Once Upon a Time

Nick Pinkerton on a Paul Schrader retrospective at UCLA

Paul Schrader, American Gigolo, 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 117 minutes.

THE OCCASION IS NO MYSTERY. Because of his forthcoming new film, The Canyons, Paul Schrader—subject of UCLA Film & Television Archive’s eighteen-film retro—is in the news again. No Schrader film in years has had such a press buildup, thanks to its Kickstarter campaign and Stephen Rodrick’s on-set tell-all for the New York Times and a string of teaser trailers pitching The Canyons as a here-and-now meditation on moving pictures after cinema, set in an era of ubiquitous point-and-shoot exhibitionism where, per a bit of voice-over, “nobody has a private life anymore.”

Schrader had once briefly managed that rarest of tightrope acts, creating uncompromised works with both a rarefied, withholding aesthetic and mass-market appeal, but the sixty-six-year-old hasn’t had a mainstream crossover since 1997’s Affliction, itself mostly a succès d’estime. With The Canyons, Schrader is going for de scandale, collaborating with tabloid cover girl Lindsey Lohan, XXX matinee idol James Deen, and Bret Easton Ellis, the American Psycho novelist more recently renowned as a dyspeptic Twitter celebrity.

Lohan’s self-destructive substance abuse, Deen’s industrialized sex drive, Ellis’s satire of narcotic materialism: These worldly fetters are Schrader’s familiar preoccupations—though I have not seen The Canyons and cannot comment on the happiness of the marriage. Infamously, Schrader’s origins couldn’t be further from such secular excess. Raised in a strict, abstemious Dutch Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he didn’t see his first movie until the age of seventeen. Once Schrader was on his own, he followed this famine with a gluttonous feast, and sinful movie love lured him to UCLA. Applying the rigorous exegesis that his church upbringing had instilled in him to his new zeal for cinema, Schrader launched himself as a critic, writing on noir loners among other topics germane to his future filmmaking and, in 1972, he published his landmark study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. The book’s subjects showed Schrader’s continuing interest in matters of the spirit, although by then he had developed sacrilegious tastes. Schrader landed his first Hollywood deal with the screenplay to The Yakuza (1975), cowritten with brother Leonard, but it was an autobiographical purge influenced by Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest that would really make Paul’s name: Taxi Driver.

Paul Schrader, Blue Collar, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes.

Schrader would go on to write three more films for fellow lapsed seminarian Martin Scorsese—Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead—but his alma mater’s retro focuses exclusively on Schrader’s work as a director. He debuted in that capacity with 1978’s Blue Collar, a Detroit-set crime pic with real tragic heft, in which Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel play disenfranchised auto-industry line workers who knock over their union headquarters. The America of influential unions and a robust native worker class that the film depicts seems as distant today as the America of Grapes of Wrath, though Schrader exhibits a good hand with the textures and rituals of middle- and lower-middle-class life. This is further evident in the Grand Rapids chapters of Hardcore (1979), the tour of Cleveland and surrounding Rust Belt territories in Light of Day (1987), and the New England gothic of Affliction. No one negotiates a tracking shot through the cramped interior of a foursquare house better than Schrader, and every piece of homey decor is always detail-perfect.

The decor that would become Schrader’s signature, however, had more to do with the tawdry, neon-lit porno underworld explored by George C. Scott in Hardcore. Schrader’s fascination with the flesh-peddling business continued with American Gigolo (1980), starring Richard Gere as high-end pay-for-play boy Julian Kaye. Deeply impacted by an early relationship with Ray & Charles Eames, Schrader envisioned his films as fully synthesized works of harmonious design, and Gigolo is the work in which his austerely sumptuous mature style gelled. This was accomplished through close collaborations: Gere’s choreographic performance harmonizes with the spaces created by “visual consultant” Ferdinando Scarfiotti, production designer on Bertolucci’s The Conformist, as well as with the score by Italian synthpop maestro Giorgio Moroder. Scarfotti and Morodor would work with Schrader again on his 1982 horror-fantasy Cat People, while another Giorgio, Armani, would also became a valuable collaborator, here providing the linen suits which Julian can be seen scrupulously laying out, a week’s worth of outfits in careful color-coded array.

Schrader’s films, built around such contained, ritualistic moments, depend on the tensile suspense that comes of waiting for a scrupulously upheld control to finally reach its breaking point, as something haphazard overruns the formal framings, deliberate dollies, and careful color combinations. It happens at the conclusion of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a death-trip biography of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, when Mishima’s endlessly dress-rehearsed final act ignobly flops, while Auto-Focus (2002), a biopic of sex-addict Hogan’s Hero star Bob Crane, slyly withdraws tripod shots as its subject becomes increasingly dissolute, creating an incremental descent into chaos. (Though Schrader usually has a tin ear for comedy, Auto-Focus and Patty Hearst, his 1988 parody of radical politics—neither, significantly, from Schrader’s own screenplays—are both movies which find the mordantly funny side of destructive obsession.)

UCLA wisely chose Light Sleeper (1992) for the opening night of the series. It’s a perfect primer to Schrader’s art, as well as his most emotionally accessible film, thanks to a rich, rueful performance by regular collaborator Willem Defoe, playing a Manhattan drug dealer with a strictly white-collar clientele. It also marks the beginning of a decline—not necessarily of Schrader’s talents, but of his ability to operate successfully within a changing cinematic landscape. In the twenty years after Light Sleeper, Schrader produced some fine work (Affliction, Auto-Focus, 2007’s Gigolo reworking The Walker), some hobbled, star-crossed projects (Sirkian melodrama Forever Mine [1999], Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist [2005]), and some flat-out missteps (1994 HBO movie Witch Hunt). Never again, however, did he tap the zeitgeist as he had for a moment in the ’80s.

Schrader will be much in evidence at UCLA to introduce his films though, as a critic, he raised reservations about the auteurist overemphasis on matters of directorial personality as opposed to the importance of personality-transcending archetype emphasized by the puckishly paganistic Parker Tyler, a formative influence. Is Schrader returning to the zeitgeist, or is the zeitgeist returning to him? Today the man whose American Gigolo sought a spiritual release from acquisitive numbness returns to a film landscape dominated by critiques of capitalist excess that criticize by embodying: The Great Gatsby, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and, presumably, old collaborator Scorsese’s forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street. It may be that, by virtue of merely standing still, Schrader has a shot at coming back into fashion.

Hardcore: The Films of Paul Schrader, presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and UCLA Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, runs July 12–August 5, 2013 at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles.