New York Stories

February 8, 2012

New York Stories is a wonderful idea for a film, and it’s two-thirds of a wonderful film. For this omnibus, three of America’s leading directors have each created a mini-movie, with no constraints except that each segment be set in Manhattan.

The three directors are Woody Allen, whose entire movie-making career has been New York stories; Martin Scorsese, who probably relished the thought of making a relatively minor film after The Last Temptation of Christ; and the godfather himself, Francis Coppola. Each has made a 40-minute film.

Coppola’s segment, “Life without Zoe,” is the middle piece. It concerns the world of a pampered 12-year-old girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, because her parents are always gone. It is an utterly slight diversion, and not up to the standards of the other two entries.

Scorsese’s segment, “Life Lessons,” written by his Color of Money collaborator, Richard Price, leads off. It’s about a famous painter (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep his hold on his desirable assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring artist. They’ve recently broken up, and he tries every plea and manipulation he can think of, from the avuncular (“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud”) to the direct (“I just had the sudden desire to kiss your foot. It’s nothing personal”).

Scorsese’s camera dances around this tale in the same way Nolte’s brush glides over the abstract canvases. This dynamism suggests the raging vanity and ego of the painter, who is given superb life by Nolte; in capturing this shambling, self-obsessed man, Nolte gives a performance unlike anything he’s done before.

The artist creates his paintings while he blasts music in his loft. There’s an incredible sequence as Nolte attacks the canvas while listening to a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Arquette watches in awe. Scorsese is having a field day with this, and it’s exhilarating.

The closer is Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is basically like one of Allen’s short pieces for the New Yorker magazine done on film. Woody plays a successful attorney who is tormented by his mother (played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop); she constantly upbraids him about his clothes, his eating habits, his incipient baldness. And she doesn’t care much for his girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Then one day he takes her to a magic show, where she is plucked from the audience, placed in a Chinese box, and made to disappear. And she does disappear. Altogether. Even the magician is puzzled, but helpfully offers a pair of free tickets to a future show if she doesn’t turn up.

Actually, she does turn up, in a way that grabs the attention of the entire city, and embarrasses Woody to the bone. It’s a hilarious development, and Allen, as actor and director, keeps up just the right tone of mortification. And he even finds an excuse for the cameo without which New York Stories would not be complete: an appearance by mayor Ed Koch.

First published in the Herald, March 9, 1989

I’d have to see it again to work out the argument, but I have this feeling that something changed for both Scorsese and Nick Nolte after “Life Lessons,” a piece rarely mentioned in either man’s work. They both seemed freer, somehow, especially Nolte, who went into a mighty phase after this.


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