Within the context of this anthology, “Life Without Zoë” only served to help make the other two segments of New York Stories shine that much brighter.
Every few years or so, some producer tries to revive the anthology film, those pictures that stitch together three or more short subjects from various directors to make a feature. They’re most popular in horror circles, which have made cult successes of collections like V/H/S and Little Deaths. But it extends into the world of comedy and drama as well, the most recent example being the much crowed about Paris, je t’aime, which featured vignettes conceived by the Coen brothers, Olivier Assayas and the late Wes Craven, among others.
What I don’t think I’ve ever seen is a perfect anthology film. No matter how many well-known directors and familiar faces they pack into them, there’s always going to be one or more segments that just don’t connect. This was true of Love at Twenty, the 1962 film which featured the continuation of the Antoine Doinel saga but also a rather dour effort by first-time director Renzo Rossellini, and it’s true of the two slight segments directed by Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell that dragged down 1995’s Four Rooms.
This was the case even when watching my first anthology film, 1989’s New York Stories. Sandwiched in between career highlight work by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese is “Life Without Zoë,” a fanciful fable directed by Francis Ford Coppola, that takes place in the world of the nouveau riche. Notable only for featuring the first non-acting screen credit by Sofia Coppola (she co-wrote it with her father), the short subject marked the beginning of a particularly fallow period in the director’s career that found him taking on projects like Jack and an adaptation of a John Grisham book.
Within the context of this anthology, “Life Without Zoë” only served to help make the other two segments of New York Stories shine that much brighter. Not that they needed much help. In “Life Lessons,” the opening chapter of the film, the stricture placed on Scorsese by having to tell a perfect three act story in the span of about 45 minutes seemed to energize him. Not that he needed much more ardor at the time, as he was coming off his marvelous adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ and was just about to hit another career peak with Goodfellas a year later.
In “Life Lessons,” you can see him pulling out all the visual stops to tell the tragicomic tale of Lionel Dobie, a famed New York artist (played with gruff brilliance by Nick Nolte) fighting to keep Paulette, his assistant/lover (Rosanna Arquette), close to him just as she’s trying to pull away. With the help of longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Néstor Almendros, the short film feels both dazzlingly modern and as old as the history of cinema itself. The sequences of Dobie furiously working on a new exhibition piece crackle with the electricity of the creative process. And in more intimate scenes, the camera uses a technique borrowed from silent films, the pinhole zoom, to replicate Dobie’s focus on small details like Paulette’s ankle.
The segment is also a nice nod to the thriving East Village art scene of the time, which was producing icons like Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger, as well as the performance art of Laurie Anderson and Karen Finley (here represented by a relatively unknown Steve Buscemi, playing one of Paulette’s boyfriends). Though it didn’t have the seedy grit of Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens or Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation, “Life Lessons” was, at least, Scorsese acknowledging the passion and inspiration that he was seeing on the gallery walls and theaters at the time.
Woody Allen, on the other hand, has spent his entire career being blissfully unaware of what’s going on in the world, other than the score of the Knicks game or what’s playing in his local movie house. His addition to this anthology, “Oedipus Wrecks,” feels completely removed from the era in which it was filmed. It could have been made in the ‘50s with almost no loss in its humor or its heart.
In it, Allen plays Sheldon, yet another in his long line of nebbishy, nervous gents, who is hounded by his overly critical mother, played by the voice of Betty Boop herself, Mae Questel. One day, he takes his mom to a magic show, where she is invited onstage to participate in a trick. She sits in a box, which the magician sticks swords into. He opens the box, revealing his victim to be gone. And when he takes the swords out, she’s supposed to be back in the box. This time, though, Sheldon’s mom somehow disappears. That’s all well and good until his mother decides to appear, floating in the skies above New York, telling anyone who’ll listen about her son’s most embarrassing moments and her worries about him.
A ridiculous story, to be sure, capped off by the Oedipal concerns of the title when Sheldon falls for a Jewish woman that is almost exactly like his mom (played by the voice of Marge Simpson, Julie Kavner), but it’s notable in that it features one of Allen’s best comedic performances. The absolute delight in his face as he watches the magician stick the swords into the box, something his character has surely imagined at one time or another, is perfection, as is his distress as he is forced to suffer the laughter and concern of an entire city. It’s marvelously free of self-consciousness at a time when he was making more serious pictures (Crimes and Misdemeanors was released the same year as New York Stories) and before he found his comedic footing again with 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
If you happen to pull up New York Stories on a streaming service or pull it off the shelf of a video store, you’d do well to sit through the full feature, even with the dip in the middle that is Coppola’s installment. Zoë does serve as a nice transition between Allen and Scorsese’s work, and there are enough sparks of visual flair (courtesy of the mighty Vittorio Storaro) to keep things engaging. And it should be of interest to see how these three men viewed the city at the time: Scorsese enjoyed the exposed brick and shabby chic of the East Village while Coppola and Allen preferred the creature comforts of the Upper West Side. You’d also do well to pair this up with a film that was released just a year later, Do the Right Thing, to get an even deeper perspective on New York in the late ‘80s.