Cinema: Dissonant Duet

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Maybe Santayana had it wrong after all. "Those who cannot remember the past," he said, "are condemned to repeat it." But in movieland, it is those who can remember the past who seem to feel compelled to repeat it. In New York, New York, Director Martin Scorsese recalls the big-band era. His is not the actual historical period, of course; on V-J day, 1945, when the film begins, Scorsese was two, and Scriptwriter Earl Mac Rauch, who devised the original story, was not yet born. What Scorsese is evoking is an epoch of moviemaking: the heyday of lavish studio musicals.

The terraced nightclubs, the carmine-lipped girls with padded shoulders, the hokey production number with the star swiveling down an immense abstract staircase—they're all here. But why? Half the time Scorsese is sending them up, and the other half trying to cash them in at face value for a dividend of unearned nostalgia.

Studied Unreality. If this movie were a big-band arrangement, it would be a duet for a sax man and a girl singer, but with the soloists in a different key from the band. Smack in the midst of the gold-tinsel snowfalls and the studied unreality of the sound stages, Scorsese spins out a naturalistic, contemporary-feeling melodrama about a love affair that goes sour.

The effect is disjointed from the opening sequence, a frenzied victory celebration in a skyscraper nightclub where Tommy Dorsey's orchestra is doing a radio spot. Unemployed Sax Player Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), on a spree in his sporty new civvies, picks up ex—U.S.O. Singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) in an ill-paced scene that is lumbered with flat, witless dialogue ("Give me your phone number." "No."

"Yes." "No." "Yes."). Francine con ceives an exasperated fondness for him, gets him a job in the road band she works for, and eventually marries him.

As the 1940s wane, so do the bands.

The singers, boosted by the burgeoning record industry, become stars. Jimmy drifts disconsolately into jazz gigs in Harlem, while Francine heads for the top of the charts and Hollywood. Their marriage cannot survive. Jimmy splits on the day Francine bears their child.

De Niro brings formidable energy and intensity to Jimmy's goofball streak, his sulks, his frustrated rage. But the rea son such a character, as written, should interest us remains as elusive as the Lost Chord. De Niro is unable to move the role beyond the capsule description by the bandleader (played by Big Band Vet eran Georgie Auld, who also supplies the sax solos on the sound track) who first hires Jimmy. "Jimmy plays a barrelful of sax," says the leader, "but he's a top pain in the ass."

As Francine, Minnelli is wholesome, glib, plucky — more a familiar manner than a characterization. Despite some heavy histrionics in her marital squabbles with Jimmy, there is a sense in her performance of counting the choruses till her next solo. Indeed, the latter half of the film moves toward her virtual apotheosis in a series of climactic production numbers. Their impact depends on how you feel about Liza's nightclub act.

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