New York, New York: an SDMB musical thread

I have spent a lot of time thinking about* New York New York *since I watched it for the first time several days ago. On paper, it should be a movie that I love. It stars Robert De Niro as he was cresting the peak of his sizable abilities as a actor; it’s full of great music from the big band era; it’s directed by Martin Scorsese, one of my favorite directors working in one of his most creative periods; it’s a character study with a sense of style; I could go on and on because really there is nothing about this movie that I shouldn’t like. But I don’t like it. The pieces don’t quite fit together and at the end of the day I don’t think that it works.

I appreciate what I think Scorsese was trying to do here. In the intro on the DVD he says that this was his first “Hollywood” movie after making a bunch of independent movies in New York, and that as such he wanted to make something that was reminiscent of the old Golden Age movies he grew up on. He wanted the style, the exaggerated beauty and color of those films, but at the same time he wanted to bring to it that same naturalistic sense of reality that he had used so well in films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver. And I thought to myself while I was watching it, “that sounds really interesting!” After watching New York New York, I think…why? What works about that? What is the point? In the end the only thing that the mixing of the styles did was to dilute them both. The naturalism was undermined by the style, and the style was made to look silly because of the naturalism.

But, it was a starting point for Scorsese. He was later able to balance these ideas quite effectively and push through creating his own unique sense of hyper reality that would be seen in films like Casino, The Age of Innocence, Bringing Out the Dead, and Gangs of New York, to name a few. So from that perspective, it is interesting to watch a director start to abandon the neo-Cassavetes style he had be working with and begin to find his own voice. It’s a struggle, and at times a bit painful to watch, but it is a start.

Beyond that stylistic stumbling block though, was the story. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found myself totally unable to engage with the characters. Jimmy Doyle is a bastard, Francine is a whiner and I can’t for the life of me understand why they stayed together as long as they did. As a character study of the two people and their relationship, I found myself totally unable to care about them or their problems. It is possible that had I not seen so many other films with essentially the same characters and plotlines already (many of which quite probably came after New York New York, but certainly not all of them) I would have been more interested, but like the stylistic choices the story seemed to me more homage than a story and was undermined by the knowing wink back to the films of old. The expressionistic bits, like the couple dancing under the streetlight in the beginning of the film, while beautiful, are a little on the nose in terms of metaphor and make the whole endeavor feel just a bit trite.

I wanted to like this movie, and came close to liking it even, I think. I PMd **twickster **after I finished watching it to tell her that I wouldn’t be able to write this OP on the 15th like I was supposed to and mentioned that I hadn’t decided if I had liked it yet. There is a lot of good stuff in the film, but at the end of the day if feels more like an experiment than a film, and the center doesn’t hold. It’s missing something genuine that gives it life and spark and ends up being just an experiment, an interesting idea that doesn’t quite work out the way the film makers intended.

God, I know what you mean. I watched it Saturday night and I’m still sorting out what I want to say about it! Will respond tonight.

This musical bored me-- I picked it up this summer more or less at random at the library. Most movies that I did that with turned out well, but this one bored me so much that I think I ended up reading during it rather than knitting. It’s not impossible that I picked it up during one of my knitting/viewing binges and so I might have enjoyed it more under other circumstances, but I don’t recall it being interesting enough to want to try it again.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The effect was sort of like Pennies from Heaven - supercamp musical numbers filling the air with cotton candy, then back to a dead, humorless storyline that sucks the air out with the cotton candy. Irony all around, but you don’t dare make anything of it.

Outstanding OP, NAF. I’ll probably end up repeating a bunch of your points, but here are my thoughts:

This movie was way, way, way too fucking long. I started looking at my watch about 45 minutes into it – which isn’t good when I knew I still had 2 hours to go at that point. In hour two, I started mentally picking things that could have come out without any damage at all. (Remember that scene where Francine is in the apt. waiting for Jimmy, and there’s that Douglas Sirk closeup of her eyes? That would be one.) In hour three, I started speculating what Scorsese might create from it if he re-edited it now, 30 years later. (The next day I checked out Ebert’s review, which mentioned that the 2:45 version was edited down from four hours… yikes!)

Like NAF, I watched Scorsese’s intro, which helped, actually – at least I knew what he was trying to do, whether or not he did it. I loved the retro visuals – the eyeball searing colors – in certain scenes – like that one in the Harlem nightclub when he’s at the bottom of the stairs pretending to talk on the phone. Or the shot when he signs over the band in those little cabins … or something like that, there was so damn much of so little interest that it’s hard to keep it straight.

Clearly Scorsese adores the post-war movies, and there was a lot of love in the homage to them … but not all of it was worth homaging. Montages? I’m sorry, I don’t care. Leave 'em out.

Did I mention the movie was too frigging long? FTR, the movies between 1945 and 1955 that he’s homaging are, for the most part, under two hours – checking my DVD shelf real quickly, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Kiss Me Kate, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – all under two hours. Guys and Dolls is almost 2.5 – but it has Brando at his absolute most luscious, and some good dancing. Hell, all of those movies have a lot of serious dancing in them and bring it in at a far brisker pace.

Clearly, Scorsese was out to evoke A Star Is Born, to the point that I started getting confused about whether Liza Minnelli had ever done a version of it. (Nope, that was her mom, and/or the Streisand version … which I’ve never seen, BTW.) The problem was, however, as NAF points out, that Jimmy was a total freaking asshole. I started wondering if some point was being made about Francine’s self-esteem or lack thereof, her shall-we-call-them-“unconventional leading lady”-looks, or whatever, that she would be vulnerable to the blandishments of such a man because no one else would hit on her. Then I started wondering if I was being a bitch for wondering that. Then I started wondering why I was watching a movie that spent 2:45 on a couple that I had no idea why they were together. My god, what an asshole Jimmy was. That bothered me far more than the dishrag Francine was.

Oh, by the way – the movie was too long. The whole “movie within the movie” at the end could have come out wholesale.

On the ending – do you think she thought Jimmy had stood her up (Ebert’s interpretation), or do you think she thought better of meeting him (my interpretation, as I was watching, insofar as I was interpreting as I was counting down the seconds till it was all over – 'cause, yanno, I thought the movie was kind of long)?

Well let’s give this a bump and then let it die. I will assume that no one else was able to sit through the whole thing and I wouldn’t blame you really.

The thing that kills me is that there are flashes of a great movie in here, but that might even make things worse. Seeing something come close to being good and then just falling flat is sometimes harder to handle than something that just never had a chance of being good.

It’s been aeons since I saw New York, New York, and I agree with opinions expressed here. One thing I will say is that I LOVE the soundtrack (with the exception of the title song – I would be quite happy if I never heard it again.)

Good assumption.

In all our years of going to the movies, this is the only one Mrs. J. and I both walked out on.

Boring boring boring. But lavishly so.

Oh well. Where’s frikkin’ Archive Guy? Didn’t we establish that he picked this turkey? <-- seasonal humor

Did anyone try to watch it for this discussion and give up before the end? At what point did you give up? What was the tipping point? Was there anything you liked?

What did you think of the movie as a evocation of the period between 1945 and 1955? Was evoking that period Scorsese’s intention – or was evoking the movies of that period more important to him?

I’m just hoping we’re not killing the musicals group with this choice …

Sorry, everyone, but I’d been resolved to not particpate in any thread without revisiting the movie first, which explains my absence from several very worthy discussions (since my extended travelling and work commitments have created a sizable screening backlog).

Still, if there was one movie I was not looking forward to actually watching again, it was this one. I think there are few things I could add that haven’t already been astutely observed by twick and the OP, but I’ll echo the various frustrations conveyed here.

The biggest hurdle to embracing this movie is Jimmy. It’s interesting that this performance is bookended by the remarkable Travis Bickle & Jack La Motta, courtesy of DeNiro/Scorsese, but while those are equally ugly and unsympathetic personas, they are still compelling characters with complex psyches and motivations, and the trajectory of their arcs are interesting (as well as devastating).

But Jimmy is horrible while still being one-dimensional. His insecurities and jealousies all seem so boilerplate, and his loyalties and convictions (to his music, to Francine) seem fickle without ever being believable. Liza is better, but is given almost nothing to work with. Why is she with him? What about him makes him so attractive? His “charm” only comes off as hostile and irritating, and his emotional moments always seem so fleeting and transparent. It should be easy to convey some kind of hook (in his charisma or her neuroses) that makes their relationship convincing–especially given the sexual politics of that period–but we never see it.

And this has been addressed already, but the evocation of the period is wrongwrongwrong. I haven’t seen the Scorsese intro (I’m basing this on a theatrical screening a few years ago), but it seems obvious that he was trying to emulate the visual feel of the period while toughening up the narrative. But because the film rarely feels like it’s anything more than a period recreation, the burden falls on the dramatic aspects to ground the film, and those also seem false or formulaic, too. I’m glad twick brought up Sirk because while his films were stunning to look at and meticulously stylized, they were also psychologically real and rooted in real conflict and emotion–especially pain, loss, and romanticism, all qualities that NYNY wants to evoke but can only give lip service to.

So no doubt, the film is indeed gorgeous to look at (this is the only film the legendary László Kovács shot for Scorsese), but in a perpetually distracting way. Just compare it to Scorsese’s The Aviator (a far from perfect film) to see how he could evoke 40s/50s glitz and glamour visual stylings and make it feel organic and not overly reference-y. But NYNY seems in love with the genre but has nothing but contempt and pity for its characters. By the time the climactic song comes around (which remains, along with “Happy Endings”, one of the highlights of the film), what should be an emotional peak and catharsis is stunted by everything that’s come before it–all the plot developments and character “revelations” that left me indifferent or impatient.

I’d have to characterize it as one of Scorsese’s genuine failures, and perhaps it’s unfortunate that, aside from documentaries, he’s never revisited this genre that he so obviously adores and holds dear–although, one might make a case that films like Mean Streets and GoodFellas are musicals in the way he lovingly choreographs movement and action to popular and contemporary songbooks (both standards and obscurities). But NYNY feels like a guy who wanted to make a musical out of affection, but didn’t really know what to do once he was knee-deep. The obvious artificiality that one associates with the musical always had some type of cinematic rationale–even if it was simply a love for spectacle or exuberance of fantasy fulfillment. But NYNY’s artificiality is neither effectively commenting nor complementing anything else that’s going on onscreen, so its facile emptiness is even more conspicuous.

It’s a labored (but never lazy) film, and difficult to sit through because all our worst fears about what to expect, once we’ve been introduced to the players and the play, are fully realized eventually. The reason I suggested this film (ages ago) was because I thought it would be interesting to hold a mirror up to a movie that aches for something in the grand studio tradition–particularly from someone so gifted and so steeped in that history–but lacks the heart that makes all good musicals (for those of us who love them) worthwhile. I apologize if the experience was too big of a buzzkill (and I really do plan on reviving a few of the other threads soon, as well).

I think it was a good idea actually. And having forced myself to sit through the whole thing and think up what I wanted to say on it for the OP was also enlightening. As an excersize I think it’s a good one. I didn’t like the film, but I am glad I watched it. It does provide a good mirror.

I’ve seen this movie several times, and tried very hard not to be disappointed by it. But I’ve failed. Scorsese has said that the single movie that has influenced his visual style the most is Meet Me in St. Louis, with its complex tracking shots and lighting sequences. This influence is easily seen in NYNY. And while it clearly evokes A Star Is Born, I think another Judy Garland vehicle that informs it even more is her final film,* I Could Go on Singing*, in which she plays a popular singer who has a great deal of difficulty balancing the burdens of her public career and her tragically screwed up private life. It seems pretty clear to me that Scorsese made this film a Liza Minnelli vehicle in homage to her parents. But I agree, that his strategy of attempting to marry the aesthetics of Golden Age Hollywood with the rhetoric of the 70s’ revolution in independent (post Italian neo-realist) film doesn’t work. His reverence for that heightened visual style was actually more effective in Taxi Driver, with its saturated reds and deep, deep blacks, than in NYNY, where he seemed more consciously committed to the homage.

And. If Liza had died right after this movie, she’d be like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean: a legend cut down in her prime. Too bad she survived to become old and crazy. But *Cabaret *is a masterpiece, and she carries her weight in that movie, without question. And she got out of her part in NYNY everything, I think, that anyone could have. Although at times her character reminded me of Lana Turner in Sirk’s Imitation of Life, whose sole function–according to Fassbinder–was to be surprised by everything that happened to her.

ArchiveGuy, lissener, thanks for checking in – I found both of your posts thought-provoking, as always. And despite my bitching at you, AG, I don’t necessarily think the movie was a bad choice – those of us who actually made it through it obviously found a lot to think about. As we all seem to agree – I so wanted to like this film, for so many reasons, and just couldn’t – for so many reasons.

(FTR: I moved Shine a Light up in my Netflix queue after returning this – it came today and I’ll watch it in the next day or so. Should be an interesting contrast.)