Retrospective: The Directorial Career Of Paul Schrader

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by The Playlist Staff
August 5, 2013 12:06 PM
11 Comments
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With the screenplays for Sydney Pollack’s “The Yakuza” (1975), Brian De Palma’s “Obsession” (1976), John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder,” Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980) under his belt, Paul Schrader's legacy as a seminal figure in 1970s American screenwriting was unassailably assured. Yet not only did he go on to write "The Mosquito Coast" and Scorsese's "The Last Temptation Of Christ," he has also enjoyed a long, diverse career as a director, with his most recent foray being released last week: the controversial, chatter-worthy "The Canyons" (you can read our review here).

While not as celebrated (or maybe as consistently assured) as his writing, Schrader’s directing career is nevertheless an intriguing one. Often tapping into the same sordid corners of the human psyche that his most famous screenplays deal in, with morally layered themes of obsession, guilt, repression, catharsis and psychosis often culminating in acts of anti-social psychosexual violence, he's certainly a fit subject for auteurist analysis—rarely is it so clear that a filmmaker's directorial impulses are largely an extension of his concerns and preoccupations as a writer, and presumably, as a man. Of course, Schrader grew up in a hardcore Calvinist environment, and the author himself often attributes the pain and conflict of his various characters to the friction he pent up while working against the tight confines of this upbringing.

A cinephile from the very beginning, Schrader wrote the seminal book “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” in 1972 at the tender age of 26 (having completed a M.A. in film, for which he was recommended by none other than Pauline Kael) and soon thereafter, his screenplays were gaining the attention of '70s movie brats DePalma and Scorsese (he even wrote an early draft of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” but Steven Spielberg rejected it for being too dark and guilt-obsessed). The critical acclaim for Schrader’s screenplays eventually led to his debut directorial film, “Blue Collar” (1978), and the filmmaker hasn't looked back since.

Schrader, ever the film buff, has often spoken at length about how influential certain films were on his writing and directing career. One key influence is Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” which in many ways sums up the filmmaker's raison d’etre. “[Bresson] taught me I could make films about unlikeable people—I could take an outcast, a lonely man, a guy who lives an interior life, and say, ‘Let’s walk in his shoes.’ ‘Pickpocket’ gave me the courage to write 'Taxi Driver,' and from that point on I have never had a problem with characters that appear beyond empathy. I've made films about a wannabe assassin, a gigolo, a drug dealer and a guy who's totally into home porn.” So let's fall into step beside some of these losers, loners and disaffected screw-ups, as we take a trip back through the rogues' gallery of Paul Schrader's uneven, but never less than fascinating directorial career.

"Blue Collar" (1978)
When Spike Lee revealed his list of essential movies that he hands out to his film students at NYU on the first day of class, amongst the classics by Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini was an interesting choice, tucked away in the bottom half: Paul Schrader's offbeat heist movie "Blue Collar." Schrader's directorial debut following a string of high-profile collaborations with directors like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Sydney Pollack, tells the story of three auto workers (Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel), who decide to rob their local union chapter and wind up with much more than they bargained for: a ledger that ties the union to organized crime. For a movie that ostensibly fits into the crime genre, "Blue Collar" borders on being a naturalistic masterpiece, full of small moments that, had any other filmmaker been in charge, would have been the first to hit the cutting room floor. In fact, much of the movie consists of the three actors standing around and shooting the breeze on the assembly line or in the local bar, mostly about how strapped for cash they are (Keitel's daughter needs braces, Pryor has been lying on his income tax, and Kotto is in deep with some loan sharks). Once they make the heist, the movie shifts gears and becomes a darker beast altogether, much more closely resembling the bleak hopelessness that Schrader brought to "Taxi Driver" than the gonzo comedy some were expecting when buying a ticket to "the new Richard Pryor movie" (Pryor, for his part, is absolutely brilliant, in a live wire performance that ranks amongst his very best). It's a testament to Schrader's talents as a first time filmmaker that the notoriously contentious behind-the-scenes drama never leaks onto the screen (the three leads hated each other and at one point Pryor, high on cocaine, pointed a loaded gun at Schrader's head). Schrader claims that he suffered his first on-set nervous breakdown thanks to "Blue Collar." But it was worth it: the movie is an underseen classic, full of moments that you can't imagine making it into any movie today, indie or otherwise (highlights include a bizarre, threadbare orgy sequence halfway through the film involving cunnilingus and a dildo sword fight, plus a late-in-the-movie suspense set piece that ranks amongst the best of the decade). Schrader's first film might also be his best. [A]

“Hardcore” (1979)
The lurid erotic neon-soaked sleaze of L.A. has been well-documented in music, with bands like The Doors, Jane’s Addiction and Guns’ N’ Roses (not to mention the ‘70s L.A. punk scene) all taking inspiration from the anti-glamor of the seedy Sunset Strip. Michael Mann also has a preoccupation with this scuzzy milieu and its vampiric subdwellers, but no one chronicles its sordid grime quite like Paul Schrader—perhaps because it was so vivid and fresh when he first experienced it relatively late in life. Borrowing autobiographical elements from his own Calvinist upbringing, “Hardcore” stars the great George C. Scott as a conservative Midwestern father and businessman who has to delve into the squalid underworld of L.A. pornography to recover his abducted daughter. Co-starring Peter Boyle as a shady private detective and Season Hubley as a porn actress that helps the father track down his daughter, the picture chronicles a generally unseen subculture and exploits its dramatic and revolting qualities for all they’re worth, like many of Schrader’s movies. There’s a dark religious irony at work within “Hardcore” too, that Schrader likely relished: how does a man so pious deserve a daughter consumed by the sub-rosa world of pornography? Along his journey into the netherworld of L.A., Scott’s father gets his hands real dirty having to deal with every pimp, prostitute and greasy peddler to find his precious kin and in doing so, loses a piece of his humanity. Featuring a score by Jack Nitzsche and cinematography by Michael Chapman (who, just a few years earlier, shot the New York grime of Travis Bickle’s New York for Scorsese), “Hardcore,” is typically bleak stuff from Schrader that like “Taxi Driver” is modelled after John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Perhaps the most telling dichotomy of “Hardcore,” which brings us into the window of the director/writer’s psyche, is watching the painful repugnance the protagonist endures while losing his soul and simultaneously, in what is obviously Schrader’s utter morbid fascination with this X-rated world. [B+]

American Gigolo” (1980)
More L.A. sleaze from Schrader came only one year later in the stylish “American Gigolo,” proving the filmmaker hadn’t quite exorcised his demons or his desire to document the depraved seedy underbellies of Californian society. This time, however, his trademark self-destructive urban loner protagonist lives in the world of upscale male hustling. A classier affair than “Hardcore,” apropos for a world that calls their streetwalkers "gigolos" instead of "prostitutes," ‘Gigolo’ still has its share of kink, amorality and degenerates. Following the noir-ish set-up template of a desperate man in desperate circumstances, “American Gigolo’ stars Richard Gere as Julian, a shallow, narcissistic male escort with champagne tastes who finds himself framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Lauren Hutton co-stars as his object-of-affection trick who is married to a local politician, Hector Elizondo plays the indefatigable detective hot on his heels, and Bill Duke plays the unscrupulous pimp that sends Julian on his most debased assignments. One of these is a rich man who pays Julian to physically abuse and have sex with his wife while he leers on in the background. She turns up dead a few days later and though Julian has an alibi, the client refuses to cooperate in order to protect her reputation. Squeezed from all sides, Julian’s desperation becomes more violent as he seeks to uncover who set him up. The character's bloody frantic is heightened by Giorgio Moroder's ominous electro pulse of a score (though it’s really just different instrumental variations of Blondie’s “Call Me”) and by John Bailey's shooting (in only his third DP credit). Whereas “Hardcore” depicted its sleaze in the neon night of L.A., Schrader here decided on perhaps a more insidious illustration: the nastier side of sex in affluent California in broad daylight (though the darkly lit and scuzzy gay club scenes are on par with anything William Friedkin delivered in his notorious “Cruising”). Detached and voyeuristic in the way that many Schrader films are (which puts some audiences at a distance), there’s a cold and deadened eroticism to “American Gigolo” that’s perhaps not unlike the director’s more recent “The Canyons”: Julian’s a lost soul and perhaps by nature of his trade, there’s simply no easy passage to redemption. [B]

Cat People” (1982)
If Paul Schrader’s writing and directing track record was mostly unassailable up until “American Gigolo,” it faltered rather hard with the poorly received “Cat People,” an erotic horror remake of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 effort of the same name. Starring Nastassja Kinski (in various states of softcore full frontal undress, of course), “Cat People” chronicles the story of a young woman who discovers that her sexual awakening and erotic arousals turn her into a monstrous murderous black panther. Reunited with her brother in New Orleans, Irene (Kinski), finds herself drawn to a captured black panther (who mauled someone) at a local zoo where she quickly takes a job in the nearby gift shop. Co-starring Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O'Toole and Ed Begley Jr., if your suspension of disbelief is strained in just reading the basic synopsis, well, it’s largely strained in execution as well. While “Cat People” has an admirably sensual mood and ominous atmosphere and tone, Schrader’s attempt at saying something about the degradation of sexual innocence is lost in what mostly amounts to a lurid B-movie (the unintentionally humorous tagline: “An erotic fantasy about the animal in us all” kind of says it all). Giorgio Moroder once again composed the score, including the film's eponymous theme song sung by David Bowie (and most recently appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds”) and while that’s sultry enough, Schrader’s ongoing examination of desire and sexual hang-ups has been represented far more potently elsewhere. [C]

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11 Comments

  • GLEN WHITEHOUSE | August 8, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    2013 The Canyons lindsay was pretty good

    2007 The Walker woody in a quiet performance

    1997 Affliction nolte and coburn were mind blowing

    1992 Light Sleeper amazing hotel shootout

    1990 The Comfort of Strangers only character that disturbed walken

    1980 American Gigolo maybe the best thing gere ever did

    1979 Hardcore in the valley of elah

    1978 Blue Collar underrated 70's classic

    1976 Taxi Driver oscar worthy script

  • aquarius1271 | August 7, 2013 4:47 AMReply

    great listing. I totally forgot that Schrader directed these films much less that I personally watched almost all of them. By the way, you forgot to mention the truly magnificent Angelo Badalamenti score of The Comfort of Strangers.

  • Jon | August 7, 2013 12:26 AMReply

    Thanks. I really haven't had the chance to see Schrader directed films at all, except for the awful The Comfort of Strangers, with its overblown empty perversity. After watching that misguided film, it led me tovthink that Schrader might be fatally overrated, but you literally have made me want to go out and watch all his best films.

  • Jon | August 7, 2013 12:25 AMReply

    Thanks. I really haven't had the chance to see Schrader directed films at all, except for the awful The Comfort of Strangers, with its overblown empty perversity. After watching that misguided film, it led me tovthink that Schrader might be fatally overrated, but you literally have made me want to go out and watch all his best films.

  • Paul | August 6, 2013 2:57 AMReply

    Good summary, though I think Mishima is underrated here. In my view, it's easily Schrader's best film (yes, better than Taxi Driver or Raging Bull).

  • Paul | August 6, 2013 2:57 AMReply

    Good summary, though I think Mishima is underrated here. In my view, it's easily Schrader's best film (yes, better than Taxi Driver or Raging Bull).

  • Paul | August 6, 2013 2:57 AMReply

    Good summary, though I think Mishima is underrated here. In my view, it's easily Schrader's best film (yes, better than Taxi Driver or Raging Bull).

  • Terry | August 5, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    This is a very vanilla view of Schrader's work. Overrating the works of a minor film maker is a kind of knowledge giveaway. Some of the films you rate so highly were laughed off the screen during showings. I know because I was there. Savages? Trash. The Company of Strangers, too subtle for this piece. If you wish to resurrect Schrader, you'll simply have to do better than this.

  • d | August 5, 2013 11:17 PM

    Savages?

  • jon | August 5, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    Hard to believe Mishima only got a B+. Otherwise, largely agree with your assessment.

  • CB | August 5, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    Great stuff as always, guys. You deliver the best film writing on the Internet.

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