Paul Schrader and the aesthetics of Affliction
by Peter Keough
"A LIGHT TROUBLED SLEEP: THE FILMS OF PAUL SCHRADER," At the Harvard Film Archive January 7 through 25.
Paul Schrader might be the last bastion of the auteur theory -- not
because he's America's best director, but because he's the most obsessive. A
lapsed Calvinist, he's preoccupied with the conflict between worldly temptation
and a heavenly ideal, between divine authority and human transgression. His
films curdle with the dread of lost paradise and ineluctable predetermination,
with the terror of damnation, the specter of retribution, and the teasing
glimpse of redemption.
So do most Hollywood movies, but whereas those are usually facile dreams of
utopian resolution, Schrader's nightmares offer little comfort. That and his
eccentricity, if not inconsistency, have made him often unpopular with
audiences, critics, and certainly studios. His new Affliction, an
adaptation of the Russell Banks novel that has already garnered a Golden Globe
nomination, critical accolades, and Oscar buzz for star Nick Nolte, might
change that. Prior to its commercial Boston opening next week, it will preview
in Cambridge this Friday (January 9) at 8 p.m. as part of "A Light Troubled
Sleep: The Films of Paul Schrader," a month-long retrospective of the
director's work at the Harvard Film Archive.
To followers of Schrader's career, Affliction covers familiar terrain:
a frozen, benighted northern town, a legacy of brutal patriarchal oppression,
an estranged daughter, the inevitable but fruitless catharsis of violence. It's
a variation on his second feature, Hardcore (1979; screens
January 14 at 9:15 p.m. and 15 at 7:15 p.m.), in which dour, smoldering George
C. Scott plays a prosperous puritan from Grand Rapids whose world of Elect
confidence crumbles when his daughter disappears during a "Calvinist
Convention" in California.
A private detective (Peter Boyle) finds her -- on an 8mm porn reel. Scott
decides to track her down himself, à la John Wayne in The
Searchers, descending into the abyss of the West Coast smut trade, and his
companion is not bumptious Jeffrey Hunter but a nubile teenage prostitute.
Their pilgrim's progress is marked by uneasy chats about God, sex, and duty
that portend a dialectic between Scott's chilly superego and this
daughter-surrogate's nascent id. But Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for
Taxi Driver, has more of a Dies Irae in mind.
The daughter and father in Hardcore, as Schrader has
admitted, represent a type of his relationship with his by-the-Book dad; lured
by the movies, the future filmmaker fled the religious strictures of his own
Grand Rapids home for the fleshpots of Hollywood. In American Gigolo
(1980; January 8 at 9:15 p.m. and 10 at 7 p.m.), his biggest hit, he
complements the earlier film's ambivalent voyeurism with a self-loathing
Schrader's persona here is, significantly, a high-class male prostitute in
Hollywood. (Pauline Kael, somewhat uncharitably, wrote about the film, "For
Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity: he doesn't know how to turn a
trick.") Richard Gere, baring all in the role that made him a star and looking
disturbingly like John F. Kennedy Jr., is rough trade refined by Nina Van
Pallandt, his ash-blonde mentor and pimp. Having developed his abs, language
skills, and wardrobe, he's gotten to the point where he doesn't have to do
"fag" or "kinky" but can tool around in a Mercedes servicing wealthy matrons.
In a fit of hubris, he actually believes he is a free individual, falling in
love with a would-be client (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a prominent
politician. Conspiracies and a frame-up for a murder are his reward. Glib in
the beginning, both the film and Gere's performance toughen as the situation
does, creating a credible parable of fate and faith, purity and defilement.
More so than the pretentious Mishima: A Life in Four Acts (1985;
January 22 at 7 p.m., 24 at 9 p.m., and 25 at 6:30 p.m.). Schrader does the
great Japanese novelist and world-class nutball little service in this brittle,
multi-format treatment. Played by Ken Ogata, who looks more like Charles
Bronson than is helpful, Mishima achieves superstardom with his novels of
twisted desire, exhibitionism, self-loathing, and a love of death. He tries to
convert his fame into a deluded attempt to overthrow the Japanese government
with a private, toy-soldier army and re-establish the reign of militarism and
the emperor. It's that patriarchal thing again, I suppose, but Schrader's mix
of heavy-handed, pseudo-documentary flashbacks and mannered renditions of
Mishima's novels merely ritualizes the man's mystery, adding little sympathy or
Unlike The Comfort of Strangers (1991; January 20 at 7:15 and 21
at 9 p.m.), one of Schrader's oddest and least appreciated films. Scripted by
Harold Pinter, based on a Venice-set novel by Ian McEwan, it's an absurdist
variation on Mishima's story, elaborating on his homo-eroticism, with a wacky
Christopher Walken playing the fascist aspect of Mishima's personality and a
pissy Rupert Everett playing the narcissistic part. Think of it as a campy
Don't Look Now, with Helen Mirren and Natasha Richardson looking on.
Patty Hearst (1988; January 14 at 7 p.m., 16 at 7 p.m., 20 at
9:15 p.m. and 22 at 9:30 p.m.) is similarly underrated. Based on the 1974
kidnapping case, which seemed a big deal in the innocent days before O.J. and
Monica Lewinsky, this stars a disarmingly bland Natasha Richardson as the
Hearst-empire heiress. Her empty-headed establishment days come to an end when
the self-proclaimed Symbionese Liberation Army drags her from her home and
stuffs her blindfolded into a closet.
Schrader films the first part of the film from Hearst's point of view, and
it's all in blackness broken by the closet door being opened for her to be
abused, cajoled, raped, and indoctrinated in the revolutionary mumbo-jumbo of
the group's drunk and deluded black leader, Cinque (a sinister Ving Rhames).
When the blindfold comes off, the darkness only intensifies, with Patty trying
to fit in with her new dysfunctional family, joining in their pitiful
"training" (the proletariat flipside of the elitist posturings of
Mishima's militia), reciting their slogans, and finally carrying a gun
in the notorious bank hold-up that was filmed by a surveillance camera.
Had she really become a revolutionary, or was she brainwashed and acting
against her will? The courts couldn't stomach a member of the Elect's turning
against her own, and Hearst was convicted despite being represented by
pre-Dream Teamer F. Lee Bailey. For Schrader, though, the truth about Patty
Hearst is that sliver of anger, resistance, and subterfuge -- in short,
identity -- that prevails against the closets and cages of one's oppressors.
This theme returns with generic hokum and punch in Cat People
(1982; January 15 at 9:30 p.m. and 16 at 9:30 p.m.). Schrader's remake
of Jacques Tourneur's umbrously atmospheric and lyrical horror classic sets the
tale in the mythic frame of a desert world in the distant past where all is
swirling red dust, gaping skulls, and terrified nomads ruled by lounging black
panthers (shades of Cinque) placated by human sacrifice, all backed by riffs
from David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline)."
Inheritors of this legacy are Malcolm McDowell's off-kilter New Orleans
fundamentalist missionary and his sister, played by a sweetly feline Nastassja
Kinski, whom he has traced down to an orphanage after a long search. For this
pair, sex outside the family brings out the beast within, but that doesn't stop
interloper John Heard from trying to have his cat and not get eaten too.
Schrader erratically turns the genre's conventions to his own obsessions --
predestination, oppression, sexual anarchy, and true love -- in a film that
lingers long in the imagination (maybe it's the Bowie song) despite its
Still, Cat People is just a respite for Schrader from the far greater
terrors and travails of real people, a realm littered with political and
psychological debris more intransigent than the dust and archetypes of a horror
film. In his directorial debut, Blue Collar (1978; January 8 at 7
p.m. and 10 at 9:15 p.m.), he confronted head-on the nut and bolts of a
corrupt, unjust system he only toyed with in later movies.
An unlikely trio of pals -- Detroit auto workers Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel,
and Yaphet Kotto -- decide to take on their do-nothing union by robbing their
treasury. They come away with a few hundred bucks and evidence of a conspiracy.
Initially seeking only personal gain, now they must decide whether they want to
be revolutionary crusaders or submissive collaborators with their exploiters.
Each chooses differently, and each gets screwed in a grimily fatalistic,
ruefully funny, socially nihilistic fable.
It's much like Schrader's latest, Affliction, except that here his
vision is deepened by the elegiac detachment and wrenching irony of Banks's
novel. Schrader invokes all his demons at once and, perhaps, reconciles them.
His hero, Wade Whitehouse, is not only an abused son, he is an abusive father.
He not only struggles against an imagined conspiracy of exploiting powers, he
conspires against them. He mourns his lost, illusory paradise, but he embraces
the brimstone to come, and when he strikes, the target is appropriate even
though the outcome is insane. It's one of the best films of the year, and the
best of Schrader's career, and after seeing it and the unresolved, recurrent
nightmares he has screened for the past 20 years, I'd say he's deserving of his
next project -- a love story with a happy ending.