The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: January 7 - 14, 1999

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Auteur torture

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 narcissism.

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 understanding.

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 nonsense.

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.

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