Home Video Hovel- New York Stories, by David Bax
In almost every case, the omnibus film is an animal more interesting in conception than in execution. You get various ruminations on the same topic or theme. You get a bigger cast, which often means more stars. And you get plenty of talented filmmakers in one sitting. For these reasons, I’ve sat down to watch multiple examples of this kind of film with high hopes, from Four Rooms to 11’09”01 September 11. Invariably, though, I am reminded that this approach is by its nature going to be uneven. The films are electrified in their best segments and tedious in most others.
1989’s New York Stories is almost perfectly exemplary of the mixed-bag effect of these movies. It contains one great film, one decent film and one awful film.
The film begins with Martin Scorsese’s entry, “Life Lessons,” which is the great film. It opens to the strains of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” as we watch a man in a huge loft painting on an enormous canvas. Or, more correctly, that man is not painting on the canvas. Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte), a noted and successful New York artist, is experiencing some kind of creative block. Soon we begin to get an idea why. His assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), used to also be his lover. Now she’s not anymore but she still occupies a room in his loft. We spend the course of the film watching Lionel become ever more jealous and despondent while using those emotions to rekindle his fervor for his work. Meanwhile, we experience Paulette’s more pragmatic but no more or less deeply felt troubles. Can she, as an aspiring artist, manage to make it in New York? To what extent can she tolerate Lionel in order get her foot in the art world? To what extent should she do so? Watching it again for the first time in years, I was struck by how much of the story is Paulette’s. Nolte is, as he should be, dominant in the frame and in his wounded bear presence. But it’s Arquette with whom we’re meant to relate. I’ll take this opportunity to mention how nice Mill Creek’s Blu-ray looks and sounds. You can pick out individual ripples of paint in the brushstrokes and “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” though it’s not a song that really rocks, benefits from being played loud.
The second section belongs to Francis Ford Coppola and it’s the awful one. If you’ve heard anything about New York Stories, you’ve either heard that “Life Lessons” is wonderful or that “Life Without Zoë” is atrocious. Essentially a contemporary fairy tale, the story concerns Zoë (Heather McComb), the young daughter of a very wealthy flute soloist (Giancarlo Giannini) and his ex-wife, a photographer (Talia Shire). Zoë’s goals in the film are to return to an Arab princess a diamond that was stolen from her father’s safe-deposit box; get her parents back together; and buy and wear a lot of expensive clothing. It’s not a repellent premise, actually. It’s just that Coppola (using a screenplay co-written with his then teenage daughter Sofia) hits every note incorrectly. There could be a hook in portraying the precocity of young rich kids playacting the roles of high society fixtures for which they are destined but nothing of substance comes of it. Sure, the shot where a team of waiters present a table of babies with flaming Baked Alaskas is funny but I don’t think in the way Coppola intended. Meanwhile, the film is unable to maintain any consistent tone. At some times, we’re watching intentionally garish crowd scenes reminiscent of the days of Technicolor. In the next, we’re seeing the safe-deposit box robbery (featuring Chris Elliott!) presented as a hard-boiled, Dutch-angled noir. The performances, from tyro McComb to pro Shire, are hollow and clanging. The entire enterprise is a misfire.
Perhaps the relief at the conclusion of “Life Without Zoë” is what leads some to overvalue Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is merely decent. Allen stars as a man named Sheldon who has a harping, disapproving mother (Mae Questel) who disappears one day. At first, Sheldon is distraught but then he comes to enjoy the emotional freedom he’s experiencing. Then, one day, his mother reappears enormous in the sky, looming over Manhattan. She continues her chiding ways for all the city to see and hear. The idea of the typically neurosis-obsessed Allen writing a story with such an unsubtle metaphoric device almost seems like a joke someone else made. Still, it’s full of good comedy and Julie Kavner as a psychic whom Sheldon visits is absolutely terrific.
I first owned New York Stories on VHS more than a decade ago and I rarely revisited it. With the technology of DVD and Blu-ray, though, the reliably unreliable omnibus film can be saved from itself. “Oedipus Wrecks” will always be there if you want a laugh or two, “Life Without Zoë” can be excised completely from the viewing experience and “Life Lessons” can remain on your shelf for easy, repeated reference as it should.