[Published in cineACTION!, No. 6, Fall 1986.]


Desire in Scorsese's After Hours


1. Diegetic Contract

At a juncture between structuralist and reader response literary criticism we come across the idea of narrative contracts. The primary contract, according to Jonathan Culler in Structuralist Poetics is (although he doesn't name it this), the diegetic contract, "the expectation that the readers will, through their contact with the text, be able to recognize a world in which it [the text] produces or to which it refers." [1] In other words, we expect a narrative text to generate its own fictional world, or diegesis, and that this diegesis be mimetic, or in some way refer directly to the/a "real" world. It also states that we expect a text to generate its own set of rules and to abide by these rules, i.e. the internal logic of any genre.


2. Narrative Codes

In Barthes' S/Z [2] we are introduced to five codes which can be said to constitute the narrative text. The diegesis can be thought of as the sum of these codes. Two of these codes, the proairetic and the hermeneutic, are the linear codes that function in tandem to generate narrative. The proairetic is defined retroactively (and is therefore less linear than the hermeneutic though still firmly attached to the sequential unfolding of events) and governs the viewer's construction of the plot.


3. Hermeneutic Contract

We are drawn through narrative works not by wanting to know "what happens next" for the sake of wanting to know "what happens next" but by wanting to know "what happens next" for the solving of an enigma a sequence of events almost always entails. This is the hermeneutic contract: that through the telling of the story an enigma or enigmas will be solved by the end of the telling. With every enigma comes the promise of eventual, tantalizing resolution.


4. Hermeneutic Desire

Both Barthes and Culler use the term "desire" in reference to the hermeneutic code. The reader's desire to have the enigmas slowly revealed and even more slowly solved is one of the most sensual pleasures of the text. The hermeneutic contract guarantees that this desire will be (eventually) satiated.


5. Three Narrative Phases

After Hours can be divided into three parts. The first ends at Paul's initial abandonment of Marcie, the second at his discovery of Marcie's suicide, specifically his examination of the corpse. The third takes us from there to the end of the film.

The first phase is dominantly hermeneutical. Our interest as viewers is centred on a specific cluster of enigmas. This cluster begins "Who is Marcie?" quickly develops into "What's wrong with Marcie?" culminating in "Does Marcie have second degree burns on her genitals?" Closely related to these enigmas is the question "Will Paul and Marcie have sex?" This section ends with the solution to both enigmas: "Yes, Marcie does have second degree burns on her genitals." Paul flees.

The second phase is the shortest, a transitional section. The hermeneutic code clusters, as it will throughout the rest of the film, around the question "How will Paul get home?" This question, however, is not primarily what propels us through the narrative. The narrative changes from being primarily hermeneutical to being primarily proairetic.


6. Hermeneutic Contract Ruptured

The second phase ends with a rupture of the hermeneutic contract. We find that Marcie does not have second-degree burns. But we have already seen the scars running down her thigh, we have seen her exit to apply burn ointment after a shower. The enigma we had thought solved returns unsolved; we have been lied to.

At this point something must be done to reconcile the rupture, which is of sufficient magnitude that it threatens to rupture the diegetic contract as well. A rupture in the diegesis, if unchecked, will result in a chaotic and incoherent text.


7. Desire

The seeming satiation of our (hermeneutic) desires is quickly twisted so that it is apparent that satiation is impossible. Desire with no hope of satiation makes the act of desiring itself a nightmare.


8. Diegesis Revisited

The diegetical contract revises itself in order that it may remain intact. The fictional world, and the types of occurrences that can conceivably occur in this world, are very different in the first and third sections of the film.

The scars on Marcie's thigh have changed into a tattoo, a skull with a rose between its teeth. So we have the possibility of saying that the scars were simply a point of view shot, a reflection of Paul's fear of women, fear of his own desires. This would, if it were a completely viable possibility, make the revised diegesis a projection of Paul's inner fears, a fable of castration anxiety. But the scars cannot be explained away so easily. It is not a matter of a single point of view shot. We have also seen the burn ointment, we have seen Marcie take it to the bathroom after a shower, we have seen Paul smell it as she returns. The impossibility of the situation is irreconcilable.

The resulting diegesis is therefore much less "real," less mimetic. It is in part a nightmarish projection of castration anxiety, but the film stops short of letting us fully attribute the narrative to Paul's psyche. At any rate, it is a diegesis that allows a narrative where the sequence of events is not tied to an objective probability, as it was in the first section.


9. Proairetic Desire

The resulting diegesis cannot allow the hermeneutic code to become dominant — we would not consent to the contract. (This is not to say the third section is devoid of the hermeneutic code, or hermeneutic contracts, for the code is constantly active. It is just that it is no longer the dominant structuring force.) If the text is to remain primarily narrative, the proairetic code must take over. And it does — in fact; it becomes, if anything, overactive. The narrative is now structured on elaborate coincidences, unlikely parallel occurrences. It becomes openly and unabashedly contrived.

Hermeneutic desire, proving not satiable, turns to fear. We are left with proairetic desire, its less sensual twin.


10. Doors as Vaginas, Vaginas as Doors

The proairetic code is the code in which thematic concerns are rendered temporal. One mechanism by which this is accomplished is the use of symbols or motifs as structuring devices. The most interesting (and systematic) of these is the use of door and vagina imagery. Both are, in terms of the text, symbols of simultaneous desire and fear. Paul wants to go through certain doors though there will be consequences for trespassing. Paul desires to have certain women though consequences, likewise, will be paid. Because these consequences become overwhelming enough to transform the initial desire to fear, both doors and vaginas become the symbolic manifestations of castration anxiety. And we needn't be Freudian about it either: vaginas can be as much symbols of doors as doors can of vaginas.

First the doors. There is the door to Kiki's loft where admittance is endangered by the falling bunch of keys. There is the door to Marcie's room, which threatens to trap Paul inside with her corpse. There is the door to Club Berlin (Paul's exchange with the doorman is an almost verbatim retelling of a Kafka parable [3]), and the punishment of a head shaved to a Mohawk for entering unauthorized. (This is the most explicit, physical enactment of castration. Unlike the others it is not directly related to the desire/fear of a woman.) There are various other doors which function in a similar way. Almost each door is entered twice, once without permission and once with. Often when Paul enters a door with permission it leads to another door he does not have permission to enter. Club Berlin, the second time, leads to June's basement, which leads to the plaster room. "Don't go in there!" she cries, but Paul enters and is covered with plaster that June immediately paper maches, completely immobilizing him. Likewise the door to Kiki's loft leads to the door to Marcie's room; the door to Marcie's boyfriend's apartment leads to the bathroom and overflowing toilet; the door to the Terminal bar leads to the bathroom and the graffito vagina dentate (a shark biting a penis) that prevents urination.

Finally we have the gate leading to the building where Paul works, the huge golden door filling the whole frame that opens and closes the film's door imagery and comes to represent stability and refuge. The stability of economic affluence (the doors are huge and gold), the stability of routine (they are opened and closed at the same time every day, marked by a chiming tower clock). And it is the refuge of home. If After Hours is a Wizard of Oz-journey home, the office becomes, symbolically, and ironically, Paul's home. These are the only doors which he feels he can safely enter; the refuge of the corporate father. (Perhaps these doors could be seen as representing a "true" castration, a castration already enacted by patriarchal values, or, if one prefers, the boredom and stagnation of a dead-end job. Perhaps it is this genuine castration which gives rise to the specter of the type of castration articulated in the film.)

In most narratives there would be no explicit depictions of vaginas — they would be disguised as something else, a door, a cave, a tunnel. It would be expected that in After Hours' more explicit imagery we would see the archetypal imagery of less explicit narratives. The (apparent) scars on Marcie's vagina can be seen as an allusion to a dragon guarding a cave full of treasures and/or to Medusa. The scars are a dragon, but they are also Medusa-snakes — a vision of grotesque femininity which, if gazed upon, castrates a man by turning him to stone.

It is Kiki who first alerts Paul to the existence of scars, "horrible, awful scars" that many women are covered with. Paul counters with a story that, at that point in the narrative, seems unconnected with Kiki's observation. When he was a boy getting his tonsils out, he was, for lack of space, put in the burn ward, blindfolded, and told that if he removed the blindfold the operation would have to be re-performed. He does not finish the story, but it seems he peeked one night and had to suffer some sort of consequence. (We may take the act of looking at something forbidden, or merely the desire to look, as an act of invasion, of wanting to enter.) Knowing this is a Hollywood film, we will be deprived of seeing any vaginas. Our desire/fear (which operates, although with varying degrees, regardless of individual viewer's gender or sexual preferences) is partially answered, as is Paul's, by his thumbing through a "forbidden" book of burn victims. These photographs, shown in a montage so fast we do not actually "see" anything, functions as a metaphorical replacement for Marcie's apparently mutilated genitals, which castrates, like Medusa, by sheer horror.

The next vagina image is the already mentioned graffito shark biting man's penis. The next Medusa has, instead of snakes, a ridiculously elaborate hair-do. The beehive functions as a metaphorical replacement for her vagina, which is, if not actively threatening, too strange and foreign to desire, though not too foreign to castrate. When she asks Paul if he likes her hair, he replies yes, although clearly he means no. "Why donŐt you touch it?" "I'm afraid of messing it up." "You won't." So Paul sticks his forefinger in, and it gets stuck. As he is yanking it out a mouse is caught in one of the traps which circle the waitress' canopied bed.


11. Conclusion

We have in the fictional world of After Hours the possibility of desire being slowly and systematically crushed. Satiation, unless it is the dry, relatively unsatisfying satiation offered by Paul's golden office tower, is a diegetical impossibility. We can parallel the impossibility of sexual desire with the impossibility of the film's narrative to continue in a primarily hermeneutic mode. This would parallel the replacement of Paul's sexual desire with the desire to return to a safe home, to the text's replacement of a primarily diegetical mode with the dry, relatively unsatisfying pyrotechnics of the proairetic mode.

The three types of desire (the desire apparent within the text itself, the desire of Paul as a character within that text, and the desire of the audience) are inextricably bound together, mutually dependent and, after a certain point, indistinguishable.


12. Notes

  1. Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, p. 192.
  2. Roland Barthes, S/Z, Trans. by R. Miller, Hill and Wang, 1974.
  3. Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, Trans, by W. and E. Muir, 1971, p. 3.