By: Annie Nocenti
April 2, 2024

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of “offbeat” movies from the Eighties (1984–1993, in our periodization schema). Series edited by Josh Glenn.



I have a pal who sometimes asks me: “What’s it like?” It’s a rhetorical question posed in the manner a curious dog will glance at a human, seeming to ask: “What’s it like being you?”

I lived in a loft on Wooster Street in Soho in the 1980s. After Hours by Martin Scorsese debuted in 1985, and in that pre-streaming era, if you didn’t catch a flick in the theaters, and didn’t rent the VHS from Kim’s Video, you missed the film. Far-flung friends who did see it in 1985 called and asked: “Is it really that wacky where you live?”

After Hours opens with Paul (Griffin Dunne) who works in a cubicle in Midtown NYC, teaching co-workers how to operate the latest new thing — computers. The clickity-clack of keyboards drones on. As does one newbie’s view of computers: “This is temporary. I don’t want to be stuck doing this for the rest of my life.” (A notion even funnier 40 years later, when we’re all stuck with clickity-clack.) Paul doesn’t bother listening to this prescient line. It’s quitting time and symphony music kicks in on the soundtrack, a cue that this hollow man is about to be swept up into an odyssey.

A casual meeting with Henry Miller-quoting Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) lights the fuse of Rube Goldberg machinery, a mousetrap for Paul’s mousey life. He heads down to Soho and enters a farce of improbable mishaps. Paul’s character recalls the hapless “wronged man” in the “films are fever dreams” style of Hitchcock. Paul meets a series of increasingly “wacky” females, perhaps a reflection of his own view of women as nutjobs. OK, the screenwriter (Joseph Minion) wasn’t exactly a feminist, but the protagonist is male. Flip the gaze and it could be a string of wacky men.

After Hours is a mannered, absurdist satire, which, to answer the “What’s it like” question, I imagine is what my life looked like at the time, as far as I can conjure via the warped memory lens of 40 years. In the 1980s there were temp agencies that placed workers in such dull mousetraps. My partner Armand and I were both artists. Armand painted images of oil rigs as giant dinosaurs, and I worked at Marvel Comics. Our loft was filled with “wacky” art. We lived with Saxophone, a drooling Great Dane, Whifferdill, a mean macaw, and a rat that had its own runway with papier-mâché head caves looping the 16-foot ceiling. When Paul arrives at Marcy’s Soho loft, keys are tossed out a window and plummet like a missile. We too threw keys out windows to let people into our loft, but we politely wrapped the keys in a sock so as not to take an eye out. It was not odd back then, it was a mundane practicality to loft-living (no doormen, no door buzzers) which After Hours smartly heightens into lethal slapstick.

That’s the thing about adjectives like weird and wacky. True wacky doesn’t know it’s wacky. The female artists in After Hours make papier-mâché bodies because they like to, and this happens to give the film a sinister man-trap cast — as the viewer suspects Paul is going to end up as a papier-mâché body. That angle on adjectives is where the dark comedy of After Hours and actual life part ways. Sure, you could head out in downtown NYC in the 1980s and have a disjointed, surreal night of shenanigans, but the sad reality is that the real sinister bogeyman haunting the streets of Soho then was gentrification. The “citizen’s watch” that terrorizes Paul at the end of the film, with their strident whistles, is the bellwether of the death of our way of life.

What’s it like? It’s close enough.


REPO YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Annie Nocenti on AFTER HOURS | Lynn Peril on BRAZIL | Mandy Keifetz on BODY DOUBLE | Carlo Rotella on ROBOCOP | Marc Weidenbaum on GROUNDHOG DAY | Erik Davis on REPO MAN | Mimi Lipson on STRANGER THAN PARADISE | Josh Glenn on HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING | Susan Roe on HOUSEKEEPING | Gordon Dahlquist on SOMETHING WILD | Heather Quinlan on EATING RAOUL | Anthony Miller on MIRACLE MILE | Karinne Keithley Syers on BETTER OFF DEAD | Adam McGovern on WALKER | Ramona Lyons on MILLER’S CROSSING | Vanessa Berry on WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS? | Elina Shatkin on NIGHT OF THE COMET | Susannah Breslin on MAN BITES DOG | Tom Nealon on DELICATESSEN | Lisa Jane Persky on RUMBLE FISH | Dean Haspiel on WEIRD SCIENCE | Heather Kapplow on HEATHERS | Micah Nathan on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA | Nicholas Rombes on SLACKER | Mark Kingwell on WITHNAIL AND I. PLUS: Deborah Wassertzug on ELECTRIC DREAMS.




Enthusiasms, Movies