Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Flawed Classic: New York, New York

Mention Martin Scorsese to most and visions of Mean Streets, Taxi Drivers and pugilistic Raging Bulls come to mind. To be sure, Scorsese is a master of gritty, crime soaked cinema. So, it is very easy to forget that the man who gave us Goodfellas also directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (an incredibly feminist themed film that went on to inspire a dreadful sit-com), The Last Waltz (The Band’s swan song), and The Age of Innocence ( a lavish adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel).

One of Scorsese’s more obscure films is 1977’s New York, New York. Oddly enough, everyone probably knows the theme song thanks to a certain iconic crooner who recorded it several years after the film came out; but most have probably never seen the movie that bears its name.

Set in post-war Gotham, New York, New York is a hybrid beast that is tough to pin down. Physically, it looks like a grand MGM musical – most of the movie was filmed on a sound stage, the sets are gorgeous, the colors lush, and the atmosphere is dream like. That said, the story is a rather bleak tale of two star crossed lovers who fall in love, fight (a lot) and do not end up happily ever after. The dialogue is mostly improvised, which might make New York, New York the Granddaddy of mumble-core. Oh, and one more thing, it’s also a musical; but wait, it’s not one of those films where people just break out into song; the main characters are in show business so we get to see them singing on stages, in plays, night clubs, and eventually, in movies.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) is a selfish cad who can blow a mean saxophone. The start of the film finds him wandering a massive VJ Day party hitting on women. Oddly, Jimmy is one of the few men not in uniform – in fact he sticks out like a sore thumb in his Hawaiian shirt. Be that as it may, he eventually sets his sights on a WAC named Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Sitting down at her table, making small talk, we get our first taste of the odd dialogue in New York, New York. In a scene that seems to go on forever, Jimmy repeatedly hits on Francine, and she keeps turning him down and it goes something like this,

Jimmy: I guess a little small talks in order here now
Francine: Can it get any smaller?
Jimmy: Now look I can take a hint
Francine: Can you also take a walk
Jimmy: Do you want me to leave?
Francine: YES!
Jimmy: I'll leave right now
Francine: BYE
Jimmy: You expect me to leave after the way you just talked to me?
Francine: Will you go away
Jimmy: I don't want to, I want to stay here and annoy you.

…and that’s just the start of it. Honestly, this give and take, which is sort of cute at first, becomes irritating at the five minute mark – I worship Robert DeNiro, but he’s no Groucho Marx, and Minnelli is no Margaret Dumont.

But hold on, it does get better.

Eventually Jimmy and Francine hook up and it turns out that his saxophone playing, and her singing voice are a match made in heaven, and soon the musical duo throw a band together and take their show out on the road.

Once they start performing, it’s clear that the audiences have come to hear Francine warble, and Jimmy has problems with this. His ego is so fragile that he starts coming apart, and his relationship with Francine begins to fray. In one of New York, New York’s more powerful scenes, the couple are engaged in a screaming match in a car. Francine (now nine months pregnant with Jimmy’s child) is hysterical over Jimmy’s behavior, and the more hysterical she becomes, the more terrifying and enraged Jimmy acts. At one he point he lunges over the back seat, hands clawed as if he were set to strangle,  and screams in her face, “Did I tell you to have that baby?!?!” – and then suddenly Francine goes into labor and he rushes her to the hospital. This is where you’d think that Jimmy might come to his senses, instead, he visits Francine in the hospital, and when she tells him she had a boy, he tells her, “I can’t be a father”. And like that, he just walks out of her life.

After this New York, New York sets it’s eye on Francine and her bullet like rise to the top. Free of Jimmy’s hostile ways and hateful attitude, she becomes the star she always knew she would. Her songs become big hits, she is featured on the cover of dozens of showbiz magazines, and eventually she becomes a movie star.

The second half of New York, New York is Liza Minnelli’s film and she owns it. If her Francine is anything, it’s a white washed portrayal of her mother, the iconic, Judy Garland: a tragic love life, a brilliant career. But, unlike Judy, Francine is not self destructive, but like Garland, she can sing and preform like few before her.

Watching Minnelli belt out a song like “The World Goes Round” is nothing short of magic. And Scorsese’s camera loves her unique face…those huge eyes, that oddly formed mouth, those blindingly white teeth that form that famous overbite…for some reason, she looks beautiful in spite of everything – especially when she’s singing.

In one of New York, New York’s most imaginative moments, Jimmy goes into a movie theatre on Times Square to see Francine’s new film. Suddenly, we are watching a film that features Francine, as an usher in a movie theater, imagining herself as the star of the film on the screen (think about that for a second, it might make your head hurt). This fifteen minute section (which was cut from New York, New York when it was first released), is a gorgeous homage to the lost art of movie musicals, and makes up for the many less than stellar moments in the film before it.

In the final half hour , New York, New York is flawless. First up, Jimmy goes back to the club he first met Francine. She’s now headlining there. Then, we get to hear the title song of the movie and marvel over Liza Minnelli doing what she does best (at this point, it seems that she’s no longer playing Francine: this is Liza with a Fucking Z – from the clothes she’s wearing, to the cut of her hair, to the way she is performing …). After the show, Jimmy gets to meet his son, and then he asks Francine to meet him after the show so they can go out and get a cup of coffee.

Of course if this were a film from the 40’s or 50’s we know what would happen next. The lovelorn couple would have been reunited and walked off in a Technicolor sunset – Scorsese had something else in mind.

New York, New York is not for everyone, in fact it can be a real effort to get through – but that’s what makes it so incredible. If you do wade through the less than compelling scenes you are rewarded with some  moments of sheer cinematic genius, and as long as you did not expect a happy ending, you may even come away appreciating it for the flawed classic it is.

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