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American Nightmare:Paul Schrader’s oeuvre and a brief encounter, discussed by Khalid Mohamed

Circa 1988, Paul Schrader – screenwriter, film director and critic-was at the Ashoka Hotel to participate in the International Film Festival of India in New Delhi.

He is one of the few directors who likes to talk with the press, the way he did when I was a rookie covering the New Delhi International Film Festival of India. He is more interested in your reactions to his work than explaining his artistry. However, the official press conference had gone the typical hackneyed way, and he seemed to be rebuffed and eager to leave the conference room in a tearing hurry.

Hackneyed because film festival brochures could be tricky if not hopelessly sketchy. Bare essentials were given about the visiting film personality. Based on the given data, the questions, hadn’t aroused his interest. He answered them politely and had kept his cool. Now, of course, that has become largely redundant ever since Wikipedia and other cyber sites have become disseminators of information – not always accurate but then who is? Perfectionists are the new untouchables.

This is by way of saying that today I can thus construct the bio-data of Paul Schrader, that he’s 75, that he was born into a family which strictly believed in the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, that he was mentored by the grande dame of criticism Pauline Kael into analysing and writing about cinema. More information: Schrader saw his first film, and nearly had a panic attack in the process, at the age of 18. The movie: ‘The Absent-Minded Professor’.

Late starter he, but then he must have made up for lost time with a formal approach and attitude towards cinema. Anyone who has a great regard for the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu and the French auteur Robert Bresson had obviously started on the right foot. In fact, a little squelch to all the budding or budded critics reading this. If you haven’t seen Ozu’s ‘Late Autumn’ and ‘Autumn Afternoon’ or Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’, ‘Mouchette’ and ‘Une Femme Douce’, guys you need to log into your laptops and grab these must-sees wherever.

Oh oh, as is my wont of late, I am digressing, and that’s perhaps to delay stating the point that I’ve been pretty obsessive about Schrader, the early Schrader that is, both as writer and director. His influence has been seminal. Just for the record, I’ve watched his ‘Hardcore’ (1979) and ‘American Gigolo’ (1980), at least half as many times as M F Husain had watched ‘Hum Aapke...Hain Kaun’! which is rumoured to be between 60 and 80 times.

Just one shot in ‘Hardcore’ has continued to amaze me: it is a throwaway shot of an airplane landing at night. It looked as if it was captured from another smaller plane landing at the same time. The shot, actually, had evoked instant applause from the picky students of the Pune Film Institute when ‘Hardcore’ was screened earlier at the Indian International Film Festival of India in Bangalore.

Schrader’s films are influenced but not at all imitative of Ozu (no long shots framing doors and corridors) or Bresson (no significant resonance of doors shutting or close-ups of hands). Rather with Ozu, he shares the thought of the impermanence of life, and with Bresson, the questioning of faith and the austerity of expression in emotional relationships.

The relationship of a viewer with the writer-and-director, however, has been one of extremes. Many of his films have achieved cult status while others have been justifiably ignored. I cannot think of cinema, however, to have taken the course it did if it weren’t for Schrader’s scripts, especially for ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), which detailed the edgy, on-the-brink side of the U S, at a time when the nation was seeking to recover from its guilt over the Vietnam war.

Travis Bickle, one of the implosive performances by Robert De Niro, became synonymous with youth angst and violent rebellion. Those affected by the film can rarely ever look at a mirror without thinking of that “You talking to me?” moment, or without smiling at the dialogue pun of getting oneself ‘organasised’.

Among others, Schrader’s collaboration with Martin Scorsese yielded ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) and ‘The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ’ (1986), two dramatically different works, but again reflecting Schrader’s mind-set. In ‘Raging Bull’, he structured a plot about the real-life boxer Jake La Motta; biographies of men who went off kilter appear to fascinate him. For instance, ‘Auto Focus’ (2002), directed by him, looks back at the little-known actor Bob Crane who is remembered if at all for his turn in ‘Hogan’s ‘Heroes’.

Inevitably, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ is Schrader’s most outspoken statement on religion and Catholicism. Consistently, he has revealed a harsh streak of restlessness. He may not agree with that – from a personal perspective, his primary concern may be a questioning of faith with an underlying pain. And to the viewer, his consistent agnosticism, if one may call it that, has come off as audacious. Conversely after a point, the question of Catholicism and its acceptance as well as rejection, seems a burdensome cross to bear. Evidence: ‘Affliction’ (1997) and ‘Forever Mine’ (1999) which could have been narrated without the predictable lines of dialogue about the ongoing tussle with faith.

The writer-director was in top form when he had an arresting story to tell, as with ‘American Gigolo’, his remake of ‘Cat People’ (1982) and ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ (1985). These three are also his most stylish films, ‘American Gigolo’ being especially fluid in its luminous cinematography, costume design and the use of a pop-rock soundtrack.

He has narrated these stories in a manner that takes you close to the heart and mind of his characters, besides providing insights on the subjects he had elected to tackle. ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ (1990), adapted by Harold Pinter from a story by Ian McEwan, on the efforts of a drug dealer to go straight, is criminally underrated.

When Schrader does not give us insights or a new take besides technical innovativeness, that’s when I am troubled. Case in point: ‘Patty Hearst’ (1988). The film while being inventively, even grungily shot did not go beyond the believe-it-or-not scandal – the Stockholm Syndrome -- of a kidnapped heiress-who turned into her abductors’ accomplice. It was the kind of real-life story that Oliver Stone could have told with more frankness and reportage. For me ‘Patty Hearst’ was a let-down.

Similarly, ‘Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist’ (2005) was not up his alley. It’s believed that the studio honchos interfered far too much, and some footage had to be shot by Renny Harlin. Be that as it may, the prequel is best forgotten.

Schrader works well with his male actors – Willem Dafoe particularly, who leaves an impact even in a relatively brief role in ‘Affliction’ (1999). His women, though, are just not in the same league. He is not disrespectful of them but clearly, he is more at easy to make cinema with males at centre-stage.

His consequent erotic thriller ‘The Canyons’ (2013), the dramatic thriller ‘First Reformed’ (2017), which earned him his First Oscar nomination, and ‘The Card Counter’ (2021) about the adventures of an ex-torturer at Abu Ghraib prison during the Saddam Hussein tutelage, turned guilt-stalked professional poker player, had their flashes of brilliance but that’s it. These films continued to harp on the American nightmare at the cost of being self-indulgently repetetive.

Yet despite those disappointments, he has been a consistent presence in the aisles of the mind, a creator who has caught life at its starkest.

To return then to the New Delhi film festival days(1988), I had chased him right into the elevator after the press conference. I had managed to secure three quotes from him, which in a way articulate his outlook towards filmmaking. One was that his collaboration on 'Taxi Driver' with Martin Scorsese wasn’t purely autobiographical. But yes he had extracted several vignettes from his “mental state at the time.”

Second, was an assertion of his firm belief that cinema is a by-product of capitalism, “since there have been neither selfless sponsors or governmental support. Like it or not if the viewer buys a ticket for a film, then producers are ready to make it for them.”

And the third, that the most worthwhile screen characters are those who are ridden with contradictions – contradictions which cannot be resolved by anyone but by themselves, if at all.

Come to think of it, at some level within, doesn’t this apply to all of us?

Khalid Mohamed is well known film critic, screenwriter and film director.

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