Friday, May 26

The Directors: Paul Schrader

He was more successful and renowned as a screenwriter than a director and in both fields the result was edgy, noirish, brutal, sexual and existential and often focused on social alienation and cultural revolt.  There is no doubt he deserved his place among
that movie brat club of directors of the late 70s although he only made two films in that decade.  

He may be more highly-credentialed than some of the other brats but he certainly had an upbringing far different than theirs.  Paul Schrader was born in 1946 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a strict Dutch Calvinist environment.  He was raised on orthodox, perhaps even harsh, church principles and rigid parental teachings.  There was very little wiggle room.

There was a long list of activities that was forbidden to him, one of which was going to movies.  He was told that he would not be allowed to see any until he was 18.  A year short of that, however, he sneaked away and saw his first movie, Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and he was disappointed.  He was also disappointed in himself since he carried his parents' voices with him everywhere.  

It wasn't long, however, before he saw Wild in the Country (1961) with a horny Elvis Presley hot after the likes of Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and Millie Perkins.  It had all that toe-tapping music, the bumping and grinding and a lot of moody insolence and it became too much for the young Calvinist. Now this movie he liked a lot. Later in life he said I look back on the late 60s and I missed a lot of sex and a lot of drugs and a lot of good times because all I cared about was going to the movies and catching up.

He began seeing every movie he possibly could while attending Calvin College.  During summer school at Columbia University, he met the film critic of her day, Pauline Kael. She was quite taken with the bright and curious young man and got him a job as a critic with the L.A. Free Press.  He lasted until he gave Easy Rider (1969) an unfavorable review and he was fired.  Kael then got him a place in UCLA's film studies program where he would ultimately earn a Master's Degree.  He's commented he wouldn't be a filmmaker without her.

He has been especially drawn to the works of directors Jean Renoir, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman and later Sam Peckinpah.  He cited Ford's John Wayne-starrer, The Searchers (1956) and Hitchcock's Jimmy Stewart starrer Vertigo (1958) as two of the greatest movies ever made. He's right.

He made up for lost time in the sex and drugs departments, particularly the latter.  It was an easy thing to do in laissez-faire
L.A.  Perhaps he was trying to distance himself from his upbringing although, of course, it would always be there in some form.  He began writing, more as a form of therapy.  His second effort was what would become Taxi Driver.  He would recall the time as not his best.  He had left his wife, he left the woman he left her for, he had a break with the American Film Institute, he felt rage for the big studios and he didn't have a dime. He could, however, always find a way to score some coke.  Depressed and occasionally suicidal, he was already on his way to becoming Hollywood's enfant terrible.

He turned to directing in 1978 with Blue Collar, cowritten with his brother Leonard, a gritty piece about three Detroit auto workers and their problems with the law and a corrupt union.  It stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto.  Schrader said it was a strenuous shoot because he had artistic and then personal hassles with some of his cast. He says he had a mental breakdown on the set and that his first directorial effort almost became his last. 

Whether directing or writing, Schrader's theme seemed to be about desperate people taking desperate measures.  He usually did films about men who come apart at the seams. Life has dealt them a dirty blow.  Some do outlandish things as a result.  Some make it back to the other side and some don't.  It was always fun for me to anticipate what would happen to his characters.

He wrote and directed Hardcore (1979) about a conservative Midwesterner who drifts into the world of porn.  It is audacious and grim and George C. Scott is terrific. Schrader based the character on his father.

My two favorite Schrader films came next and for two very different reasons but what they both have in common is that they resonated with me beyond simply enjoying how good they are.  

With Richard Gere on the set of American Gigolo

American Gigolo (1980) reminded me of my own year of living dangerously.  I wasn't as amoral as Richard Gere's character nor as well-dressed nor did I run in such privileged crowds nor was I ever a paid escort nor did I carry around a small mirror and a razor blade.  But something clicked and I at once understood a life far removed from my 12-year marriage.  For me it lasted just a year. But what has never left me is the moody, deliberate, dangerous and very sexy movie that turns into a nasty murder plot. Not all films have this kind of a connection for me but they always remain special when they do. 

Cat People
(1982) is another example.  It is an erotic thriller where a young woman's sexual urges turn her into a savage black panther. I love films that scare me.  The problem is they rarely do.  But this one was a goodie for me.  My link to this film has to do with a fear I can easily recall that happened in my late teen years.  A friend and I had to cross a pasture on his parents' ranch around 1:30 a.m. on our way to the house. We highly suspected a black panther that had escaped from a local traveling carnival was in that field.  We had heard on the radio that it was loose and although there was no clue as to where it had gone, we felt its presence because of the deranged way a horse was acting.  Finding the horse dead later that morning confirmed our suspicions. Black panthers have fascinated me ever since and one is frighteningly displayed in this movie.  

Schrader, in between wives, at loose ends and coked up, had an affair with the film's star, Nastassja Kinski, that lasted throughout the production.  It apparently meant more to him than it did to her.

It had not been an altogether great time for the gravelly-voiced director-writer so he left the L.A. scene and plopped in Manhattan. It took some work and time but he was able to kick drugs.  In 1983 he married actress Mary Beth Hurt and she and their two children and sobriety enabled Schrader to experience a more stable life.

Many consider his most accomplished work to be Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).  He co-wrote it with his brother who was considered extremely knowledgeable on Japanese culture having lived and taught there for a number of years.  Yukio Mishima was a real person, an important Japanese writer, and while the film is considered a biography, the so-called chapters were all fiction. There's some irony afoot when one considers that Schrader, who has written and/or directed several biographical films, said he had trouble making them because events are so often altered.

Another bio was Patty Hearst (1988), the story of the kidnapped heiress and her climb back to a private life.  The Comfort of Strangers (1990) is a decent thriller and a gorgeously-filmed one about a British couple with some issues who are mysteriously spied upon while on holiday in Venice.  Christopher Walken, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett and Helen Mirren are four good reasons to see it.

Schrader directed Willem Dafoe in six films with Light Sleeper (1992) being the first.  He plays a reformed addict who continues to sell drugs to the wealthy while a series of murders are being committed in drug-related incidents.  I always found this actor to be highly-watchable so Light Sleeper was a pleasure.

The buddies... Dafoe and Scrader

Affliction (1997) is a mystery-thriller with a tempestuous father-son relationship at its core.  I was so excited to see it and not disappointed.  In fact, the writer-director and all associated with this class-A acting, beautiful look and loving attention to human relationships and suffering should be proud. James Coburn won an Oscar as the father and Nick Nolte was never better as the son, a troubled, small-town cop having a mental breakdown while investigating a mysterious accident. 

Auto Focus (2002) was the last film that garnered Schrader any acclaim.  One might understand his interest in the real-life story of a man with a sex addiction... in this case TV's Hogan Heroes star, Bob Crane, who was murdered.  The case never solved. Greg Kinnear is most effective as Crane and Dafoe equally impressive as director John Carpenter.  Auto Focus is indeed focused, so much so that it's sometimes a bit too sordid to contemplate.  A hot shower afterward is recommended to scrub away the dirt.

In 2003 he was fired from The Exorcist: Dominion, a prequel to the great 1973 horror film, because the suits didn't like his work.  They scrapped it and completely reshot with Renny Harlin at the helm.

In 2013, as if things weren't bad enough, he made The Canyons, one of those Lindsay Lohan flicks we were once constantly hearing about because of her erratic behavior.  The male lead is porn star, James Deen.  Schrader apparently dreaded the entire experience.

With wife Mary Beth Hurt

As it turns out, he's got a new one in the can. Scheduled for release next year is First Informed starring Amanda Seyfried and Ethan Hawke.  Religion has formed a backdrop in many of his films but for this one he has apparently gone all out.  Two members of the same church find each other through tragedy in a tribute of sorts to Schrader's favorite director Ingmar Bergman, whose film Winter Light, may be an inspiration.  He says he was inspired by his favorite type of film... the intellectual European film of the 60s.

He's made a few films in the last 20 years but none has come close to the success of his earlier work.  There were also more films those earlier period that were not so successful either.  History will more than likely show him to be more acclaimed for his writing than for directing.  He himself has said it doesn't really matter what I do, the first line of my obituary will be the writer of Taxi Driver.

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