Paul Schrader –
In the Hands of an Angry God
Essay by Pamela Jahn
Paul Schrader is his name, and Taxi Driver is the film with which he inscribed himself forever into the history books of cinema. The maverick and provocateur, who was born in 1946 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has devoted almost his entire opus to driven antiheroes and broken fighters who seek to defend their place in the world. With his dissecting, consistently inward look at his characters and their destinies, Schrader has created an oeuvre as an author, director and theoretician, which is not just awe-in- spiring, but also worth rediscovering time and again. At times wild, at times heartbreaking, occasionally tragic and forever unpredictable, his films – with which Bildrausch is paying tribute this year to the great auteur, as well as giving him the first Honorary Award for Visionary Cinema – bear witness to the endless artistry and versatility that Schrader has displayed for over 40 years in his journey through American cinema, both inside and outside of Hollywood.
Where to start? With the films he wasn’t allowed to see? The loneliness that would not leave him alone? Or even with the Calvinism that would go on to shape his work so clearly and unmistakably?
Anyone who tries to define Paul Schrader quickly gets entangled – and just as quickly starts swooning. For over forty years, he has defined the great art of subverting Hollywood from the inside – emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. He has been called a “provocateur par excellence”, and this is an honest compliment. Schrader knows why he does what he does, and he fights for it, audaciously and ceaselessly. It is the only way he manages to draw an intrepid, scrutinising and forever stylistically curious cinema from the commercial studio system, a cinema that mostly seeks its answers in the darkest spheres of the human soul and psyche, where others don’t even dare ask questions. Violence and crime, religiosity, fatalism and metaphysics are his specialities.
Since writing the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Schrader’s insistent interest in inner hells – both personal and fictitious – have driven him to collect boundary-seeking experiences in ever deeper and darker mental universes of the American male. Not least to get to grips with his own biography, which could not be more different than the typical trajectories of his New Hollywood colleagues.
Even among the more eccentric members of his profession, Schrader was considered an exception due to his unconventional schooling as a filmmaker, if only because he was the last of them to start going to the cinema. He was no less than 17 when his strictly religious upbringing in a Calvinist home suddenly failed to hold him back, and he sought out the apostles of European and Japanese auteur cinema to help him define his new ways of thinking and believing – above all Bergman, Bresson, Cocteau, Ozu, Dreyer and Godard. Their films, which still remind Schrader of the liberating nature of cinema, served as a crucial foundation and inspiration for the maverick filmmaker, who was born in 1946 in Grand Rapids in Michigan – first as a recognised film critic and theoretician, subsequently as a screenwriter, and since the end of the 1970s as a director.
His original plans to study theology and philosophy, and give people support and hope as a pastor, had long been ditched; Schrader left this path somewhere in the mael- strom of images, and arrived in Hollywood. His first screenplay, The Yakuza, which he wrote in 1974 together with his brother Leonard (an important collaborator, especially in his early years), landed in the hands of nobody less than Sydney Pollack. After that, there was no stopping the man who was then in his late 20s. The sensational success of Taxi Driver two years later gave him the necessary boost to make his own direc- torial debut in 1978 with Blue Collar. American Gigolo (1980) finally made him famous as a master behind the camera, who made a lasting contribution to the renewal of American cinema with his defiant filmography. And yet, despite his greatest efforts – according to Schrader, Taxi Driver was the result of a gruelling act of therapeutic self-help – the author and director’s childhood, which was steeped in puritanism and the fear of God, never let go of him. On the contrary.
It has downright etched itself into his themes and above all his characters, who usually strive for truth, virtue or fulfilment, but end up having hell to pay. But the important thing is that his characters don’t develop to drive a story forward. Their development is the story. This is something he learned from Ozu. And one might almost think that Travis Bickle and his companions – all the other driven and blinded men, the tortured hermits and lonely outsiders who populate Schrader’s opus – are such an intricate, unmistakable part of himself that he needs them like he needs air to breathe. And they need him: textbook examples of tragically damaged, sometimes repeatedly broken antiheroes, who consciously wrestle with themselves and the world, and yet cannot escape their own skin. Or worse, who fail at their own ambitions.
The fact that people are locked up, in their heads as much as in their bodies, is the premise on which Schrader sends his tormented protagonists to the screen. But it is only the split between their inner demands and external reality that brings them to life. It is the heartbeat that holds it all together. Robert de Niro’s disgusted night driver, who wants to clean up the streets of New York and who himself turns into a monster in the course of his brutal clean-up manoeuvre, shows this. And even the three disappointed factory workers in Blue Collar fall into the same trap: with the best of intentions they rebel against a corrupt trade union, only to end up equally corruptible themselves. Whether they are drug dealers (Light Sleeper), police officers (Affliction), call boys (American Gigolo), sex fanatics (Auto Focus) or clerics (First Reformed), Schrader’s struggling heroes are all impurities in a commercially seducible society which swallows them, abuses them and consumes them, only to spew them out as shadows of themselves and leave them to their own destiny.
But not all of them are as aware of their fate as Yukio Mishima, the world-famous Japanese writer to whom Schrader devotes a fascinating portrait in Mishima – A Life in Four Chapters (1985). In him, the director found an equally bold and ambiguous artist through whom he could fully explore the magnitude of his own aesthetic virtuosity. In a formally and narratively multi-layered collage of biographical flashbacks and fictional sequences, the film traces the image of a resolute and politically motivated artist, who in his tireless pursuit of absolute beauty stylised his own life until his very last breath, and therefore reached the only conclusion possible for him in the public and solemn act of suicide. Here, at the heart of Schrader’s meditative and experimental work, fiction and reality unite in a brief and glorious moment of salvation.
Like every person with a formative past, Schrader was intent on driving away the demons that plagued him since childhood at the beginning of his illustrious career. First with his famous graduation thesis as a film student in Los Angeles (“Transcend- ental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer”) and subsequently as Martin Scorsese’s favourite screenwriter (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), he repeatedly poured out his soul in his writing, to help him counter his own destruction – with increasing artistic and commercial success. But it takes the following anecdote about a knitting needle to understand how deep his scars are. We mean the fateful torture needle with which his mother forcefully and repeatedly stabbed him in the hand one day when he was a boy, to show the devoted son in an unmistakable way how bad and painful it is in hell. But this horrifying experience not only made him timid and fearful for a very long time, it also made him more robust over the years. This explains the euphoria and devotion with which Schrader has been keen to perpetuate the everlasting struggle of guilt and atonement in his films, which even the introverted, self-doubting and physically decaying Reverend Toller fights bravely in his latest masterpiece.
And we must mention one more thing about what is certainly the most nonconformist Calvinist before the Lord: Schrader is always at his most powerful when he moves on the limits of the transcendental, when he echoes the mystifying images of the great cinema tradition and thereby creates something completely new and unforeseen. First Reformed (2017), an inward-looking, elegantly staged adaptation of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest is possibly the most perfect example. But his own early works are never far away. The closest relative of Toller is probably Willem Dafoe’s charismatic John LeTour from Light Sleeper, who was long considered the “quintes- sence of Schrader’s lonely man”: a yearning drug courier, haunted by his past and driven by the evil omens of his future, who, like Ethan Hawke’s tormented cleric in First Reformed, feels the nagging desire to write down his thoughts in notebooks. In both films, Schrader’s camera completely adopts the perspective of its protagonists, and thereby compresses their contradictions and reveals highly upsetting thoughts and feelings.
Life is cinema, is a battlefield of emotions, as one of Schrader’s role models, the Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said. What this means in detail cannot be explained in abstract words, it must be experienced. In Paul Schrader’s films you can feel it – and see it.
We owe Paul Schrader’s visit to Basel to the kind and generous support of This Brunner. We would like to thank This Brunner from the bottom of our hearts.