Monday, December 9, 2013

New York, New York (1977): Spousal Abuse is the Key To Success

New York, New York (1977)
dir: Martin Scorsese

The 1970s were a dark time for Martin Scorsese. Or, rather, they were a white time. Martin Scorsese was breaking up with his second wife, and buried up to his ears in cocaine. In this atmosphere, Martin Scorsese decided to make his second movie that deals with spousal abuse (after Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), and also decided that he would make it a musical. YAY!!!

Yes, New York, New York reeks of cocaine, and also is starting to show the sexual relations that Scorsese would later exploit in Raging Bull. Scorsese and Robert DeNiro (his muse at the time) teamed up to make a musical about the 1940s, an era where the men came back from war, abused their wives, and big band disappeared.

In New York, New York, Robert DeNiro plays a big band saxophone player who later becomes the band leader. He meets Liza Minnelli, a USO singer, in an 18-minute long opening scene where DeNiro continually harasses Minnelli until she finally rejects him, even after her friend has gone with his friend to DeNiro's hotel room. Of course, that means that Minnelli and DeNiro meet up at the hotel room when she picks up her friend, and he tries to return to his room. And, off we go on an epic 2hr43min journey of love, pregnancy, control, music, and abuse.

New York, New York is unabashedly unpleasant. DeNiro starts out as just a sleazeball with mildly aggressive temper tantrums. Yet, Liza falls for DeNiro...because he's talented? Or because she's a weak character? It's never fully explained. But, they go off on the road with DeNiro rising to the top, and Minnelli is singing her way to the top as well.

Eventually, Minnelli and DeNiro fuck, get married, get pregnant, return to New York, fight, bicker, and lose each other for several years leaving Liza to raise her son on her own while she works as an usher. Until she becomes famous in a number called "Happy Endings," and uses DeNiro's new number, "Theme from New York, New York" (yes, it's called that in the movie) to rocket her career. DeNiro calls her and its hinted that she may take him back.

New York, New York is Scorsese's ode to the the musical genre. In the commentary, Scorsese says that he's criticizing the male characters in many of the musicals, who are shown as likable heroes. He believes that they were masking the competitions, envy, and jealousy and making everything happier. Scorsese claims that he wanted to make DeNiro as unlikable as possible in order to criticize the musicals of the era.

But, he fails. Hard. This isn't much of a critique. It directly references other movies, but he just throws one completely unlikable character into the formula. This monkey wrench makes the whole movie unbearable. One of the reasons people don't mind, and even fall for, charming irresponsible people is because they're CHARMING. Take out the charming, and all you have is an asshole. Scorsese is basically saying that people will fall for assholes as long as they're talented. And, worse, women are weak characters who will fall for abusive sleazeballs with anger problems.

The irritating problem is...he's mildly right. I've seen first hand that some women will fall for men with anger problems, and even marry them and have a child with them. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for a pleasant experience. When DeNiro, on their, yells at Liza and tells her to forcefully sit down, she still sticks around in order to duet with him and launch their success. The audience is left wondering why she's still there.

Does every movie have to be pleasant?  No.  But, almost 3 hours of a movie asking us to celebrate the success of both DeNiro and Minelli while also showing how ugly these characters are goes way past the point. At 2.75 hours, New York, New York is also longer than most of the movies that Scorsese references. Blue Skies is 104 minutes long. Meet Me in St Louis is 108 minutes. Singin' in the Rain is 103 minutes. Only Judy Garland's A Star is Born runs longer at 176 minutes. All of those movies have characters that are infinitely more pleasant and makes it easy to embrace the musical. In New York, New York, the audience finds itself rooting for everybody to die so we can meet some people who are interesting, or at least likable.

This isn't What's Love Got To Do With It? or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore where Scorcese is critiquing DeNiro's character. This isn't even 1980's Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is shown as an emotionally self-destructive character and the wives are actually collateral in the destruction. The abuse in New York, New York is shown to be part and parcel of DeNiro's sleazeball character that people put up with.

Scorsese actually does succeed in one thing, however. He succeeds in recreating the look and style of many of the movies he is directly referencing. His use of studio backlots, and closed sound stages captures the old feeling of movies that used to evoke feelings of happiness and joy. His use of Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, doubles down on those references. If you just watch it as an essay on other films, you may have a better time. But, even for that, 163 minutes is a long fucking time to be watching a montage of other films.

Scorsese even has an 11 minute sequence called Happy Endings, where the cocaine literally ends up on the screen in the titles of the musicals Liza is fantasizing about being in. Happy Endings is bizarre as it is a fantasy within a fantasy that ends up as a fantasy and rolls between reality, dreams, stage, and screen. It is just incomprehensible unless you realize it is practically a commentary on Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin' In The Rain which was, itself, a commentary on long musical sequences that existed in the other movies.

So, what are we left with?  163 minutes of joyous spousal abuse and talent leading to successful careers in a movie that is actually an essay on other movies. If that's what you want to watch, then this movie is probably successful. It's not a poorly constructed movie. But, the core goal of the film is a cocaine-addled failure of a goal. Making any movie where you're supposed to be rooting for mean-spirited assholes and naive nitwits is bad enough (most recently, this was embodied by Bachelorette), but then making a 3 hour journey? It tempts one to live in a forest.

Scorsese never made another musical. Thank God.

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