Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Bruce Hodsdon on Authorship and Hollywood - A Writer-director in New Hollywood: Paul Schrader

Part 18 of a series on authorship in old and new Hollywood. The subject of part 17 is the work of writer-director Joseph L Mankiewicz, a writer-director in ‘Old’ Hollywood. The previous essays can be found if you click on these links.

Part One: Biopics, the Tetralogy

Paul Schrader (left) born in 1946was brought up in a strict Dutch Calvinist household in Michigan and did not see his first movie in a cinema until in he was in his mid-teens. He has said that his church “did not believe in the image... they were anti-iconography.” He was a student at Calvin College, part seminary, part liberal arts, where he began writing about  films for the college film club. He met the doyenne of American film criticism, Pauline Kael, in 1967. She became his mentor, “demanding fealty” while not respecting anyone who did not stand up to her. His first professional engagement with cinema was as a film critic on an LA newspaper and later editor of the magazine Cinema. In 1969 he was introduced to Jean Renoir with whom he had regular Saturday meetings to talk, amongst other things, about the young critic's love for Bresson which he says intrigued the great man. La R├Ęgle du Jeu remains Schrader's “quintessential movie.” His master's thesis at UCLA on film aesthetics, Transcendental Style in the films of Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer was subsequently published in 1972; a second edition coinciding with the release of First Reformed, includes a new essay by Schrader, “Rethinking Transcendental Style.”

Graduating in 1970, Schrader briefly took up a fellowship in film criticism at the newly established American Film Institute during which time he met architect and filmmaker Charles Eames whose influence (“that ideas were not just the province of language”) persuaded him to switch from writing criticism to pursue a career in filmmaking as a script  writer.[1] After working as a script reader for Columbia, Schrader completed his first screenplays - The Yakuza (74) - with his brother Leonard, and Taxi Driver taken up by Martin Scorsese (1975),[2] subsequently (1981-2018) receiving writing credits for 9 further screenplays for others (including three more for Scorsese - Raging BullThe Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead). Just after Taxi Driver in 1976 Schrader spoke of “a fork in the road, seeing criticism [as] essentially sacred and screenwriting profane.” (Thomson int.)

From the perspective of his early films from Blue Collar (1977) to Patty Hearst (1988) critic Richard Combs seemed intrigued by Schrader if not uncritical, finding that in his films he “gives us the mask of the thing, not the thing itself... A baffled quality...[films]which drive their characters to a crisis of faith or identity, but then treat it in terms of [a] rather schematic, studiously blocked and timed action scenario [in] an attempt to combine the quiet contemplation of interior mysteries beloved of a religious critic with the thrill-hungry movies of a secular director.” To Combs there is “a blankness in his films...a trace of Calvinism,” the Calvinist influence which Schrader does not deny.

While Combs's speculation might be seen by Schrader's critics to more or less hold, most of all in his earlier work with the exception perhaps of Mishima and American Gigolo,  hismost successfully defining films as director were, at the time of Combs's writing, yet to come.  The most notable are Light SleeperAuto FocusAffliction and now First Reformed, not to forget his contributions as a writer primarily for Scorsese and his reformulations of genre in films like Cat PeopleLight of Day, and Touch. Combs recognises, yet to me undervalues, Schrader's exploratory, restless intelligence as both writer and director, evident early in his criticism and theoretical writing. For “blankness” I would substitute a certain elusive quality in which a personal engagement with some of his characters combines with a distancing of the profane, free of humanist sentiment, the effect at times being something like zooming in while simultaneously tracking back.  

 As Combs notes and Schrader himself recognises, his films, particularly his earlier works, have “the quality of chamber cinema, both literal and metaphorical,” (1991) from the 'man in a room' prison beginning with Taxi Driver, the cage in Cat People, and in Patty Hearst the way personality is a mask, in Mishima to be torn off in pursuit of the 'true' self.

Schrader has completed 13 features as writer-director and a further 8 as director without a writing credit. He has said that when he directs his own scripts he tries not to think about having written them and that the more he works the less enamoured he is with the idea of the writer-director. He has found “something invigorating about the creative friction between the writer and director.
                               When you direct, you have to put that writer aside, make him an antagonist so that
                                you can rethink the material and bring it to visual life...If you think too much as a
                                director while you write, you'll short change yourself as a writer.
                                                                                                                 (American Film July-Aug 89 )

Despite his early breakthrough in Hollywood as a writer and while “satisfying commercially and a pleasant lifestyle,” Schrader has admitted that “being a (screen)writer is rather unsatisfying for an the end you feel you don't have anything that represents you” ( Jackson int.141). He says that he never writes “as a director” only as a writer: theme, story, structure, character, dialogue. He rarely puts in a camera direction (there was only one he says in his script of Taxi Driver), and then only as an indication “when it is an important kind of statement.” He is emphatic that when he writes for others he doesn't tell them how to direct. (Dialogue AF 20)

In contrast to Joseph L Mankiewicz, Schrader sees screenwriting as not about writing at all,“it's storytelling and therefore is part of an oral tradition.” The indispensable way to judge whether an idea will work,” Schrader insists, is that “you have to tell your story to someone.” He poses the question: “how do you get into that oral tradition?” He suggests that a point of access is to find a metaphor, i.e. “an expression of the problem” and the outline of a story based on the metaphor from which arises a theme getting to the point “where you have a theme and metaphor, a premise and the outline of a story.” The most important elements are “theme, story, characterisation and structure.” (ibid 15)

Schrader claims that there are no “themeless directors,” just directors who pretend that they have nothing to say...(and) end up saying something inconsequential, trivial, detrimental.” (ibid 20) For himself he has referred to his theme as “redemption through self destruction” something “inculcated in him as a child of the church and all that bleeding-Christ consciousness.” (ibid) At the time of speaking (1989) he felt he was past all that, “Mishima (1985) representing the end of my interest in suicidal glory. Taxi Driver was that of an uneducated man. And Mishima that of an educated man.” (ibid). Schrader describes Travis Bickle as himself at the time he wrote the script “without any brains.” Critic Richard Combs described Schrader in the eighties as “perverse and individualistic, one of the wild men of New Hollywood...set on cornering one of the staid areas of cinema: the bio-pic.” (199). In his 'suicidal days' in the mid-seventies Schrader was, he admits,“enamoured with guns.” Mishimasatiated his urge to do a film about “a suicidal artist.” (Jackson 175).

Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor, Blue Collar
In Blue Collar (1977), his first film as writer-director, Schrader's intelligence and openness to the challenge are already evident. He said that his main purpose was to make an entertainment not a political film but in the process of developing the script it had “logically to come to a Marxist conclusion” (Combs 1978) - that of worker solidarity - which remains implicit in assuming a power of its own, not Schrader's personal position which favours 'making your own way'. The three workers find themselves caught in playing a game of survival between the authorities (the FBI) and union officials who, in effect, in the film are the ruling class. In retrospect he sees the politics of the film as being that of “resentment and claustrophobia, the feeling of being manipulated and not in control of your life.” (Jackson 148)

The Biopics
There is a shift from the intellectual construct of spiritual crisis in Hardcore and American Gigolo to real ones in Mishima and Patty Hearst. Patty is passive and unformed, Mishima is an actively contradictory aesthete and narcissistic political activist. Schrader is here working his way towards a character represented but yet to be reduced to a state of non-being in a Bressonian twin faceted self-mortifying prison, the religious impulse and guilt persisting through secular existential worries.

Ogata Ken, Mishima
Schrader describes Mishima (1985) as the film he “stands by” as a director (and by Taxi Driver as a writer) - “the element of perverse joy in doing it – just the fact that nobody had ever done anything like that before [both culturally and aesthetically], and nobody thought I could do it.” John Hamilton in praise of Mishima suggests “that it should be film schools.” (SoC). He is referring to the audacious mix of naturalism (episodes from his life) and stylisation in staging scenes from Mishima's novels, a mixture of black and white and colour to signify wide ranging shifts in time and narrative mode. The elaborate structure draws out the contradictions in Mishima's life in a radical biopic without peer in its implied critique of the genre which Schrader sees as invariably involving falsification of facts for dramatic purposes, something he aimed to avoid. If there is anything to question it is lack of perspective. As one review put it, “it only allows us to understand Mishima as he understood himself.” (see reference to the place of subjective experience in the Schrader “System” in part 2)

Schrader says that he started the film without a model. By a quirk of funding he had the freedom of “making a movie that no-one ever expected to make a dime.” The only criterion he acknowledged he needed “to hold the film up to was that of excellence.” (Jackson 180). It evolved, as he filmed, into an intense four part meditation on 'suicidal glory', “Mishima's seppuku, [ritualised suicide] rendered by Schrader as the ultimate consequence of the writer's obsession with beauty and unattainability.” (Bliss FQ)

Natasha Richardson, Patty Hearst
The first half of Patty Hearst (1988) is her expressionistic nightmare of non-being, which is primarily visual and apparently was not in the script credited to Nicholas Kazan. The second half assumes the dimension of an absurdist comedy of her 'revolutionary activity'. In place of a conventional story, here it can be doubly represented – interior, exterior, through Patty (Natasha Richardson) and the SLA respectively. She is a passive protagonist given unconventional stylistic treatment. The political is infused with the religious – how one changes the world caught up with the problem of how one redeems oneself. Comedy is in the way the revolution is rehearsed.

Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus
Auto Focus (2002), marks another startling switch by Schrader in both subject and style. It is the last of his four biopics, in addition to Mishima (1985), Patty Hearst (1988), and his screenplays for Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), seemingly confirming his early ongoing interest in biographical subjects of difficult or sordid notoriety - there was also his unfilmed script based on the life of Hank Williams.  Auto Focus,withRaging Bull and Mishima, are biopics in which Schrader dissectsunyielding male behaviour. It first seems like a singular meditation on a cluelessly bland tv celebrity's (Bob Crane of Hogan's Heroesplayed by Greg Kinnear) increasingly obsessive pursuit and recording of sex with women on video through the course of which he remains strangely vacant as, in a subtle form of expressionism, the unstable images darken, the editing disconnects, and the world clutters around him and his male partner in obsession played by Schrader 'regular' Willem Dafoe. Schrader feels that he should have been given a writer's credit for introducing the narration allowing for a freer structure. It is also an exemplary Schrader work, a painfully misanthropic treatise on the sexualised image of American masculinity, a companion piece it has been suggested, to his sleeker American Gigolo (1979).

A 'man in his room' tetralogy

Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
It is generally acknowledged that Schrader's oeuvre of 21 features, given his undisputed auteur credentials, to date is difficult to classify as a body of work. The need for redemption has continued to figure thematically, if at times ambiguously, through Schrader's work in what he has referred to as the loneliness of “a man in his room.”  He has completed a tetralogyover time beginning with his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1975) in which he sees Travis Bickle as angry in “the loneliness of the front seat” of his taxi; the 'man' is a narcissistic gigolo in American Gigolo (1980); in Light Sleeper (1992)he is an anxious 40 year old drug dealer in “the back seat” of the cab; he is 50 years old in The Walker (2007), a closeted gay society “walker,” the portrait of a man of another era who, for Schrader, is also in the back seat. (Kourvaros int 122), forming a quintet with First Reformed.

Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo
Schrader has said that it was in making American Gigolo(1979), for the first time he had a clear sense of the difference between visual logic and illustration, what he suggests Walter Benjamin was referring to when he talked about photography freeing the image from the tyranny of the writer (Schrader FC 41). It's the transition Schrader says “when you start to see images as ideas.” (Jackson 27) It was something that impacted upon him through his earlier contact with Charles Eames. Schrader admits that, compared to say Nic Roeg whom he says “lived in a kind of nonverbal world of images,” he undervalues himself  “still, by and large, an illustrator as a filmmaker” (Kourvaros int 129). It seemed natural to set the film in LA because the city is consistent with that kind of moral world. He hit on the theme of the gigolo as a character of surfaces therefore the film had to be a play on surfaces -“the theme is the inability to express love, the metaphor is the gigolo.” (ibid 158)

Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Light Sleeper
Light Sleeper (1992) is a film about the mid-life crisis of a drug dealer,“a man who doesn't know what to do next,” following several increasingly tense days in his life. In playing John LaTour, Dafoe describes himself as in a “server's role...acted upon rather than acting,” a passivity not usual for a male lead. Schrader says he came to him in a dream: a character he had known years earlier and had written about for ten years, a man he then tracked down who helped him with research (ibid 231). Because it hadn't been done before, Schrader found the process invigorating of making a drug dealer sympathetic, identifying his daily routines in an almost documentary fashion. He intended the film to have a ballad structure with LaTour having three voices (dialogue, diary and the songs). The confident structural interweaving of stylistic elements marks Light Sleeper as the standout film of the tetralogy. The cinematographer Ed Lachman said that they looked at Antonioni films in preparation for the shooting, most apparent in the hospital scene (Rayns April 92).  

Schrader's first New York film since Taxi Driver is in a city with a sophisticated 'dial-a-drug' system for well-off clients in which transportation is dominated by taxis. Here the protagonist is in the back seat; in Taxi Driver he's in the front. There are elements of displaced autobiography in Light Sleeper, which if not a literal,is more of a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver. Because the film is not strongly directional Schrader found that he had to resort to genre-like violence for the ending, something he thinks he avoided in The Walker which also has an existential theme. The music is an integral part of the film's shape and movement, a ballad-like structure originally intended for apocalyptic Bob Dylan lyrics.

Lauren Bacall, Woody Harrelson, The Walker
The Walker (2007), eight years from script to production, was intended as the final part completing the character studies of the loose tetralogy showing how things have changed over three decades. Woody Harrelson plays an existential loner in his fifties, something of an anachronism - a reasonably wealthy, urbane, gay man with a double life as an unpaid escort of grand Washington ladies to public functions. Schrader sees him as “a variation on the Gere character in American Gigolo 25 years later.” (Jackson 239) He becomes a suspect in a stabbing murder. As in Gigolo the murder mystery is secondary to the protagonist's psychology as a vulnerable narcissist (he lives in the shadow of his deceased father's success as a corrupt but powerfully successful politician). The film moves towards another prison scene, as in Gigolo and Light Sleeper, with the redemptive shades, here in a minor key, of Bresson's Pickpocket. The resonant  thematic conception and strong supporting cast including Lauren Bacall, was not sufficient to prevent the film's failure to attract much of an audience, reflective of the lack of a star of Richard Gere's appeal and Gigolo'stylish elegance that Scarfotti's visual design, Bailey's lush cinematography and Moroder's score provided.

Joan Jett, Michael J Fox, Light of Day
Like Blue Collar, Schrader's debut film as writer/director, Light of Day (1987) a decade later portrays the frustrations of working class life also in naturalistic style and has strong autobiographical elements. Schrader wanted “to get across rock and roll's function in everyday life.” (ibid 185). Also, like Blue CollarLight of Day was filmed not far from where Schrader had his Calvinist upbringing in Michigan. It is also from where the central character in Hardcore (1978) played by George C Scott, whom Schrader has said is based on his father, sets out to his search for his daughter. The Gena Rowlands character in Light of Day, he says is based on his mother.

While male roles generally take centre stage in Schrader's films, the female roles played in Light of Day by Joan Jett and Rowlands, a fraught but ultimately movingly redemptive mother-daughter relationship,is a major exception. Another is Susan Sarandon in Light Sleeper as Dafoe's old friend and his drug dealing boss with plans to move onThere are at least two other central, if 'outsider', female roles in Schrader's oeuvre, Nastassia Kinski as the 'Beatrice' figure in the existential horror of Cat People and Natasha Richardson in Patty Hearst.  

[1] “When you analyze films, you're dealing with a cadaver, you work it over and certainly it's a valid enterprise; you're seeing why the cadaver lived or died. But when you're writing films you're dealing with a kind of nascent primitive force that's alive and unformed (a foetus) have to let it develop.” ( Schrader in Thompson 15)                                 

[2] Schrader's script for Taxi Driver not only gave major impetus to his career in filmmaking but also to those of Scorsese and DiNero. Schrader speaks of it as 'a special case' in that they and the producers (Michael and Julia Phillips) made large financial sacrifices (DiNero in particular) by sticking together for the deal in order to make the film. (Thompson int. 11)

Notes on Sources, an Appendix and Box Office reports will be included at the end of Part 2 of this essay.

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