Escape in New York

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In 1975, a group of proto-Helen Lovejoys called the Council for Public Safety, comprising, in part, police and firefighters, conspired to pass out copies of a scary-ass pamphlet they created in an effort to keep tourists away from New York City. The group, whose jocular name sort of belied its dubious methods, stamped the words “Welcome to Fear City” on its less-than-subtle literature, which was also festooned with a skull. The list of suggestions for surviving your trip to New York, should you still choose to go after reading the myriad ways in which the city could kill you and your children, included: Do not go out after 6:00 p.m.; Do not walk; Do not take public transportation; and Conceal your belongings. The pamphlet never made it out of the embryonic phase, however, as cooler heads prevailed.

As with Ed Koch’s suggestion of siccing feral wolves on graffiti artists to keep the subways clean, the unrealized pamphlet didn’t need to exist in a corporeal form to have an impact. Its onerous, oneiric idea of modern New York eventually manifest in a low-budget film crafted by misanthrope par excellence John Carpenter, who conjured one of the iconic nightmare visions of Manhattan as a concrete hellscape. With its penal-colony-as-purgatory depiction of Manhattan, Escape From New York encapsulated outsiders’ worst fears about the city that never sleeps, at the apex of its most violent era. And yet, as memorable a dystopian vision as Carpenter conjured, the film wasn’t actually shot in New York. It was the product of sound stages and forced perspective, a sci-fi film that created a faux New York instead of capturing the real one. It’s the work of an outsider at whom the Fear City pamphlet was aimed.

Martin Scorsese, lifelong New Yorker, is a more accurate chronicler of the Big Apple and its rotten core. Scorsese (born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen) spent the first half of his career depicting New York as a writhing pit of the damned, rife with piss-colored taxis, whorls of smoke, and child prostitutes on every street corner. From Taxi Driver to Bringing Out the Dead, the war-waging nationalists in Gangs of New York to the star-fucking lunatics in The King of Comedy, Scorsese has done more to depict New York as a metropolitan purgatory than anyone else. Though he tended to increasingly favor the grand and mythic as his clout dilated and technology advanced (compare Hugo or The Aviator to Raging Bull or Mean Streets), Scorsese made one of his weirdest, most intimate pictures in the mid 1980s, between the initially-derided, now-adored King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ (which is notably not set in New York). In his 1985 cult-favorite After Hours, for which he won Best Director honors at Cannes, Scorsese depicts New York as a hodgepodge of coexisting subcultures: the pimps of Taxi Driver are replaced with punks (the mohawk-sporting variety), the gun-wielding gangsters by abstract artists, and the shattered Vietnam vet by a navel-gazing yuppie who unwittingly acts as an agent of gentrification a decade before gentrification became everyone’s favorite buzzword.

After Hours is a great foil to Escape From New York. An apt title could have been Escape in New York, as it follows Griffin Dunne (the “meatloaf” friend in An American Werewolf in London), a word processor and Henry Miller fan, as he desperately tries to make it home one wild night. With his bagel-shaped paperweight and utter ignorance of those around him, he’s at once a pusher of the yuppie nightmare and a victim of the Stygian wasteland of Koch-era New York. After Hours explores the personality of a specific neighborhood, SoHo (south of Houston, for the uninitiated), and portrays the city as a living thing fighting back. The arroyo-alleys of SoHo, slick with rain, are like the tendrils of an asphalt jungle creeping through the cracks of a decrepit man-made structure. Think of a derelict ruin lying dormant in the thralls of a jungle, its crumbling walls penetrated by vines and leafy things. Scorsese treats the city, specifically SoHo, as pushing back against the encroaching yuppification of Regan-Era thirty-somethings. Koch’s famous quote, “You punch me, I punch back,” has become literal.

Dunne’s character, Paul Hackett, acts as our tour guide on this surreal jaunt into New York’s nocturnal happenings. He bounces from person to place to person to place, making friends, losing friends, making enemies and generally being a nuisance. Accompanied by the inimitable Howard Shore’s dreamy cues (Scorsese uses a lot of classical music in the film, so Shore only provided a few themes, each named after the time of night during which they play), we enter a sort of fairy tale nightmare in which Paul becomes trapped. Paul meets a woman named Marcy (Patricia Arquette) in a diner, where they discuss their shared affinity for Henry Miller. Marcy lives with an artist named Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) who makes plaster of paris paperweights that look like cream cheese bagels. Under the pretense of wanting to buy a bagel paperweight, Paul calls up Marcy, who’s going through some stuff, and goes to her apartment. Within a short period of a time he tries (and fails) to seduce Marcy, who just wanted to talk to him about her problems; loses his cash (this in the time before iPhones and online banking); pisses off a cabbie who later refuses to drive him home; and, after meeting a generous bar tender (John Heard) who offers to help, clogs the man’s toilet and floods his apartment. All of this comes back to bite Paul in the dick. Castration is a prominent theme here, and a crude drawing of a shark biting off a man’s massive erection scrawled on a bathroom wall becomes a metaphor for Paul’s horrible night.

Soon enough Marcy, who turns out to be the nice bartender’s girlfriend, has killed herself, leaving the bartender, who has Paul’s keys, despondent. Paul then finds a brief respite from his nightmare when a depressed barmaid who sports a Mad Men-era beehive hairdo offers to help him, until he blows her off, too. By the end of the film, a woman who drives an ice cream truck has riled up an unruly mob that mistakes Paul for a burglar who has been terrorizing their neighborhood. (The burglars are actually Cheech and Chong, of course.)

Almost everyone comes to hate Paul, the sole exception being a lonely middle-aged lady who attempts to aid Paul by sealing him within a paper mâché cocoon, which is then mistaken for abstract art and stolen by Cheech and Chong. The caviling, complaining, better noire Paul remains one of the least likable characters in a Scorsese film, and Scorsese has given us some real pissers. But all of them have some vague redeeming qualities, or in the case of Jake La Motta, are despicable yet undeniably human. Paul is just kind of sleazy, yet you can’t help but feel for the guy. He stands in for the kind of people who moved in to and took over Scorsese’s New York, but who flock to the art-house cinemas in droves. Paul is he and you are me and we are all together. When Paul wants to take the subway but can’t afford the fare (which had been raised just several minutes earlier), it’s like the city’s splaying five fingers across Paul’s face.

Scorsese works within a Koch-era cadre, inserting and welding distinctively New York details into the film while simultaneously playing with outsider expectations. Every New Yorker has, at some point, had to walk a disgusting, foot-blistering number of blocks to get where they’re going. The idea of walking never seems to occur to Paul, who, by the film’s end, can’t even stay on the street under veil of night because every inhabitant of SoHo has set out to kill him. (Happens to the best of us.) The anonymity of New York has dissipated and Paul has become a face plastered on fliers on every wall and every lamp post.

There’s a youthful vigor to After Hours, its misanthropy countered by its zany, meandering mind. It looks and feels like a twenty-something yuppie after too many martinis scratching up his car door as he desperately tries to jam the key in. Sort of a mess but relentless in its vision, it remains the closest Scorsese has ever come to pure surrealism (though Taxi Driver and, to a greater extent, Bringing Out the Dead do explore the dreamscape realm of nocturnal New York). With After Hours, Scorsese crafted his weirdest movie. It lacks the cultural significance and stylistic innovation of his most famous film, yet you never question his mastery. It’s the work of an artist in a transitional phase, incorporating his penchants into a picture not intended for him: Tim Burton had been slated to direct, but gladly stepped aside when Scorsese expressed interest. (What a weird movie that would’ve been.)

Not unlike life in New York, After Hours has a Sisyphean desperation to it. It starts where it ends and ends where it starts, an Ouroboros of a film that leaves the viewer lingering like a people-watching creep staring out the window of an artisan coffee shop. Early in the film, Paul sits in a diner with Marcy (who isn’t yet dead). She tells him a strange story about an ex-boyfriend who, at the climatic moment of coitus, always shouts out “Surrender Dorothy!” The conversation goes nowhere (akin to the film), and yet it lingers like a fine mist. When Paul runs away from the droves of pissed-off New Yorkers whom he’s offended in a multitude of ways, he’s become a Dorothy-type figure, though one left without a Scarecrow or Tin Man as a cohort. Is this odd homage to The Wizard of Oz some sort of metaphor? Or a political joke? Or a comment on then-current events? No, it’s just a weird digression in a film made up of weird digressions. But maybe that’s the best metaphor for New York, which is really just a city of entangled digressions. Paul ends up back at the office, where he brushes the dirt off his shoulders, Jay Z-style, and gets back to work, undaunted, as if he’d experienced nothing more than a heavy night of drinking at some dive bar. That’s the brilliance of After Hours: some crazy fucking shit happens one night, and the next morning none of it matters


Greg Cwik writes, often about movies, sometimes for money. He’s a regular contributor to Vulture and Indiewire, and his work also appears in The Believer Magazine, Slant, Sound on Sight, Movie Mezzanine, and elsewhere. THE SOPRANOS > THE WIRE.