With Nick Nolte on the set
of Affliction.

Every film Paul Schrader
has ever made has failed. That is not to say they’ve failed artistically
or at the box-office. They’ve failed on Schrader’s own terms. For
him, the reason to make films is to define the notions of predestination,
grace and transcendence. These are high stakes, which he writes
about in the conclusion of his muchpraised book, Transcendental
Style in Film
: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (University of California
Press; 1972): “Spiritual art must always be in flux because it
represents a greater mystery, also in flux-man’s relationship to
the Holy. In each age, the spectator grasps for that special form
…which can take him to the greater mystery. At present no film
style can perform this crucial task as well as transcendental style,
no films as well as the films of Ozu and Bresson. To expect or
settle for any less from film …underestimates and demeans them.”

Schrader’s reverence for Bresson has surfaced time
and again in his work. America Gigolo was a remake of Pickpocket;
his device in Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper of allowing
his protagonists to record their thoughts and strategies in diaries
and narratives in voiceovers was lifted from Diary of a County
and A Man Escaped; and he adheres to the Bressonian
ideal of a man alone in perpetual pursuit of an activity, regardless
of its legality, that he hopes will eventually result in a state
of grace. But Schrader has never been able to match Bresson’s rigor,
in which the banal events of the everyday were invariably riven
by a disparity, a disturbance in the commonplace, that led to a
decisive action, which then resulted in a transcendence of the
disparity, rather than a resolution or a victory. Bresson is tough
viewing (Scorsese admitted he found his films “difficult”), but
Schrader was challenged by him, even though Bresson’s stripped-down
style-his removal of the usual “screens” of filmmaking (expressive
acting, special effects, music, the moving camera)was anathema
to the requisites of commercial filmmaking. Rather than copy Bresson’s
ascetism, Schrader’s goal was to mine the same vein of real life
raw material, and do it for good money. But, like Lancelot in Bresson’s
masterful Lancelot du Lac, Schrader “craved the impossible.” He
has spent his whole career falling short, the characters in his
films reduced to merely questioning, or mutely accepting, what
God dishes out.

The themes that have fascinated Schrader are present
in The Yakuza, the first script he sold, (1975; co-written
with his brother Leonard). A detective (Robert Mitchum) travels
to Japan to settle a debt, and the plot mechanics recede to the
background as questions of salvation and vengeance take over. The
central character is a man who has stopped progressing through
life, who exists in a state of solitude, detached from temporal
concerns. He needs a rescue mission: only by saving someone else
can he ready himself for deliverance. His obsession explodes in
violent catharsis that leaves him, in the end, misunderstood and
still alone. He can’t tap into the essential Zen message: don’t
expect to win,
don’t expect to lose, expect nothing.

The Yakuza (1975)

The model of an aberrant character with an inability
to see himself in a larger context also fits Travis Bickle in Schrader’s
script for Taxi Driver, the aging drug peddler, John LeTour,
in Light Sleeper; the male hustler, Julian Kaye, in American
; the deeply troubled cop, Wade Whitehouse, in Affliction.
None of them can quell the restlessness they feel; they can’t find
the natural reaction to things. They lack the means to ground their
lives to something lasting. When Schrader writes of Bresson’s loners
that they “can’t find metaphors capable of expressing their agony,” he
describes his own characters as well. Yukio Mishima, the fascist
intellectual Schrader depicted in the stylistically intriguing Mishima (1985),
was troubled by an agonizing “accumulation of things that can’t
be expressed.” It’s the same agony written in Willem Dafoe’s face
as LeTour; it’s in Nick Nolte, as Whitehouse, as he pounds his
own cheek to stop the pain of a toothache. Like Bickle’s rescue
of Iris from the whorehouse, Whitehouse misguidedly believes that
if he can prove that an accidental shooting was actually a murder
he will set things right in his life.

Schrader’s lonely men believe they will achieve their
grace through a sheer persistence, even if the nature of their
pursuit is illegal (sex for money in American Gigolo; selling
drugs in Light Sleeper, murder in Taxi Driver). They
believe that if someone is saved or avenged in the process, they
will be cleansed. “What’s legal is not always right,” says Julian
(Richard Gere) in American Gigolo, lifting a line from Michel
in Pickpocket. Both Schrader’s stud and Bresson’s thief
are crooks obsessed with the details of their “art,” but where
Michel practices the perfect twofingered heist, Julian is concerned
with getting a woman off. When Julian’s world crumbles because
he believes himself to be framed (a paranoia echoed in Wade Whitehouse),
he destroys the symbols of his obsessions: his expensive wardrobe,
his Mercedes, his sleek apartment. He wipes motor oil on his suit,
his friends abandon him, he has to rent a Pinto to flee town. This
cleansing, the destruction of his “clean” world, is one of Schrader’s
more consistent stylistic touches: the bloodbaths that end both Taxi
and Light Sleeper; George C. Scott’s rampage
through a massage parlor in Hardcore; the burning barn in Affliction;
the suicide that ends Mishima. But because these outbursts
are external, because they are directed at overt redemption in
the eyes of both God and another human being, Schrader’s tortured
men can’t achieve the transcendence one finds in Bresson, where
the anguish is internalized, concealed behind the blank masks of
the nonactors he uses; or in Ozu, where a cutaway to a tranquil
harbor or a breaking wave points up the emptiness of a character.
There is a line in The Yakuza that underscores the essential
difference between Schrader and the Zen method of expressing discontent: “When
an American cracks up he opens a window” and kills whoever he can
hit, but when a Japanese cracks up, “he kills himself.” In Schrader’s
quintessentially American view, sacrifice needs an audience, so
grace is always corrupted; Travis Bickle, despite his heroics,
is condemned by the extremity of his actions to estrangement from
the normalcy he seeks.

There is a polarity within Schrader’s films, a struggle
between fate and free will, between art and action. Growing up
in a repressive atmosphere of Calvinism, a religion that has little
feeling for aesthetics, he became obsessed with what he was missing
out on: movies, pornography, rock and roll, drugs. When he finally
discovered films, he devoured them, sitting through personal screenings
at the AFI of the great auteur works of world cinema in preparation
for his book and an essay on film noir. This informed the seriousness
of his own films, giving him a template with which to work through
his neuroses on screen, but also setting him up for failure. How
could he purge the moral high-mindedness of his parents’ Calvinism
within the secular confines of film, an art form they ignored?

In the first film he directed, Blue Collar (1978),
he captured the hard edges and raunchiness of a working class world,
displaying an affinity for the vividness of everyday detail, for
blunt sex and language, that was repressed during his upbringing.
The nuts and bolts of Midwestern factory work also provide the
basic milieu of Light of Day (1987) and Hardcore (1979).
He captures the claustrophobia of these environments, the numbing
routine that sets the scene for a character’s rebellion. In both
films it’s a daughter fleeing the stifling religious dogma of a
parent, echoing Schrader’s own escape from his father. When he
landed in Los Angeles, he couldn’t wait to make up for lost time.
There are moments in his films when Schrader seems to display vulgarity
and frontal nudity almost too much, like a kid who enjoys the shocking
reaction he gets when he uses the F-word.

Calvinists believe all acts are moral acts that are
judged by a divine eye in the sky. Since everything has a moral
consequence, Calvinists practice stability and purity in their
work and religion with a dogged thickheadedness. A Calvinist would
admire the persistence of a Schrader protagonist, but not the object
of his obsessions, not his outright desire to be saved. This explains
the tragedy of Schrader’s misguided heroes. At the very moments
when salvation should be theirs, the divine eye blinks.

Patty (Joan Jett) in Light of Day gives up
her son, her brother, and her parents in the pursuit of rock and
roll, but can’t get satisfaction until she reconciles with her
dying mother (Gena Rowlands), a woman who watches the 700 Club
and ruins a Thanksgiving dinner by forcing Patty to pray. During
a deathbed scene of mutual forgiveness, Patty reveals her son’s
father to be the pious family minister, a final stab of guilt her
mother must take to the grave with her. It’s Patty’s-and Schrader’s-revenge
on the belligerence of the religion he grew up with. When Patty’s
brother Joey (Michael J. Fox) asks their father Qason Miller) how
he managed in their marriage he answers, with an almost desperate
resignation, “She gave me faith. What else is there?”

Nick Nolte, James Coburn,
Willem Dafoe and Sissy Spacek in Affliction (1998).

That same faith has hardened Van Dorn (George C.
Scott), the Grand Rapids lumber mill owner in Hardcore,
into a cold, walking casket of a man, shut off from all desire,
who crashes (literally, at times), through a seamy Los Angeles
porn industry in search of his runaway daughter. There is an uncomfortable
glee in the way Schrader confronts Van Dorn with his worst nightmare,
forcing him to witness rough sex and base impulse. The movie begins,
like Affliction, with wintry scenes of breadbasket calm.
The invasion of the garish sex underworld not only assaults Van
Dorn but the viewer as well. Schrader’s heavyhanded use of an unlistenable
techno-rock soundtrack, of pulsing neon and huge naked breasts
negates any sympathy we might feel for Van Dorn’s odyssey. Thankfully
Schrader, by the time of Affliction, has exorcised both his masturbatory
fantasies and his obviousness. The snowbound stilllifes of that
film elegantly mirror the suffocating anguish of Wade Whitehouse,
of a life clamped off early by an abusive father.

The dysfunctional family is at the root of Schrader’s
plots, providing the backstory for his lonely men, reminding them
of their hard luck. They are all divorced, single, missing out
on love, taking sex where they can get it. LeTour, worried about
his future as a drug pusher, also realizes he has nowhere else
to go; he tries to freeze time by rekindling an old affair. When
she leaves him a second time, we find him curled up on his mattress,
endlessly replaying her voice on an answering machine. He is Travis
Bickle watching Cybil Shepherd from a street corner; he is Wade
Whitehouse initiating a fruitless custody battle with his ex-wife.

Both LeTour and Bickle utter nearly the same line
when they finally feel their life turning: LeTour saying, “All
I needed was a direction,” and Bickle,”All my life needed was someplace
to go “When LeTour visits a fortune teller and asks her, “Is there
luck for me?” you understand that here is a drifting soul, like
Whitehouse and Bickle and Kaye and Mishima, who simply wants to
make his life count for something tangible. In Schrader’s script
for The LastTemptation of Christ, the drifting soul is Jesus, wondering, “What
am I supposed to do?”

Like Ozu, for whom the whole world existed in one
family Schrader has been telling the same story in all of the films
he’s written and directed. With each one, he gives out another
piece of himself. He is like the Mitchum character in The Yakuza,
who cuts off his own finger as a token of apology. Each of Schrader’s
films is another finger for not getting it quite right.

There are two issues/33/images from his films that sum up his
impossible quest for the right answer, his characters’ timeless
pursuit of grace. The first, from Light Sleeper, has LeTour
writing in his journals. When he fills up one notebook, he throws
it away, grabs a blank one off a stack he keeps handy, and just
keeps writing. The second image comes from Light of Day,
in which Jason Miller, the widowed husband, leans over the body
of his dead wife laid out in her coffin, and, in a moment that
is almost thrown away, he sets her watch. MM