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 1946, was 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 Règle 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. 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), subsequently (1981-2018) receiving writing credits for 9 further screenplays for others (including three more for Scorsese - Raging Bull, The 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 Sleeper, Auto Focus, Affliction and now First Reformed, not to forget his contributions as a writer primarily for Scorsese and his reformulations of genre in films like Cat People, Light 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 artist...in 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)
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 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|
|Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus|
A 'man in his room' tetralogy
|Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver|
|Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo|
|Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Light Sleeper|
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|
|Joan Jett, Michael J Fox, Light of Day|
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 on. There 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.
 “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)...you have to let it develop.” ( Schrader in Thompson 15)
 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.