On Screen: Bites Out of the Big Apple

New York Stories

Written by Richard Price, Francis and Sofia Coppola, and Woody Allen

Directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Woody Allen

Reviewed by Richard Alleva

When Norman  Mailer campaigned for mayor of New York City more than fifteen years ago, he ran on the singularly radical, clownish, and insightful principle that the city he offered to lead was no longer a city. The boroughs, he declared, even the very neighborhoods had become cities in themselves, each crying out for a police force, an architecture, street lighting, a business community, an urban philosophy, and a moral ethos distinctly its own. Acknowledge this fact, he told the voters, and let us free ourselves from Albany. Let New York City be regarded as a state and all its boroughs become towns with their own charters. Mailer for mayor? How unambitious. Mailer for governor! And all power to the neighborhoods!

Several men were in the running that year. Mailer didn’t come in last.

No matter what you think of the Mailer platform, give yourself a little test. New York City: what images or memories come to your mind? And now, do these mental pictures cohere into a profile or do they clash so violently as to cancel each other out? If the latter, do not pretend that all big, important cities have that effect. Chicago is big and important, but, no matter how peculiar my experiences have been in it, my conception of Chicago as a blue-collar, windswept, big-shouldered, racially troubled, joyfully rude place of precinct captains, pool halls, and slaughterhouses isn’t much different from the conceptions of thousands of others, of those who have lived there all their lives and of those who have merely read Carl Sandburg and Upton Sin-clair.

But New York City has always been too big and too multi- layered to be grasped as a whole by novelists, playwrights and moviemakers. When Carol Reed and Graham Greene made The Third Man, they defined Vienna for an entire generation. Dickens defined London for more than a century. But no story-teller has ever staked the entirety of New York as his exclusive claim, not Henry James or Edith Wharton, not even 0. Henry, who called one of his books The Four Million (the number of stories he thought New York contained) but set his tales in a handful of contiguous neighborhoods. Powerful writers can encompass entire cities for their raw material. But nobody takes more than a bite out of the Big Apple.

The first two of the three short films that comprise New York Stories take very small bites indeed, and only the first is thoroughly chewed. Both are set in such rigidly self-enclosed atmospheres that you may have to conclude that Mailer was right: how can these two sets of characters be subject to the same laws as the rest of the city’s populace? What leader could satisfy all groups? It would be like asking Eskimos and gondoliers to live under the same rule. But the third story —the Woody Allen segment —makes light of the multifariousness of New York. Using his all too seldom exercised gift for comic fantasy, Allen turns the entire city into a backyard in which a small boy cannot escape the all-seeing gaze of his monstrously loving and inescapable Jewish mother.

The Martin Scorsese episode, “Life Lessons,” is about the painful pressures that produce art, but here we are far away, spiritually, from Puccini’s bohemians starving gallantly in garrets so that they can beautifully capture bits of the world on their canvasses. Lionel Dobie is a very successful action painter who will never starve but who needs the roiling emotions that rejected love gives him. This is an artist who can only function in a state of fever, and it is sexual obsession and obsession’s concomitant jealousy that make his temperature soar. This isn’t a subconscious drive. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense to speak of the subconscious in connection with this huge, growling, life-mauling man who paints with rock music turned up to maximum volume in his loft, with paint splashed all over his glasses and his hairy chest. The way Nick Nolte plays him (brilliantly), Dobie is a walking id.

By a combination of begging and skillful emotional extortion, Dobie manipulates his former student -secretary – mistress (Roseanna Arquette) into returning to his Soho apartment-studio. He promises that the living arrangement will be platonic; that she will be a free agent in his flat; that he will feed, shelter, and teach her for absolutely no payment of any kind. So she moves in —the offer of living space in New York is the equivalent of a tiara encrusted with diamonds in any other time and place —and Dobie immediately starts doing all his old numbers on the girl.

He doesn’t molest her sexually, true, but he molests her soul. He badgers her about where she is going, whom she’s seeing, etc. He pressures her into going to fetes in his honor where she can only be regarded as his appendage. He starts trying to tidy up the remains of her shattered affair with a performance artist. He uses psychobabble to analyze her (“You can’t love me because you don’t love yourself,” etc.). He fetishizes her body parts (“Nothing personal,” he mutters when she indignantly withdraws her foot from his caress). He fills the studio with his canvasses, his music, and his energy so that there is no space or quiet in it for her to work. Even his one point of honesty with her, his refusal to lie about artistic matters, hurts her because, when she implicitly asks for praise, his silence lets her know that she’s not progressing.

Finally she walks out on him and, not surprisingly, he doesn’t stop her. After all, she has served her purpose. His current show has the requisite number of canvasses (all of them apparently inspired by her) and he’s ready to move on to a new phase of his art for which he will need a new belle dame sans merci. He finds the replacement at his show’s opening: a gorgeous brunette with a particularly interesting neck. The camera follows Dobie’s gaze along the curve of this beauty’s upper torso as he starts fantasizing about the lines he will draw on his future canvasses.

“Life Lessons” is a hard little movie about the more sinister aspects of the artistic temperament. Scorsese enjoys a big advantage over previous filmmakers who have tried to portray the artistic process in that, by choosing an artist like Dobie as his protagonist, he doesn’t have to pre-tend that he’s dramatizing the life of a great mind and spirit as Carol Reed tried (and failed) with Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy and Vincente Minelli tried (and failed) with Van Gogh in Lust for Life. Dobie’s way of seeing things isn’t going to affect the vision of a significant number of educated people all over the world. He’s clearly just another hot-shot action painter, who’s acquired the right agents and dealers and accountants and who knows how to throw his weight around in the circles that count. Within the narrowly circumscribed world of Chelsea he’s a “star,” and his stardom is a consequence of his energy —the energy that pours into his conversation, lechery, and brawling as much as into his art — and not of the effect his art has on the world at large.

Therefore, Scorsese doesn’t have to show the creation of lasting beauty; he has to show only the expenditure of energy. And this he does in the scenes in which Dobie attacks his work all through the night, spraying, squirting, dribbling, brushing. Scorsese never shows us a clear, lengthy view of an entire painting but instead zeroes in on the segments with which Dobie is presently engaged, and then intercuts what is taking shape on canvas with Dobie’s memory of some curve of his mistress’s leg or elbow or foot. The result is abstract art, all right, but its roots are just as much in female anatomy as a Rubens nude. I don’t know if critics of abstract art would approve of Scorsese’s notion of it, and I don’t care. While watching this film, I was sufficiently convinced I was seeing sexual energy and self-imposed frustration being converted into art.

Scorsese’s other triumph in this movie is an unexpected one. This short, rather heated film is, morally, very judiciously weighted. Because Dobie is the real manipulator of the love-hate affair, it’s important that we not be so repulsed by him that we cease wanting to watch him. So Scorsese gives Nick Nolte most of the funny lines and even allows him a certain quixotic gallantry. Poor Roseanna Arquette plays the girl well enough but the script forces her to brood and whine too much. Some of her verbal and sexual taunting of Dobie is unpleasant to watch and so, by reflex, we may sympathize with him. Yet Scorsese never lets us forget completely who has instigated the little Sartrean hell that the ex-lovers inhabit, and who ultimately benefits from it. “I don’t love you and I never will,” Arquette insolently declares. Nolte shrugs, “So what.” We may smile at what seems like taciturn gallantry. But beware. He means it. He has no interest in her emotions. For the painter, this young woman is just fuel. Tanked up on the strange pleasure her antipathy gives him, he can paint through the night. And these paintings will make this shaggy artist-destroyer king of that one little patch of New York that matters to him: the Chelsea world of lofts, galleries, performance spaces and fashionable bars, where the rich dress like bohemians and the bohemians are only occasionally artists.

Coppola’s “Life Without Zoe” features a part of New York just as enclosed as the Chelsea of “Life Lessons.” It is the expensive East Side through which a little rich girl wanders with lots of pocket money. She is the daughter of a world – famous, globe-trotting flautist and a world-famous, globe-trot-ting photographer. The story consists of Zoe’s attempts to bring her estranged parents together by transferring a jewel given to her father by the wife of a fabulously wealthy and jealous sheik back into the hands of . . . No, whom am I kidding? There is no story. And whom was Coppola kidding when he made this lushly photographed turkey? His producers? If so, they had the sense to package “Zoe” in between Scorsese’s nastily interesting piece and Woody Allen’s genial fantasy. I couldn’t help wishing, for the first time in my life, that a new film were already a video cassette. Then I could fast forward through Coppola’s folly, and life would be ever so much less boring without Zoe.

John Simon once wrote of Thornton Wilder’s plays that “they have an inverse- Antaean quality: the closer down to earth they get, the weaker they are.” I believe that’s also true of Woody Allen’s films. His exercises in the fey, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo and his segment of New York Stories, “Oedipus Wrecks,” show him liberated from the grim, pseudo-Bergman thrashings of his “realistic” movies Interiors and September. Yet the early scenes of Wrecks are deceptively banal and plodding. A nice Jewish corporation lawyer, Sheldon Mills (nee Millstein) brings his shiksa girlfriend home to meet his mother. Naturally, the old woman nags him about the mess he’s making of his life. The lawyer brings both women to a magic show where the mother is invited up on stage to serve as the subject of a disappearing act.

An unconscious smile forms on Sheldon’s face as his mother steps into the prestidigitator’s contraption. We know what he can’t help wishing would happen. It happens. Neither the magician nor a private detective can bring the mother back from the void, and the lawyer compounds his wishful share in the catastrophe by too quickly telling the detective to desist from the search. His punishment comes almost immediately. His mother, magnified about a thousand times, appears above the Manhattan skyline, a vantage point that not only allows her to follow her son’s comings and goings, but gives her access to a whole new audience —all of New York City— for complaints about her son. The poor lawyer, not only unable to escape the apotheosized nagger but also a prey of the press and the butt of sarcastic comments from anyone who recognizes him, flees to a medium for advice. The for-tune teller is a phony spiritualist but a true Jewish housewife-in-the-making. After his mortified WASP fiancée ditches Sheldon, the fortune teller takes her place as his fiancée. At that point, the mother, realizing that her son is finally marrying a woman who is virtually a youthful clone of herself, comes back down to earth and blesses the upcoming nuptials.

Only in the final scene of homecoming, by watching the changing expressions on Woody’s face as he studies the two women cozying up, do we really understand the full import of the conclusion. Allen is suggesting that it is not marriage or fatherhood that Jewish mothers, and by extension all powerful mothers, grudge their sons. What they do frown upon is any basic change of character. After all, if Mom has brought up her son to be a certain sort of human being, why should he want to change? Marriage must continue childhood rather than encourage adulthood. And this Oedipus, discovering that he is, in effect, marrying his mother, accepts his fate not with eye-gouging or cries unto heaven, but with a shrug. Allen has become a most charming fatalist.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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