“What do you want from me? What have I done? I’m just a word processor for Christ’s sake!”
While mob stories and various explorations of masculinity seem to be Scorsese’s forte, the films in which these themes are overly present make only a rather limited selection of the Queens-born director’s extensive filmography. The individual impact of Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and so on requires no emphasis, but it is surely impossible to ignore that Scorsese has indeed tried his hand at nearly every genre going. This includes his particular brand of dark comedy – a subgenre Scorsese seems to be especially adroit in having produced two near-flawless, albeit overlooked, examples.
Though he recently returned to dark comedy with the vulgarity-entrenched The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), this article will be examining The King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1985) – a pair of much darker comedies Scorsese directed back-to-back that, although being stylistically and thematically dissimilar to each other, were both seemingly engineered to inspire amusement and unease in roughly equal measures. Whereas The King of Comedy’s dark comedy emanates largely from its mordant satire of certain aspects of popular culture, After Hours’ comes mostly from its panic-stricken pace and series of surreal entrapments its luckless protagonist experiences.
THE KING OF COMEDY
After the mentally-unstable John Hinckley, Jr. saw Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, he unwisely thought he could impress Jodie Foster by attempting to assassinate then-President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. The shocking and bizarre nature of this event clearly resonates throughout The King of Comedy as it places us with the celebrity-obsessed aspiring stand-up comedian, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro).
Although Pupkin’s comedic aspirations are genuine, it is evident that he is more interested in fame and the celebrity lifestyle of his idols, particularly the talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford (played extremely close to home by Jerry Lewis as the aloof veteran of publicity). It is evident that Pupkin – despite ultimately being the villain of the film in some respects – is quite a tragic character who simply yearns for affirmation and recognition of any kind but whose savoir faire has been worn down considerably by years of loneliness and rejection, sharing company only with people of a similarly maladjusted frame of mind. The film forces us to take on his perspective on several occasions which is a jarring place to be.
Pupkin fantasises about being best of friends with Langford but the film allows little distinction between reality and imaginary situations that have been concocted in his head. An early scene in which a hopeful Pupkin accosts Langford in his limo and offers to take him to dinner cuts nonchalantly to a scene in which the both of them are in a restaurant discussing work. Despite Langford rejecting Pupkin’s offer in the previous scene, it would not be too hurried to assume that Pupkin may have actually coerced Langford off-screen into having dinner with him. It is only when we see that Pupkin is in fact acting out the scenario in his basement – speaking and laughing for both he and Langford – do we realise that the restaurant scene was pure Pupkin-fantasy. Later on, he instils further concern by holding a conversation with cardboard cut-outs of Liza Minnelli and Langford in his basement. In another context – or lesser hands – these scenes could have been twisted into purely comical moments as they outwardly appear, but instead each of Pupkin’s delusions appear exactly as they should: creepy.
Pupkin’s fantastical relationship with Langford seems to be based purely on love and hate; he admires and desires everything that Langford is, but he also envies him greatly for the same reason. A scene that cuts to the core of this contradiction is when Pupkin shows up uninvited at Langford’s house – falsely assuming a mutual friendship between them – only to be told to leave by an exasperated Langford which Pupkin tries to deflect with glib attempts at humour. It is only when Langford is forced to verbal hostility that Pupkin reveals his underlying contempt towards him. Additionally, the scene reflects the prominent tone of the entire film by walking a fine line between that of farce and explosive violence without granting a release to either – precisely where the film’s inescapable discomfort comes from. For the sheer level of awkwardness, it remains one of the most unsettling scenes Scorsese ever directed.
As it offered a foresight and an insight into the seductive yet repellent world of showbiz and fame, The King of Comedy remains one of the most acute cinematic reflections of culture there has ever been. It foreshadows today’s infatuation with celebrity by sublimating the John Hinckley, Jr. incident into a darkly comedic fiction that seems only too real. Langford is a figure of worship to Pupkin – just as Foster was to Hinckley, Jr. – despite him possessing all the “foibles and traps” of anyone else (as Langford declares himself). Hence, it is obvious that Pupkin only loves what he imagines Langford to be, what he is only able to see from observing his charismatic persona that the media projects. That is what Pupkin ultimately covets: the idealised lifestyle of fame. That he resorts to kidnapping Langford prefigures today’s world of social media in which anyone willing to abandon their dignity and record themselves doing something dangerous, stupid or disgusting can instantly become YouTube famous – if even for ’15 minutes’. In hindsight, Pupkin’s immortal send-off at the end of his anticipated stand-up routine, “Better to be king for a night that schmuck for a lifetime”, has never seemed more prescient.
Just as the John Hinckley, Jr. debacle had clearly found its way into The King of Comedy, it was more mental anguish that somewhat shaped Scorsese’s next movie, After Hours.
As it turned out, audiences barely responded to Scorsese’s first attempt at a comedy as The King of Comedy proved to be a rather costly and dispiriting flop. His next film was to be his pet-project, The Last Temptation of Christ, but after the production fell through, Scorsese was allegedly on the verge of quitting filmmaking altogether. However, when a script called ‘Lies’ (which later became After Hours) – a dark, paranoid, New York-set comedy that only required a small budget – landed on his desk, he didn’t dismiss it as the foolish toss-off most saw it to be. Instead, he sympathised with the protagonist’s interminable quandary and also felt that directing the film might be the jolt he and his career needed. It would be a choice that would take him back to his filmmaking roots and ultimately rekindle his love for the medium.
In After Hours, Griffin Dunne stars as Paul Hackett – a man with a mind-numbingly boring word processing job and an equally humdrum night awaiting him in his uptown flat – who takes a taxi into the night streets of Lower Manhattan hoping for an adventurous fling with an attractive woman he encountered in a café. However, Paul soon realises that he is getting much more than he bargained for as he finds himself stranded in a labyrinthine urban hell with its own built-in chaos-prone logic, full of avant-garde lunatics seemingly intent on prolonging his endless persecution.
What at first appears to be a haphazard string of bad luck for Paul soon escalates into an unexplainable, interconnected nightmare of Jobian suffering. His last $20 dollar bill blows out of the taxi into the street, the woman he meets from the café (Rosanna Arquette) turns out to be a little unhinged and the subway fare has escalated beyond what his little change can afford him. But all of this seems pretty trivial and incidental compared with what soon follows for Paul. He soon finds himself being chased by an irate mob of New Yorkers who have mistaken him for a thief, he almost has his head shaved by a gang of punks in a nightclub, all before being encased in papier-mâché among other comical yet considerably traumatic circumstances. Paul’s misery is inescapable, capable of inciting some rather cautious laughter at his plight simply because no one on Earth can be this unlucky. New York City certainly is an assault on the senses but this is a hefty price for a guy who just wanted to get laid.
Unlike the static camerawork and often minimal editing of The King of Comedy (employed to reflect talk show television of the ‘70s and ‘80s), After Hours is much more frantic and kinetic in its cinematography and composition which employs lunging camera work, numerous awkwardly angled shots, sped-up footage and rapid-fire editing. It’s a similar style to what Scorsese would ultimately overuse in Cape Fear (1991) as the stylistic excess undermined any sense of tension, but here it affords the film a desperate, ultra-caffeinated pace that drags Paul unwillingly through every scene making him appear more and more like the punchline of an enormous cosmic joke, almost as if the film itself is conspiring against him.
Other darkly humorous moments and intrinsic details add to the film’s aura of pervasive paranoia, desperation and sheer weirdness. Simple things like: Paul’s pen running out of ink as he is attempting to jot down a phone number, doors being mysteriously locked behind him and alarming graffiti depicting a shark biting a guy’s dick off (perhaps reflecting Paul’s frequent emasculation at the hands of women). Dunne also seems to have been filmed in such a way that makes him appear smaller onscreen as if he is slowly shrinking into the dark SoHo environment and Howard Shore’s score is built upon the foreboding sound of a clock ticking – both of which contribute to After Hours’ anxiety-ridden perfection.
Similarly to how watching The King of Comedy feels like being in the presence of a sociopath, After Hours effectively transports its audience into the mind of its increasingly manic protagonist. Paul’s growing anxiety and paranoia is reflected in ours, similarly to how an audience may identify with the final girl’s terror as she runs from the killer in a slasher film. Even when the film is over – complete with its sublimely surreal yet exquisitely simple conclusion – like Paul, we have to dust off and gather our thoughts as to what has just happened. But crucially, unlike The King of Comedy, After Hours frees us from the torment – we are not left feeling encumbered by pent-up emotions that require release.
- Liam Hathaway