By Tanja Bresan.
The scholars in this volume successfully locate and interpret the essential Schrader motifs in his films – the understanding of human guilt, despair, (sexual) repression, and individual and collective responsibilities.”
Paul Schrader began his career as a film critic, reviewing films for his college newspaper, the Calvin College Chimes. Later at the American Film Institute, he became the editor of Cinema, a quasi-fan magazine devoted to the industry, and later for publications such as the LA Free Press and Film Comment. He wrote and co-wrote screenplays, often with his brother Leonard Schrader, before he became a director. In his conversations with Kevin Jackson, Schrader stated how screenwriting was not really writing: “it’s really part of the oral tradition and it has a lot more to do with the day your uncle went hunting and the dog went crazy and the bird got away than it does with literature.” 1
Essentially his love for cinema emanated from his love for writing. It was a way to rebel, to radicalize (it is well known that Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing forbade him from watching films or engaging in any so-called subversive activities), and he slowly but surely moved away from his church minister and lawyer fantasies. A three-course film education at Columbia he took in the beginning of the 1970s brought a friendship and mentorship with Pauline Kael – on her insistence, Schrader moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at UCLA. The subsequent move meant the film business was not just a form of rebellion, but the beginning of a new career.
ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), edited by Michelle E. Moore and Brian Brems, tackles Schrader’s film criticism, screenwriting, and directing. It is a comprehensive and accessible academic profile of a filmmaker who took cues from readings of Cahier Du Cinema and closely studied his filmmaker role models. Bazin’s film theory is arguably one of Schrader’s points of reference, as it discusses simple yet profound questions regarding what it means to be human and how to understand the duality of human beings – the rational and irrational. Much of what is discussed in Bazin’s writing, such as human displacement, metaphors and allusions to religion and mindfulness and the questioning of consciousness, can be seen as motifs in Schrader’s work.
Schrader’s screenwriting work brings into focus the question of authorship on films such as Yakuza (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), and the Last Temptation of Christ (1988), as these projects underwent a significant amount of rewording and reordering of dialogue and scenes. The work on these films demonstrated the complex relationship between the director and script writer and their understanding of the medium. The frustrations, arbitration cases and creative differences spurred Schrader’s need to start directing his own scripts. It meant getting more control over the whole process.
The structure of the book is divided in three parts: Ideas, Influences and Intellect; Instincts, Investigation and Innovation, and an interview conducted with Schrader after the release of his feature First Reformed (2017). Analyzed films and written critical work provide insights on the director’s career and how early critical writing on Schrader, especially the manuscript turned book – Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (University of California Press, 1972, 2018), proved to be the major point of reference and connection for the scholars in their examination of director’s visual style and the themes and techniques he employed in his films, especially the key theme – “the tension between word and world, between action and representation” (118.).
Although Schrader repeatedly refused to place his films in the transcendental canon – divine, emotional, and transcendental moments do occur in his work. Julian’s emotional breakthrough behind the glass cell in American Gigolo (1980), Mishima’s ritual suicide in Mishima: A life in Four Chapters (1985), Irena’s sexual awakening and acceptance of her natural being in Cat People (1982), Patty Hearst’s real existential crisis she faces in prison sitting opposite her father in Patty Hearst (1988) are moments in which characters transcend their denial. They are faced with their true identity and their true inner meaning. Purging and redemption are delivered through either an action or contemplation. Some actions are self destructive, violent and ritual.
The first part analyzes the particular style Schrader employs in his films and the constant contradictions between the transcendental and the real, the intellectual and the commercial, the spiritual and the bodily, and the discrepancy between the key issues of freedom and imprisonment of his characters. The book dedicates attention to the use of the unmotivated camera in his work, in which the camera frame reflects the director’s point of view first and the narrative and the characters second.2 Here, Schrader’s style leans strongly towards that of Jean-Luc Godard, whose innovation was to make the camera lens and perspective as valid as that of the subjects. Subjects in Schrader films are never truly at ease or feel good in their aloneness. Observed by the unmotivated camera lens, with no particular music cues, the unmotivated camera lens lingers on mundane actions, elements which heighten the unease and the unknown for viewers. Elaborated techniques such as narration, diary formats used in several films, the mental and physical coffins of the characters, treatment of space, attention to detail, are all indicators of Schrader’s style.
The second part deals with Schrader’s further investigation into other ways of cinematic expression – an emphasis on his unusual treatment of the life and work of Mishima in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), which redefined the biopic as a genre by “rejecting the linear structure typical of the biopic.” (p 118.). His films analyzed in the second part represent life stories of several historical figures; Mishima, Patty Hearst and Bob Crane in Auto Focus (2002). These subjects are challenged in philosophical, psychological and sexual matter, then redeemed at the very end in either violent, self destructive or conflicted manners. Their lives are seldom glorified or fantasized. The director is not so much interested in the social, political or historical backgrounds of his subjects; his focus is on their inner “psychobiography” ( p 123.). Other essays investigate the female roles in his films – notably in Cat People (1982) and Patty Hearst (1988), delving into what is essentially their Bressonian nature. Women, as much as men, have this internal conflict; as Susan Sontag coins it – the fight against oneself. Schrader faced an interesting challenge in The Canyons (2013), in which the character study presents itself as anti-transcendent. The subjects in The Canyons are unable to transcend in the closing moments – they stay alienated, disconnected and trapped in their own minds. Symbolically, the second part of the book closes with the examination of the religious, spiritual, environmental and scientific in the two essays on First Reformed (2017) his, to this day, last feature film.
A candid interview editors conducted with Schrader after the release of First Reformed reveals the director’s outlook on auteur theory and filmmaking in contemporary times, collaborations with actors and other directors, questions of transcendental style in his films, his critical writing, his presence on social media. His views are fresh, realistic, unbiased and self reflective.
The scholars in this volume successfully locate and interpret the essential Schrader motifs in his films – the understanding of human guilt, despair, (sexual) repression, and individual and collective responsibilities. The last essay ends on a transcendental note on the importance of love in order to overcome our everyday despair. We are forced to withhold and embrace the everyday, and often linger between different spaces. We are forced, if willing, to take the journey within ourselves. Much like the characters in Schrader’s films, we have to transcend the present dire state to be able to better understand the mystery of our existence.
1. Schrader on Schrader, 1990, edited by Kevin Jackson, revised ed.: 108.
2. Schrader, Paul, 2015, “Game Changers: Camera Movement,” Film Comment, March/April.
Tanja Bresan holds a masters degree in art and cultural studies from the University of Arts, Belgrade. Her writing on film had appeared in several online journals including Berlin Film Journal and IndieKino Berlin.