Anthology films aren’t that popular today, outside of the horror genre. That’s a shame, because they offer a great vehicle to bring stories to the screen at the length that is right for them—I’d much rather see three thirty-minute stories that are complete yet compact than one of those stories padded out to feature length. In the case of New York Stories, which opened in theatres in 1989 after screening at Cannes, you get two really effective short films plus a third that is not that great, but also not bad enough to spoil the viewing experience. All three films were shot in and around New York City, and capture aspects of city life so they seem realer than real.
Life Lessons, directed by Martin Scorsese, anticipates the #MeToo movement in a way that seems remarkably prescient given that sexual harassment was not even in the brain space of most Americans at the time. Anita Hill’s testimony regarding Supreme Court nominee lay two years in the future, and the outcome of that hearing demonstrated that many people, including future Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden, didn’t think sexual harassment was a real thing anyway. The story involves a noted (old white male) artist, Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte), who lives and works in a loft to die for, and has a cute little assistant (Rosanna Arquette) and bed partner who has just about had enough of the life lessons he’s been teaching. It’s a brilliant satire that dissects the pretensions of the art world, the meaning of sexuality and choice in the context of huge disparities in power (although exploitation is a two-way street in this case), and will implant Procol Harum’s A Lighter Shade of Pale in your brain as the most insidious of earworms.
Life Without Zoë, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is the weakest film in the lot. Zoe (Heather McComb) is a precocious and privileged child who lives in a luxury hotel (the Sherry-Netherland) with her parents (Giancarlo Giannini and Talia Shire), who are respectively, an acclaimed classical musician and a writer/artist. They’re busy with their professional lives, so Zoë pretty much has the run of the city as well as the hotel, aided by benign adults including her best buddy Hector (Don Novello), the hotel butler. There’s a plotline involving a piece of jewelry and an Arab princess, but it comes off as more silly than magical, leaving us with an updated, live-action version of Eloise (which, frankly, worked much better on the page).
Oedipus Wrecks, directed by Woody Allen, is a real gift to people who want to see a quintessential Woody Allen movie but only have 40 minutes to spare. Sheldon Mills (Allen) is a successful attorney with a Gentile fiancée (Mia Farrow); his mother (Mae Questel) is predictably pleased about the former but not the latter. Sheldon, for his part, feels dominated by his mother in a way that’s just not appropriate for a grown man—in fact, sometimes he wishes she’d just disappear. Then she does, thanks to a cheesy magic show, only to reappear in the sky, where she can really keep an eye on him. It’s funny and heartfelt (you know your mother only wants the best for you), features an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack, and is the perfect film to wrap up New York Stories.| Sarah Boslaugh
New York Stories is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The only extras are trailers for this and two other films.