Monday, November 9, 2009

New York Stories (1989)

New York Stories is the earliest example of these directors anthology films that I can think of. They are a rare treat when they pop up from time to time. This one features 3 well known writer-directors who have used the iconic New York City as the backdrop for the majority of their films (not especially true in the case of Coppola but we'll get back to that).The first section (and the best one in my opinion) is Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons". This is a short about a painter (Nick Nolte) and the intense artist/muse relationship he has with his live-in assistant played by Rosanna Arquette. As the piece begins, Nolte is shown to be a well established artist whose inspiration has seemingly dried up. He tells his agent that he has no work to show him for his upcoming gallery show before excusing himself to go pick up his assistant from the airport (telling his agent something about how he doesn't understand why she can't just take a cab). Within seconds of her getting off the plane, she explains that she's trying to leave him and we get the first glimpses that the Nolte character is delusional, controlling, manipulative and quite narcissistic. You get the sense that she was once spell bound by this semi-famous, established older artist taking her under his wing with his repeated mantra about “free room and board and priceless life lessons” which largely seem to equate to sex with this paint spattered grizzly adams and listening to polite non-committal critiques of her artwork (he’s scared to tell her he doesn’t like her work because he doesn’t want her to leave). He does convince her to stay but she tells him “no more sex” and that, alas, is the trouble in paradise. His primal instincts, coupled with the psychological babying he seems to need put him into quite a disastrous state of being in terms of his inter-personal abilities, yet, as they often do, also propel him full force back into his work, channeling the emotional extremes into his art. This short story inherently leaves it to you the viewer to put together much of the history of these characters and you get the sense by the end that this is an ongoing pattern for Nolte that he knows he needs in order to get the creative juices flowing and be able to breathe life into canvas. You can see how this overbearing man would suck the life out of these young women but during an interesting moment where Arquette stands, unnoticed, observing Nolte at work, you can also see how he does sort of keep up his end of the bargain in terms of exposing them to this art world, the people within it and the unique temperaments therein. It’s an unhealthy bit of symbiotic on-screen “love” that hits close to home for me in terms of the way life experiences are channeled into an artists’ work. It is also worth noting that Steve Buscemi has a memorable cameo as a sleazy “performance artist” who continually destroys Arquettes self-esteem. I couldn’t help but think of Quentin Tarantino watching this motor mouthed, energetic and wiry young man and either writing the part of Mr. Pink (Reservoir Dogs) for him or very quickly understanding how tailor made he was for the role.

Next up we have the Coppola film. Now, Coppola does seem to have a strong understanding of New York and did spend much of his life there. His most famous work, The Godfather Trilogy is very tied to NYC (I believe his film The Conversation was shot there too…but I can’t remember for sure). Coppola though ultimately has no consistency in his body of work (except perhaps the theme of family) and similarly, his entry into this anthology called “Life Without Zoe” is entirely skippable in my opinion and by far the weak link of the three. It’s about a little rich girl who lives in a hotel while her famous flautist father and wealthy mother are out concentrating on their own lives. I understand that New York has it’s “high society” element to it and that they may look at this overprivledged, cutesy little girl and find something charming and relatable and interesting in the story…but I, for one, find it painfully dull and don’t want to write about it any longer except to say that I hated it when I was 13 and first saw the movie and that 13 years later when I watched it again…it still left me utterly void of enthusiasm.

So let’s move on to Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” which is a short, sweet delightful little film that plays like the very best Woody comedies. I’ve been on a big Woody Allen kick for a while now since falling in love with Match Point (which at first glance seemed inconsistent with what I knew of his work) and wanting to dig deeper into his catalog (to ultimately understand that Match Point is very much in line with his themes and characters…just with less overt humor). So, Woody plays a successful lawyer (did I mention he’s neurotic…did I have to??) engaged to Mia Farrow, a gentile with 3 children from a previous marriage. We learn from Woody’s visits with his psychiatrist (as well as an awkwardly funny dinner scene) that his mother is incredibly overbearing (even for a Jewish mother…which I don’t personally have much experience in but feel like I understand from the movies) and does not want her son to “rush in” to this marriage. During a family outing to a magic show (which featured a few genuine “laugh out loud” moments for me…a standard that is very rare, even for things I find very funny) the mother is chosen to participate in a trick and disappears. Just as Woody’s character finds his life improving in all kinds of unexpected ways without her smothering influence, she suddenly appears, floating in the skies of New York, to badger and embarrass her little boy once again. What a hilarious, extreme neurotic idea this is in the first place! As usual, Woody sneaks in some real psychological curiosity into the proceedings as he finds himself falling in love with a woman very much like his mother (and mother of course approves and agrees to come out of the sky). The sharp viewer will figure out that this is where the story’s heading about 10 minutes before Woody does, but that doesn’t at all cheapen the bemused expression of disheartened understanding and acceptance that we’re left with as HE realizes it.

So, overall you have a great set of bookends with an absolute turd in the middle. For any Scorsese or Woody Allen fans though, these shorts can stand side by side with each director’s best work. So, while I’d give Life Lessons and Oedipus Wrecks an A+ each, Life Without Zoe is a big old F and the film as a complete work then gets a generous B- from me.


  1. Oh yeah, one more noteworthy thing about this movie is the appearance of Larry David during the Woody Allen section. It's just a brief little cameo but seeing these two interact and play off each other, even for a few fleeting moments is AMAZING! I'm really excited to see "Whatever Works", the new Woody Allen film that stars Larry David (but as far as I know does not feature Woody Allen himself).

  2. I LOVE THIS INSIGHT: "I couldn’t help but think of Quentin Tarantino watching this motor mouthed, energetic and wiry young man and either writing the part of Mr. Pink (Reservoir Dogs) for him or very quickly understanding how tailor made he was for the role."

    I'd love to hear Tarantino's reaction to it.

  3. I didn't know that you were a Woody Allen fan! You and Rob should definitely chat it up on that subject. Woody is one of his favorites. I heard an interview with him a few months back on NPR (not sure when it originally aired, though) and he claimed that he was nothing like the characters he plays in his films. !!! I found this particularly hard to swallow. How could one man play basically the same neurotic, sexually deviant/frustrated little person SO well in all those films... let alone be so very in love with creating that part... and NOT have that character living and breathing just under his skin?? Either he is totally delusional, or he is a one-trick pony as an actor;). Yyyyyyou be the judge!

  4. He is clearly a one trick pony as an actor and while the names, professions and circumstances change from one film to the next, he is more or less the same character with the same psychological issues. How bizarre that he would make such a remark! :)