Released in 1989, New York Stories is an omnibus film, three shorts stitched together by a city. And though two of the directors’ oeuvres are inseparable from the city streets, tenements, and high rises that dot the New York skyline, it is the outsider’s segment that might be the one with the deepest roots in Manhattan.
Moving not in the order they are presented, but in level of success, Life Without Zoe, the middle third, is a trifle. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written by Francis and daughter Sofia, Life Without Zoe is an update of Eloise — Kay Thompson’s book series from the 1950s about a girl who lives in a room on the tippy-top floor of the Plaza Hotel. Stylistically, Life Without Zoe fills the gap between 1940’s Thief of Baghdad — a personal favorite of Francis — and Marie Antoinette, one of Sofia’s strongest works.
Francis’ sister, Talia Shire, stars as Zoe’s mother, and Zoe’s father is played by the incomparable Giancarlo Giannini, a professional flutist who seems one step removed from falling into the role of a pied piper. Heather McComb plays the young Zoe in a performance that bounces back and forth between precocious and obnoxious. The same can be said of the entire segment, which feels less like a movie released and more like a movie escaped.
The final third, Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, is genuinely funny, but unformed. Of the three, Oedipus Wrecks feels the most like a short subject: Pithy and shallow. Here, Sheldon (Allen) is tormented by his overbearing mother (Mae Questel); until they attend a magic show, and Shandu, the magician (George Schindler) inadvertently makes her disappear for good. Her disappearance is more relief than trouble for Sheldon, but when she reappears as a giant apparition in the sky, chatting to every New Yorker who will listen, Sheldon’s life goes from hell to hellacious in the blink of an eye.
There isn’t much to Oedipus Wrecks beyond the surface, but it works. Life Without Zoe looks full but feels empty. In contrast, the segment that opens the anthology, Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons, isn’t just the strongest of the bunch; it’s arguably one of director’s most exuberant works.
Scorsese started the 1980s strong with Raging Bull — his first feature collaboration with editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Then came a string of accomplished works: King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), The Color of Money (1986), a TV episode for Amazing Stories, and the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” And while each has a great deal of merit, they also feel in the realm of work-for-hire. Scorsese long admired the factory production of studio filmmaking, and the above feels like his attempt to join the system.
Then came 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a passion project a decade in the making. Scorsese was back. Every frame of Temptation bleeds Scorsese’s conflict and compassion; adoration and energy — energy that carried over to Life Lessons. Scorsese found making movies fun again.
Life Lessons focuses on Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte), a middle-aged painter with a good deal of success. As a painter, he hasn’t lost a step, but he has lost his muse, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring painter half his age and once his lover.
Though no gun is fired or punch thrown, Life Lessons is one of Scorsese’s more violent films. Quick cuts and fast dollies capture Dobie’s desire and sexual frustration: Desire and frustration than manifests into something ugly on the canvas until it becomes something stunning. Off-screen, you can feel Scorsese’s creative energy bursting forth. Shot by the great Néstor Almendros and edited by Schoonmaker, Life Lessons uses every Scorsese stylistic hallmark without a hint of restraint or self-consciousness. While Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks is overly Freudian, Scorsese’s Life Lessons truly relishes in those urges. One of the short’s most telling moments has Paulette asking for Dobie’s criticism. His remarks are measured at first, but she continues to prod. His response:
What the hell difference does it matter what I think? It’s yours. Meaning, you make art because you have to because you’ve got no choice. So, it’s not about talent; it’s about no choice but to do it. Now, are you any good? Well, you’re 22, so who knows. Who cares? You wanna give it up? If you give it up, you weren’t a real artist to begin with.
Dobie’s words seem to speak for Scorsese — particularly the “no choice but to do it.” They might even fit the other two shorts as well. Yes, the ideas aren’t fully formed, and the stories lack layers and complexities, but each one refuses to sit still. Scorsese was 41 when he made New York Stories; Coppola was 48, and Allen was 52. None were ready to give up, and all were looking for a new gear.
New York Stories
Warner Bros./Buena Vista Pictures, Rated R, Running time 124 minutes, Released March 10, 1989
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber, October 29, 2019
Kino Lorber’s release of New York Stories is of the no-frills kind. The only special feature: the theatrical trailer. But the transfer looks great, and the sound is crystal clear.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Richard Price
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Starring: Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas
Life Without Zoe
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Francis Ford Coppola & Sofia Coppola
Produced by Fred Fuchs
Starring: Heather McComb, Talia Shire, Giancarlo Giannini
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut, Fred Roos
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Mae Questel