Basel, June 3, 2018
About the films of Paul Schrader. A laudatory speech for the first Honorary Award of Visionary Cinema, by Dominik Graf.
Mr Schrader, take a look at us - we who have gathered here to meet you – we are the kind of fans you yourself have described with the enigmatic term acolytes in your heartrendingly beautiful obituary of the film critic Pauline Kael in 2001 – I had to look it up: the term also describes a person assisting a priest in a religious service or procession.
And you also used it to describe yourself in your early years, in the smouldering hotbed of the late 1960s and dawning 1970s, when cinema was ablaze. Film critics all over the world had set it on fire, be it in France, in my native Germany, or many other countries. But above all in the United States – among others your mentor Pauline Kael, with her ground-breaking blend of passion and ruthlessness. And also you yourself, first with your film reviews, then with the unique publication "Transcendental Style in Film". This nucleus of your thinking, this awareness of the manifestation of the spiritual domain in cinema – demonstrated with the examples of the eternal directing giants Ozu, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson – one might even say your fundamental questions about cinema allowed you, the acolyte, to turn from disciple to master at breath-taking speed. Eternally consistent yet often surprisingly playful, the opus of "Paul Schrader" rears up like the panorama of a Himalayan mountain range – or unfurls like an enormous carpet, whose diverse and intricate patterns are – I would dare say – not even close to being deciphered.
The Taxi Driver, the American Gigolo, these hypermodern masculine figures (you once described them as mental "drifters on the edge of urban societies"), these prototypes that have virtually dug a ridge into our collective consciousness - one can almost sing about them! And the most beautiful song in your films came from Michael Been in Light Sleeper. "To feel this way"... What a wonderful song! They all strive for redemption – at times these lone wolves want to clean up the alleged filth of society, at times they assume guilt and pay the price, at times they find a way to love. These figures – who may just be one figure – pick up the baton from each other like runners in a relay – Willem Dafoe in 1991 from Richard Gere in 1980, who in turn received it from Robert de Niro in 1976 – ... before it was finally grabbed by Woody Harrelson in the velvety soft yet hard-hitting "The Walker", where this Schrader figure was once more resuscitated, like a revenant.
Quote: "In Washington DC one should never stand between a friend and a shooting squad," Lauren Bacall advises Walker, the friend of the world of political ladies, and she says it as seductively as she once whispered her great phrases in Howard Hawks' films. "You know how to whistle, don't you?" The Walker – this film that starts out being adorable and only slightly nefarious, with a game of canasta among seemingly nice old ladies and a charmingly sarcastic homosexual is nothing less than a super-elegant study of super-cruel truths. When Harrelson pulls off his wig in front of us like in a ritual, after just eight minutes, we know that he – who is here called Carter Page III – is about to be confronted with the machinations of hell. A Henry James-style turn of the screw, which will catch him completely unawares. There will be a campaign against him including a murder charge, which slowly but fatally garrottes him. And it will even bring down Carter Page I and Carter Page II, his legendary ancestors who have been highly revered in the capital until now. Fathers, in other words! "Do you hear that, Lancelot?" he says to his cat, exactly one hour into the film. "Those are doors closing everywhere in this city." He knows that he is alone now. Will he save himself? Does he want to save himself?
In such existential moments, there is often a camera angle that captures the protagonist from above, as he lies in bed, flat as a pancake, pensive or shattered. Willem Dafoe, too, has this moment in the supernatural shimmering of night-time blue in "Light Sleeper", after suffering a downright apocalyptic rejection during a chance encounter with his former lover and co-addict. And thus, seen from above, the figure seems to be on the verge of falling into the abyss. Perched between levitation and a descent into hell. And sometimes you're not quite sure what the difference is between the two – apart from the direction of the movement. Based on these situations, these summaries of entire biographies, an awareness blossoms, which drives the heroes and the film itself towards their respective conclusions.
It is hard to describe the excitement we feel as we wait, sometimes for several years, for a new Paul Schrader film! There is always this tingling feeling of not knowing what will come next – will it overpower you, suck you into its maelstrom, make you think, show you a world you have not seen before, or will it turn the world you know upside down – or will it do all these things at once? Every film is new and fresh. And we always know straight away, what made you make this sometimes completely different film, and what fascinated you about it! Yours is a cathartic filmography, which questions itself ceaselessly, and takes maximum risks 95% of the time. But it is the opus as a whole, with both its ceaseless revolt and continuity, that ultimately matters.
It is a struggle to keep balancing at such a height for 40 years!
A central rule of the Nouvelle Vague was: if you love a director – or an author, as they were then called – you love everything about this person. Not just the triumphs – them too; but no, you especially love the films that are having a hard time, the ones that are less conspicuous or the ones that are much-maligned. These are the ones you love most of all, you have to protect them, as it is these works that sometimes reveal the conviction of the author's personal style – of the "core of the opus" – in its purest form. And even these works by much-loved authors are always, always, always and most definitely far better than the supposedly successful films of Everbody's Darling directors – the ones that basically just ended up being the producers' minions, and who will remain damned in all eternity. Every student makes one or two good films – that is the rule. But to make extremely headstrong, personal and brilliant cinema for 40 years – that is truly a different matter!
This principle of love for film authors was once carved into stone by Truffaut and Godard like a romantic oath from the age of chivalry. But critics today write differently, they no longer swear an oath of allegiance. They raise or lower their thumbs, they dole out percentage points for excitement, eroticism and for being "challenging". Good God, getting many points in the category of "challenging" is already an antechamber of hell. It is called service criticism. And when a director seems to have headed towards another summit within his own mountain range for the umpteenth time, ascending a new peak, even the more talented critics are happy to offer their readers commonplace phrases such as "this is his – or her – best film in a long time." Now, Mr. Schrader, some of them write something like this about your "First Reformed". Some go back with their comparisons to "Taxi Driver".
But – apart from the praise – we always ask ourselves: what is that supposed to mean? Between this "in a long time" and now, today, which is represented by the masterpiece "First Reformed", there are perhaps a dozen or two dozen other films. And then you might say well, ok, these other ones, an effort was made there too.
At this point I have to admit, I haven't seen "First Reformed" yet - some of you here have seen it, and I am green with envy, as for once I believe every word of the consistently high praise. But I have seen the film before that, "Dog eat Dog", and here I saw the director Schrader in top form, mad, very very funny, brutal, cynical, touching.
From the first moment, we gape in awe as we watch Willem Dafoe and Nicholas Cage as gangsters – Cage, who says of himself in this film that he looks like a "stretched-out version of Humphrey Bogart", a piece of dialogue you first have to come up with. In other words, Cage going mad, being melancholy, trigger happy, just like Dafoe, who starts out committing an absurd crime in a pink-coloured video clip nightmare. The two of them – along with a contractor named El Greco (played by you yourself, Mr. Schrader) – try to accomplish two coups. The first is small and manageable, the other one is significantly more demanding, and the film steamrolls its way towards disaster, bathed in blood, and finally into an unreal and merciful light. If you want to – and I want to – you can literally feel how Paul Schrader sheds all his grief and anger about the disputes with his financial backers, which marred the previous years, like an old coat, and stages them like a brilliant 20-year-old. OK, like a brilliant 25-year-old.
And, of course, I have watched the film that came before that one, "Dying of the Light". I know, there were some massive editing issues, but: in "Dying of the Light" there is something magnificent. Here, we once again have Nicolas Cage, who plays an ageing CIA agent on a last warpath, who tells us that his extremely aggressive illness, a "frontotemporal dementia", will kill him with 100% certainty within the next 3 years... – and that this illness has a strange characteristic in its early phases, namely that the patient often becomes highly disoriented towards the evening, has panic attacks and can't remember his own name. The phenomenon is called "sundowning", as Cage explains to a younger colleague, and he looks as agitated as a hounded animal. "Sundowning" – a term that reminds us on the one hand of the late afternoon cocktails our parents drank in the 1960s, but also of the biblical story of the disciples of Emmaus, who allegedly met Jesus after his death. But whom they did not recognise, and who they after a long conversation almost subconsciously beseeched, one could even say the words flowed out of them: "Stay with us, Lord, for it is nearly evening." Possibly one of the most beautiful sentences of the New Testament.
But here, in the film, at night time in snow-covered Bucharest on a park bench in front of Ceausescu’s gigantic "House of the People", no companion comes to join the two CIA agents. They remain alone, the deeply wounded Cage and his terrific co-star Anton Yelchin, who died so tragically two years later. Later in the film, Cage is once again sitting in a hotel, as the evening sun shines over Mombasa like the blade of a knife, and he feels how the demons are coming.
There is also a sense of end-of-the-day paralysis in the fading light of Venice for Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson in "The Comfort of Strangers". Whenever darkness falls, they stumble almost unwillingly to the palazzo of the killer couple played by Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren.
The deep, harsh light of the setting sun often serves the great masters as the cinematic basis for both awareness and blindness. We also hear the orchestral backing which accompanied the light that struck Saul of Tarsus in Roberto Rossellini’s 'Acts of the Apostles', a sustained tone of strings and woodwinds. And one could say: the truth has struck him blind. Here, in Basel, the birthplace of one of the three great reformed churches of Switzerland (alongside Zurich and Geneva – in Basel it was Johannes Oecolampadius, in Zurich it was Zwingli, in Geneva it was Calvin), we remember that the three of them agreed on many things, but they above agreed that images of God are reprehensible, as God is invisible. I don't have to tell you anything about Calvin, Mr. Schrader, but at this point, at this location, one might ask you: The Light, the word that, by the way, appears most often in the titles of your films, the image of light ... What does it stand for? (God?)
Ok. And I also saw the film you made before that, "The Canyons", an incendiary chamber piece of sex and seduction, disturbing in a different way, and existential, and aesthetically new again… I could go on forever. All of this is Paul Schrader. So much for the notion that your last film was "the best one in a long time..."
The rule of loving an auteur, unconditionally through thick and thin, has meanwhile been repealed, it is no longer taught at film schools, no longer mentioned and no longer appreciated – because the modern production system fears it. The system needs directing fools, which recreate the recipes of their employers – not directing icons who surprise us, and themselves, every single time.
And, of course, in this context it is necessary to talk about your battles with producers and distributors. The system has mentally become the same almost everywhere, even if it wears different masks in different countries: be it a "studio system", old or new, or be it a state funding system like here in Europe – the aim is never really about making good films, it is about power and control. Even in Germany there are producers who proudly tell us in interviews that their directors don't step into the editing suite any more. Kevin Jackson concluded his preface to the reedition of the book "Schrader on Schrader" in September 2003 with a sentence about the scandal revolving around your version of "Dominion": "... Once again, the Industry had showed, just how hard it can make life for Schrader."
If you are young and look at the production system from the perspective of film school, you think “Oh my God, what kind of idiots are calling the shots here? I'll be happy if I end up getting away with one or two good films.” As you get older in the business, you might think – and this happens almost imperceptibly – "Well, I achieved a few things, so the system would be well-served to continue supporting me." But that's not how things work. The fact is overlooked that the smart asses of the production system surrounding you – who have meanwhile become surprisingly younger – were never there, neither yesterday nor today, to finance innovative films. You have to pull the films, like they have already made them en masse, from under their bottoms like a cushion, without them noticing it. Good films are contraband.
And if this strategy leads to defeat – well, then you must muster the strength to turn them into liberating strikes in the face of the industry, marinated in nasty splatter sauce – like "Dog eat Dog". And that film was one of many.
Paul Schrader, you just keep going. As if you were bathed in dragon blood, seemingly invulnerable, perhaps down to the one vulnerable spot, where the linden tree leaves land to rest... please forgive me the dramatic Germanic imagery.
We bow to you with deep gratitude, you are for all of us a unique role model of lived intellectuality, passion and artistic integrity in filmmaking. And in the darkness of cinema itself, so to speak – as far as this darkness still exists – you challenge us, show us mythical abysses and conflicts, tell us about the most complex, contradictory emotions, about lost, lurching, anchor-less protagonists, who are placed between two choices as if they were grinding millstones. Your characters, they are all of us, each one of us, in the turmoil of the times. Times that behave as if they were a new dark global era after the murder of a god.
Who, if not you, should be the first person to deserve this award. We congratulate you on receiving the Honorary Award for Visionary Cinema.