Friday, 21 June 2019

Bruce Hodsdon on Authorship and Hollywood - A Writer-director in New Hollywood: Paul Schrader (part 2) - Genre, Style, Outlier Productions, System, the Industry, Postscript, Box Office

Paul Schrader
Part 19 of a series on authorship in old and new Hollywood and the second part of Bruce's consideration of the career of Paul Schrader. The previous essays can be found if you click on these links.

Masculinity in extremis
Nick Nolte, Affliction
Affliction (1997), Schrader's most successful film critically (until First Reformed) and commercially a success in limited release, marks a thematic shift in Schrader's portrayal of male crisis, a story of inter-generational misperception and pain conveyed with austere naturalism or as Kevin Jackson aptly puts it (Sight & Sound), the film is “more agitated than sullen” in no small measure due to the conviction of Nick Nolte's performance with a strong supporting cast of Willem Dafoe, James Coburn (who won best supporting actor Oscar for his performance) and Sissy Spacek. It is a close adaptation, written fast by Schrader, then six years in gestation, of a semi-autobiographical novel by Russell Banks in which a poor New Hampshire town's only policeman is afflicted with the aftermath of a childhood damaged by his father's bullying - to live a life hovering on the edge of uncontrollable rage.

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.” [1]

Nicholas Cage, Dying of the Light
In Dying of the Light (2014) long term antagonists, an ageing CIA agent and a jihadist, encounter each other 22 years after the agent was severely tortured by the terrorist. Both now suffering from severe illnesses, respectively mental and physical, re-engage in mortal combat. The consensus would seem to be that a Schrader screenplay on the theme of masculinity in extremis, here interwoven with shared companionship between agents and personal enmity in the context of ideological conflict,never assumes much weight in the released version which Schrader disowns. The film was taken away from him and re-edited by the producers in what was a low point in his career and by his admission nearly killed him “through alcoholism and despondency.” He has since re-edited an unofficial version closer to his original intention re-titled Dark for screening “by film institutes.”

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
With regrets that he did not change the title from the original Val Lewton 1943 production, Schrader quotes Newsweek on Cat People (1981) as being “for the Jung at heart” which, while he considers himself also a Freudian, he says is what he wanted: “the idea of myth and the kind of primal images that are embedded in our genes.” His personal preference is for existential horror with deep spiritual connotation, like Rosemary's Baby. He saw the zookeeper (John Heard) as pursuing Irena (Natassia Kinski) as “a Beatrice figure” from Dante (“the female equivalent of Christ”). He feels that the film's failure is attributable to its falling between Cocteau-influenced art horror and the mainstream genre audience. Although he took on the script after Gigolo so as not to do a personal film, in the course of filming it became “very personal,” the John Heard character, he says, evolving along the lines of himself (Jackson 166).

Christopher Walken, Touch
Touch (1997) grew out of Schrader's desire to do an Elmore Leonard genre movie. Ironically, circumstances found him adapting what is apparently Leonard's most personal and least generic comic novel which didn't fit any category. This is why Schrader, ever ready to tackle a challenge, says he took it on; he had unexpectedly found comic elements in the SLA's revolutionary zeal in PattyHearst.

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
The screenplay of the little seen Forever Mine (1999) had been completed some years earlier, Schrader then having a desire to make a 'movie movie' - a romantic melodrama harking back to “a Sirk sensibility.” It was a challenge he decided to take up because a retro movie in this genre, he says, did not come naturally to him. The first half is in the languorous style of All That Heaven Allows,the second halfgiven over to the more violent pacing of Written on the Wind.  It shares a personal “Beatrice” inflection in the central relationship with Cat People - the tale of a romantic triangle which ends in violence. In Sirk's oeuvre it is perhaps closest to Written on the Wind sans Sirkian irony. Schrader refers to “blending elements of Nicholas Ray and Sirk à la Imitation of Life” in his “own melodramatic side.” (Bliss int.) Cinematographer John Bailey brings a lush Fifties Hollywood look to Schrader's assured mise-en-scène. There were some difficulties in casting the male lead, a dual role “involving the return of a dead lover in altered form,” Schrader notes, as in 'Wuthering Heights'.

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
With TouchSchrader has written and directed only one comedy, if of a special kindIn other writers' scripts he has found dark, absurdist humour unexpectedly in Patty Hearst (1988) and in Dog Eat Dog (2016).  At the Director's Fortnight screening of Dog Eat Dog at Cannes,Schrader warned the audience not to take the gonzo excess “too seriously.” By his own admission Schrader in his mise-en-scène, matches the cartoonish violence and manic excess of the trash script with moments of brilliance in pushing the tropes of the crime film over the edge amplified by the performances - Willem Dafoe managing to outgun Nicolas Cage at full throttle. There is a final shootout in which narrative logic is overridden by the hallucinatory visuals suggestive of parodic redemption.

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
An underlying motivation for Schrader in making the obverse of Dog Eat DogFirst 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.

Outlier productions
Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Adam Resurrected
Adam Resurrected (2008) is a German-Israeli-US co-production adapted by Noah Stollman from a novel by Yoram Kaniuk, Schrader taking up the challenge of a surreal comedy-drama about a Holocaust survivor who before the war was a charismatic magician and circus impresario, one of his roles being to play a dog onstage. In wartime internment he is forced, for survival, to re-enact the role by a camp commandant while his wife and daughter go to the gas chamber.  Schrader's first, in Deleuzian terms, time-image film with an intricate flashback structure in monochrome and colour, spanning three decades from Berlin, pre-war and in the fifties, the Holocaust, and a fictional institute for Holocaust survivors in the desert, 1961, where it opens and closes. 

Lindsay Lohan, The Canyons
The Canyons (2013), nominated as Schrader's Showgirls, is seemingly symptomatic of the downturn in his career following The Walker, substantially self-financed by the Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis after the proposed collaboration between the director and the writer of American Psycho on a filmto be madewith Spanish moneycame to grief at the last minute. Schrader persuaded Ellis that all that was needed was not that expensive: “beautiful people, nice rooms, bad things, and sharp talk,” Ellis delivering 'a risible script' involving stereotypical characters, although acted out with some flair and filmed by Schrader with style. He places a montage of derelict movie houses in LA behind the credits, an apparent metaphor for the state of the movie business.

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 - BlueCollarHardcoreLight of Day, and later Auto Focusand Affliction -following classical aesthetics or what Adrian Martin terms an expressiveapproach to mise-en-scène[2]through scripted plot and character contrasting with the manneristdrawing attention to style in Cat PeopleMishimaand 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 CanyonsDog Eat Dog, and a dispositif  procedure (imposition of constraints)[3]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 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 indicates that he immediately recognised the opportunity when offered the directing role in The Comfort of Strangers (1990). In Harold Pinter's script he was attracted to “the complexity of language and behaviour...[where] characters are always saying one thing and meaning another.” Schrader affirms that he is “attracted to the very idea of a psychological life running just under the surface of normal life.” (Jackson 198) He saw that his role in Comfort was to provide a visual signature while not obscuring the signature of Pinter's script from an Ian McEwan novel. To the increasingly bizarre, ultimately fatal encounter, of two couples in an unsettlingly labyrinthine Venice, Schrader and cinematographer Dante Spinotti bring what he calls a “stylistic sheen...a more seamless kind of direction” he had employed in Gigolo– Bertolucci inspired 'floating' mise-en-scène – “to create a dream/nightmarish fantasy of Venice.” (Smith int. 1992). A septic, stifling mood increasingly envelops the bleakly elegant palazzo (designed by Giannai Quaranta) for the obsessive playing out of gender based behavioural paradoxes.

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[4]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) [5]

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 Priestmeant 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 (IdaCold War). Having just made Dog Eat DogFirst 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.

The Industry
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 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

Main sources
George Kourvaros Paul Schrader:The Teller and the Tale 2008; Schrader interviewed by Kourvaros, op cit; Schrader on Schrader and other writings,ed.Kevin Jacksonrevised 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 linkinterview with Richard ThompsonFilm 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 FilmAmerican Film July/August 1989; interview by Glenn Rechter in Cineaste v17/1 1989; Richard Combs, review of Blue CollarMonthly 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 websiteJohn R Hamilton, “Paul Schrader” “Great Directors” Senses of Cinema October 2010                                                                         
Collaborations, themes and box office
CinematographyJohn 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 crisisHardcore, Mishima, Affliction (Nolte), Bringing Out the Dead (Cage) scr only, Dying in the Light/Dark, First Reformed (Hawke). 
BiopicsMishima(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 onlyThe 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)

Box Office
 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 People(18)Affliction6.3 (6),

More than $1m.: First Reformed 3.8 (3.5),Auto Focus (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 CollarHardcore,Adam Resurrected(10)Dying of the Light(5)

Other (non-theatrical releases): Forever Mine(17)Witch Hunt(HBO)

End Notes referenced in the text
[1] 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.
[2] Adrian Martin, “Mise en Scène,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory 2015.
[3] 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.
[4] 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)
[5]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).

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