The anthology film has become a thing to expect in contemporary cinema, a means within which to bridge the gap between loose genre ideas or to create a feeling of a global community discussing the rhetoric of a singular idea, such as love, loss or happiness. Even the other omnibus works, such as Paris Je T'aime suffer from a heavy sense of knowing that this work is offered within a collection of larger statements, therefore, unjustly affording filmmakers a belief that they do not really have to try and offer anything of worthy cinematic consideration. This is by far not the case when concerning New York Stories, a set of three featurettes by three directors whose identities are more or less inextricably tied to the city. What makes this anthology work particularly fascinating is that the products of two out of three of the filmmakers are some of their best work in rather storied and well-regarded careers, and the third while clearly the weakest in the collection, nonetheless lays out what cinephiles would come to expect from a second generation filmmaker and writer in one of cinemas most well-respected families. Where as other city film anthologies use the space of the movie to wax poetic about the serene and sentimental experiences of the spaces they occupy, New York Stories exists in world about New York that paints it both with endearing pride, while also making note of all the ways it is a city of struggles, failures and lack. Two out of the three works exist in a state of magical realism, nonetheless, playing upon the tropes of New York, where as the other manages to pinpoint into a singular narrative of a man and woman "in love," perhaps even extending into its own consideration of the relationship between New York and New Yorker. I say all of this having only spent a couple of hours in New York as a teenager, not really understanding a bit about its spaces or the bodies which occupy its vast area. Instead, what I posit is that New York Stories works for all moviegoers because through the intimacy of the subject matter, passion emerges, so much so that it becomes a text book look at New York, the entity, without ever being pretentious or calling attention to many viewers outsider status.
Split into three distinctly different narratives, the first film directed by Martin Scorsese is title Life Lessons and focuses on action painter Lionel (Nick Nolte) who is panicking for his upcoming studio exhibit, much to the chagrin of his agent Lionel, while allegedly capable of throwing together a show at a moments notice is, nonetheless, anxiously awaiting the return of his assistant and lover Paulette (Rosanna Arquette). Upon her return Paulette explains that she no longer wants to be involved with Lionel and has indeed just ended a tumultuous relationship with performance artist Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi). Flailing to assert his authority, Lionel plays a game of cat and mouse with Paulette, using his power as an artistic giant to convince her to stay and hone her craft in his studio. However, it becomes clear that Lionel is only interested in using her sexually, leading to her eventually packing her things and leaving, an act that leads Lionel to complete his Bridge to Nowhere painting and mirroring this metaphor with his immediately moving on to a new ingenue during his exhibit opening. The second film Life Without Zoe, is directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by his daughter Sofia Coppola. Wherein a young girl named Zoe (Heather McComb) talks in roundabout fairy tales as a way to analyze the troublesome relationship between her parents flautist Claudio (Giancarlo Giannini) and wife Charlotte (Talia Shire), as well as commenting upon the feelings of alienation which emerge for her parents constantly being away. In a decidedly child as adult feel evident in later Sofia Coppola work, the film looks at Zoe's attempts to act in the hyper-adult, only able to do so through excessive wealth. In the end, however, Zoe realizes that sometimes a momentary feeling of unity with one's family is far more valuable than anything money could hope to buy. The final segment is Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks which focuses on Sheldon (Woody Allen) an established attorney with a loving girlfriend named Lisa (Mia Farrow). Despite success and love, Sheldon cannot shake the condemnation he constantly faces by his mother, played by Mae Questel. It is during an "unfortunate" accident at a magic show that Sheldon's mother disappears inexplicably, leading to a momentary feeling of freedom by Sheldon, improving his sex life, while allowing him the freedom to excel at his job in new ways. However, when his mother emerges as a floating entity in the sky line of New York things change drastically and Sheldon's feelings of oppression blow up to a grandiose proportion. It is indeed not until he finds a new girlfriend appropriate to his mother's strict demands that her presence no longer becomes omniscient, or at least less blatantly so as the closing moments of the film might suggest.
The fascinating thing about this particular anthology is that aside from auteurist elements present within each film, one could find themselves hard-pressed to claim a thematic link between the three separate stories. Indeed, aside from the psychoanalytic nightmare that is traditional Woody Allen filmmaking from the era, these seem like, as noted earlier, statements on existing within New York, more so that individual films about a city. For Scorsese, the issue at hand is how one "performs" the New York lifestyle, particularly one like the New York art world which predicates itself upon a certain pomp and circumstance where struggle is embraced, but not something that should be affirmed physically. Take the distinct difference between Lionel and Paulette for example, he is well off given his status in high art and can afford to drunkenly feign trouble, whereas Paulette's gender and other issues legitimize her struggle and also do not allow her the privilege to simply perform any degree of abjection. Coppola's film then becomes about the issue of learning class privilege in the space of New York, it is fitting that Sofia helped write this script, because it lends a layer of credibility to how she would have seen the world as a youth, attempting to rationalize the decadence of her youth with the bustling reality of New York, one where hands literally extend from the trash to beg for food, while she can purchase absurd amounts of food, jewelry and even alcohol despite being admittedly too young to understand how credit works. The robbery in the film takes on a wonderful layer of class conflict, as does the closing moment in Rome become a moment of scathing irony, which would become a staple of Sofia Coppola's oeuvre (it would be fascinating, in fact, to stand this film up against Marie Antoinette). With these two films in mind, Oedipus Wrecks then considers the nature of constant looking and watching that occurs within New York, to Allen, New York in all its wonder is also a place where every action is scrutinized, because space is limited and filled with many bodies, all with stories and opinions, some more willing to share than others. Always the existentialist, the film considers what distinction could possibly emerge between Sheldon's singular struggles and the larger struggles of society. Perhaps it is all inherently meaningless and Sheldon is merely overreacting, what Allen does show is that, in the end, some encounters are simply unavoidable.
Key Scene: Woody Allen steals the show here and Sheldon's smirk when his mother is "being stabbed" will make you laugh.
The bluray for this is surprisingly cheap, but should in no way suggest a lesser product. In fact, this is probably one of the more overlooked works from the year.