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Retrospective: The Directorial Career Of Paul Schrader

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 5, 2013 at 12:06PM

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).
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Witch Hunt Hopper

Witch Hunt” (1994)
After catching up with this made for HBO curio, we can see why one of our staffers described it as being the best movie Robert Zemeckis never made. Oh, how much we wish it were actually made by Zemeckis, as its fantastical alternative 1950s Los Angeles setting, where magic is real and monsters roam around just like us humans trying to eke out a living, is fairly analogous to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” with a pinch of “Death Becomes Her.” There’s no doubt the world could’ve been better realized with the budgets and special effects prowess of those films, yet it is something of a charming misfire that shows Schrader dipping into alternate distribution and production paths for the soon-to-be cable behemoth. Though limited in scope by old fashioned techniques and attitude (which admittedly seems to have something of a thematic purpose behind it), “Witch Hunt,” still only available on VHS, does go for broke with its earnest metaphors, often to its detriment, but it's never boring. Here, the red scare, McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist are hodgepodged in a story that sees H.P. Lovecraft (pleasantly underplayed by Dennis Hopper), a subtly named private detective, take on a politician looking to end magic in Hollywood. There’s a helluva lot more going on, none of it really worth explaining. Suffice to say the clever idea of magic being real, and the implications that would have on the world, are never given much more than a cursory, cheesy gloss. Even worse, the rules of the world and the magic, despite dual exposition dumps in the film’s opening (one a news flash, the other a dull voice-over from Hopper), are never made clear in a satisfying way. So, basically anything can happen whenever it’s most convenient to the plot, or good for a lame attempt at humor. As amusing as it may be to imagine big-shot movie producers hiring witches to conjure Shakespeare and Mark Twain to write great scripts, it kinda doesn’t work in a world where magic is real (hard to imagine cinema would even continue to exist in this world). Nonetheless, it’s a reminder of how far HBO has come and that Schrader is nothing if not willing to try different things, even if they don’t necessarily fit his sensibility and skills. [C-]

Touch Ulrich

Touch” (1997)
Hitting at the peak of the Elmore Leonard revival of the late 1990s, Schrader's adaptation of the crime novelist's "Touch," was reasonably well-reviewed, but failed to capture the wider imagination in the way that contemporaries like "Get Shorty," "Jackie Brown" and "Out Of Sight" did. But that's understandable—the book is a black sheep among Leonard's works, and has a similar status within Schrader's resume, a curious little film, but one with much to recommend it. Christopher Walken stars as Bill Hill, a down-on-his-luck evangelist who decides that Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich), a young man purported to have a healing touch, is the person who could put him back on the map. He enlists an old friend, Lynn (Bridget Fonda) to get to Juvenal, but she falls for him, and things are further complicated by Catholic fanatic August Murray (Tom Arnold). It's a rather bizarre cast and an even stranger film—whimsical, sincere, sharp and low-key. But given that religion has pervaded so much of his work, Schrader was undoubtedly the right person to direct the film; there's a thoughtfulness and soulfulness to the film that other filmmakers would have buried under cynicism. On top of that, he has a strong enough feel for Leonard's voice (the writer praised him for, essentially, "shooting the book") that it's consistently funny, especially with Walken, Fonda, and even Arnold and Ulrich giving strong turns (plus fun side-characters like Gina Gershon and Janeane Garafolo knocking around the picture too). It's unruly and a touch unsatisfying, but one of the director's more interesting late-period pictures. [B]

Affliction, James Coburn, Nick Nolte

"Affliction" (1997)
One of Schrader's later era jewels, 1997 drama "Affliction" is not an easy one to sit through. Like "The Place Beyond The Pines" recently, this is a fathers-and-sons story of legacy, sins and what we pass down to our children. But arguably, Schrader's darker and bleaker film is more emotionally brutal and bruising, as this tale shows the tragic consequences of passed down violence, alcoholism, and physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Playing right in Schrader's wheelhouse of men whose latent violence can be unleashed when they are faced with undeniable evidence of their emasculation and powerlessness, Nick Nolte plays a sheriff in a small town with too much time on his hands who has plenty of time to reflect on his nightmarish childhood. Inheriting his father's alcoholism, history has repeated itself and he is also distant and callous to his wife and daughter who now despise him. While pursuing a murder case, Nolte is reunited with his monster of a father played by James Coburn and his younger brother (Schrader regular Willem Dafoe) who escaped his father's abuse at a young age. The return of his abusive despot of a father for the funeral awakens a crippling emotional pain that only brings Nolte's sheriff character closer to rock bottom and self-destruction. Searing and depressing as all get out, "Affliction" is not for the faint of heart and if you can make it out of that film emotionally unscarred, you're made of much stronger stuff than us. But Schrader deserves props for taking such and unforgiving, uncompromising and unsparing look at such weighty subject matter, and he earns the fantastic performances he gets—Coburn rightfully won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor playing literally one of the most cruel and inhuman fathers ever committed to the big screen. [A-]

Forever Mine Liotta

"Forever Mine" (1999)
This is Schrader at his goofiest and most earnestly overwrought, like if his script for Brian De Palma's hauntingly perverse "Obsession" was repurposed as a gooey television soap opera. "Forever Mine" is set in the '70s (somebody references Watergate almost as an aside) in Miami, where a pool boy (Joseph Fiennes) has an affair with the wife (Gretchen Mol) of a shady New York attorney (Ray Liotta). The attorney seeks revenge by shooting and then burying Fiennes alive. Fiennes returns years later to exact his revenge and, seemingly, rekindle his romance. From that plot description, "Forever Mine" sounds like perfect Schrader material: sex, violence, obsession, hazy photography. But a lot of the film is just embarrassing. The first half of the movie is told via a clunky framing device wherein Fiennes, who is now sporting an amateurish prosthetic scar over much of his face and speaking in an unconvincing Cuban accent that suggests Al Pacino's Scarface with a learning disability, recounts the events that led him here: the affair, him following Mol (who spends much of the movie topless) to New York, his prison time and the attempted murder. Again, that would be kind of cool, if it wasn't slammed together with all the subtlety of paperback romance novel. The second half of the movie is just as unintentionally hilarious, underscored by a phonily sweeping score by Angelo Badalamenti, with all sorts of forced encounters wherein neither Mol, Liotta, nor anyone else can seem to recognize Fiennes. Or place his terrible accent. (At one point Liotta growls at Fiennes, "Are you crazy? Nobody talks like that.") It's supposed to be a romantic revenge movie, but its self-seriousness and sluggish pacing means that no cathartic kick can be taken from Fiennes' limp scheming. (Although there is a pretty good murder sequence set in a tanning salon that's unfortunately punctured by a terrible pun). "Forever Mine" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999 and had a halfhearted theatrical release three years later that virtually no one saw or paid attention to. It should have stayed buried. Forever. [D]

Auto Focus Kinnear Dafoe

"Auto Focus" (2002)
Based on a nonfiction book by "Zodiac" author and former cartoonist Robert Graysmith and overseen by premiere cinematic biographers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood," "The People vs. Larry Flynt"), "Auto Focus" is an unflinching look at the life and nightmarish demise of Bob Crane, the charismatic former star of "Hogan's Heroes." As portrayed in a fearless and unflinching performance by Greg Kinnear, Crane was a world-class creep: a noted sex addict and S&M enthusiast whose life turned downright hellish following the end of the series, thanks largely to his relationship with a half-Indian electronics maven John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). The title refers to Crane's fascination with photography specifically for the purpose of recording his sexual exploits, which put him into Carpenter's orbit (with gruesome irony Crane was bludgeoned to death with the leg of a camera's tripod, which Schrader, a noted film freak must have found fascinating, considering it as a kind of riff on the murder weapon in Michael Powell's infamous "Peeping Tom.") In fact, "Auto Focus" plays like a smorgasbord of Schrader obsessions: sex, violence, a dangerously pathological main character, lingering mystery and the tragic intersection of Hollywood and real-life horror. The result is a terrific movie, but one that makes you want to take a shower immediately after watching; it's hard to not feel like a layer of grime coats the whole thing. Appreciated by critics, it was largely rejected by audiences for this very reason; Schrader has never been a director fond of moderation but this might have pushed things too far, especially given the movie's bouncy, upbeat marketing campaign complete with "groovy" seventies iconography. (There are a number of instances in the film when images, both still and on film, are blurred out or obscured, possibly because they are too pornographic for the R-rated film.) Kinnear is unimpeachable and Dafoe is just as good as Crane's chum, possible lover and likely killer (Carpenter was retried for the case 10 years later and uneasily acquitted) and in all, "Auto Focus" is a brilliant portrayal of a fractured male psyche, told elegantly and efficiently, that serves as a late-career gem for Schrader. Sadly, it's such a tough watch that it's unlikely the film will ever get properly re-appraised or canonized, but considering how hard it is for us to shake more than ten years after the release (and many showers later), we rank it right up there. [A-]

This article is related to: Paul Schrader, Retrospective, Features, Feature, The Canyons


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