AFTER HOURS and the One-Act Structure

I have been looking forward to watching After Hours (1985) for quite some time. It wasn’t until I was reading a screenwriting book and the film was about to be ruined for me that I decided to go check the film out from the library and finally watch it. And I’m glad I did! It’s a bizarre chronicle of a man’s surreal/kafkaesque night that just keeps building and building. Almost as if the story has ONE ACT! Whaaa!

Watching this film reminded me a lot of what my film professor said was a great way to structure short films. Have a character have to do something and then keep it building until the end. After Hours does that. It starts with Paul at his office trying to teach a guy how to use his computer. It’s tedious. The guy then starts talking to Paul about how he wants to start his own magazine that publishes writers who can’t get published anywhere else. Paul doesn’t listen and looks around the office while this guy keeps talking. Eventually, Paul just leaves the conversation. So, we’re in for a film like that. A man (Paul) is obviously tired of his tedious life filled with offices and people having their own dreams but not living them through.

But then Paul meets a girl and they like the same book! Wow! It’s like that short story I began writing in 11th grade when I was trying to be hip and deep. But they’re meeting each other is actually pretty solid and there’s a waiter in the background they talk about who keeps dancing and Paul says something along the lines that the waiter is just waiting to be discovered.

To hurry along with this plot wrap up, Paul goes to the girl’s apartment (her name is Marcy) that she lives in with an artist named Kiki. But on his way to the apartment, the cab driver was driving so fast that Paul’s money flew out the window, thus he was unable to pay the cab driver. It’s a short, awkward situation we have to sit through but it’s pretty hilarious watching Paul try to tell the cab driver what happened, because it’s just one of those weird things. And this film is filled with just “those weird things.” More on that in a second. Continuing forward, everything Paul tries to do is awkwardly inverted (an example being the money in the cab) or when he gets to the apartment and Marcy isn’t there and he just needs to sit around with Kiki, and their conversation gets more and more sexual until Kiki just straight up falls asleep. The rest of the film, after Paul realizes he and Marcy won’t hit it off, is Paul trying to get back to his own apartment but is unable to. That’s it. It’s taking this one main problem (getting back home) but with many different characters along the way adding conflict to the situations. The small situations are somehow all connected with each other by either one person knowing another or Paul sees Situation B happening while he is in the middle of Situation C, so he leaves Situation C in the middle of it to go back and deal with Situation B, only for Situation D to come up. It must have been complete hell to write this because every connects in some weird way. Things are just slightly off for his whole night.

But, by golly, it’s fun. We’re constantly reminded by Paul that he just wants to get home so we begin to really feel his frustration. Also, we see it in the acting, obviously. Everything is working against Paul. I called it “kafkaesque” before because it reminded me a lot of The Trial, the book or the movie, take your pick, in that Josef K. is trying to do one thing but EVERYTHING is against him. After Hours relies more on the strange interconnectivity of life and circumstances rather than the bureaucratic nonsense The Trial is making fun (?) of.

Another thing that surprised me in the film was its inclusion of homosexual characters. While some of them are a kind of stereotypes, there’s a great scene where two men are making out at a bar where the bartender is saying some heavy information he just received about someone he knows that may/may not have been caused by Paul. The men stop kissing, and Paul says, “I just don’t know what to say,” because he really doesn’t, then one of the gay men says, “well, what can you say at a time like this?” And that’s it! It’s one of those scenes where you may be thinking, “why did they have to be two men?” but, you know, why not?

A great moment that might wrap up how Paul feels near the end of the film is when he’s running away from a mob who thinks he’s a burglar (if you haven’t seen the film then you’re probably thinking, “wow, that escalated!” and that’s what I’ve been saying this whole review, pay attention) and he’s sitting on a fire escape. He looks around and he sees a woman shoot her husband about six times in the chest. Paul just says to himself, “I’ll probably get blamed for that.” That’s all we hear/see about the couple. They never come back into the story. It all has to do with the weird intricacies of modern day life. Remember, at the beginning of the film, every side character has a dream and Paul is horribly bored. But how can you be this bored in a world this bizarre? Connections to things and people are everywhere if you just look! BUT THEN! AND I THINK I JUST FIGURED OUT THE FILM! Paul is complaining the whole time! He just wants to go home and go to bed. Paul! You’re having the craziest night of your life after being so horribly bored in the first scene! Look at what’s going on with you!

SPOILER FOR THIS PARAGRAPH! If you don’t want to have the film spoiled, jump to the next paragraph. So after this wild and crazy night, he somehow just ends up at his office where he sits down and goes to work. The camera moves around the office while the credits play. Paul is choosing a life of boredom maybe because he can’t handle how wild life can be. Maybe he cannot accept the counterculture lifestyle of artists, homosexuals (not that they are counterculture, but I feel they are presented as a lifestyle that Paul is not used to in this film), and people who stay up late (the bartender, the restaurant owner, the nightclub people, etc.).

No more spoilers here. The structure of this film is very interesting. I don’t think there are really any act breaks. More like things just happen and that adds to the chaotic nature of the film. It’s a lot like Mean Streets (1973) that way. So I guess it’s a good thing Scorsese directed After Hours. Nobody really does chaos like him. Yes, obviously things happen in the film. But Paul’s only concern is how he’s going to get home that night. Even when people are opening their soul to him, we feel awkward because Paul feels awkward and we know he has just one goal. He doesn’t really grow as a character. He may be a stand-in for many people in society. He seems just as bored as any of the side characters we met earlier in the film. But the side characters he meets later on (the bartender, the multiple girls he meets, the woman in the basement of that nightclub) they seem to be multi-faceted and fully realized characters. And when you put these characters in front of someone who just wants to do one thing, ya get conflict.

A really great and out there film that has aged a little bit, but not too much. It’s not a typical Scorsese film, but it’s still a wild ride. You might even appreciate life more after it. I did.