Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Review : New York, New York (1977)

Hmm, I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to review this film. I want to try and balance the good aspects with the not so good. I'll see how it goes.

This film is, for one, quite long. Apparently the original was four and a half hours long so director Martin Scorsese had to cut it. Well it went through a series of cuts and then a restoration of extra material, before finally standing at 163 minutes. How did I bare it? I rarely noticed the length, such is the engagement I had with the film.

But engagement doesn't necessarily equal a flawless film experience. I did have issues with the film, mostly because it doesn't move in a typical, familiar way. It's not simply a musical, nor simply a dramatic love story nor simply a comedy (because actually a lot of it is comedic, sometimes awkwardly so--deliberatly I think). It aims to be all and then to transcend genres and be something else.

The film could be what you may call a homage to those technicolour musicals of the 40s and 50s. It has some of the most beautiful colours swirled together and you can just tell that the scenes are taking place on lush, romanticised sets that probably bear little resemblance to New York as it actually was. But at the same time the film wants to express truth and it does this through Liza Minelli (as Francine Evans) and Robert De Niro's (as Jimmy Doyle) tumultous relationship. There's a certain tension between the artifice and the attempted reality of emotions, and I'm not sure if it works. However, I will admit that this tension adds a certain poignancy to the film (it is somewhat reminescent of watching the 1954 version of A Star is Born, starring none other than Liza's mother, Judy Garland).

Another tidbit is the seeming bipolarity (a word?) within the film. It goes through certain hyperactive moments and tries to balance this with more subdued, tender scenes. I'm not sure, but this could partly be because of the following trivia: both Scorsese and Minelli have stated that the dialogue was mostly improvised (though taking cues from the script) to add to the seeming reality of the main characters' relationship. Apparently it was hard to edit these improvisations and still make the film seem like seamless viewing. And so it feels apparent in the film, for when I examine the film as a whole I get some points of disjointedness. But again, I can somehow rebut this by saying that the film becomes truer to real life this way. Sure, we love a flawless film, but they aren't life. If we were to review our lives as a film we wouldn't get such a seamlessness. This is where, as a film New York, New York has room for improvement, but as a piece of reality, it works much better. Interesting that it can become this within the bounds of a lavishly photographed film.

So it turns out that when I get to the bottom of things, the above mentioned aspects of the film don't bother me much at all; they're simply passing observations. Perhaps the uneasiness I really have with the film is Robert De Niro's performance. I'm sure it's written in his character to be a tryhard Joe Cool and to be at times overbearing, arrogant and chauvinistic. However, there were times when I found him to be overdoing it. Maybe this is a feminist's perspective, but one has to ask what Liza's Francine really saw in De Niro's Jimmy. But then it got me thinking that indeed he does have a bit of charm and when he's tender and subdued, he's very likeable. Plus, he's a talented saxophone player which somewhat gels with her singing skills.

And I suppose there's this: in filmdom fantasy, only the most perfect man will do for the heroine. He's got to be effortlessly funny like Cary Grant and never be overbearing. And yet, often as he does, De Niro is attempting here to portray a person, not a movie-star persona. However, unlikeable he can be in this role (sometimes hamming it up), he's being that much more truer to life. In life, nothing moves smoothly, nobody has quite the right lines like in the perfect comedy; and nobody has the right things to say in painful scenes.

And actually I can't deny that there are some scenes where De Niro really excels (in that, rather than getting choppy moments of overacting, you're getting a more complete character), and you feel all at once that he's fading into the background, that he's quite not so successful without Francine. That underneath the Joe Cool act there's a bit of self-loathing. No it's not likely the performance that is going to make it into the top De Niro performances list, but it deserves to be looked at for both its flaws and triumphs.

I think Liza's Francine comes across as much more sympathetic. Her character development is less jagged than De Niro's and we can gradually see her move from wall-flower-ish singer to confident star. She has a notable naturalistic acting (perhaps helped by the improvisations) and her emotion-charged scenes work well. On a somewhat more aesthetic note, she looks quite stunning in the film. I also want to bring attention to her big eyes that are particularly haunting in one close-up scene. Her singing moments are also note-worthy for being in turns entertaining and poignant.

Just by writing this review, I'm starting to see something very special in New York, New York. It's an interesting, bumpy experience (just like Francine and Jimmy's relationship). It made me laugh, cringe, feel uneasy and all the while my eyes received such a treat through the cinematography and art design. An intriguing blend of a film that somehow transports you back to post-war 40s through a 1970s Scorsese lens.

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