The very end of screener season is rapidly approaching and with it an insane deluge of films I need to see before delivering my top ten list to my benevolent overlords here at the A.V. Club. At this point in the game, a sweaty, desperate existential panic has overtaken me as I scramble to see a plethora of ginormous, crazily ambitious films while still finding time to do vital, basic things like eat, sleep, and review the new Wu-Tang Clan album.
With deadlines fast approaching, the screeners in my pile have begun taunting me. "Watch me, Nathan, I'm punishingly austere–but in a good way" beckons the nearly three-hour long delight that is The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Christ almighty, even its title is book-length). "No, watch me, Nathan! I'm a playfully post-modern exploration of the enigma of Bob Dylan," shouts I'm Not There. "No, pick me! I've got important shit to say about, I dunno, nature or something, and I star that kid from the horrible-looking Speed Racer movie" heralds Into the Wild. On a more aggressive note, Gone Baby Gone insouciantly sneers "Nah, pick me, you fahkin faggot. Unless you're too much of a Yankee-lovin' mama's boy to handle me, you dahm quee-yeah."
Yes, screener season is finally starting to drive me insane. So instead of choosing something brisk and unchallenging for today's installment of My Year Of Flops, I'm instead tackling 163 minutes of 1977's New York, New York, Martin Scorsese's coke-fueled tribute to post-war musicals. It's a tuneful exercise in fantasy and realism from the director and star of Taxi Driver. How could audiences resist? Especially after it was cut down from its original four-and-half-hour length. Ah, the '70s.
New York, New York belongs to a strange subgenre of depressing musicals, toe-tapping tragedies designed to leave audiences with a song in their heart and a dispiriting lack of faith in humanity. It's a hugely ambitious mash-up of airy musical escapism and brutal emotional intensity that suggests a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration between John Cassavetes and the MGM dream factory.
In a characteristically insightful and trenchant introduction, Martin Scorsese says he was aiming for a revolutionary fusion of "truth and artifice"–truthifice if you will, or perhaps artificirealism. Scorsese wanted to imbue the show business musical with a new level of emotional authenticity rooted in improvisation and the gritty, genre-bending aesthetic of New Hollywood. And during the snorting-shoe-boxes-full-of-blow stage of Scorsese's creative evolution, he was entirely prepared to drive MGM into bankruptcy to do so.
The late '70s were a heady time when filmmakers drunk on ambition and acclaim, as well as good old-fashioned hooch, went too far in realizing their mad, half-realized dreams. They were consequently bitch-smacked by the mighty hand of a marketplace that insisted that while Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter were all well and good, it really wasn't too interested in 163 minutes of a gimpy and abrasive Robert De Niro spouting raging bullshit or a nearly four-hour-long downbeat revisionist Western about class warfare in late 19th century Wyoming.
Scorsese's musical begins with our country's defining triumph: V-J Day. Everyone's celebrating, but De Niro's saxophone virtuoso has just one thing on his mind: getting laid. Playing the percentages, he uses every hacky line in the book on every semi-attractive woman without a sailor on her arm in a swinging ballroom without much luck. Incidentally "every line in the book" is itself a hacky line that appears in "The Book."
Finally De Niro's incorrigible sleaze spies WAC Liza Minnelli looking a little lonely and a little lost. Sensing weakness, he launches an extended charm offensive that's plenty offensive but largely devoid of charm. Minnelli's not having it, but De Niro's persistence eventually wears her down. For De Niro's lying, manipulative, womanizing, penny-pinching, Hawaiian-shirt-clad hustler has one redeeming virtue: he's a hell of a musician. He's a thug to be sure, but he's also an artist. Sometimes that's enough.
De Niro plays the lead character as an idiot savant, a glorified con artist frozen forever in a state of emotional pre-adolescence. De Niro bullies and terrorizes Minnelli even as her star begins to rise. When he can't get his way, he resorts to childish tantrums, like threatening to hurl his horn across the room in a fit of rage or throw himself under the back wheels of a moving taxi. For much of the film's duration, Minnelli does little more than react to De Niro's bullying.
But when Minnelli sings, she morphs instantly from docile lamb to ferocious lion. In her big production number "And The World Goes Round," she doesn't just sing, she acts out the song with her entire body. She lives the emotions she's singing about, letting every word and sentiment register with pile-driver force.
It's highly doubtful that someone like Minnelli could become a superstar in this cynical day and age, with its unforgiving conception of female beauty. Minnelli has the sort of comically outsized features that render caricatures unnecessary. Her mouth, eyes, and nose are all far too big for her face and her hair is so heavily teased and shellacked you could probably bounce a basketball off it without her noticing. No, Minnelli became a star for one reason and one reason only: she could sing. Oh, and she's Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli's daughter. But mainly because she can sing.
The film's escapist/realist divide is embodied by its two leads. After starring in The Godfather Part II and Taxi Driver, De Niro clearly relishes the chance to finally play someone really creepy and unlikable. De Niro is all brooding method intensity and uncompromising darkness in a performance that pushes way past the point of likeability early on and never looks back. De Niro and Minnelli make for a splendidly passive-aggressive pair: De Niro is unbecomingly aggressive while Minnelli is wan and passive. Until she sings, at which point the film stops being a faux-retro musical and an arty post-modern experiment and becomes something intoxicatingly close to the real thing, and not just because Minnelli is literally storming through her mom's old stomping grounds at MGM.
There are pot movies and then there are coke movies. A quintessential '70s pot movie would be something like Day of the Dolphin, where the dominant thinking seems to be "Aren't dolphins neat? Wouldn't it be cool if we just made a movie about how they like, glide in slow-motion and talk and stuff but humanity's not ready for talking dolphins cause they're too hung-up on war and guns and shit?"
New York New York, in sharp contrast, is unmistakably a coke movie. It has coke's jittery, paranoid rhythms: the maddeningly repetitive circular conversations, the pummeling emotional intensity, the screaming matches, and ragged, overreaching ambition. It's the kind of movie that shows up at your doorstep at four in the morning looking bleary-eyed and desperate and angrily demands $400 for something it doesn't feel comfortable talking about.
Yet just when it appears that Scorsese has finally lost the plot, that he's given the film over entirely to agitated screaming matches, repellent behavior, and free-floating jackassery, something strange and unexpected happens: the film turns into a proper musical. Or rather the film turns into a proper musical-within-a-musical as Minnelli rockets to solo stardom and conquers Hollywood as the plucky lead in Happy Endings.
The "Happy Endings" setpiece, a sort of classic-musical-in-miniature, affords Scorsese an exhilarating opportunity to channel his inner Vincente Minnelli as the great director's daughter swans her way through lush setpieces rich in retro glamour and escapism. (Incidentally, the great Vincente Minnelli was a gay man who loved Judy Garland so much he married her. I don't know whether that makes him more or less gay. Garland and her daughter both believed so strongly in gay marriage that they each married gay men. If that isn't commitment, what is?)
In his introduction, Scorsese says that he wanted to marry the artifice of old musicals with the raw, visceral truth of contemporary film and see if they could comfortably inhabit the same frame. They don't, ultimately, something even Scorsese seems to concede, but the conflict between the two styles gives the film an exhilarating tension. Like fellow musical bummer Pennies From Heaven, New York, New York, represented less a thrilling new beginning for the musical than a dead end, at least from a bean counter's perspective. But bean counters don't end up writing history, and time has been perhaps disproportionately kind to New York New York and many other '70s bombs. It may not be great art or wholly successful, but it's a fascinating, rewarding experiment that's downright truthifistic in its audacity.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success