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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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985)
Schrader has referred to ‘Mishima' as his best work as director and the motion picture, boasting executive producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, is a tremendous accomplishment. Ostensibly a biopic, but more aptly a study of controversial Japanese poet Yukio Mishima, Schrader invokes arresting imagery via stylistic flourishes that become far more than simply an attempt to suggest substance. Mishima must have been, if not a kindred spirit, at least a fascinating persona for Schrader to channel his own preoccupations through. The resulting film embraces the director’s favorite concepts: sexual ambiguity, obsession, repression and finally a rapturous release that feels both victorious and filed with regret. Via the titular four chapters, Schrader provides a portrait of Mishima that not chained to chronological fidelity—we witness the poet in his final hours and as a developing young boy, coming of age in a Japan as traditionalism is engulfed by capitalism. Plenty to work with and yet the picture also includes scenes from several of Mishima’s novels, enveloped by startlingly artificial backgrounds and providing a cunning blend of reality and fiction that appears to be true to Mishima’s own life. A moving score by Philip Glass aids the melodrama and doesn’t interfere with the more contemplative moments. With 'Mishima,' Schrader offers up a blatant tribute, a homily to the power of film—it’s a throbbing, living portrait that doesn’t lend itself well to a dry dissection but still feels poignantly measured. [B+]

Light of Day” (1987)
If you’re compiling a catalogue of the most surprising cast lists of the '80s, you could do worse than including “Light of Day” which stars Michael J. Fox, Joan Jett, Gena Rowlands and Michael McKean, and features Michael Rooker in a small role and, briefly, a very young Trent Reznor in a rival band. Basically it’s a rather overfamiliar story of a struggling rock band (The Barbusters), fronted by brother sister duo Patty (Jett) and Joe (Fox), as they come to terms with their level of success vs. commitment to the music, and with their difficult relationship with their straitlaced, religious parents. However, as shallow as the story is, the problems with the film run pretty deep: both Jett and Fox feel miscast. Fox is trying a bit too hard to slough off his teen idol image and while he’s very strong in establishing Joe as a good guy, and a good son who tries to hold everything together, he never convinces in the performance segments, still coming across as Marty McFly with a cigarette. But he outacts Jett who is lumbered with a very one-note role, and just doesn’t really have enough experience as an actress to invest it with anything other than what’s on the page at that exact moment. So it's hard for us to care too much about her as she seemingly bounces around from being a devoted mom, who is also in a band, to pursuing her career at the expense of all else, to suddenly returning on hearing the mother she apparently loathes is sick, to enjoying a reconciliation that Gena Rowlands, as good as she always is, actually nearly sells. Schrader’s eye for the nuance and detail of the subcultures he explores is not nearly so sharp here either, and the whole film feels remarkably safe and rather anodyne, coming from him. There’s plenty of live performance, however, and depending on your tolerance/enjoyment of people asking you repeatedly “Are you ready to RAWK?” prior to launching into '80s guitar tracks, some of it still works pretty well, notably the Bruce Springsteen-penned title song, and Jett’s own “This Means War.” [C]

"Patty Hearst" (1988)
Maybe the biggest surprise of our run through Paul Schrader’s back catalogue, “Patty Hearst,” his account of the high-profile heiress’ notorious kidnapping and subsequent “conversion” to terrorism, is a remarkably powerful, stylized piece of work anchored by an absolutely blistering turn from the late Natasha Richardson in the title role. Kicking off to a brilliantly unsettling track by the film's composer Scott Johnson ("Mom, Dad"), it’s based on Hearst’s autobiography and so is told from her point of view, and certain choices made early on do seem a little self-exculpatory: when given the choice between freedom and joining the “revolution,” it is clearly implied that Hearst chooses the latter because she believes death, not release, is the alternative. Yet even with (sparing) use of voiceover, the film doesn’t cheat our sympathies like this too much. The extended middle section where Hearst, now in her Symbionese Liberation Army persona of Tania, spends months training and occasionally participating in the group’s increasingly ill-thought-through activities, never taking any of what must have been many escape opportunities, is presented here with its confounding illogic preserved. We don’t understand why she did it, but then again, it seems clear that neither did Hearst, in this film at least, and certainly the bumbling SLA and their muddled ideology is not presented as a force of irresistible brainwashing expertise. Richardson plays this fraught position masterfully, sometimes almost a ghoul, other times, a puppet parroting the words her captors-turned-"comrades" want to hear. and still other times, seemingly fully cognizant of who she is and what she’s about—defying all easy catch-all answers, it's a characterization that is still somehow believable, moment-to-moment. The supporting cast are excellent too, from Ving Rhames’ charismatic leader Cinque, to William Forsythe and Frances Fisher as fanatic couple Teko and Yolanda, through to all the other SLA members (including Dana Delaney and Jodi Long). Directed with real flair by Schrader, taking an unusually non-realistic approach (many times the camera enters roofless rooms from the top; impossible staging and non-naturalistic lighting effects occasionally evoke something like “Bronson” in their self-consciousness), it also finds the director fairly restrained in mood. Oftentimes, Schrader takes small people and blows their lives into high drama, but perhaps the most impressive trick “Patty Hearst” plays on us is to take this famous, Kenneth Anger-ready splashy story and make it brilliantly, compellingly mundane. [B+]

The Comfort of Strangers” (1990)
Less a movie than a prolonged exercise in the evocation of a sinister, deeply creepy mood, Schrader’s erotic thriller “The Comfort of Strangers” is a kind of superstar team-up, with Schrader directing a Harold Pinter script based on an Ian McEwan novel, and getting the pretty astounding cast of Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett to star. But it’s a film that also frustrates—toying with us in the windy, labyrinthine streets and ornate palazzos of Venice, and talkily foreshadowing for so long the sudden, gory finale that it’s something of an ordeal, perhaps accounting for our initial reluctance even to rewatch it. The brief outline runs: a young, impossibly attractive couple, experiencing something of a crisis in their relationship, visit Venice and become entangled in the lives of a mysterious older couple, and are alternately seduced and repelled by them, unaware of their darker purpose—but that implies both too much and too little about the film. Walken’s white-clad reptilian villain is among the actor’s most chillingly charming creations, but is simply too unknowable and enigmatic a creature for us to ever wholly comprehend his agenda. Similarly, the meandering plot, with its graphic sexual interludes and prolonged sequences of voiceover narration, really just ends up off-puttingly opaque. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but what does leave something of a sour taste in the mouth is the suspicion that the film, for all its talky, sexually explicit intellectualism, doesn’t have a lot to say, with even the Schrader trademark of a violent climax providing little focus. Macabre though it is, it seems again to be just another thing-that-happens, unmoored to any particular significance—which marks it apart from the catharsis that violence often provides elsewhere in the director's work. Ultimately, the film is a good looking Chinese puzzle box, but when we finally get it open at the end, it’s disappointingly empty. [C-]

Light Sleeper” (1992)
Usually bracketed together with “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo” in terms of being the third in Schrader’s loose thematic trilogy about the urban nighttime demi-monde and the scarred lives of the loners who populate it, “Light Sleeper” casts Willem Dafoe as the central character, this time an ex-junkie drug dealer working the high-end market for longtime associate Ann (Susan Sarandon). As a director, Schrader doesn’t have the brio of Scorsese and the film doesn’t ever scale the (admittedly dizzying) heights of that first masterpiece, but it does feel like by this stage Schrader as writer and director has matured and maybe mellowed enough to allow us some glimpse of humanity, even likeability in his protagonist. Dafoe’s John LaTour is a fuck up and a loser, but he is fundamentally decent, and we root for him as his better nature struggles with his circumstances. Dafoe himself takes a lot of the credit for making LaTour a sympathetic creation—he’s broken rather than perverse, and his cragged face and soulful eyes fill in a great deal of the character’s backstory, with hardly a word spoken. It’s also a terrific portrait of the people who, through sheer luck perhaps, survived an almost impossible experience (serious drug addiction), but now wander rather aimlessly through a life they didn’t ever really believe they were going to have—La Tour, until he collides with a lover from the past (Dana Delaney), is a ghost, haunting his former circle, but this time looking in from the outside. In terms of plot (the various seemingly inconsequential encounters that lead inexorably to an act of extreme, but possibly cathartic violence), the film may feel a little overfamiliar to anyone who knows either Scorsese’s picture or ‘Gigolo’ well, but there is a minor-key sadness here that is admirably restrained as opposed to the splashy salaciousness we might expect, and it marks “Light Sleeper” out as one of the most satisfying of Schrader’s directorial outings. With a protagonist who's weary rather than wired, Dafoe almost feels like he's playing against type (he's the sanest guy in the room) and rises to the occasion accordingly, turning in one of his very finest, yet quietest performances. And yes, that is David Spade in a cameo credited as “theological cokehead.” [B+]

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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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