Paul Schrader is one of the seminal figures of the contemporary American cinema. His success is attributable to the creative use of his critical faculty and a commercial deployment of his Calvinism. The result is a body of work that is a bracing commentary on classic and modern Hollywood, and whose bleak vision would make film noir look like musical comedy.
by Neil Sinyard
Schrader’s new film, Cat People (1982), is the first he has directed from someone else’s script1, but, in every other way, it looks like a characteristic Schrader work. The heroine, Irena Gallicr (Nastassia Kinski), is both a predator and a victim of her own nature, and, as such, she recalls Schrader’s characterization of the heroes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980)2.
As with Taxi Driver and with Hardcore (1979), the violence is closely linked to sexual repression. In Cat People, when a young keeper is attacked by a black leopard, there is a shot of his blood splashing at the heroine’s feet, visually implying a link between feline ferocity and loss of virginity. The connection between sexuality and violence is spelled out by Irena’s brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell): “Every time you tell yourself it’s love. But it isn’t. It’s blood. It’s death.”
The curator of the zoo, Oliver Yates (John Heard), is as repressed as the heroine, and sexual contact is postponed not only because of Irena’s fear of her savage nature but also because of Oliver’s apprehension about despoiling a vision of perfection. The character is introduced as he is reading Dante, which anticipates the film’s ultimate descent into the underworld and the revelation of his character: the curator as a romantic idealist in search of his Beatrice.
This connects Oliver very strongly with Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson), the hero Schrader created for Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), who is also a romantic obsessive, a man who kills the thing he loves and then builds a shrine for her. In Obsession, the Dante-Beatrice legend is alluded to quite explicitly.
Cat People and Obsession can also be compared because of their imaginative use of a New Orleans setting for metaphysical melodrama, and their concern with the taboo of incest which in both films traumatically seems to be the only form of sexual release that will preserve the characters’ identity.
Like most of Schrader’s films, Cat People is extremely violent. The zoo is used to suggest that people are in their own private cages. In this film, as at the end of American Gigolo (1980), the two lovers are separated by bars, seeming to achieve an emotional affinity only when separated forcibly. The zoo imagery is used also as a correlative to human savagery and, as Schrader puts it, “the fear in our society now that there’s a monster lurking under the calm surfaces of every person”.
Similar imagery also pervades Schrader’s screenplays for Taxi Driver and the evocatively-entitled Raging Bull, when Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) screams, “I’m not an animal! I’m not an animal!”, as he batters his head against a brick wall.
The intense inner life of Schrader’s characters is often signalled by external aggression. Similarly, just as a Schrader character tears himself to pieces psychologically, he is also in danger of being tom apart physically, limb from limb. One only has to think of the missing digits that scatter the Schrader scripts for The Yakuza (1975)3 and Taxi Driver; the hero’s right hand in Rolling Thunder (1977)4 that is thrust into the mechanical garbage disposal unit; the keeper’s severed arm in Cat People; the most sickening broken nose in film history in Raging Bull; and, in that film, the whole way in which Jake’s masochism (masquerading as machismo) is signified by his ability to absorb extreme physical punishment.
Such bestiality goes hand in hand with Schrader’s excremental vision. One of the dubious achievements of Cat People is to give a whole new dimension to the word “pus”, as the black leopard leaves disgusting evidence of its imminent presence. A hand becomes part of the garbage in Rolling Thunder. The demented desire of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver to clean up New York by practical action, rather than by political persuasion, erupts disturbingly when he startles the politician by declaring that, “The President should clean up the whole mess here; should flush it down the fuckin’ toilet.” The desire to clean and purify becomes indistinguishable from a desire to expunge and annihilate.
One should be wary of identifying Schrader too clearly with his characters, but there sometimes is an uneasy sense of his putting a sentiment he is afraid to acknowledge within himself into the mouth of an unbalanced protagonist.
This might account for the uncomfortable tone that hovers over some of the films. Is Travis in Taxi Driver a madman or a hero? Cat People recalls Hardcore in the way it seems to hesitate between tragedy and titillation, between sexual censoriousness and coy nudity. Schrader seems half-appalled, half-fascinated by the urban hells he evokes, and the films reel between contrary impulses of pleasure and punishment, Protestantism and permissiveness, purification and perversion. I am a little reminded of D. H. Lawrence’s early response to Dostoevsky:
“He is again like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light, professing love, all love. But his nose is sharp with hate, his running is shadowy and rat-like, he is a will fixed and gripped like a trap. He is not nice.”
It summons again Schrader’s ambivalence towards his taxi-driver hero and his description of him as a man “who moves through the city like a rat through a sewer”.
Schrader might be called a junk-food Dostoevsky. Like Dostoevsky, he is violent, melodramatic, religious and profoundly conservative. Like the Russian master also, he uses the tawdry formulae of crime fiction to erect massive psychological dramas about self- tormented people who struggle furiously between heaven and hell, and who find redemption through suffering and sacrifice.
The ultimate dramatic goal is rarely a narrative resolution but invariably a form of spiritual transcendence or enigma. One has only to think of the ironic and inscrutable final minutes of Taxi Driver or the spiritual implosion yet narrative diminuendo that forms the denouement of American Gigolo. “One thing 1 know that, whereas I was blind, now I see”, is the epilogue for Raging Bull, following the ambiguous closing scene where Jake talks to himself in the mirror, either facing himself at last or disappearing under the flab of narcissism. Oliver visits the cage at the end of Cat People as if it were a shrine, and, as the cat stares back, the David Bowie song intones the lyric: “I could stare for a thousand years, and don’t you feel my blood enraged.”
All four films conclude with a movement into the mysterious black hole of the hero’s head. ‘‘Your last scene should play out there on the sidewalk”, Schrader has said. ‘‘The ripples should extend beyond the immediate film.” Schrader’s style accompanying these visions is laceratingly lurid. It could be termed ‘neon realism’, in which an objectively familiar world is refracted nightmarishly through a disturbed central consciousness. The setting is invariably a modern America of garish impersonality, and the style takes its shadings from the tension and counterpoint Schrader finds between an active psychological life and an outer world of plastic surfaces.
Cat People is something of a departure from this and Schrader’s boldest stylistic experiment. Reality is only perfunctorily indicated and, through color, sound and performance, Schrader reaches for a visualization of a mythical world, not only to summon up the creatures that roam the subconscious but to evoke the essence of films as a dimension of magic. Some films make you think; Schrader’s make you dream. The goal of Cat People is to provide a pleasurable nightmare in a stylish exploitation context.
The dark side of life on which Schrader’s work seems exclusively to concentrate is at least alleviated by flashes of lugubrious humor. Cat People has fun in drawing feline analogies to human feelings: the preenings of Paul, the way Irena pounces on a bowl of fish in a cafe, or the way Paul’s housekeeper, Female (Ruby Dee), gives a clue to her own origins by her delighted response to Topcat on television.
The script for Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends (1978), written by Schrader and his brother Leonard, has some nice comic flourishes, notably in the sexual humiliation of the egocentric vocalist, Eric Katz (John Belushi), and in John Houseman’s wonderful cameo as Dr Hoffman, a stuffy, small-town psychiatrist with a disdain for West Coast morality (he even pronounces Los Angeles as “Loss Angeles”).
When a worker in Blue Collar (1978) launches a one-man attack with a forklift on a recalcitrant vending machine, the excessive reaction amusingly yet tellingly reflects the intensity of his exasperation with impassive mechanical inefficiency.
Amidst the perversion and pornography of Hardcore, there is a funny moment when a visiting producer is impressed by the direction of his new porno opus and receives the instant explanation for such sleazy expertise: ‘‘He’s from UCLA.”
Schrader is also from UCLA. Having decided not to become a minister, he took up a place there on a recommendation from Pauline Kael. Out of this period came his book on Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu, Transcendental Style in Film5, which is a fascinating fusion of theology and film. It has the flavor of the kind of films that Schrader would be interested in making: those which emphasize soul above character, spirituality over substance, and are intrigued by what would happen if European existentialism were to be transposed to the streets of the U.S. According to Schrader, Taxi Driver gives the answer to this: a European existential hero would kill himself; an American existentialist would kill everyone but himself.
Schrader also wrote an important article on film noir, which not only assisted towards a revaluation of the classic noir films of the 1940s and 1950s but may have helped to create a climate in which the form could be revised and recognized in films such as Klute, Chinatown and Night Moves. Schrader was to contribute to this revival himself with his screenplay for Taxi Driver, in which the hero has classic noir symptoms: a loner, sexually-frustrated and obsessed, and oppressed by night and the city.
Schrader could have become a great critic, but his ambition was to turn his demons into dollars and his way to do that was to write a script. Nevertheless, it is possible to see Schrader’s film career as being as much an act of criticism as of creativity. One of the central facets of Schrader’s creative work is the way it feeds off previous films and offers a modern perspective on earlier film classics, a form of adaptation that is also a form of criticism. This process variously takes the form of homage, parallelism with variations, expansion and contrast.
For example, Schrader’s screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Obsession is essentially a homage. The film’s fixation is with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), of which Obsession is a virtual remake, both in terms of plot (man loses the woman he loves only to come across her double), and in terms of style and visual detail (360 degree panning shots, dreams, paintings, letters, the church). There is a moment when the young artist, Sandra Portinari (Genevieve Bujold), the mirror-image of the woman Michael Courtland has lost, asks whether it is preferable to restore a great artistic original or cut through the surface to sec what is underneath. Michael prefers the former.
The question has relevance to the main relationships, suggesting Michael’s self- deception and his desire to restore the original woman. But it also has relevance to the relation of this film to Vertigo. Now’ that the chances of seeing the Hitchcock film seem to be very scarce6, Obsession becomes itself the restoration of a lost masterpiece. Bernard Herrmann’s towering, anachronistic score supplies a delicious and nostalgic slice of authenticity.
Interestingly, Schrader fell out with De Palma because he wanted to continue the story into the 1980s, with Michael still searching for his lost love. This might have been truer to the spirit of the tragic outcome of Vertigo, with its ghosts and wanderers and its sense of trauma. As it stands, the film could be almost equally an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. A hero’s weakness costs him, he thinks, the life of his wife and daughter, but, after a remorseful 16 years, he is given a second chance to redeem himself through his reunion with a daughter who is also a surrogate wife figure. Destruction gives way to renewal: damnation to redemption.
Schrader’s third act for the drama could have been a compelling addition, but the film still is a remarkable celebration of Hitchcockian aesthetics, as important to the reclamation of Vertigo as one of the screen’s masterpieces as is the criticism of Robin Wood7 and Donald Spoto8.
Obsession is a critical work of interpretative insight and not blind hagiography, and the form the film takes implicitly throws the emphasis away from Hitchcock as master of suspense and towards Hitchcock the anguished romantic and perverse psychologist.
Another key film from the same period, to which Schrader’s work has alluded constantly, is John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Four of his screenplays seem to derive inspiration from this source: The Yakuza, Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder and Hardcore. The Yakuza takes from The Searchers the idea of a hero’s quest in an alien world for a kidnapped girl, a quest which is also a form of self-interrogation. However, Taxi Driver and Hardcore have heroes who see themselves as self- appointed Saviours journeying into the underworld to save a girl from what they perceive as the lower depths: a rescue mission that is also a journey into Hell.
Although The Yakuza borrows only the equivalent narrative situation of The Searchers, the other films make an attempt to approximate the complex psychology of the Ford film. Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder, like The Searchers, have psychotic heroes whose antagonists are nightmare images of their own undisclosed wishes and innate violence. Their revenge becomes a kind of terrible purgation.
It is the madness in The Searchers that excites Schrader; the other element in that film which he has seized and enlarged is its veiled racism. Rolling Thunder attempts to confront this issue by having Charles Rane (William Devane), an ex-Vietnam POW, as the hero who sees the gang that invaded his home and murdered his wife as the equivalent of the Vietnamese whom he was prevented from fighting by his capture. His revenge thus becomes an elaborate compensation and a re-enactment of a personal racist fantasy, rather in the manner of Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) vendetta against the Indians in The Searchers who have ravaged the woman he secretly loved. However, with John Flynn’s direction softening Charles into a nice guy (“which would be the equivalent of giving the character in Taxi Driver a dog”, Schrader has said), Rolling Thunder now looks less like a film about a racist than a racist film.
Taxi Driver is more uncompromising. It includes a tender scene between Sport (Harvey Keitel) and the underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), which is the equivalent of a scene often imagined in The Searchers but never shown: the life together of Scar (Henry Brandon) and Debbie (Natalie Wood). Was it really unimaginable savagery or was there tenderness and even love there? Ford seems no more willing than his hero to confront these possibilities. Scorsese and Schrader crosscut their ‘Scar’ scene with that of Travis’ preparation for his own private war that will lead inexorably to his invasion of Sport and Iris’ camp. The nervy confrontations between Travis and Sport in Taxi Driver are not dissimilar to those of Ethan and Scar in The Searchers.
As well as exposing some of the racist issues that the earlier film elided, Taxi Driver is also a modern reflection on the efficacy of heroism, maleness, prejudice and legitimized violence embodied in the Western of which Ford’s films are the supreme achievement. For the first time Ford, in The Searchers, is profoundly ambivalent about these attitudes and values. The bloody denouement of Taxi Driver mercilessly dramatizes their savage legacy, and their fearful logic.
The other 1950s Hollywood classic which Schrader has revalued in his fictions is On the Waterfront. Schrader’s debut as writer and director, Blue Collar (1978)9, is full of references to Elia Kazan’s film, culminating in a verbal confrontation between Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) and Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor) that is almost word for word a repeat of the slanging match between Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) that presaged their fight. But, significantly, Blue Collar is politically more knowing than On the Waterfront, more detailed in its observation of men at work, sharper in its observation of shop-floor politics, more cruel in its imagery (the rebel worker who is suffocated in a haze of blue paint spray) and more cynical in its exposure of the limits of individualism.
Kazan’s upbeat ending has now been pessimistically inflected by Schrader. Kazan’s apologia for the informer in McCarthyist America has been pressed by Schrader to what he sees as a specifically Marxist conclusion. The final frame freezes the men at the point of confrontation and we hear again the film’s message: “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white, to keep us in our place.”
Raging Bull alludes overtly to On the Waterfront in the final scene when Jake La Motia recites Terry Malloy’s famous speech: “You don’t understand — I could have had class. I could have been a contender.” Both films have heroes who are punch-drunk exboxers moving toward some form of redemption and who have a relationship with a blond heroine classier than themselves but representing a desired vision of genteel womanhood, a sense of softness in a hard world. Both heroes have a love-hate relationship with their brothers who are also their managers and who ought to have looked after them better.
But the differences between the two heroes are more striking than their similarities. The allusions of Scorsese and Schrader to On the Waterfront and their examination of an actual 1950s hero in La Motta illustrate, by contrast, the essential romanticism of the 1950s screen hero and how such portraiture has changed during the past 25 years or so. Brando’s hero represents the confusions of a typical rebel of the ’50s; De Niro’s that of the alienated anti-hero of the ’70s. Brando is a rebel without a cause; De Niro a rebel without a brain. Brando’s solution to what he sees as corruption in On the Waterfront (testifying in court, fighting the villain) seems prissily conventional when compared with De Niro’s manic and bloody remedies in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
These new heroes are not anguished idealists or angry young men. They are heroes who challenge any attempt at identification or moral approval. (As a British critic observed, Raging Bull could be subtitled: “Somebody Up There Hates Me.’’) They reflect a contemporary confusion and scepticism about heroism and modern heroes and their morality is personal, private and idiosyncratic.
If a film such as Raging Bull can be read as Schrader’s critical commentary on the changing face of screen heroism since the 1950s, his remake of Cat People equally reflects savagely the different conventions of representing violence, sexuality and perverse mythology. Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 version is all atmosphere, traces and implications; Schrader’s is explicit and erotic. Although the film pays tribute to two of the classic set-pieces of the original (the pursuit in the park; the swimming pool scene), Schrader is in some ways closer to Hitchcock than to Jacques Tourneur. The film particularly recalls Marnie in its self-conscious use of color (the association between blood-red and loss of innocence), its frank sexual imagery, and its allusions to animal behaviour to convey the heroine’s frightened sexuality and the hero’s odd and detached perceptions of the human zoo.
Given Schrader’s cine-literacy, such analogies are probably not accidental. But Schrader’s cine-literacy is of an altogether different kind from that of, say, Peter Bogdanovich’s. He does not simply compose a series of obsequious fan letters to his favorite films. The references are incorporated into an auto-critique of the cinema. They are not nostalgic, but intellectual. Their function is not simply referential but comparative and revaluative. Obsession resurrects Vertigo as a film of profound romantic psychology. Taxi Driver pays tribute to The Searchers but also extends it and recasts it for a new age, its racism and ambivalent ideology now brought closer to the surface. Blue Collar and Raging Bull criticize and revise the political evasions and rhetorical heroism of On the Waterfront. Cat People, by alluding to the original and to Marnie, becomes a critical essay on the changing fashions of cinema in reflecting horror, demonology and sexual tension.
If Schrader’s films comment on film history, they also create it and become part of it. Indeed, any critical history of Hollywood in the past decade would have to give substantial attention to Schrader. He has collaborated with esteemed film brats such as John Milius (who produced Hardcore), De Palma and, in particular, Scorsese. His career has also intersected with less flamboyant but nevertheless significant figures of the decade, such as Sydney Pollack (who romanticized Schrader’s raw screenplay for The Yakuza) and Tewkesbury (who gave a liberal feminist slant in Old Boyfriends to the reactionary melodramatics of Schrader’s script). He did a first draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind which Steven Spielberg later rejected. Indeed, it is tempting to think of Schrader and Scorsese’s floating yellow taxicab (in the first shot of Taxi Driver) and Spielberg’s floating yellow spacecraft (in Close Encounters) as the two most resonant emblems of the decade. They represent the extremes of menace and magic that were Hollywood’s chief box-office assets during the turbulent 1970s.
For all that, Schrader seems to stand apart from what seems most memorable or characteristic of the so-called Hollywood renaissance — from Scorsese’s febrile Catholicism to Milius’ epic extroversion, from the horror rhapsodies of De Palma to the Utopian fantasies of Spielberg. Schrader looks like a slightly cold, calculating enigma. How would one assess his achievement to date? Is there still a sense of a vacuum between the quality of his intelligence and the coherence of his achievement? If so, why?
A clue might be found in his creative method. When teaching screenwriting in an American university, his advice to his students, apparently, is: “Cultivate your neuroses: you never know when they might come in handy.” For the past decade or so, he has done that very successfully. But the danger is one of morbid introspection, of a neurosis indulged in more than critically examined.
With directorial sensibilities of the calibre of Scorsese and Tewkesbury, the neurotics at the wheel in Taxi Driver and Old Boyfriends can be scrutinized with some objectivity. Thanks mainly to Scorsese, Taxi Driver becomes something of a social document and not simply the diary of a madman. Blue Collar also avoids neurotic narrowness by broadening its social context and splitting its focus of interest among three main characters. But the identification with the hero of Hardcore hurts the film: it is impossible to decide whether we are meant to deplore or endorse Jake VanDorn’s (George C. Scott) increasingly-violent behaviour.
The closer we are drawn into Schrader’s frame of mind, the more his distaste for certain aspects of modern progressiveness borders on the repressive and the prurient. This is something which also disfigures American Gigolo in its hostile attitude to gays and Negroes, not to mention gay Negroes.
Schrader’s screenwriting method, which he encourages in his pupils, is to think of one dominant emotion that is ruling his life at that moment and then find a dramatic metaphor that corresponds to that emotion. The example he often uses is Taxi Driver, the inspiration for which derived from Schrader’s personal feelings of loneliness and isolation and which were converted into the metaphor of a taxi driver cut off from human contact by the glass. It explains why Schrader’s characters seem to belong in a peculiar twilight zone between psychological realism and poetic metaphor. The roles they assume define for Schrader their professional function in society (taxi driver, gigolo) and a symbolic function in his particular vision of the world (taxi driver as a symbol of urban alienation, gigolo as icon of sleek, hustling, loveless Los Angeles).
Perhaps his greatest gift is precisely this imaginative capacity to summon forth images of infinite suggestiveness even before being fleshed out in narrative form.
Nevertheless, this method clearly has limitations for Schrader, irrespective of whether it would work for anyone else. It is a gift more appropriate to an imagist poet than a narrative dramatist. Schrader is much better at exposition than development, and the excellence of the basic idea sometimes diminishes in the machinery of narrative formula (like, for example, the glib attribution of the hero’s violence in Rolling Thunder to brutalization in Vietnam).
Hardcore has a brilliant premise. George C. Scott’s star persona as a crusader against the pollution of environment and traditional values (as in Rage, Day of the Dolphin, The Formula and, more recently, Taps) is powerfully evoked. The moral issues — the thin line between freedom and exploitation, the bourgeois having to defend his way of life to the prostitute, not the other way round — are potentially explosive, but Schrader has no real idea how to translate these into a dramatically-convincing context. VanDorn’s home life might explain why the daughter disappeared: it does not explain why she went into porno films. The mid-section, where VanDorn poses as a trendy film producer in sweat shirt and wig, is fearfully unconvincing on any level. Attempting to be an intelligent examination of the new morality, the film looks like a pornographic version of Mr Deeds Goes to Town.
Blue Collar has similar crudities of structure, its political strengths somewhat diluted by domestic sentimentality and the contrived diversion of a caper film plot. American Gigolo never quite pulls off its Bressonian coda, largely because this throws the whole weight onto the film’s weakest area: the hero’s relationship with the politician’s wife.
Old Boyfriends has a promising concept — the revaluation of one’s present through a direct encounter with one’s past — but no clear strategy and no real psychology. Why should the heroine believe that the process of rediscovery will result from a reunion with former boyfriends rather than, say, ex-girlfriends? (The obvious answer would be that it exemplifies and confirms Schrader’s conservative patriarchy.) What kind of heroine is it who, professing to be a clinical psychologist, dresses a retarded young man in his dead brother’s clothes before seducing him, and then is positively shattered to learn that it appears to have done him some harm? It is hard to decide whether the film is about adaptation or regression, or whether an adult film about a yearning for childhood innocence has coarsened into an immature film about developing adulthood.
The turning point in Schrader’s career might have been when he turned down an offer from Kael to become a regular film critic and instead wrote a screenplay. Schrader has always been materially ambitious and it might be that success came too quickly and too easily to him. The impression he has given since is that of an artistic sensibility slipping too willingly into a commercial straitjacket. He has mastered the complex currency of modern Hollywood, but it might be at the expense of his own sense of human complexity.
When thinking of Schrader, I always think of a line in Obsession when the daughter, distraught at defrauding her father with whom she has become emotionally involved, wonders how he will cope with her desertion, how he will live. “It’s a little late for existential questions, darling”, she is told bluntly. “Just take the money. Believe me, it’ll help you to forget.’’ That is the question mark over Schrader’s career. Is it too late for him to return to the existential questions? Is the money helping him to forget?
1. By Alan Ormsby. and based on the script for Cal People (1942) by DeWitt Bodeen.
2. Schrader is credited as co-scripter on Raging Bull with Mardik Martin.
3. Co-scripted with Robert Towne.
4. Co-scripted with Heywood Gould.
5. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press, Berkeley. 1972.
6. The film is subject to a contracted legal dispute over copyright, which has stopped the film being shown in most countries for several years — Editor.
7. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films, Collins, London, 1965.
8. Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, W. H. Allen, London. 1977.
9. Co-scripted with Leonard Schrader.
Cinema Papers, December 1982; pp. 510-515