Martin Scorsese’s black comedy about one hellish night offers a trapped in amber portrait of 80s New York City.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective on the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
“Rough night, Paul?”
Much has been written about how New York City has been stripped of its personality, as history and character is replaced by chain stores and luxury housing that no one can afford. However, no neighborhood has given itself over to hollow genericness quite like SoHo. Once a vibrant culture hub for the city, SoHo was where both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were introduced to the art world, represented by galleries that are now either long closed, or moved to other, less trendy but less expensive neighborhoods. It was also, for a time, a prime shopping destination for tourists, featuring vintage clothing boutiques and one of a kind jewelry designers. Those too, like the art galleries before them, are mostly gone now, replaced by mall stores like H&M and Victoria’s Secret.
Considering how sanitized-for-our-protection it is now, it’s amusing to recall that during the 80s, not one, but two movies portrayed SoHo as a near post-apocalyptic no man’s land, where only the brave or the foolish tread. One is 1984’s C.H.U.D., the other is 1985’s After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s dark comedy about a hapless word processor who tests the theory of Murphy’s Law. Of the two, somehow it’s the one that doesn’t involve mutated, flesh-eating homeless people that ends up being more frightening.
At just a little over ninety minutes long, and taking place all in one night, it’s one of Scorsese’s leanest, most straightforward films. There doesn’t seem to be any deeper meaning to it, unless you want to posit that Scorsese, with three marriages behind him at the time, was working out some issues with women. While it’s true that most of the trouble that befalls protagonist Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is at the hands of women, to be fair, Scorsese merely tweaked the final script, and didn’t even credit himself for it. It’s mostly just about a series of mishaps and bizarre encounters experienced by someone so far out of his element that it’s hilarious, when it’s not a little tragic and deeply unsettling. In most movies where a kinda uptight dude meets a weird chick who forces him outside of his comfort zone, he ends up not just having the time of his life, but falling in love. Here, Paul’s would-be manic pixie dream girl actually dies, and it only gets worse from there.
We’ve all been on a date, or just hanging out with someone, where the vibe quickly goes from “this is interesting” to “I gotta get the fuck out of here!” That’s what happens when Paul meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a cafe, where she tells him that her roommate, Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), makes paperweights that look like bagels with cream cheese. He goes to Marcy and Kiki’s SoHo apartment later in the evening, purporting to buy a paperweight but, really, just hoping to get laid, but leaves when he realizes that Marcy might just be a little too out there for him.
Whether Paul deserves what happens to him for being dishonest about his intentions is a matter of personal opinion, but if that’s truly the case, the punishment eventually far outweighs the crime. Paul is pretty low-key and polite about wanting to get his dick wet, after all. If anything, he’s being punished for daring to step outside the safe but boring confines of his everyday life. Literally the moment he enters desolate, shadowy SoHo, when the money he set aside to pay for his cab ride is torn out of his hands by a gust of wind, things start going downhill.
In a world of artsy weirdos who are way cooler than he’ll ever be, Paul is the outlier, the sore thumb, the one who doesn’t belong. By the end of the film, he’s literally being chased by an angry mob, led by Catherine O’Hara driving an ice cream truck. From a modern perspective, it’s both fascinating and depressing to see how there was once a time in New York City when struggling underground artists didn’t just have their own neighborhoods, but could afford to live in them, as could bartenders and waitresses. Eventually they were all pushed out so that people like Paul, who like the idea of living in New York but want no part of what actually makes it New York, could move in and take it over. He’s not a bad guy, but definitely seems like the type who would move to Harlem for the “history,” but then file a noise complaint against a street musician.
In a world of artsy weirdos who are way cooler than he’ll ever be, Paul is the outlier, the sore thumb, the one who doesn’t belong.
Now, make no mistake — SoHo in the 80s was a total shithole, as was much of Manhattan. In After Hours, albeit with quirky affection, it looks like a giant haunted house, with everything plunged into shadow and every corner Paul turns leading to something more and more weird. With no money for either a cab or a subway, he can’t escape, although one wonders why he just doesn’t simply start walking home, or at least in the general direction thereof, at some point. He never really seems to be in mortal danger so much as mocked and harassed for being so deeply out of place. For many men, however, being made to feel small is a fate worse than death. Not being in control of a situation, any situation, is the true nightmare.
Paul’s eventual freedom, when he’s inadvertently rescued by a pair of thieves played by Cheech and Chong, brings the film to a bleakly funny, all too realistic conclusion: he falls out of a truck directly in front of the building where he works, the sun already in the sky. The security gates open as if beckoning him: welcome back, Paul, to where you really belong. Paul simply returns to his desk, the familiar, the safe, and starts the day all over again. He might just stay there forever if he could.
Within a decade after the release of After Hours, Rudolph Giuliani would be Mayor of New York City, and on a one-man campaign to scrub it clean, both literally and figuratively, making it acceptable for a more “desirable” (i.e. white and wealthy) population to live there. Within a decade after that, his mission would prove successful. As John Malkovich once noted, it’s a city in which “you can’t afford to starve there anymore.” Most artists are funded through ample family trust funds, the ones who aren’t spend less time making art and more trying to survive through the gig economy, and none of them are living in SoHo. It’s perfectly safe for people like Paul now, anywhere, after hours, at all hours. The normies got the last laugh, even if they can barely afford it themselves.