WHO needs Hollywood, when New York can serve up the tastiest movie treats of the season? ``New York Stories'' is a new example of an old breed: the anthology film, in which different filmmakers take individual approaches to a common topic. The subject here is simply New York City, and the movie's three chapters have little in common except a deep affection for that great place - and an eagerness to express that affection in the most colorful terms imaginable.
Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese are mavericks who have avoided Hollywood - and Hollywood formulas - throughout their careers, basing themselves proudly in the East Coast filmmaking scene. Francis Coppola is a similarly ornery character, rooted less definitively in New York but always fascinated by the idea of an alternative to Hollywood's studio establishment. The three join forces in ``New York Stories,'' and although their main purpose is obviously to have a whale of a good time as storytellers and cin'eastes, the excellence of their work makes a terrific case against Hollywood as the movie capital of the late '80s and beyond. Since all three chapters are winners, I'll deal with them in the order they take on-screen.
`LIFE LESSONS'' starts off the picture with an excursion to downtown Manhattan, courtesy of Martin Scorsese, who covered some of the same turf in ``After Hours'' a few seasons ago.
Our heroes are Lionel, a burly artist, and Paulette, an insecure painter who shares Lionel's messy loft. Lionel is a bundle of energy that's barely held in check by two things. One is his love for the woman in his life. The other is a perilously dim recognition that the real world has rules less freewheeling than the passions that surge through his art. He's used to grabbing what he wants as impulsively as he spatters paint on his canvases. Paulette won't be grabbed that easily, though. She's fallen for a ``performance artist'' who's younger and hipper than Lionel, and, although she still lives in Lionel's spare room, her thoughts are elsewhere. Which is driving Lionel crazy.
Nick Nolte gives a powerhouse performance as Lionel, and Rosanna Arquette isn't far behind as Paulette, a tantalizing mixture of vulnerability, charm, and hidden strength. Both of them are precisely in tune with Mr. Scorsese's over-the-top filmmaking, which uses a supercharged collection of cinematic devices to evoke the supercharged feelings of Lionel and the not-quite-suppressed chaos of his self-centered world. The best portions of the film don't have characters at all, in the usual sense - they're goofily poetic interludes in which the screen fills with Lionel's flying paints, and the sound track wails with classic rock-and-roll, perhaps the only other art that could echo Lionel's seething emotions.
If you had to label ``Life Lessons,'' you'd probably call it a comedy. But its most successful moments go beyond the usual movie categories, soaring into a world that belongs only to Scorsese and the latest addition to his gallery of indelible characters, which already includes such amazing figures as Travis Bickle of ``Taxi Driver'' and Rupert Pupkin of ``The King of Comedy.''
`LIFE WITHOUT ZOE,'' the second episode of ``New York Stories,'' announces its childlike intentions in its opening credits: Directed by Francis; photographed by Vittorio; music by Carmine; and so forth, without a last name in sight. It's as if the filmmakers were as young as the main characters, who are still in their early school years. In fact, those filmmakers are veterans: filmmaker Francis Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, composer Carmine Coppola.
The tale is as youthful as its characters, and as exuberant. Zoe is a poor little rich girl, living in a Manhattan hotel with every luxury except loving parents - since her mom and dad are overachieving artists who find little time for home. Zoe isn't lonely, though. She has lots of friends, from her loyal butler to her latest new schoolmate, the richest boy in the whole world. With them at her side, she gets involved in a wacky intrigue, returning a fabulous jewel to the queen of an exotic land.
The story doesn't make a bit of sense, and often it's hard to tell whether Mr. Coppola is kidding or just fooling around. The movie holds together by virtue of sheer energy and color, though, barreling past its own plot-holes with unstoppable momentum. It's not the most controlled picture you ever saw, but it's certainly a change of pace from everything else around, and it shows the unpredictable Coppola in a refreshingly buoyant mood.
`OEDIPUS WRECKS,'' which caps the ``New York Stories'' trilogy, is a quintessential Woody Allen fable - which means his admirers will adore it and his detractors will do the opposite. But even the anti-Allen faction will probably be glad to see him go back to comedy after the somberness of ``September'' and ``Another Woman,'' two of his least successful outings.
The modern, middle-aged Oedipus of his new movie is named Sheldon - and, while he isn't married to his mother, he's certainly obsessed with her. Or rather, with her nagging. She just won't let him alone. And if there's a willing listener, including his own fianc'ee, she's still more eager to give her critical view of his faults, failings, and frustrations.
The plot thickens when Sheldon's mother disappears, in a manner so hilarious I won't give it away here. Then she reappears, in an unexpected way that makes our hero's life more wretched - and more henpecked - than ever. It all comes out fine in the end, but not before Sheldon's dignity has met some mighty harrowing challenges. Allen's performance is vintage Woody material, and there's marvelous supporting work by Mia Farrow as Sheldon's fianc'ee, Julie Kavner as a sort of Manhattan witch doctor, and Mae Questel as the notorious mom. (If you feel a sense of d'ej`a vu when you hear Ms. Questel, by the way, it's because she used to supply Betty Boop's squeaky voice in movie cartoons of yore.)
All the ``New York Stories'' have a couple of things in common. For one, they're photographed by masters of the cinematographic art: Nestor Almendros in Scorsese's episode, Vittorio Storaro in Coppola's, and Sven Nykvist in Allen's. They also make a canny use of just the right music at just the right moment - especially when rock-and-roll breaks out in ``Life Lessons,'' and when Allen uses classic jazz and standards to punctuate his story. Only the Coppola chapter seems a little slack in the music department, relying less on Carmine Coppola's composing skills than on the uninspired sounds of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, who keep popping up on the sound track.
``New York Stories'' is the latest in a long line of anthology films, from the French ``Paris vu par...'' to the Italian ``Boccaccio '70'' and many more. They've been a rare breed in recent years, but this colorful outing may put them back in style again. Three cheers for producer Robert Greenhut, who put the package together. Here's hoping it's the beginning of a trend.
The film is rated PG, reflecting a bit of rough language and a few sexy moments, particularly in the ``Life Lessons'' segment.