What is this desire Paul Schrader has for writing or directing films about losers or those on the edge of society: Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), Richard Gere as an American Gigolo (1980), the runaway girl in Hardcore (1979), the suicidal Mishima (1985), the washed-up prize fighter in Raging Bull (1980), the deviant savior in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the Stockholm-syndromed kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst (1988), or the burnt-out urban savior in Bringing Out the Dead (1999)? Is it something in his Calvinist upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where to warn him of the flames of hell, Schrader’s mother passed his little hands over a burning match? Yet at the same time he learned there the promise of salvation and redemption.
From the beginning, Schrader’s characters have shown a profound spiritual hunger. Kevin Jackson’s summary of Schrader’s career voices a typical observation, that already by the mid-1970s, his scripts were all “harsh and anguished, full of metaphors for imprisonment, preoccupied with vengeance and the thirst for redemption.” (1) (This same evaluation might also aptly describe many of the films of Clint Eastwood.)
Paul Schrader is the philosopher’s “movie brat” director. His contemporaries, film school alumni whom Hollywood gave a shot in the late ‘60s and ‘70s to try to bolster their failing box office, include Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. Instead of coming up through the ranks of the craft guilds, these young directors studied film history, auteur theory, and audience-pleasing techniques at New York University (NYU), University of Southern California (USC), University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Cal State, respectively. After Calvin College, Schrader’s masters thesis at UCLA was on the esoteric style of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Frenchman Robert Bresson, and Swede Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose austere “transcendental style” resonated with Schrader’s Calvinist leanings. The thesis was published in book form by the prestigious University of California Press, (2) when even very few doctoral dissertations see the light of print.
All of the movie brat directors named here became wildly commercial and mainstream, although Coppola’s career somewhat stalled out. Only Schrader can be said to have remained fairly consistently committed to deeper, psychologically darker material. He is an unabashed modernist, believing in existential struggles and reality, never lightening up or embracing a postmodern ethos in order to grab for a pop culture audience. That he has been able to continue to find financing, actors, and distributors with this approach is astonishing and encouraging, albeit not without constant application of the protestant work ethic, and sometimes years of knocking on doors and multiple rejections before finding the right combination to unlock the green-lit path. (For example, it took him four tries to get the right lead actor for The Walker (2007), and that after years in development.)
But Schrader seems to have internalised Jesus’ teaching that one must first “seek the kingdom” and be committed to one’s values and goals, rather than worrying about fame and fortune (Matthew 6:31-34). He says bluntly, “I would rather do something really small of some value than do what Marty Scorsese’s doing. I don’t see the fun in that. “ (3)
Schrader also has continually to compete against himself. Perhaps it is the curse of peaking too early. With the brilliance and success of his first produced screenplay, Taxi Driver, (4) Schrader has had the onus of having to live up to that work ever since. There are many examples of this artistic phenomenon in literature and cinema, such as William Golding’s lifelong burden of his first novel, which he found “boring and crude,” Lord of the Flies. (5)
When he speaks of doing something of value, Schrader often returns to his school days, when he wanted to stand up for the oppressed, defend the outcasts, and challenge the establishment. “There’s always been something adversarial and evangelical about my interest in film.” (6) However, this is not garden variety liberalism. One of the strong strains in reformational Calvinist philosophy is the idea of the radical third way, neither conservative nor liberal, but breaking out into a new paradigm which is informed by Biblical principles. (7)
Thus, Schrader’s early essays in film criticism for the L. A. Free Press stood apart from typical auteur or sociological analysis of the day, but also from the leftism of the underground press. He trashed Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), for example, as being cliched and indulging in predictable stereotypes of hippies vs. rednecks. (8)
With Taxi Driver, his first real screenplay and most famous film, directed by Martin Scorsese, we will begin our look at a sampling of Schrader’s intriguing work. Schrader and Scorsese would go on to develop a long partnership, with three other films over the years, so far (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead).
Seen through the eyes of Travis Bickle, the eponymous taxi driver, the world is a cesspool of sin and corruption. The streets all need to be washed clean and the world begun anew. This echoes John Calvin’s famous system of TULIP, where the first point, “T,” stands for the Total Depravity of human nature. A similar verdict of the dehumanisation of man may be found in the works of Stanley Kubrick, albeit coming from a different worldview.
But does humanity really want to be saved from its journey through the muck? It would seem that most of us rather enjoy wallowing in the low life. At least it’s better than having a stern, implacable father, some would say. The character of Iris Steensma, played by Jodie Foster in the film, has a typical Dutch surname of Schrader’s hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and she shows no real desire to be “rescued” by the crusading Travis Bickle. This is quite similar to the plotline of Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), where the driven father, played by George C. Scott, pursues his daughter through L.A.’s porno underground, on a rescue mission that she does not initiate or welcome. In this case, the girl, on her summer trip from Michigan to the Young Calvinist Convention in southern California, wanders off into the underbelly of L.A. The film’s title, Hardcore, refers not only to that aspect of pornography, but to the adamant belief system of Scott’s character, who is in no way tempted by the prostitute who joins his search, nor the fleshly delights he observes along the way.
When Mr. Steensma reads his thank-you letter to Travis at the end of Taxi Driver, he drones on about how “she’s back in school and working hard. … We have taken steps to see she has never cause to run away again.” Robert Kolker comments, “The family … may be cleaner and more moral but no less oppressive and sentimental.” (9) Talk about Schrader’s father issues!
The parallels to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) are also clear: a maniacally-driven savior, a less-than-willing-to-be-rescued girl now miscegenating with savages, and an Indian keeping her under control (Harvey Keitel’s “Sport”).
That Schrader wrote the script while on a drinking bender and in a suicidal mood is well known. (10) He was obsessed with guns and pornography, much like Travis. He forces the audience to see the world only through Travis’ eyes as well, so we gradually accept this point of view as the only one through which to see the world. Thus we become sympathetic to the character, his misanthropy, and his righteous desire to cleanse the streets. A similar character device drives the viewpoint of the burnt-out paramedic, played appropriately by Nicholas Cage, in Schrader’s Bringing Out the Dead. One feels for the underdog protagonist, beset by the cruel world, as one does for Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It’s a natural phenomenon in movies, where “you have identified with someone you don’t want to identify with, but now it’s too late,” says Schrader. (11) Robert Kolker sees a parallel to Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and says of both films, “The viewer is permitted a degree of closeness to a character, reproved for that closeness, and made to feel horror and guilt because of it.” (12)
Paul Schrader has had just enough commercial success that he can continue to write and direct films that may do a marginal box office business. But he is driven to make excellent cinema on his terms. “I knew Mishima had no financial future and I knew Patty Hearst could never really be successful. But they seemed worth making. (13) It didn’t hurt that Francis “Godfather” Coppola and George “Star Wars” Lucas assisted in the financing of Mishima, which Schrader wrote and directed. The story, co-authored by his brother Leonard and Leonard’s Japanese wife, is revealing of Schrader’s attraction to people with a passion and a purpose, especially the outsider and the social or political deviant.
Mishima: A Life in Four Parts is a film which should be studied classically in film schools for its style, organisation, use of staged theatre, flashbacks, mixture of black and white with colour, and more. The subject matter itself is arresting, especially to those literati who have followed the novels, plays and short stories of Yukio Mishima (pen name for Kimitake Hiraka) since he first came to Western attention in the 1950s.
Like Ernest Hemingway, Mishima lived, and died, the life he wrote about. Life follows belief, and his ineffectual idealism finally led to his ritual suicide just as one of the characters in his novels. In this way, Mishima felt he achieved “the harmony of pen and sword.”
The film has a formal structure that lends the classic beauty of a Japanese play to the depressing and ultimately effete subject matter. Mishima is presented in four parts or “chapters.” The first three consist of analogies between Mishima’s novels and elements in his own past life. Each novel has key scenes acted out in a studio setting (Toho Studios in Tokyo) resplendent with stylised sets and a careful use of colour to match the emotional tone of the play. These scenes are intercut with flashbacks from Mishima’s boyhood or youth or military experience, which are filmed in striking black and white. Intertwining the three chapters and completing the film as Chapter Four is the story of Mishima’s last day of life, wherein he and four youths from his Shield Society carry out their plans to critique Japanese society while lauding the Emperor via seppuku, ritualistic self-disembowelment and decapitation.
Thus the form of this film is as correct as an oriental garden, spoiled only by the oddly dispassionate voice of an American-voiced narrator giving Mishima’s thoughts in the first person. The musical score of Philip Glass contributes effectively, with its foreboding repetitiveness as previously heard in his score for Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982).
Mishima gives us insight into religious fanatics and political assassins the world over, Japanese, Islamic, or whatever. Young men of high ideals and introverted social disposition are the typical type. For twenty years Mishima kept a lonely vigil, disciplining himself to sit down and begin writing each evening at midnight, and continuing until dawn. Like many revolutionaries and antisocials, he also had a preoccupation with himself and his physical body.
A homosexual, he says, “looks in a mirror and sees what he fears most, the decay of the body.” Mishima, like the character in Chapter Two, Kyoko’s House, undertakes bodybuilding as he comes to believe that “beauty and ethics are the same.” Creating a beautiful work of art and becoming beautiful oneself are identical, he claims. The body is art, but it becomes old. “Heaven must have been beautiful,” writes Mishima, during the Bronze Age when the average age at death was 18, or during the Roman Empire, when men died off by age 22. Now it’s all over at 40, after which a man must compel himself to go on day by day. Thus one should commit suicide at the height of one’s beauty, he reasons, to forestall the inevitable ugliness.
Mishima’s crusade is to rid postwar Japan of capitalist evils and curb its headlong slide into materialism. The Emperor must be honoured as in olden days. The way of the Samurai must be followed. One must promote beauty and honour, and the army should be the bulwark of purity against the forces of greed.
Yet his “little drama” enacted before the General and assembled garrison of Japan’s Eastern Army is barely recognised. Shouted down by the soldiers he wishes to address, Mishima’s desire to transcend the written word with self-destructive action seems pointless. “1 don’t even think they heard me,” he sadly acknowledges.
Thus Schrader gives us a strong drama of conviction, belief in a cause, and personal honour, all undercut by the apparent folly of everything as one fails to communicate with one’s contemporaries. Why, one wonders, is Schrader drawn to this sort of material? Schrader only muses that Mishima “is the type of character I might have invented if he had not existed,” because “I found him confronting and dealing with the issue of his strange inability to feel that he existed.” (14)
In Patty Hearst, Schrader directed another story of a misfit, a rebel, an unexpected character. “I love to take those kinds of people and make their case,” Schrader told one interviewer. With Patty Hearst, an heiress of the great Hearst newspaper magnate, public opinion branded her as a willing accomplice in the deeds of her radical seventies-style captors, who kidnapped her and had her assist in an armed bank robbery. But her autobiography and Schrader’s film maintain that she was not complicit. Schrader explains, “There’s some kind of fashionable cultural prejudice that says the rich don’t suffer and whatever happens to them they deserve anyway. So it was fun to fly in the face of all those prejudices.”
Unfortunately, Schrader fails to build up a pre-kidnap portrait of Patty (played by the remarkably Hearst look-a-like daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson). Because he creates no real audience sympathy for her one way or the other, it may be hard for one to welcome the final, “screw you” epithet she (and Schrader?) hurls at the public.
However, Schrader does effectively direct Natasha Richardson to give us a Patty Hearst who is obviously not going along with the SLA (“Symbionese Liberation Army”) except on the surface. Despite her parroting their rhetoric, the film’s tone is clearly that it’s all being done for sheer survival’s sake. Whether shooting a machine gun or letting herself be used by the group’s men, she comes across as a Valley Girl spacehead caught in very strange circumstances as a hostage. When arrested and booked at the police station and asked her occupation, she pauses, then giggles, “urban guerrilla.” You can almost see her tongue poking through her cheek on that line.
When interviewed in jail she continues to spout “a revolutionary feminist perspective.” The audience must decide if she has really changed her politics as an impressionable twenty-year-old joining the anti-establishment mood of the times, or whether it’s all being said for fear of the SLA again grabbing her–although they’re all dead or behind bars. The judge and jury decided the former, and sent her up the river for a seven-year sentence, commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 after she served about two years.
Schrader’s Director of Photography Bojan Bazelli composes the world inside Patty Hearst’s head from the subjective angle of being blindfolded on a closet floor for the first fifty-seven days, to the equally claustrophobic hippie pad she eventually sees. There never seems to be any electricity in there, no lights are on, and contrasty sunlight pokes through in slices. But they do have a TV and always manage to see the evening news announcing their exploits.
Natasha Richardson loses her British accent to play a credible hostage, red-eyed and harshly lit. “I go deeper and deeper into myself,” she says as Patty, narrating to the audience. “I read, smoke, try to keep out of the way.” Schrader doesn’t glamorise her cause. She is seen neither as a convert to “the revolution” nor as a sprightly advocate for her capitalist upbringing. She is merely a victim, although a fairly good actress to keep her kidnappers thinking she had joined them.
Since Schrader helped to define “film noir” with his original 1971 “Notes on Film Noir,” it is intriguing to ask: Are Schrader’s own films noir? That is a stylistic question, but also one related to content where moral signposts are missing, lowlife abounds, and postmodernism reigns.
I believe we can say that Schrader’s films, while sometimes noir stylistically (low key lighting, expressionistic angles, a femme fatale, flashback narration, etc), are not postmodern in their philosophy. Schrader is a modernist. He believes in good versus evil. Schrader is an existentialist. He believes that this life matters, and that we are working toward a telos, an end. Even the originally X-rated Hardcore had a goal, a purpose to the quest—redemption. Noir is not like this, he says, for it ends with “an all-enveloping hopelessness,” with no hope for any future. (15)
“… right at the end I always have to take that one step too far. Well, that one step is an attempt to make it all really redemptive, to say, ‘This looks commercial and ordinary, but it’s not; it’s really spiritual and extraordinary’”. (16)
This brings us to Schrader’s transcendent universe, where hope always has a place, even if he does not necessarily point back explicitly to his theistic roots for such optimism. In terms of filmmaking, the approach he admires is one he calls “Transcendental Style.”
One of the seminal works on cinematic transcendence in our generation was Paul Schrader’s 1972 Transcendental Style in Film. The young film scholar went on to write and direct prodigiously, some might say profligately, over the next four decades, manifesting his theories in his body of work in a way reminiscent of French New Wave cineastes. His screenplay for Bringing Out the Dead is a textbook case of transcendental style in Schrader, as he continues his career-long struggle with the Calvinist goads and rewards which so shaped his worldview.
With his dour perspective on religion (Hardcore), his heavy pathos and sorrowful characters (Affliction, 1997), some may see Schrader as an American Ingmar Bergman. Certainly his sensibilities remind one of French New Wave auteurs, who had to get things off their chests, commercialism be damned. Bringing Out the Dead follows the key motif in much of Schrader’s oeuvre, that of looking for the lost sheep. But our shepherd here is weary and burnt out.
Though Schrader denies having a transcendental style, (17) in favor of its purported opposite, psychological realism, his films and screenplays belie such denial. Whether in the stasis image of Nick Nolte standing in the snow in Affliction, the self-conscious replications of the Bressonian decisive moment (from Pickpocket, 1959) in Light Sleeper (1992) and American Gigolo, or the final equilibrium of Frank’s repose in Bringing Out the Dead, Schrader elicits the transcendent again and again. One can see it also in the stasis shots on the river at the end of his screenplay for The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 1986). Bringing Out the Dead, in particular, where Schrader serves “merely” as the middleman adapter of Joe Connelly’s novel for Martin Scorsese’s lens, nonetheless insinuates the Schraderian “Touch” of his Christian sensibilities.
Before examining the key changes which Schrader makes in his adaptation, we must first credit his contribution to the visualisation process which so enamours him to his collaborating director of nearly thirty years, Martin Scorsese. In Scene 7, for example, Schrader pens a mise-en-scene which assists not only the director, but every technical department from camera to sound to lighting:
ER: a white-lit cement box painted yellow and decorated with old framed playbills. Four rows of six plastic chairs face a TV bolted and chained to the ceiling. The seats are filled with backed-up drunks, assault victims and ‘regulars,’ bleeding and spilling over against the walls and the floor, getting up to ask their status or going out to throw up and have a smoke. (Schrader, screenplay)
Thus far we have near duplication of Connelly’s vivid novelistic description, and Schrader’s approach, while using “sparse means” in the minimalist camp of transcendental style, nonetheless reinforces a psychological realism as well.
Elsewhere, however, Schrader goes over the top in a manner completely non-monastic, as the emergency “bus” heads off for another late-night call, Scene 17:
Larry squeals off full gun, all sirens blaring: the Wah, the Yelp, the Super Yelp. Strobe bar, side strobes, quarter panel strobes. Rock ‘n’ Roll.
It is this sort of description which inspired Scorsese to interpret the film with an MTV-like, surreal use of heavy pop music, even upside-down angles, and general wah-hoo craziness every time the EMS bus careens on its way through New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”
In his literary adaptation work, besides the usual shortening up, elisions, combinations and eliminations of characters, Schrader has made some telltale alterations that support his well-known spiritual predilections. One is the taking of Connelly’s ambulance-chasing street preacher, Rev. Scythe, and making the character instead a Caribbean woman, Sister Fetus (Julyana Soelistyo). Here is a woman who not only rails against the decadence and materialism of American society, but also drives home her screed by wearing a plaster cast fetus around her neck. One can only speculate as to Schrader’s motivations for his revisions in this character, but there is no doubt that here is one fiery woman with a mission.
If Schrader’s Sister Fetus can be interpreted as a life-affirming amendment in the novel-to-script adaptation process, then without a doubt his most significant alteration is in the climactic euthanasia scene. Here the protagonist Frank Pierce (played by Nicholas Cage in the film) allows the passive euthanising of his principal cardiac case, Mr. Burke. In the book, with a nurse and a doctor present, Pierce pretends to use the defibrillator paddles on the long-suffering Mr. Burke, and Burke finally slips away to rest in peace. The reader gets the impression that the act is as much to relieve Frank’s exhaustion as Burke’s.
But in Schrader’s screenplay, this critical climax has its meaning changed radically. Schrader earlier establishes that Burke communicates with Frank telepathically, so that Frank hears Burke’s voice quite clearly and unmistakably. In the key Scene 74, the oft-shocked and weary Burke pleads with Frank, “Let me go.” Alone in the Intensive Care Unit, Frank switches the EKG patches and Burke’s respirator tube to himself, thus keeping the monitors steady and the alarm inert until Burke has quietly passed away. Only then does Frank allow the medical staff to rush in and try to resuscitate the now deceased Burke.
The significance of Schrader’s change is monumental. Instead of a clouded motivation, or one where Frank is the active party is ending the life of Mr. Burke, we now have an act of requested kindness. “Hearing” Burke’s supplication exonerates the act of euthanasia in Schrader’s Judeo-Christian cosmology. (18)
The denouement is more peaceful, as well. Burke’s daughter, Mary, is no longer angry toward Frank and the world. And Frank himself no longer stumbles into bed, alone but for the imagined naked presence of Rose, the haunting girl he failed to save. In Schrader’s revision, it is Mary who is really there with him, clothed, and holding him pieta-like as he finds sleep at last, the reluctant savior. And with that sleep, and with “mother” Mary’s presence, there is forgiveness and redemption. Forgiveness for the lives he couldn’t save, and a redeeming love which is grateful for his vocation, the self-sacrificial calling which is his destiny.
The stasis view at the conclusion is precisely that which Schrader lauds in his classic treatise on Transcendental Style in Film, where the frozen form expresses the Transcendent in a hierophany (literally, “holy revelation”). (19) Although Scorsese has used “overabundant means” with tricks such as strong halo backlighting on Nicolas Cage, or an added dreamlike scene of Frank pulling the wounded up out of the pavement, Schrader’s approach would be more modest if one were to keep with his thesis conventions. His definition of “transcendental” favors Zen Buddhism and the Tao’s “do nothing” austerity, unlike the activism of the Reformation or the physical redemption theory of a Siegfried Kracauer. (20)
In practice, however, Schrader’s own films as director have not been able to bear such strict asceticism of style, except perhaps Mishima. Instead he has shown us the power of God in the nitty gritty of everyday life, not necessarily pointing to a “Wholly Other.” Yet just because he has existential heroes and “action” in his work, that does not vitiate the spiritual, the transcendent, the hopeful altruism of self-sacrifice, indeed the hierophanic revelations throughout a work such as Bringing Out the Dead. With Schrader it is perhaps not so much a transcendental style as the transcendental content of his message.
In the script for Bringing Out the Dead we get both transcendental content and transcendental style. All three essentials of Schrader’s classic paradigm may be found here, despite the overall high energy level of the film. First, The Everyday: “A meticulous representation of the dull, banal commonplaces of everyday living.” (21) This is precisely the shell-shocked world of the emergency medical technicians, Frank and his partners, the nurse at the emergency room, the guard in the waiting room, the doctors with their codes and paddles, and even the recidivists, pushers, junkies, and psychotics on the street.
The next step is Disparity: “An actual or potential disunity between man and his environment which culminates in a decisive action”. (22) This is obviously the moment when Frank, surrounded by medical gadgets and monitors, pulls the plugs sustaining Mr. Burke’s “life.” It is an “emotional event within a factual, emotionless environment, … a deep ground of compassion and awareness which man and nature can touch intermittently.” (23)
The third and final element in the schema of transcendental style is Stasis: ”A frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.” (24) Here is the pieta tableau of Mary cradling Frank, who is spent but will awaken for another day of humanitarian service and saint-like sacrifice. Nicolas Cage as the Mother Teresa of skid row.
The slam-bang world of Schrader and Scorsese’s mean streets, with its undercurrent of rock music and urban cacophony, would hardly seem to be the expected milieu for transcendence. This is no austere, cold winter-skied Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955). The glaze in the eyes of the protagonist EMS medic may seem uncaring, inappropriate, ironic. But a detachment, at least a partial one, may be an occupational necessity of holding on to a modicum of sanity and equilibrium. This author recalls working as a documentary film producer for the humanitarian and relief agency, World Vision. Each day the morning was spent analysing “hurting shots” of famine, disease, poverty, and despair, while matching them up with complementary “helping shots” of aid workers, teachers, medics, and the like. Following these vicarious hours spent with the hungry and needy of the world, how could one go out for a casual hamburger at lunchtime? After all, there are starving people out there. How dare you enjoy life in such a cosmos?
But the line of Connelly-Schrader-Scorsese-Cage, as the work goes from novel to script to director to actors’ embodiment, is one of deep sensitivity, which may well need some bizarre responses as a coping mechanism. Bringing Out the Dead not only puts forth Schrader’s classic “search and rescue” motif quite literally, as he did in Taxi Driver and Hardcore. Here also is a mystical presence, a transcendence of characterisation and narrative, in a film which could be described as ‘The Sixth Sense meets E.R’. Combining expressionistic wild rides in Coenesque irony with moments of austerity and contemplation in the frontal blankness of Nicholas Cage’s protagonist, Schrader presents the viewer with a gallery of street epiphanies which lead to a mature vision of self-sacrifice and hopeful expectation.
When you give your soul to junkies and recidivists in the night of New York City, can you ever find it again? “The Hound of Heaven” seems to be pursuing Schrader to make films about redemption, just as Cage’s character is driven, and in turn is a reluctant but sincere redeemer in his microcosm. Like George C. Scott’s “Pilgrim” in Hardcore, paramedic Frank Pierce “descends into hell” to suffer for the sins of his people, his New Yorker neighbors. Splattered with Martin Scorcese’s strange angles, garish lights, and introspective performances of Schrader’s blueprint, Bringing Out the Dead continues the oeuvre of which Phillip Lopate wrote, “It is as though Schrader were trying to yoke Robert Bresson and Sam Peckinpah in the same movie.” (25)
However incongruent such a synthesis may seem on the surface, for Schrader it is a consistent outworking of his upbringing in a household informed by the Protestant Reformation, where one is taught to recognise Christ’s kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven.” His 1972 UCLA master’s thesis foreshadowed the approach we see here circa 2000:
In films of transcendental style, irony is the temporary solution to living in a schizoid world. The principal characters take an attitude of detached awareness, find humor in the bad as well as the good, passing judgment on nothing. The characters treat life with irony and are in turn treated with irony by their directors. (26)
So while Schrader protests that he is not (able to be) a user of transcendental style, nonetheless the outside observer may indeed find such elements in his works.
Schrader confesses that Bringing Out the Dead feels “old” to some viewers because he and Martin Scorsese are products of the Fifties and Sixties. Today’s film writers do not create the depth of an existential hero (like Frank Pierce), so much as they do ironic, self-referential, deconstructed heroes who “let you in on the joke,” says Schrader. To illustrate the difference in popular culture, he posits David Letterman as ironic, versus Johnny Carson as existential. (27)
The redemption that Schrader’s protagonists find is one achieved through suffering. “He who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). Frank Pierce finds himself in saving others. Like the cast down apostle Paul, Frank is afflicted each night, bears the marks of dying in his seemingly impassive countenance, yet is ultimately buoyed up (II Cor. 4:9-10). The Schraderian existentialist hero receives
… redemption through physical pain … one torment after another. Not redemption by having a view of salvation or by grace, but just redemption by death and suffering, which is the darker side of the Christian message. (28)
Schrader once wrote of French director Robert Bresson, that “considered solely in terms of his personality, Bresson becomes a religious fanatic, … tortured, brooding,” who because of his “guilt obsession is forced to live out his neuroses on the screen.” (29) May we not also say this of Paul Schrader, who like Bresson is “a representative of a different and older culture,” one “who has assigned himself a near-impossible task: to update an older aesthetic into a contemporary form”? (30)
- Peter Jackson, Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, London: Faber and Faber, 1990, p. x.
- Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
- George Kouvaros , “Pretending that Life has no Meaning: Interview with Paul Schrader,” Rouge #7, 2007.
- Although Yakuza was released first, in 1974, ahead of Taxi Drive (1976), the latter’s script was written during ten days in the summer of 1972. Also, Yazuza is a screenplay adapted from his brother Leonard’s story, while Taxi Driver is an original.
- John Carey, William Golding, The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies: A Life, Free Press, 2010. Golding was also preoccupied with original sin and man’s fallen nature.
- Kouvaros, loc. cit.
- This approach might look conservative at times, and liberal at other times, but it tries to be consistent in referring all issues to the teachings of Jesus. For example, secular political categories label the pro-life abortion position as conservative, and the anti-war position as liberal. But a consistent Christian peace position might be against all forms of killing, and thus be uncategoriseable in popular terms.
- Paul Schrader, “Easy Rider,” L. A. Free Press, July 25, 1969.
- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, 3rd. ed., Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 230.
- Jackson, 117.
- Quoted in Jackson, p. 119.
- Kolker, p.237.
- Kouvaros, loc. cit.
- Quoted in the Warner Brothers press packet materials for the film.
- Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in Peter Jackson, p. 85. Also in Film Comment, 8 (1) (Spring, 1972).
- Schrader quoted in Jackson, p. 30.
- Michael Bliss, “Affliction and Forgiveness,” Film Quarterly, 54 (1), (Fall, 2000), p. 9.
- Unlike the popular film The Sixth Sense, Schrader does not admit any communication with the dead in his worldview. Once the elderly Mr. Burke has flatlined, there are no further voices from him in Frank’s head.
- Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, p.86.
- Ibid., p. 112, 199.
- Ibid., p. 39.
- Ibid., p. 42.
- Ibid., p. 47, 48.
- Ibid., p. 49.
- Phillip Lopate, Totally Tenderly Tragically, New York: Anchor Books, 1998, p. 320.
- Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, p. 45.
- Paul Schrader, interviewed by Gary Wills, audio tape, Calvin College Writers Conference, April, 2000.
- Quoted in Jackson, p. 133.
- Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, p. 87.
- Ibid. As for Schrader’s more recent films, critics and audiences have not been kind. In a review of Adam Resurrected, Geoff Berkshire, in Metromix Chicago, Dec. 11, 2008, writes a summation of the recent years (2005-): “Writer-director Paul Schrader (best known for writing Taxi Driver and directing American Gigolo) has been on a cold streak lately with stuff like The Walker and a failed Exorcist prequel. There’s no doubt about this one extending his run of low profile non-events. Adam is one of the oddest Holocaust stories ever filmed, which might have given the movie an edge in a year that’s produced an abnormally large number of films set during that time. But Schrader’s attempt at adapting Yoram Kaniuk’s novel (long considered unfilmable) is just too weird to be taken seriously, or mistaken for great art.” Nonetheless, be assured that Paul Schrader will always be involved in cinema that he believes is worth doing. For 2011, for example, he is scripting The Dying of the Light, where “a CIA agent about to retire due to Alzheimer’s races the clock on a final mission.”
2005–Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
1994–Witch Hunt (TV movie)
1990–The Comfort of Strangers
1987–Light of Day
1985–Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
1999–Bringing Out the Dead (dir. Martin Scorsese)
1996–City Hall (dir. Harold Becker)
1988–The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese)
1987–Light of Day
1986–The Mosquito Coast (dir. Peter Weir)
1985–Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
1982–Cat People (uncredited)
1980–Raging Bull (dir. Martin Scorsese)
1979–Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury)
1977–Rolling Thunder (dir. John Flynn)
1976–Obsession (dir. Brian de Palma)
1976–Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese)
1974–The Yakuza (dir. Sydney Pollack)
Michael Bliss, “Affliction and Forgiveness,” Film Quarterly, 54 (1), (Fall, 2000)
Peter Jackson, Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
George Kouvaros, Paul Schrader, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment, 8 (1) (Spring, 1972).
Paul Schrader, Bringing Out the Dead, London: Faber and Faber, 200o.
Paul Schrader, Collected Screenplays 1: Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
Paul Schrader, “Cannon Fodder”, Film Comment (September-October, 2006).