Is That All There Is?
Michael Koresky on After Hours

Our daily lives are ruled by numbers: hours, minutes, and seconds; regimens and routines (three square meals a day, two bouts of toothbrushing); arbitrary traits both geographical (phone numbers, zip codes) and social (the amount of money in our purses, the bank codes required to get it there). In Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours, which takes place almost entirely at night, numerical guidelines don’t seem to apply. In fact, they fly out the window—quite literally. As hapless office drudge Paul (Griffin Dunne) first sets out downtown on a nocturnal trip to the SoHo neighborhood that will ensnare him in a web of bizarre and nearly deadly coincidences, his last twenty-dollar bill is sucked out of his wildly careering cab, left, in a mournful cutaway, to float down to the pavement like a solitary milkweed pod.

Twenty dollars forever lost, leaving Paul with ninety-seven cents in change—not enough, as we later learn, to catch a subway home, since at midnight the fare was raised to a then-obscene buck fifty. But no matter. One might expect Jack Torrance’s ghostly bartender Lloyd to show up and tell Paul, “Your money’s no good here.” It’s past midnight, we’re below Houston Street, and different rules apply.

There are other numbers. Phone numbers. And the more we hear them, the less sense they make. Paul first decides to leave the safety of midtown when Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), the toothily attractive mystery woman he meets early that evening in a diner, gives him her digits. Well, they’re not really hers, but her friend Kiki’s, and she doesn’t really wait for Paul to find a pen to write them down, she just blurts out “243-3460,” leaving him to repeat them to himself in the hopes that he’ll remember. Later, when he’s itching to leave his downtown purgatory, another woman, Julie (Teri Garr), will give him her phone number, oddly 5-4-4-3-3; “that’s not enough numbers, but OK,” he curtly responds. (He forgot the movie-world prefix K-L (a.k.a. 5-5)—which is funny in a film that begins with Paul instructing a new coworker on how to enter “prefix codes” into his computer, but more on that in a bit.) And later still, when Paul is becoming desperate, he makes the mistake of relying on the seeming kindness of stranger Gail (Catherine O’Hara), a random-number generator who blurts out digits in order to confuse Paul while he’s trying to memorize a friend’s phone number after calling information. Three women, each less helpful and more deranged than the last—and each increasing the odds that Paul might never get home.

Focusing on phone numbers, or on the amount of coinage jingling in Paul’s pocket, might seem an odd way to begin discussion of After Hours, but this is a film obsessed with minutiae, and one in which such details mean nothing and everything at once. Paul’s odyssey gains its pleasures from narrative linearity and numerical pileup (it’s just one thing after another), but it’s predicated on so many odd, inexplicable moments of repetition and chance that the story can’t help but be circular. The more he tries to move forward, the less progress he makes; likewise, the more the viewer tries to make sense of this nightmarish world of uncanny repetition, the less clarity one gets. Finally, unexpectedly, it’s a film of exquisite logic. Chaotic but running like clockwork, After Hours is an entirely functional work that nevertheless feels like it’s having a constant nervous breakdown. The greatest terror that the film proposes is that this randomly nasty world in which we live might make perfect sense.

*****

The nearly mathematical precision of After Hours was the result of a controlled yet rejuvenating movie shoot. Scorsese has claimed that during its production he was relearning filmmaking, specifically how to make a small, scrappy film. The script by grad student Joe Minion, originally titled Lies, was brought to the director from producer Amy Robinson (who had acted in Mean Streets) and star Griffin Dunne while Scorsese was still reeling from the disappointment of The Last Temptation of Christ being put into turnaround by Paramount (it would be made three years later for Universal). The more modestly scaled After Hours would cost $4.5 million and be independently financed through the Geffen Company. After Hours has often been considered Scorsese’s “smallest” film, presumably because of its relatively low budget, limited narrative time frame, handful of locations in tight proximity, and swift ninety-seven minutes—but in terms of camera dexterity, storytelling intricacy, and existential scope, it’s among his most ambitious.

Like its protagonist, the movie itself has always seemed a bit lost, floating unattended to in a sea of pitch-blackness somewhere in the middle of its director’s career. Paul surely stands apart from other Scorsese heroes in his seeming passivity. He isn’t all that driven to effect any sort of change in his life; he’s not ambitious­, and he doesn’t seem ready, or even willing, to wriggle his way out of what appears to be a professional rut. His simple pursuit—to “leave my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl,” he says—is not the stuff of deranged antiheroes like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle or The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, or jealous egomaniacs like New York, New York’s Jimmy Doyle or Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, nor does he share the altruism of a character like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s Alice Hyatt. But this eagerly eccentric movie is not so anomalous in Scorsese’s oeuvre if we use our overly fine-tuned auteurist’s eyes: as in so many of his films before and after, New York is here a landscape of the mind more than it is an authentic, gritty environment, and the universe is a sadistic place that sends us off spinning in our own individual orbits, always leaving us essentially where we started. And as in such movies as Taxi Driver, New York, New York, and Raging Bull, After Hours feels like it emanates from some heretofore untapped reservoir of urban angst, manifest on-screen via Scorsese’s virtuosic technique.

Scorsese has called After Hours “an exercise completely in style,” which shortchanges the film and provides evidence that a movie can take on a life independent even of its director. After Hours is far too convincingly oneiric and genuinely disturbing to be taken as mere trickery or technical experiment. With the help of a crackerjack behind-the-scenes band (Michael Ballhaus on lenses! Thelma Schoonmaker on shears! Howard Shore on synth!), Scorsese uses Minion’s fleet and frustrating script to effectively and sensorially plumb the depths of New York neuroses.

All is instantly paranoia inducing. “I’m really glad you called,” responds the eerie female voice on the line when Paul gets up the courage to call Marcy. This offscreen dialogue is spoken with the kind of reserved delight that portends bad things for the invitee, like Vincent Price welcoming his guests to the House on Haunted Hill. Scorsese emphasizes the scene’s queasiness by panning from Paul’s mouth to the phone’s earpiece in uncomfortable close-up during the call, as if the camera is pressing into his head with unwanted intimacy. He’s not making a date; he’s sealing his fate. Arriving to pick up Marcy wearing his cream-colored suit and schlemiel-meets–Dapper Dan demeanor, Paul’s immediately out of place. Clad only in black bra and skirt, Marcy’s roommate, the spiky-haired Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), strikes a marked contrast to Paul; while waiting for Marcy’s return, Kiki puts Paul on papier-mâché detail, resulting in a stained white shirt, which she summarily replaces with a hipper, if more foreboding, black button-down. Now properly dressed, in what comes perilously close to being his death shroud, Paul officially embarks on his date night, which turns the process of trying to get laid into a journey toward self-entombment.

Originally, the film was supposed to end with what is now the second-to-last scene, in which Paul, seeking refuge from a violent mob out for his blood, is essentially mummified by outré middle-aged artist June (Verna Bloom) in a plaster sculpture echoing Kiki’s papier-mâché artwork, which in turn seems inspired by Edvard Munch’s gape-mouthed painting The Scream. The film’s final line, uttered by Cheech Marin as one of the thieves who packs him in the back of his truck and drives him away, would have been “Art is forever.” That is, until friends and confidants, including Scorsese idol Michael Powell, were shown a rough cut and protested at how despairing it was. (Despite the finished film’s “happier,” if still eerily apt, ending, the possibility of this initial conclusion sticks in the mind long after it’s ended.)

The fact that the film was meant to finish so unsettlingly communicates a lot about its odd genre identity. Nowhere in this article have I yet mentioned that After Hours is a comedy. One almost has to be reminded to relate how funny the movie is because its frightening and (it must be said) Kafkaesque qualities take up so much space in the viewer’s mind. Yet how else would one categorize a film like this, which wears its surrealism so boldly, which so delectates in the cruel humiliations of its protagonist, which takes such pleasure in revealing one downtown kook after another, all of whom seem to exist solely as irritants rather than as full-fledged human beings. It’s a strange artistic alchemy that allows humor to flourish amid such morbidity. So why do we laugh at After Hours? Is it because we’re trying not to scream? If we really focus on the details—the repetitions, the coincidences, the numbers—might we go mad as hatters?

*****

After Hours begins and ends during office hours. When we first meet Paul, a simultaneously tracking and zooming camera is rushing ahead to locate him at work. It finds him perched at a desk, training a newbie coworker (Bronson Pinchot) in the ways of menial office labor, specifically the importance of filing documents “in memory” in their flimsy-looking early-eighties computers. Pinchot’s character is disinterested in such mindless matters, as he’s more committed to creative endeavors, telling Paul he desires to start a magazine that would be a forum for young writers and intellectuals. Whether this appeals to some latent artistic side in Paul, we’ll never know. As the young man continues pitching his idea, his voice trails off into the ether, while Bach’s “Air on the G String” is amplified on the soundtrack. Paul’s clearly no longer listening to his coworker as his eyes begin to scan the room, picking up on isolated, silent moments of what seem to be workaday dullness (but which, as a friend pointed out, the music also treats with such reverence that they could be interpreted wholly differently). With this music cue, we’ve officially entered Paul’s head, and we will stay there for the next hour and a half. As mentioned before, one of the lessons Paul imparts is to not forget to enter the “prefix codes”; these are number systems commonly assigned to items, usually products, to make their sequences uniquely decodable (the prefixes are always differentiated and thus identifiable) while at the same time seemingly randomly assigned and chaotic.

We could assign the same maddening organizational principles to Scorsese’s movie, in which everything is scrupulously planned and plotted yet overall gives the sense of disarray. While watching After Hours, one desires to decode it. Surely there must be a rationale for its perplexing neatness. There has to be a reason, other than visual and thematic symmetry, that skulls seem to be hidden everywhere—in Marcy’s tattoo, on a bartender’s key chain, on Gail’s belt. There must be an explanation for why Julie mysteriously offers Paul as a gift the very same Kiki Bridges plaster-of-paris bagel-and–cream cheese paperweight that Marcy pitched him when they first met. It simply cannot be a coincidence that Paul ends up molded into the same Edvard Munch–like pose of Kiki’s statue, which, incidentally, as one of its papier-mâché components contains a twenty-dollar bill (captured in a portentous track-out), the same amount of money Paul lost to the wind en route to this downtown hell. The more uncanny motifs occur, the more driven the viewer is to create an explanation for what’s happening—to try to measure what we’re seeing in rational terms. As we grow increasingly frustrated by the unresolved randomness, the natural response may be to ask the question posed in the title of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s despairing ode to disillusionment “Is That All There Is?,” made famous by Peggy Lee in a version played by Paul on a nightclub jukebox near the film’s climax.

Such coincidences and repetitions would seem to do little more than ignite and justify Paul’s suspicion and paranoia, but they also create the sense of downtown New York as an enclosed world, a microcosmos of neuroticism and unmotivated cruelty. For the way its oddly close-knit denizens cross-pollinate, the late-night SoHo district might as well be a tiny midwestern burg or a high-functioning colony on the moon. It’s a place where sculptors, cocktail waitresses, bartenders, and Mister Softee–truck drivers seem to be working in unison for some shared purpose—which on this night is ultimately to band together and scare off Paul, sending this flopping fish back to the water of his uptown pond.

Paul doesn’t belong; in fact, to these other folks he almost doesn’t exist. Multiple times in the film, Paul gives extended speeches or monologues to others who aren’t listening. This is sometimes because they turn out to be bored, like the meek-and-mild potential john who’d rather sexually experiment with him than hear his sob stories. Sometimes they keep changing the subject, as when Gail responds to Paul’s pleas for telephone help with chitchat non sequiturs. Sometimes they turn out to be dead, like Marcy, unable to hear him spill his guts to her because she’s already overdosed on sleeping pills. And sometimes they turn out to be asleep, like Kiki, whom he massages while sharing an anecdote about a traumatic childhood event in which he spent a night in a hospital’s burn ward. Paul is so invisible to these folks (who treat him with indifference before they threaten him with violence) that one wonders if After Hours is a sort of reverse ghost story, with Paul as the walking dead.

Paul’s story about the emergency unit, largely unheard and never finished (“I untied the blindfold and I saw . . .”), is oddly crucial because it’s essentially the only thing we learn about Paul. The details of his job are left unclear, so that even his daily life is abstracted. We know nothing else of this anonymous white man in a suit, other than that he wants to get laid. He is pastless, just a bundle of nerves reacting to the present moment. This makes him less an everyman than a nowhere man, a lost soul as untethered to life as that twenty-dollar bill that eludes his grasp. In a film that seems at first blush to be about an “innocent” beset upon by a succession of unstable, dangerous women, Paul’s unknowability goes a long way toward making him less than heroic—and thus transforming what could have been an oddly misogynist fantasy scenario into a deconstruction of pathetic male privilege.

The film’s cruelty may be unmotivated, but is it unwarranted? Rather than just finally decide to walk all the way home (and take it from a New Yorker, SoHo to midtown would have taken him forty-five minutes, tops), this cipher sticks around, further using all the women with whom he comes into contact—for sex, for shelter, for the telephone, and finally, with June, for protection—never successfully. In a film filled to the brim with oddballs and queer ducks, Paul might be the strangest of them all. At least the SoHo folk fit together. There is nightmarish power in their numbers. Paul is one—unquantifiable and indivisible.