Masculinity in extremis
|Nick Nolte, Affliction|
Schrader has acknowledged that transformation of some kind has to happen in his work - “there has to be an opening up of the character to a dimension of the spirit and the supernatural.” (Kourvaros int.123). The need for redemption is there in Affliction but ends in an ambiguity approaching stasis. For Kouvaros Schrader's history since Affliction “demonstrates the difficulty of pinning his films down and the inherently unstable nature of his position in Hollywood.” 
|Nicholas Cage, Dying of the Light|
Schrader has shown the capacity to pursue a career outside the mainstream of the Hollywood majors with his own “problem solving” across different genres. Adrian Martin finds rigour in his deployment of naturalism in Blue Collar and Light of Day, seeing the former as a gangster film at several removes, gangsterism transformed by the treatment “at the level of characterisation” of union bosses as “heavies.” The central trio of workers, forming a “band of outsiders,” are placed in an “intricate set of spacings,” in their view of themselves in relation to the social context's determination of the system of power. In Light of Day Martin finds Schrader playing “a quiet, cagey game” with generic expectations in appropriating expectations of the family melodrama and teen rock movie “that a realist movie is not meant to be aware of.”
|Nastassia Kinski, Cat People|
|Christopher Walken, Touch|
Touch is centred on a man who may be a miracle worker and saint, “a dark comedy about a stigmatic,” a satirical play with a touch of screwball on the unresolved tension between belief and doubt. Schrader shares the writer's ambivalence about spirituality in American culture in a difficult mix of religiosity and vulgar humour. Adrian Martin identifies its varying elements of understated complexity which he considers give the film a “genuine Elmore Leonard aura.”
|Joseph Fiennes, Forever Mine|
As an international co-production lacking big name stars to lend genre credibility and without a pre-production commitment or subsequent adequate distribution offers, Forever Mine, a $17 millionco-production, ended up going straight to cable. This was a major disappointment for Schrader who, in an interview just after its completion, “had the feeling” that it was going to be a success. (Bliss op cit)
|Nicholas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Dog Eat Dog|
|Ethan Hawke, First Reformed|
provides a context for his leading character, the Reformed Church pastor, to directly ask: “how can God forgive what humans have done to his creation?” This is also borne out of Schrader's belief that “humanity as we know it, is unlikely to make it into the next century.” While their efficacy can be debated, I contend that, in contrast to his earlier work, the phases of transcendental style from the emergence of disparity to stasis are present and unified in both the form and content of First Reformed. A detailed outline of transcendental style as realised by Schrader will follow these two parts as a separate post on Film Alert.
|Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Adam Resurrected|
|Lindsay Lohan, The Canyons|
In part 12 of this series (Cassavetes Pt 2) I introduced Sam Rohdie's identification of an auteur as “someone who creates his or her own system rather than bringing an existing one into play”. Kourvaros suggests that each of Schrader's films pose a question at its core: “how do I make this film...tell a story?” The basis of Schrader's personal preference for Kubrick, over say Hitchcock and Ford, is in his asking “how am I going to solve this problem?” Like Kubrick he sees himself ambivalently “always grappling with the material to see who will win” ( Kourvaros 128).
The stylistic diversity across the seemingly wide spectrum of Schrader's oeuvre is well illustrated by his early films - BlueCollar, Hardcore, Light of Day, and later Auto Focusand Affliction -following classical aesthetics or what Adrian Martin terms an expressiveapproach to mise-en-scènethrough scripted plot and character contrasting with the manneristdrawing attention to style in Cat People, Mishimaand PattyHearst, andthe modernist floating mise-en-scène in American Gigoloand The Company of Strangers. The surreal Adam Resurrectedmarks what seems a decisive departure from expressive mise-en-scène also in The Canyons, Dog Eat Dog, and a dispositif procedure (imposition of constraints)followed in First Reformed.
At the centre of the Schrader System in his scripts and films, is what Kourvaros identifies as revolving “around questions of experience: the struggle to make sense of people and things, in the present and past...The issue for Schrader is how to convey this notion of subjective experience while also heeding other necessities such as genre, plot tension, and narrative resolution...The struggle [is] to narrate experience...to create characters... being claimed by experience... central to the drama yet no longer central to the story” (Kourvaros pp 98-103). Schrader deploys heightened artifice to make the fabrication, inherent in most biopics, visible in Mishima so astoembody the contradictions in Mishima's life ( Kourvaros pp 59-63). This 'struggle' to narrate experience is in the 'man in his room' quintet plus, quintessentially, in Affliction (in which the central narrative event is false)and in varying degrees in his other films, most notably in those as writer-directorculminating in the narrative ambiguities of First Reformed.
As one of the so-called “movie brats” (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanovich, De Palma et al) that emerged in the late 60s-early seventies, Schrader in American Gigolowas at the forefront of introducing camera movement “used in a more psychological way” independent of the action, common in European cinema (Schrader acknowledges The Conformist as a major influence), but infrequent in American films. (Jackson 211). He feels that American Gigolo was his first film that had a visual identity “to create a new kind of LA” in collaboration with cinematographer John Bailey, visual consultant Scarfiotti, and Giorgio Moroder (ibid 158).
Schrader has been ambivalent about the advantages of directing his own scripts, missing the potential for creative tension between writer and director. At the same time his own experience in writing for other people's films has made him all too aware of the writer's vulnerability as his accounts in Schrader on Schrader show. The director of another's credited screenplay is not creatively vulnerable in the same way. Once he started directing films as an independent, commissioned screenplays were, above all, a means of maintaining his independence on his own films.
|Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken|
The Comfort of Strangers
Schrader never storyboards, finding that “so much of directing is spontaneous...what ends up on the screen is the cumulative product of thousands of decisions made on the spur of the moment” (ibid 204,188). This might seem, superficially at least, in contradiction to the mapped out structure of transcendental style taken into First Reformed.
One can notice, in the interstices of a classical narrative style over two decades from Blue Collar through Light of Day to Affliction, the transition of the director paying great attention to the intricacies of mise-en-scène that George Kourvaros notes in Affliction“invests even small camera movement with significant force while buildings and landscapes are given atmospherically ominous weight” (op cit 98). This reflects what Schrader regards as “the growth in his visual intelligence.” He sees the naturalism of Light of Day as a “meat and potatoes style...a literary vision” from which he resolved to move away (Jackson op cit 188).
A mark of the movie brats’ work was to evoke themes and find visual inspiration in their films from other films or genres, well known examples being Schrader drawing on The Searchers for theme and plot inTaxi Driver and Hardcore, Pickpocket for the endings of American Gigolo and Light Sleeper, and L'Eclisse for the architecture in Gigolo. In the case of Dog Eat Dog he says he “set out by asking how do you make a crime film in 2016 after Scorsese, Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Wayne Kramer?” He went through all the recent films for an answer and selected and recombined items to make the genre “feel fresh again.” (Perry int.). The final scene in First Reformed evokes Vertigo as also does his script for De Palma's Obsession.During filming of the Cat People he had copies of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and Orphée on the set. (Jackson 170) 
The first piece of film criticism Schrader wrote five decades earlier was about spiritual cinema and the first script he wrote was about an archetypal loner in Taxi Driver, “a character, who is a sort of cross between the Pickpocket and the Country Priest, meant to evoke the barren sterility of the landscape” (Jackson op cit 110) linking with First Reformed (2018) to form a full circle. Previously, as writer-director, Schrader made overt references to transcendental style in at least some of his films (specifically in what he refers to as “emotionally blinding moments”) without ever committing himself to seeking disparity and stasis. His move to “cross the bridge” into a fully introspective work with First Reformed was first inspired by a conversation he had with Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War). Having just made Dog Eat Dog, First Reformed, in part, resulted from Schrader's “urge to do the complete opposite.” The Nolte character in Affliction would seem most linked to Ethan Hawke's experiment with self-annihilation in First Reformed.
Schrader has acknowledged that his ability to work on small to medium budgets ($5-30 m) combined with the industry's ability to accommodate his unusual films (he has had only one major box office success), says something about the greater institutional flexibility from the mid-seventies to the early nineties which evaporated as the majors concentrated on tentpole productions.
In 2000 Schrader expressed a desire to work for the major studios - the big flexible budgets, the love of “those toys” and the accompanying production schedules. “It was grand and great fun to work with a $40 million budget on Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005), although he concedes that, “ultimately it wasn't a journey worth taking...it wasn't my film...Unless the agreement is set up the right way, there's always going to be a lot of interference.” (Kourvaros, int. 132) The success of an indie production is likely to produce the temptation of “lucrative offers for things I don't really want to do,” a dilemma he adds “I haven't faced for a while.”
The film by film accounts in Schrader on Schrader are most often prefaced by the protracted process of obtaining finance, the lot of the writer-director intent on maintaining his/her independence to choose and shape projects. The increased possibility of international co-productions has been a factor in the increase in medium to lower budget American indie production from the late eighties. Crucial has been the economies of digital production which allowed Schrader to shoot First Reformed in half the time (and production cost) it would have taken two decades earlier. Click on the following link to read “Authorship in Hollywood” (1) Part 15 of this series
Post Script: Schrader embraces whatever new technology has to offer for an independent filmmaker, at the same time as he retrospectively rethinks transcendental cinema. He believes that, in a broad sense, we have been living “in a sweet spot in human history” (q.v. below). In 2006 Schrader rethought the commitment he made following the invitation to write a film version of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon,finding himself sharing Walter Benjamin's insight that motion pictures were not so much an art form as a transitional phase. It is morphing technologies that, he suggests, dictate what 'film' will become, the century of cinema being but a phase in audio-visual culture. Such recognition, Schrader has come to believe, is the only context in which formulating such a canon (by definition involving transcending personal and popular taste) might be of some lasting value. See Paul Schrader “The Book I Didn't Write” Film Comment Sept-Oct 2006; interview with Tara Brady (10/5/18) if you click on this link
George Kourvaros Paul Schrader:The Teller and the Tale 2008; Schrader interviewed by Kourvaros, op cit; Schrader on Schrader and other writings,ed.Kevin Jackson, revised version 2004, also “Blood on the Tracks” (Light Sleeper), Sight & Sound October 1991; Sam Rohdie, “Authorship” pp.25-29, Film Modernism 2015; Francey Russell “Exercises in Self-Destruction: On Paul Schrader's “First Reformed,” Los Angeles Review of Books 13/7/18 if you click on this link; interview with Richard Thompson, Film Comment Mar-Apr 1976; “Deliberate Boredom in the Church of Cinema” interview with Alex Ross PerryCinemaScope 2018; Bill Nicholson American Gigolo with a P.S by Schrader attached, Film Quarterly Summer 1981; interview by Michael Bliss in Film Quarterly v.54/1, 2000; Dialogue on Film, American Film July/August 1989; interview by Glenn Rechter in Cineaste v17/1 1989; Richard Combs, review of Blue Collar, Monthly Film Bulletin Nov. 1978, “Patty Hearst and Paul Schrader: A Life and a Career in 14 Stations” Sight and Sound Summer 1989, also review of “The Comfort of Strangers” by Combs and interview with Schrader Monthly Film Bulletin January 1991; interview with Gavin Smith Film Comment Mar-Apr1992; a review of Auto Focus by Linda Ruth Williams in Sight & Sound Mar. 2003;Philip Concannon “Faithful Servant” Sight & Sound August 2018; reviews by Tony Rayns of “Light Sleeper” Sight & Sound April 1992, “The Canyons” June 2014, and “First Reformed”August 2018; a review byBrad Stevens of Adam Resurrected, Sight &Sound Feb 2010 p 85; reviews by Adrian Martin of Blue Collar, The Comfort of Strangers, Light of Day and Touch,collected on his personal website; John R Hamilton, “Paul Schrader” “Great Directors” Senses of Cinema October 2010
Collaborations, themes and box office
Cinematography: John Bailey(American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima, Light of Day, Forever Mine) Dante Spinotti ( The Comfort of Strangers), Ed Lachman(Light Sleeper, Touch) Ferdinando Scarfiotti (visual consultant on American Gigolo, Cat People).
Music:Jack Nitzsche(Blue Collar, Hardcore), Giorgio Moroder (American Gigolo, Cat People) Philip Glass (Mishima), Angelo Badalamenti (Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers, Auto Focus, Witch Hunt, Forever Mine).
Man in his room tetralogy : Taxi Driver (DeNiro) scr only, American Gigolo (Gere), Light Sleeper (Dafoe), The Walker (Harrelson).
Male crisis: Hardcore, Mishima, Affliction (Nolte), Bringing Out the Dead (Cage) scr only, Dying in the Light/Dark, First Reformed (Hawke).
Biopics: Mishima(dir, co-w), Raging Bull (co-w), Patty Hearst (dir), The Last Temptation of Christ (scr only), Auto Focus(dir).
Other:Blue Collar, Cat People (81), Light of Day, The Comfort of Strangers (dir only), Touch, Forever Mine, Dog Eat Dog (dir only)
Screenplays only: The Yakuza (74), Taxi Driver (76), Obsession (76), Rolling Thunder (77), Old Boyfriends (79), Raging Bull (80), The Mosquito Coast (87), The Last Temptation of Christ (88), City Hall (96), Bringing Out the Dead (99), The Jesuit (18)
International co-pros(7) : Patty Hearst (1988), The Comfort of Strangers (90), Affliction (97), Forever Mine (99), The Walker (07), Adam Resurrected (08), Dying in the Light (14)
Although Light of Day (starring Michael J Fox)is the second highest grosser of Schrader's films it was a failure theatrically since it was given a wide release. Cat People was similarly disappointing. Affliction and First Reformed, on the other hand,in grossing more than their modest budgets in limited 'art house' release, could be considered box office successes. Increasingly non-theatrical release has accounted for 50% or more of returns. Theatrical release still plays an important, if diminishing, role in giving a film a public profile. The iconic place of Taxi Driver in the New American Cinema and his early success at the box office with American Gigolo would seem to have had a strategic role in his ability to negotiate finance for subsequent productions despite a succession of indifferent theatrical returns. Scriptwriting assignments have also been important in sustaining his career as an independent writer-director. US box office ($US million) for films directed by Schrader (those on which he was both writer and director are in bold) and each film's estimated budget (in italics) are given below, where available. Source: IMDB
More than $5m.: American Gigolo23m (4.8),Light of Day10.5, Cat People7 (18), Affliction6.3 (6),
More than $1m.: First Reformed 3.8 (3.5),Auto Focus 2 (7.5), Patty Hearst1.2, Comfort of Strangers1.2, Light Sleeper1.05 (5.5)
Less than $1m : Mishima0.5 (5.8),Touch 0.41, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist 0.25 (30), The Walker0.8 (10),The Canyons 0.05 (0.25), Dog Eat Dog0.07
b.o. n/a : Blue Collar, Hardcore,Adam Resurrected(10), Dying of the Light(5)
Other (non-theatrical releases): Forever Mine(17), Witch Hunt(HBO)
End Notes referenced in the text
 Kourvaros's observation in 2007 continued to hold for Schrader through the following decade, perhaps the most unstable in his filmmaking career until the success of First Reformed.
 Kourvaros's observation in 2007 continued to hold for Schrader through the following decade, perhaps the most unstable in his filmmaking career until the success of First Reformed.
 Adrian Martin, “Mise en Scène,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory 2015.
 Martin in the concluding chapter of his book Mise en Scène and Film Style 2014, begins with describing dispositif as “a game [although Schrader would not see his film as 'game playing] with rules, where the execution of the game's moves -following the rules- [in generating] outcomes, results and sometimes surprises ...[The] rules can be the structures or parameters of a film.” (179) An example given is The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth & Lars von Trier 2003). In relocating the above logic, a dispositifcan be found in transcendental style's pre-set procedure - a three phase application to a narrative of increasingly sparse means. A dispostif can also involve increasingly abundant means - as Martin proceeds to explore.
 Schrader also acknowledges the Bressonian elements in Taxi Driver – the attention to detail, the quotidian of one's life, the diary format, the monocular vision of the world through Travis's eyes. (Thompson int. 11)
Schrader distinguishes his formative years from those of fellow movie brats, Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas etc “whose whole adolescent consciousness [was] defined by movies, my adolescent consciousness [was] defined by the church and the family structure.” (Brady int. op cit).