This is pt. 4 and the conclusion of my contemplation of a theme drawn from Elliot Lavine’s typically-inspired grab-bag film series NOT NECESSARILY NOIR (sadly, now concluded), at the Roxie Theater (Click on highlighted sections for trailers, etc. Click here for pt.3, the previous entry in this series):
Meditating on Schrader and his work over the years, I’ve been struck time and again by how overtly personal his films are, how much lived experience and pain he poured into them (which he seemed more than happy to talk about), to the point of emotional exhibitionism — and yet — something was being evaded, some missing key… How did this artist become obsessed by such scabrous themes? Then there was the relative emotional distance of the films when he began directing himself, especially noticeable after Hardcore. Reading Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls ten years ago, the mystery appeared solved — it was the abusive character of the Schraders’ childhood home (as revealed by Leonard), which had previously been alluded to in many interviews with Paul, but not dealt with directly. Biskind’s book is an incredible read, however — sensationalist in both the best and worst ways. Reading the Schrader sections over again recently, I was struck by the impression that Biskind almost seemed engaged in a deliberate effort to scuttle what was left of Paul’s commercial career — everything about him other than his obvious brilliance is presented in the worst possible light. Is this book to be trusted, and should my ideas about Schrader and his work have credibility in the light of their being influenced by Biskind’s possible unreliability? Then, too, the attempt to psychoanalyze from afar is always dicey, not to mention presumptuous. I bring these issues up for the sake of intellectual honesty — I very much believe in the validity of what I’m trying to suggest here, but what Schrader himself might have to say about these matters is unknown at this point (at least by me). Biskind, however, provides a strong dose of what could already be read in the subtext of Schrader’s films and interviews.
Much of his work — especially from the early period — is characterized by self-hatred and suicidal apocalypticism (run through the trailers linked to the highlighted film titles in pt. 2 of this article, and you’ll get my point). Intertwined with this is the on-going theme of incestuous family romance — treated explicitly in Obsession and his 1982 re-make of Cat People, but also as subtext in various works: why in Taxi Driver, for example, does Travis deliberately sabotage his potential relationship with the mature (and slightly motherly) Cybill Shepherd, to then plow his energies into rescuing a kid-sister type from an Evil Father? Jake VanDorn watches his daughter have sex on film, then spends the rest of Hardcore‘s duration obsessed — by the nature of his quest — with her sexual being and experience. Then there’s the on-going theme of the conflict between brothers — the would-be “brothers” of Blue Collar, and the La Motta brothers in Raging Bull (1980), a project Schrader took up at the behest of DeNiro and Scorsese, who came to him with the rush job of putting a disorganized project (for which there had been already many drafts by Mardik Martin) into shape. By its nature, Raging Bull already contained much in common with the previous Scorsese/DeNiro/Schrader collaboration: narcissistic self-loathing/ punishment/aggrandizement. Into this already savory mix Schrader injected the on-going tension/battle between brothers Jake and Joey La Motta, taking up much of the film’s screen time. It was Robin Wood, I believe, who first suggested the root concern of Raging Bull being the conflict between the La Motta brothers and the repressed homoerotic tension lurking at its core. This was confirmed by Schrader in 1990: “It (has) to do with that kind of hidden sexual bond between brothers. The sexuality of the siblings expresses itself by Jake being convinced that his brother has cheated on him (with his wife).” Conflict between siblings often indicates disordered power dynamics throughout the family — similar to the La Motta brothers as depicted in Raging Bull, after collaborating one final time in 1985 on Mishima, it’s my understanding the Schrader brothers suffered an irreparable rift, still unmended at the time of Leonard Schrader’s death in 2006.
Paul Schrader’s most direct treatment of whatever trauma he’d suffered as a child wouldn’t come until 1988, with Patty Hearst. The true story of a rich heiress made famous by her very public abduction by a tiny band of millenarian pseudo-revolutionaries, the Symbionese Liberation Army, provided all the cover the director needed for full-on expression of the harrowing emotional experience of one of the elect to be sucked into a black hole of abuse, confusion and repressed rage. Similar to Patty’s experience of wealth and privilege, as a Calvinist boy, Schrader just “knew” he was one of the predestined elect. Like the untold anguish that leads to Travis Bickle’s “Suck on this!” moment, the years of shock and torment lead to Patty’s final (and virtually only) declaration: “Fuck ’em! Fuck them all!” By the time he came to make Patty Hearst, Schrader had developed a style roughly analogous to the sophisticated expressionism of Scorsese’s in Taxi Driver, and the later film provides an archetypally passive feminized emotional backstory to the earlier (and far more celebrated) archetypally male crescendo of alienation and rage.
Back in the late 70’s, though, Schrader found himself unable to deal with his Oedipal dilemma lucidly. Emotionally adolescent tales of bloody retribution followed by tragi-melodramas of sibling squabbles had struck profound emotional truth, but when he tried to face his father directly in Hardcore, he couldn’t see it through. Perhaps this was due to something akin to the Stockholm syndrome suffered by Patty Hearst. As Charles Raine (William Devane), the returning Vietnam POW in Rolling Thunder says, regarding his captors: “You learn to love the rope… That’s how you beat people who torture you — you learn to love them.” (For “rope”, of course, it’s easy to read “belt.”)
It’s no wonder Schrader was having troubles seeing his issues and material clearly: dealing with the sadomasochistic realities of hands-on film production for the first time had been daunting, and if the grenade-tossing by his Blue Collar cast had been traumatic, his dealings with George C. Scott during Hardcore hadn’t been much better — the great actor had been in his cups for much of the production, causing endless frustrations. These difficulties had left him unable to get a purchase on the visual craft of his art, no doubt leaving him shamed when confronting the visual poetry Scorsese had rendered from his words. Then, too, he was frustrated by needing the crutch of raw violence for self-expression — surely this was not the path to emotional maturity.
***** SPOILER ALERT: The following will touch upon a film’s ending:
The third of his directorial projects to come up in rotation, however, crystalized his dilemma in a new form: the portrait of a Frozen Man. American Gigolo was the product of a class Schrader taught at UCLA in 1976 on screenwriting as “personal problem-solving”, the search for “a commercial film metaphor to address an idiosyncratic problem.” His advice was “to reach deep into yourself, pull something out deep and meaningful to you, then try to take that raw piece of meat, and see it in the context of a commercial film.” From the discussions in class, he’d been struck by a way to deal with the “problem of giving and receiving love, (especially) the difficulty of receiving: The notion of the gigolo as a metaphor for the man who can’t receive pleasure.” While his previous protagonists had been suffering from clinical narcissism, Schrader’s gigolo would represent a new, evolved version in this line: “I became interested in this young man who had made something of himself, a sort of Horatio Alger sexual fantasy, who had made himself into this desirable object, and… found an identity in pleasing others and had lost a sense of anything real… When you receive something it calls for your participation with the person who’s giving: to deal with a one-to-one relationship, to show appreciation… It’s about sex as ego on his part.”
“The gigolo was essentially a character of surfaces; therefore the movie had to be about surfaces.” Schrader set about creating a “new Los Angeles”, recruiting Italians Giorgio Moroder, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and Giorgio Armani to handle Gigolo‘s music, art direction, and costumes (Armani’s involvement with this film led to still-current Superstar status). Scarfiotti had designed the productions of Visconti’s Death in Venice, and Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, and Schrader “sat at (Scarfiotti’s) knee” to learn the maestro’s manner of visual thinking. The director set out to create an all-out art-film, pouring in visual influences from The Conformist, Godard’s The Married Woman, and Resnais’s La Gurre est finie. The film’s plot was derived from Schrader ultimate favorite, Robert Bresson‘s Pickpocket, as well as Pickpocket‘s own narrative model, Crime and Punishment.
Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) has struggled against déclassé origins to become a gigolo at the top of the Los Angeles sex-for-pay food chain; he has alienated his procurers along the way. As he begins to have feelings of love for the first time towards a Senator’s wife (Lauren Hutton), he becomes implicated in the sadomasochistic murder of one of his clients.
American Gigolo was as personal as any of Schrader’s previous projects. Like Taxi Driver, it was the story of a “man and his room”. Like any of Schrader’s previous protagonists, Julian is alienated. Unlike those earlier characters, however, Julian isn’t especially angry, and his alienation is perhaps more from Self than society. By dealing with the consequences of his narcissism, by being forced to awareness of his fragile, mortal nature as a human being, “this lounge lizard”, as described by Schrader, is made open to “the acceptance of unconditional goodness, which is the same as spiritual grace. You accept the idea that Christ died for you and you did nothing to deserve this; it’s a gift and you just have to be open enough to accept it in order to become whole.”
The dénouement of American Gigolo was explicitly modeled on that of Pickpocket: “The trick of the film — and I guess if ever I try to do anything resembling transcendental style this might be it — is to try to create an essentially cold film in which a burst of emotion transforms it at the end, which is why I had the audacity to take the end of Bresson’s Pickpocket.” It is striking that Schrader made two films back-to-back which were both remakes, of sorts, of two of the greatest works of world cinema — Ford’s The Searchers and Pickpocket — both of which climax in transcendental moments, the receiving and acceptance of grace. Hardcore, though, hadn’t the slightest pretension towards transcendentalism. The portrait of his father Schrader creates in that film is of a man morally certain, but nevertheless (as is described as being a Comanche belief in The Searchers of those who have lost their eyes) “doomed to wander forever between the winds”. Was Schrader not tempted towards a transcendental finish in Hardcore out of Oedipal animus, or perhaps some sort of subconscious rejection of the nature of John Ford’s Catholic-inflected style, which he’d described (apropos of Catholic churches and Scorsese’s manner in Taxi Driver) as: “emotional, communal flurry”? Were the hyper-intellectualism he’d shown at least since college, and the Euromania evinced by his passion for European Art Cinema psychological defenses against his parents? At any rate, whatever the answers to these questions are, we can be reassured that in Bresson’s Jansenism, a French Catholic theological movement with many similarities to Calvinism, Schrader found an aesthetic template for the channeling of both his emotion and self-expression. In Bresson’s works, he found an adoptive father, a father of the spirit rather than the tortured flesh.
American Gigolo was received as enjoyable pop sleaze by the masses and a work of High Style by elite critics. It made Richard Gere a star, and immediately altered visual understandings of Los Angeles on all levels of culture. Few were consciously aware of the whole “transcendent” thing, but this work, via Schrader’s auto-critique, ushered in a new era of high-style male narcissism and concomitant criticism of the same trend. The film continues to exert its influence: in Tom Ford’s recent directorial debut, A Single Man, there is a virtual shot-by-shot recreation of one of Gigolo‘s signature scenes: Julian lays out his Armani wardrobe on his bed while dancing to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”, a portrait of what Schrader described as an “artist at his palette”.
In 1980, Schrader was at the top of his critical and commercial game, respectively, with Raging Bull and American Gigolo. To paraphrase the last line of Pickpocket, what a strange, dark and tortured path he’d had to take to reach this brilliant, if temporary, deliverance. In the next decade would lie a full-on rendezvous with his Beatrice — unlike Julian, his troubles were far from over. The eighties were arriving, and with them the virtual extinguishing of personal expression in American commercial cinema. For most of the past decade, however, the interaction of Schrader’s work and personal development had been one of the key driving forces in narrative cinema. The best of his work as critic, screenwriter and director remain so to this day.