstone Pictures, and each segment was directed by an iconic filmmaker. It offers 3 unrelated tales with only one thing in common: the setting is The Big Apple. I have always had an obsession with New York, probably since it is the headquarters of so much that is iconic in the world of entertainment. It is the home base for Broadway, several TV networks and so many legendary films were shot in New York. Being a Woody Allen fan has made me a fan of New York also, since it is the setting for many of his films.

The first story is directed by Martin Scorsese, the genius behind Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Casino, GoodFellas, and many more. His part of this anthology is called Life Lessons. Nick Nolte is a gruff New York City artist living in a loft apartment where he spends his days painting and listening to music. The soundtrack includes music such as "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum and "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan. Scorsese has used classic rock music skillfully in this film, just as he has done in many others. Nolte goes to the airport to pick up his assistant/on-and-off girlfriend played by Rosanna Arquette. Scorsese uses a slow motion technique with Nolte looking at Arquette that is reminiscent of the same shot from Taxi Driver when Robert DeNiro spots Cybill Shepherd. Nolte is obsessed with her. The alcohol, art and music are his only reliable companions. He leads a solitary life, much like the life of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Nolte's character, Lionel Dobie is preparing for an art show where his work will be featured. He tells Paulette (Arquette) that he gives life lessons that are priceless to his assistants. She wants to move out but he pleads with her not to go. She wants to be an artist and asks Lionel if she is wasting her time. Scorsese takes us into the world of a painter with his close ups of the textured paint on the canvas, a paint-splattered cassette player and tight shots of the brushes. Scorsese's longtime film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker is pivotal to the visual elements of the film. A key visual scene is one where Lionel is painting frenetically, obsessed in his work, and the Bob Dylan song has the line "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose". The shot is looking down at him, making him seem small, like he is battling against a mighty foe. Paulette's room is above the main level of the loft and there is a hole in the wall which overlooks the area where Lionel paints. She is up high, he is down low. He gazes up at her room longingly as she is up there, symbolizing that she is above him, in more ways than one. Lionel attacks Paulette's boyfriend (Steve Buscemi) in a bar. Arquette has had it and says she is moving out. She says she feels like a "human sacrifice". Dobie tells her he had been married 4 times before she was born. She has no idea how down he gets. The closing scene has Lionel at his art show where he meets another young woman who he recruits to be his assistant, just like Arquette. The cycle begins again.

The second story is the weakest by far. It's called Life without Zoe and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather films, Apocalypse Now). It is about Zoe, a 12 year old rich girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York. Her father is a professional flute player who performs around the world. She is cared for by the family butler Hector (Don Novello, best known for his character Father Guido Sarducci). Zoe and friends interview Abu, the new boy at school. He says he has no friends. The hotel is robbed and luckily a precious diamond earring is not stolen from Zoe's father. The earring turns out to belong to a princess who is the aunt of Abu. There is a lavish costume party for the kids and Zoe returns the earring to the princess. The story ends with Zoe and her mother watching the father perform his flute in Greece. The story and acting were poor in this portion of the film. I imagine that Coppola has regrets about releasing it. The first and third stories are so much stronger.

The third story is directed by Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Vicky Christina Barcelona and many more). It is called Oedipus Wrecks since it involves a son's relationship with his mother. Woody plays a 50 year old lawyer at a Manhattan firm. He is often criticized and embarrassed by his demanding mother. He tells a therapist about a dream. His mother is in a coffin and Woody is driving the hearse. Still, she is telling him how to drive. He wishes she would disappear and quit bothering him. In the film, Woody is dating Mia Farrow. They take his mother to a magic show. The magician takes her on stage for a trick. He puts her in a box and puts swords through the box. Woody watches from the audience with a sense of glee. The magician then opens the box and she is gone. He does not know where she went. Her disappearing permanently is not part of the trick. Larry David has a small role backstage as the theatre manager. Woody's mother is missing for a week and he tells his therapist he feels great. One day, Sheldon's (Allen's) mother appears in the sky over Manhattan as an apparition. Everyone can see her and she tells Sheldon what to do, embarrassing him as always. She even takes out baby pictures of him to show everyone. The mother, Sadie, tells Sheldon to not get married. She is even interviewed on the news and the press also hounds Sheldon. He wants to kill himself he is so tormented. The therapist recommends a psychic, Treva, played by Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson). Woody gets discouraged with the psychic's antics. He thinks she is a fraud. She makes him dinner and he finds that he likes her. Lisa (Mia Farrow) leaves a note for Sheldon, saying she is leaving him. Sheldon goes back to Treva, gets engaged and introduces her to his mother. She likes her, and says she will come down. The motherly apparition disappears from the sky and she sits on Sheldon's couch. The story ends with the mother showing Sheldon's baby pictures to Treva.

This was a good showcase for 3 legendary directors to strut their stuff. 2 out of 3 of them were successful.
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