Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ranking the Paul Schrader Films I've Seen

Paul Schrader will most likely be best remembered as the screenwriter for three of Martin Scorsese’s best films – Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). But his career is obviously greater than those three films – from his fine screenplays of other director’s work like Rolling Thunder (1977) and Mosquito Coast (1986), along with his other screenplay for Scorsese – Bringing Out the Dead (1999). He has also directed 18 films – the latest being The Canyons – opening this week in theaters and on demand. While Schrader has never gotten quite the same praise for his directorial efforts as he has for those screenplays for Scorsese, his filmography is quite strong – and he certainly qualifies as an auteur. I titled this post the films of Paul Schrader that I have seen, because while I’ve only seen 11 of his directorial efforts and have missed 6 – Cat People (1982), Light of Day (1987), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Witch Hunt (1994), Forever Mine (1999) and Adam Resurrected (2008). That’s a third of his filmography, so obviously I have some work to do to catch up. But on the eve of the release of his latest film, I thought I should take some time to acknowledge a fairly underrated filmography.

11. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
The story of Schrader’s awkwardly titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is well known – the studio hired Schrader to make a Prequel to the famed horror movie – he did, and they hated it. They considered it too slow and ceberal, and not the horror movie they wanted, so they took the movie away from Schrader, jettisoned most of the footage, recast some roles, and gave the film to Renny Harlin, who made Exorcist: The Beginning. After spending millions on the two versions, and having it still in the red after Harlin’s film was done it’s theatrical run, the studio relented, and barely released Schrader’s version – in an effort to make a least little money off of it. I’ve now spent most of my space talking about the backstory to the movie rather than the movie itself – and there’s a reason for that. It just isn’t very good. I appreciate the fact that Schrader takes the premise seriously, which is probably what the studio didn’t like (but should have expected had they seen anything Schrader has ever done before), but the film is still dull, and rather unremarkable. Is it better than Harlin’s version? Yes, but not by that much, although they are very different films based on the same basic premise. If they were better movies, it would be fascinating to watch them back to back to see the differences. But they’re not, so both films have largely already been forgotten – and that’s probably for the best.

10. Touch (1997)
Strangely, although the film couldn’t be more different than Dominion, Touch suffers the same basic problem – that Schrader takes it a little too seriously. Here we have a movie based on an Elmore Leonard novel – with all of his trademark wit – that doesn’t really play like a comedy. Part of that is because it’s a bizarre novel by Leonard in the first place – instead of his usual criminals, Touch is about a strange young man (Skeet Ulrich) who has Stigmata – and the people who meet and try to exploit him. The film seems caught between the world of Leonard – in which this could be an amusing religious satire – and Schrader – who tries harder to take some of the questions of faith in the movie seriously, which I don’t think Leonard ever intended. This makes Touch a very odd movie – not successful really, but not boring either.

9. Patty Hearst (1988)
Patty Hearst is an odd film, but perhaps that is what this very odd story deserves. We all know the story of Heart – she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, really just an odd collection of misguided young people under the power of their leader, kept in a closet for weeks, and then ends up joining their “revolution” – even to the point of brandishing a machinegun at a bank robbery. Schrader’s film is clearly in sympathy with Hearst – he buys her story that she was essentially brainwashed into doing what she did, and the way Schrader presents it, you’d have a tough time arguing that. Yet what makes the film odd is that for such a sensational, unbelievable story, Schrader has made a subdued film – one that you could argue is dull. What isn’t dull is Miranda Richardson’s great performance as Hearst – which is remarkably subtle – so subtle in fact, at times she appears to be doing nothing. I’m not sure Patty Hearst is really a good film, but again, it’s an interesting one – and one you won’t likely forget.

8. The Walker (2007)
The Walker is the story of a man who everyone sees as frivolous and a failure when compared to his “great” father, who in reality, is a far greater, more moral person. It stars Woody Harrelson, in one of his best performances, as the son of a famous Senator, who really hasn’t done much with his life. He is gay and spends most of his time going on “dates” with the wives of powerful Washington men – accompanying them to parties or the theater, when their husbands are too busy to. And then, he becomes involved in a murder investigation because of one of those women, and then becomes the prime suspect. The film is more of a character study of Harrelson’s character than a murder mystery – but the murder mystery is necessary in order for us, and for Harrelson’s character himself, to see just who this character is. It isn’t one of Schrader’s best films – but it is a very good one, and it deserves to be seen by more people.

7. American Gigolo (1980)
American Gigolo is every inch a Paul Schrader with one major difference – the ending of this film is upbeat. This is another of what Schrader calls his “Man in a Room”  movies, this one involving Richard Gere, as a young gigolo who specializes in pleasing middle aged women. He’s very good at his job – and takes pride in it. While outwardly, he appears to be charming and likable, he really is another of Schrader’s lonely characters – craving human contact, and yet not quite sure how to get that legimately, so he hides behind his profession to get it. That is until he meets Lauren Hutton – as a Senator’s wife. Her character is not as well defined as perhaps she could be, but everything else in the movie – including the murder investigation (this is clearly a pre-cursor to films like Light Sleeper and The Walker) are handled well. Does the upbeat ending work? I’m not sure, but considering that Schrader usually ends his films on a down note, it is a welcome respite.

6. Light Sleeper (1992)
Light Sleeper is one of the saddest films about drug addiction you will ever see. It stars Willem Dafoe in an excellent performance as a former addict, now clean for a few years, who still works in the drug business – going to the home of his clients to drop off their fix. Why does he do this? After years of being an addict, what other job could he possibly get? He gets along with his boss, Susan Sarandon. Like The Walker, the film is a character study more than it is about it’s plot – and there is a plot, about an old flame of Dafoe’s, another drug addict, and her death – that Dafoe gets drawn into. Some will complain that the ending of the movie is basically the same ending as Schrader wrote for Taxi Driver. It’s not an unfair complaint, but the ending works for this film, as it did for the previous one. And, as I said, the movie isn’t about its plot – about these two people, Dafoe and Sarandon, their relationship, and the two performances couldn’t be better.

5. Auto Focus (2002)
Auto Focus is a sad movie about sex addiction. It stars Greg Kinnear in a remarkable performance as Bob Crane – star of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes – whose career crashed and burned after the show went off the air, and then he descended into his own personal hell as a sex addict, before ended up being murdered by his running mate – played in an exceptionally creepy performance by Willem Dafoe. There is a lot of sex in Auto Focus, but no joy, not eroticism. Crane is famous, and finds getting women to sleep with him is easy. He and Dafoe’s character spend time in strip clubs and bars, and often film their exploits. Why? Why not? Some complained that Auto Focus was a shallow film, but that’s not accurate. It’s a remarkably

4. Blue Collar (1978)
In the same week that the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, I find myself writing about Schrader’s debut film – Blue Collar – that takes place in Detroit, and shows just how corrupt were. It stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yapphet Kotto as three assembly line workers in the auto plants, who are essentially tired of being squeezed by both sides – management on one side, the union on the other – and decide to take matters into their own hands and rob the safe in the Union office – what they find is both more and less than what they expected. The film is brilliantly acted by the three leads – you expect that from actors like Keitel and Kotto, but it is really Pryor who is the star here – still at times funny, but not in the way we’re used to seeing him. This is a film full of anger, and the film does become violent, but as it goes along, it also becomes more morally complex –as the men have to decide what to do. You don’t hear much about Blue Collar anymore – it’s another of those great 1970s films that has been forgotten – but it’s worth tracking down. Right from his first directing effort, Schrader showed he was a fine filmmaker – and one willing to follow the story where it should go, and not the way Hollywood usually wants them to go.

3. Hardcore (1979)
After writing Taxi Driver for Scorsese and Rolling Thunder for John Flynn, I guess Schrader wanted to make a similar movie himself –and he does so in Hardcore, the most underrated film of his career, and one of the more personal ones. The film stars the great George C. Scott as a strict Calvinist (the same religion Schrader himself was raised in), who discovers his daughter has gotten involved in the porn industry – and heads to California to try and “rescue” her. Along the way, he meets a young prostitute – and the two bond. It’s there relationship that is really the heart of Hardcore – he is the one man who doesn’t just see her as a sex object, she gives him the freedom to open up in a way he never has before. The flaw in the movie is the ending – which is fairly standard issue stuff, even if it ends on a bittersweet moment. I almost think the film would have been better had Scott never found his daughter – and if he tried to make the most of it with his new “surrogate” daughter instead. Still, a flawed ending(that Schrader said in Film Comment recently he was forced to change) isn’t enough for me to not love Hardcore, which is a personal movie to me in other ways as well.

2. Affliction (1998)
Affliction is perhaps the most perfect film of Schrader’s career (not, obviously, in my opinion the best, but the least flawed). It stars Nick Nolte in his greatest performance as a lazy, alcoholic Sheriff who is still terrified of his abusive, alcoholic father – played in an Oscar winning performance by James Coburn. Affliction points to the types of roles Nolte, no longer a leading man, has excelled at in the last 15 years – flawed men, beaten down by life and their own demons, but men who despite outward apperances, and past behavior, are still decent. Like many of Schrader’s films, there is a murder in Affliction – one that snaps Nolte out of his slumber, but the movie isn’t about the murder - I can barely remember the details of the murder in this film. What I will never forget is the performances by Nolte and Coburn, one as a man still suffering from the effects of child abuse decades later, and one who is still a big, mean, petulant bully. Coburn said that this was the greatest role of his career – one of the few that actually required him to act. And act he does. Nolte probably should have won an Oscar for this performance as well (out of the nominees, he was probably the best). These two towering performances are at the heart of Schrader’s film – a great one.

1. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a completely unconventional film biography, but probably the only way to effectively tell the story of it’s title character – the famed Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who in 1970, along with his private army, would storm an army base, take a General hostage, address the troops and the commit seppuku, all in an effort to restore the Emperor to power – something even the Emperor did not want. Schrader’s film tells Mishima’s life story in starkly different styles – black and white flashbacks, that show a sickly, overprotected child, who becomes a sexually confused body builder and writer, in highly stylized color sequences, shot on a sound stage, recreating the events of three of Schrader’s novels, and then in more natural color, depicting the last day of his life. Like Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007), Schrader doesn’t want to make a standard issue biopic, but wants to explore the different aspects of Mishima’s character – although this time, I do think it adds up to a coherent whole, unlike Haynes’ film, where not adding up to a coherent whole is part of the point. You’re on dangerous ground when you try too hard to make an artist’s work reflect who they are as a person, which Schrader does here, but the overall effect works remarkably well. Schrader himself considers this his best directorial effort – and I agree wholeheartedly.

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