Paul Schrader’s career, as one of the so called 70s Brat generation began in 1974 with his first screenplay, The Yakuza. This was eventually directed, in a plausible but uninflected fashion, by Sydney Pollack. If ever you need an object lesson in differences of approach and expression through mise-en-scène, it would be instructive to spend a weekend re-imagining The Yakuza as directed by Schrader himself.
Far closer to Schrader’s heart in spirit and in expressive lyricism, the comparably baroque Scorsese directed Taxi Driver (1976). It’s a film of bejeweled, chromium rainy nights in hell which has its own Scorsesian spin on masculinities, revenge and violence, after the Vietnam War. A kind of blithe irony downplays the lead’s psychopathy in the climax in favour of its own operatic lyricism (and a great Bernard Hermann score).
Schrader’s directorial career begins with a totally accomplished debut, Blue Collar in 1978 on which he nearly killed himself taming the huge, coke-addled ego of comedian Richard Pryor. The movie was produced without interference and on a low budget by Universal. It has not been adequately seen or received anything like widespread acclaim but for all too rare Schrader scholars like Brad Stevens, who contributes a fine and lucid booklet essay to the superb Brit Indicator label's Blu-ray, which was released at the beginning of this year. Schrader, as is happily his want nowadays contributes a feature commentary track which, while as discursive as his commentaries always are, is completely riveting and full of insights into the process, the industry, his own life and background and the whole schtick of becoming a director.
I have recently binged through another four of his pictures from the period to 1992 and Light Sleeper, by-passing for reasons of time two exceptional films, American Gigolo (1980) and Mishima (1985). I am not reviewing Gigolo until Paramount gets around, if ever to replacing their atrocious Blu-ray of this with a transfer worthy of the film. I will deal with Mishima which received a superb Blu-ray transfer from Criterion around a year ago at another time.
After making Blue Collar Schrader moved straight into autobiographical territory with Hardcore (1979) in which he managed to again tame a by then profoundly alcoholic George C Scott into a fine performance in a part seemingly lifted from Wayne’s role in Ford’s The Seachers. Having learnt his lesson in expending too much time and energy on one actor, with Pryor the year before, Schrader was able to rely on Scott to bring his own considerable experience to play not only on performance, but blocking, staging, framing and timing. The movie is more schizophrenic than any of his others, and while I have a lot of time for it, Schrader himself is not happy with the film.
One objection he maintains is the extremely bright lighting that the majors (in this case Columbia) were asking their directors to use in that decade’s feature film aesthetic as television was beating down the movies' popularity. So he and DP Michael Chapman are obliged to mega light cheap motel rooms, tiny sex-on-premises booths, bordellos, private snuff film screening rooms, and worse in what seems like a 3-strip Technicolor flood of arc lamps.
Schrader complains long and hard as he also does about the producer imposed “happy” ending (which is in fact parallel to Debby being returned with Wayne in The Searchers) where he notes his own preference for open and ambiguous endings, in this case one in which it’s discovered Scott’s daughter has died months before he even searches her out. The disc is a slightly older Twilight Time Blu-ray and comes from Grover Crisp’s team at Sony so as expected PQ and quality are superb.
Cat People from 1982 is ostensibly a remake of Tourneur’s masterpiece for RKO and Val Lewton in 1942. The screenplay credit for De Witt Bodeen is retained although Schrader’s hands are all over the material. This is the second, after American Gigolo, of the four luxe-designed and dressed of his so called “Highly Polished Apple” films (the next two were Mishima and The Comfort of Strangers (1990). Schrader lays on super-saturated color, plush high contrast photography by John Bailey again, a big, big Giorgio Moroder/David Bowie score, all using a good budget from producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
The movie pumps with the visible artifice of stylized color coded sets, high contrast locations and super tight close shots that seduce the eye while the most appalling violence and perversion are going on. If the picture has any substantial meaning that makes sense, I am at a loss to find it. A lot of it is “about” Nastassia Kinski (above), perhaps one of the most beautiful women ever to appear in 80s movies, who is here put through a litany of the director’s tropes as a sexually inhibited creature whose journey to liberation and freedom from guilt has to be photographed as luxuriously as possible. Like Hitchcock, Sternberg and Dietrich, Mizoguchi and Tanaka, and so many others.
The Universal Blu-ray of this from some years ago delivers a very good rendition of original prints although I have not had time or inclination yet to uncover any supplements.
|The Comfort of Strangers|
The second most recently released disc is the semi missing-in-action Italian/UK/USA production of The Comfort of Strangers (1990). From a completely amazing novel by Ian McEwan-to draft by Harold Pinter-to final screenplay by Schrader.
|The Comfort of Strangers|
As the director himself describes this four hander, he had two layers of style and meaning upon which he could add a third. McEwan’s novel has an entirely different socio-economic context for the Chris Walken-Helen Mirren couple, and explores sexualities there through both class and the eyeglass of the ultimate irreconcilability of men and women. Pinter’s own text as always explores how men and women keep each other apart by talking. Schrader adds to this boiling pot of Freud and Leviticus, homosexuality as the more or less unspoken third element. The text is a four hander and as in his other three “De Luxe/polished apple” films, we have the ultimate tendency to deep contrast lighting, artificial, gorgeously staged settings with painted backdrops and highly concentrated locations shot mostly in close and two shot.
|The Comfort of Strangers|
Once again Schrader does a feature length commentary, this one even more discursive than usual (we’re all getting older). But it’s worth playing at least once if only for the hilarious early description of the production genesis. Here Schrader informs us that Angelo Rizzoli, both a major figure in Italian cinema and a consummate crook was, as a friend of Berlusconi, out of jail yet again after going in for (the usual) fraud charges. Hearing this, Schrader made a beeline for Rizzoli in Rome and did an obviously successful pitch which got the film made.
For reasons that may or may not have to do with copyright, Comfort has had far too little distribution. I think it’s one of his best movies and the trio of metteurs-en-scène engaged in its deliverance creates a movie in which he has rendered Venice more like Istanbul to extend the boundaries of suggestion and reference.
|The Comfort of Strangers|
Chris Walken was his one problem early, in his accustomed two-week rehearsal prior to shooting. Schrader had admired Walken since The Deer Hunter and wanted him to play the older male lead. Schrader requested he do an upper class Italian gentleman. But his demeanor and accent initially were more Joe Pesci out of New York-Italian than Schrader wanted, so he had to explain this to Walken who was mortified to discover his readings were not going well. Schrader suggested he should take a few days off and cast his mind around for an “Italian upper class poof who had been educated in London”. It worked, and two days later Walken was ready for filming.
The new BFI Blu-ray of The Comfort of Strangers is a thing of great beauty. Again it has a full length director's commentary and a transfer that has obviously gone back to O-neg and first gen 35mm fine grain. If I have any technical criticism it’s a slight tendency of the upper mask (from 1.85 standard widescreen ratio) to chop heads in medium two shots on about half a dozen shots, all exteriors of Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson (together above), who incidentally were, and are photographed as, two of the most gorgeous creatures to walk the face of the earth.
Finally, a new Blu-ray released only in Australia to date by current rights holder StudioCanal of Schrader's 1992 masterpiece, Light Sleeper. I like the transfer very much, and it's great to have the picture in Blu format but I keep having the feeling a little more time, money and technical skill from StudioCanal might have delivered something even more pristine and with even better grain rez to Ed Lachman's superb night time photography. But I really can't complain about something I never expected to see the light of day in a release as good as this.
The Oz disc is a good deal for foreign buyers if StudioCanal does not end up releasing this in other territories, although it is forced Region B, like the BFI release of The Comfort of Strangers. All other releases in this review are Region Free.