European art film directors of the 1960s seemed to like omnibus films. All the big names save Antonioni and Bergman participated in them, giving us such interesting and varied anthology pictures as Boccaccio '70, Paris vu par... and even Spirits of the Dead. Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini, Chabrol, Godard, De Sica, Polanski. Federico Fellini was once asked why, and gave a simple answer. As his public expecting a new masterpiece every time out, the pressure was such that his entire career was on the line with every new feature. But a short film "doesn't count." Fellini could try some off-the-wall idea, or an idea unsuitable for an entire feature. That's where the ½ in 8 ½ comes from -- he'd already filmed seven movies and a half, the episode, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio. The omnibus format even allowed Fellini to make a horror film, a genre that his cultured audience might think beneath him: Toby Dammit. In other words, contributing to a short film feature was an exercise in creative freedom for art film directors constrained by commercial considerations.
In 1989 producer Robert Greenhut pulled together three world-class American directors for his own omnibus film, New York Stories. Each independent film has its own production crew and is a little over a half-hour in length. Each story takes place on the island of Manhattan.
Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons sees noted artist Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) desperately trying to hang on to his assistant/lover Paulettte (Rosanna Arquette) after she announces that she wants to give up painting and go back home to school. Lionel insists that he'll not try to sleep with Paulette. But he harasses and embarrasses her at swanky parties; he even picks a fight with another potential lover, performance artist Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi). Lionel has no choice but to direct his frustration into his canvasses. He suddenly becomes very productive, to the delight of his agent (Patrick O'Neal). But the artist can't give Paulette what she really needs, a belief that her own painting is amounting to anything.
Life Lessons is an honorable fragment that makes its intentions clear. Of the three shows it is most like a short story, with the drawback that having Paulette accept Lionel would seem a cop-out, while having her stick to her guns and reject him is unsatisfying. True though it may be, seeing Lionel go looking for a relationship with another professional assistant/paid muse is a little depressing. When Nick Nolte is just a scruffy painter trying to find a way to seduce Paulette, the story works quite well. The effort to make him represent the creative tensions within the artistic sensibility is less successful. Scorsese gets a minor Michael Powell-Jack Cardiff vibe going, what with editor Thelma Schoonmaker's montages of close-ups of blasts of oil colors being daubed onto Lionel's canvasses. But the personal story isn't as satisfactory.
Francis Ford Coppola's segment Life Without Zoe is a family affair, written with his daughter Sofia and enlisting a number of other relatives. We're told that Coppola joined the project after Steven Spielberg bowed out.
Zoe (Heather McComb) is the pampered daughter of the world-famous flautist Claudio (Giancarlo Giannini) and the elegant Charlotte (Talia Shire), a globe-hopping photographer. Her parents are semi-separated and spend little time in New York, which leaves the precocious Zoe on her own, helped by the family butler (Don Novello) and the staff of their luxury apartment building. She befriends Abu (Selim Tlili), the heir to an Arabian kingdom, and learns that his aunt, Princess Soroya (Carole Bouquet) is in trouble -- she's expected to wear a fabulous jeweled earring but gave it to Claudio during a concert, in rapturous approval of his musicianship. Claudio returns to New York to reconcile with Charlotte, but also to return the earring before Soroya incurs the displeasure of her husband. Hotel thieves steal the jewel, but the clever Zoe has a plan to make everything work out.
Coppola's intention seems to have been to fashion a modern story of royal intrigue, with a Park Avenue latchkey kid as an ultra-poised, capable heroine. Zoe lives like a princess and deals with outsiders as if she were the adult; to some extent this includes her parents. We see her expensive clothes, her hoity-toity school and a lavish costume party for Abu that must be setting some Arabian royal family back a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Zoe's "excellent adventure" aligns with Sofia Coppola's tendency to write about the daring adventures of wealthy young women far above the doldrums of the common crowd.
We're all too aware that an episode from The Three Musketeers -- "The Queen's Jewels" -- has been co-opted but not used to any particularly meaningful purpose. This is the kind of movie where mother catches her 12-year old daughter holding an impromptu party drinking liquor, and it's okay because the kid is already acting like Holly Golightly. Zoe makes all the big decisions for her family in this colorful, rather empty fantasy.
The going consensus is that Woody Allen's episode Oedipus Wrecks is the most entertaining. It's a familiar Allen sketch comedy that reads like one of the writer-director's amusing New Yorker humor articles. Corporate attorney Sheldon (Allen) is pained by his cloying, nagging mother (Mae Questel), who humiliates him in public, squawking out praise as if he were a baby. She also tries to run his life, and isn't above complaining that his sweet fiancée Lisa (Mia Farrow) is no good for him because she already has three children. Sheldon's wish that Mother would just disappear comes true when the talkative old lady simply vanishes while volunteering in a stage magician's act -- even the magician doesn't know where she went. Just as peace and contentment is returning to Sheldon's life, Mother turns up as a giant face in the sky above Manhattan, like a cartoon by James Thurber. She watches Sheldon at all times, broadcasting embarrassing personal details about him to the entire city.
Woody Allen is consistently amusing on the level of dialogue and performance. His best scenes are with the charming Julie Kavner, who plays a mystic that Sheldon hopes can exorcise Mother from her place above Manhattan. It's a cute moment when Kavner and Mae Questel finally meet, as both actresses are famous for providing the voices of cartoon heroines, respectively Marge Simpson and the original Betty Boop.
So why doesn't New York Stories seem all that interesting overall? Rather than use the no-fault short film venue to do something really different, its three directors just give us "more of the same." Scorsese's episode is a tamer look at the SoHo weirdness of his After Hours, but jamming his glamorous party scenes with VIPs like Peter Gabriel and Deborah Harry. Coppola embellishes a creampuff of an idea with plenty of visual glitz and musical flourishes, but forgets to bring the characters to life. Woody Allen's chapter is an exact copy of what he was into in the late 1980s, comedy that ends on a sentimental note, with a big dab of fantasy. One his following films, Alice, is another, more elaborate fantasy. The filmmakers treat the short-film opportunity less as a chance to stretch, than a free ride. None of the three offerings is actually bad, but neither do any of them seem like movies their makers had to make.
I'm sorry, but the low-low price tag of Mill Creek's Blu-ray of New York Stories made me think that I'd open the keep case and find no disc, just a note reading, "Sucker!" Mill Creek is apparently a subsidiary of Disney, and the low price does not mean low quality. The HD encoding and pressing of New York Stories is excellent in all respects. This is particularly good because the film's three ace cinematographers Néstor Almendros, Vittorio Storaro and Sven Nykvist put some very pretty images up on the screen; Woody Allen's New York looks better than ever. The soundtrack is also quite bold, with Scorsese going in for selected needledrops (Procul Harum) and Allen using quite a few melodic standards. So this disc and Mill Creek get very positive marks.
A trailer is the one extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
New York Stories Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.