Schrader, Paul (Joseph)
Paul (Joseph) Schrader 1946–
American film director, screenwriter, editor, and critic.
Schrader is noted for his realistic studies of human anxiety and pain. The theme of individual redemption through violent behavior is prevalent throughout his films, and his climactic scenes often explode in brutal massacres. The film that best exemplifies this theme is Taxi Driver, a controversial story of an alienated man whose search for identity evolves into a psychotic trail of violence and death.
In his first directorial effort, Blue Collar, Schrader examines the systematic emasculation of three assembly line workers in an automobile factory. The script, coauthored by Schrader, has been commended for its realistic dialogue. Hardcore is the first of Schrader's works to probe the debasement of human sexuality. In this film, a deeply religious man travels through the subculture of pornography in search of his runaway daughter, who performs in pornographic films. American Gigolo, one of Schrader's most popular films, analyzes the world of male prostitution through the eyes of protagonist Julian Kay. Some critics believe that Schrader reached the height of his apparent obsession with sex and violence in Cat People. He altered the 1942 version of the film into an intense, sensual horror fantasy about a brother and sister who could make love only to one another lest they release an ancient family curse.
Schrader has been influenced greatly by French director Robert Bresson. In his scholarly book Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader analyzes the filmic techniques of Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Yasujiro Ozu, and he has been criticized for blatantly copying the moralistic themes and stark settings of Bresson's work. Although many critics have tired of his "obsession with sleaze," Schrader's films maintain interest because he captures the sordidness hidden in modern American society.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
[Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader, centers on Travis Bickle, an ex-Marine] who becomes a New York taxi driver, who is willing to drive at night even in the riskiest parts of town, who lives a lonely, grubby life even though he makes an adequate living, who keeps a journal, who goes from ten hours' nightwork straight to porno films because he can't sleep, who develops a crush on a distant blonde beauty, fails with her, then assumes a knightly stance toward a twelve-year-old prostitute in the East Village. He shows increasing signs of psychosis, arms himself with a knife and several pistols, attempts the life of a political candidate for whom the blonde works, fails, then kills the pimps of the child-whore. There is a postlude after the presumed finish, intended to be ironic but which only blazons the defects of what has gone before and crystallizes the picture's ultimate insignificance.
Schrader is the author of a book called Transcendental Style in Film, a study of three directors including Robert Bresson, and it's apparent that, despite the torrent of violence and violent language, he has based this script on Bressonian models…. But the more that this script reminds us of Bresson, the more Schrader reveals a recurrent fault in latter-day American film-making: the imitation of the form and movement of a good European model without rooting the work in sources like those from which the model grew. The hero of...
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PATRICIA PATTERSON and MANNY FARBER
Basing its tortured hackie hero vaguely on the pasty-faced Arthur Bremer, who, frustrated in his six attempts to kill Nixon, settled on maiming George Wallace for life, Taxi Driver not only waters down the unforgettable (to anyone who's read his diary) Bremer, but goes for traditional plot sentimentality. Bremer, as he comes across in his diaries, was mad every second, in every sentence, whereas the Bickle character goes in and out of normality as the Star System orders. The Number One theme in the Arthur Bremer diary is I Want to Be A Star. Having dropped this obsession as motivation, the movie falls into a lot of motivational problems, displacing the limelight urge into more Freudian areas (like sexual frustration) and into religious theories (like ritual self-purification). The star or celebrity obsession is a Seventies fact—the main thing that drives people these days—compared to the dated springboards in Paul Schrader's script. Instead of Bremer's media dream, getting his name into the New York Times headlines, this script is set on pulp conventions: a guy turns killer because the girl of his dreams rejects him. The girl of his dreams, a squeaky-clean WASP princess, is yet another cliché assumption: that the outsiders of the world are yearning to connect to the symbols of well-washed middle-class gentility.
Busily trying to turn pulp into myth, the movie runs into all kinds of plot impossibles:
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In Taxi Driver, New York City is a steaming, polluted cesspool and Travis Bickle's cab a drifting bathysphere from which he can peer at the "garbage and trash" which obsess him: whores, pimps, junkies, wandering maniacs, maggotty streets, random violence. It's definitely a subjective vision—the film locks us into his consciousness—yet not solipsistic, inasmuch as the grisly avenues and their cargo of human flotsam could be observed by anyone walking or riding there at night. The screenwriter, Paul Schrader, also wrote a book entitled Transcendental Style in Film, and he has gone out of his way to make us take one of its subjects, Robert Bresson, for his main inspiration. Actually, it is Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer (released after the book was published) which Taxi Driver suggests most. (p. 37)
[Schrader must have had] the desire to have the movie conform to his formulation of "transcendental style." Any brief summary of its elements is bound to be oversimplified. But, as he analyzes it, its constituent parts are: a detailed, nondramatic presentation of everyday life, in which "nothing is expressive" of psychology, ideas, or any sort of readily paraphrasable meaning; the disparity which results when "human density" is added to this cold, flat mundaneness, causing us to be emotionally stirred and to accept on faith the decisive action taken by a character in order to break...
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[Paul Schrader seems] to have succumbed to a paralysed narcissism. His cinephile enthusiasms, which have run to simply but powerfully motivated blood and thunder plots, graced with metaphysical ironies ranging from Bresson to [Alfred] Hitchcock, have locked in Rolling Thunder on the most primitive, exploitative level. Ex-Vietnam POW Charles Rane … returns home to San Antonio, Texas, and discovers that his wife wants to leave him for his best friend. However, a gang of thugs erupt into his home in search of one of his valuable coming home gifts, beat and torture him (prompting some flashback allusions to how he endured similar treatment in Vietnam) and leave with the loot after shooting his wife and child. Putting himself into training to streamline his newly acquired artificial hand into a lethal weapon, Rane sets off in pursuit with a Vietnam buddy … more obviously traumatised by the war.
The most revealing thing about this concoction is neither its emotionally over-driven construction, nor its rampaging gratuitous violence, but Schrader's clear grinding down of the ingredients of 'serious' movies like Taxi Driver. In this respect, Rolling Thunder is actually of a different species from [George Romero's] Martin and [John Carpenter's] Assault on Precinct 13. Its movie lore is channelled into the creation of one sustained, gut-wrenching effect, where the pleasures of the other films are more...
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Paul Schrader, who wrote the dubious script of Taxi Driver and the undubiously awful script of The Yakuza, wrote [Blue Collar with his brother Leonard]…. The script has its waverings…. [Blue Collar] starts as a breezy comedy about three friends, two black men and a white man who work on the same assembly line, who bowl together with their wives and who ball with other women at cocaine parties. At the beginning the script handles their strapped financial situations farcically. A scene with an IRS man is an updated black remake of a similar scene in [Frank Capra's] You Can't Take It with You; then there's a comic robbery with ludicrous Halloween masks, a touch of [Mario Monicelli's] Big Deal on Madonna Street; then, because of something the three friends discover in the union local's safe that they rob, the script suddenly turns heavily dramatic; and then it tries to turn tragic. It's almost as if Schrader didn't know where he was heading when he started.
But along the way, inside each of the sections, inside the scenes within those sections, life is made. The homes, the bar, the parties, the plant squabbles, the union meetings, the snoopings by the FBI have the smell of authenticity: of dailiness dramatized as most documentaries cannot do it. And the dialogue, except for an occasional touch of the unduly prophetic, is raunchily real. (p. 228)
[Blue Collar] is...
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Blue Collar has to be one of the most dogged pictures ever produced. Making his début as a director, Paul Schrader, the phenomenally successful young screenwriter, has approached directing as a painful, necessary ritual—the ultimate overdue term paper. He goes at it methodically, and gets through it with honors but without flair, humor, believability. Blue Collar is an exercise, an idea film in which each scene makes its point and is over. (p. 406)
Blue Collar says that the system grinds all workers down, that it destroys their humanity and their hopes. At the start, under the titles, there's the ominous, heavy rock beat of "Hard Workin' Man"—like the hammer of oppression. The music is calculatedly relentless. It's to make us feel the throbbing noise of the assembly line, so that we'll grasp how closed-in the men's universe is. Noise isn't just noise in this movie, it's fate. The meaning of Blue Collar is in its dark, neon tones, its pounding inexorability, its nighttime fatalism. There's no feeling of fresh air, and even the sunlight has a suggestion of purgatory. The film noir style of nightmare realism, which in the thirties and forties was used in high-strung thrillers about loners in the city or outlaws on the lam or prisoners threatened by brutal guards or innocents who got on the wrong side of the law and were hounded, is here applied to American blue-collar workers. When Jerry, thinking...
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[In Blue Collar Schrader] seems to have been influenced by both Godard and Antonioni—the former in the deadening ritual of the assembly line itself, and the latter in the chromatic utilization of industrial artifacts as art objects in their own right. The movie has an interesting look to it as Schrader tries to make a painterly comment on the pathetic bleakness of low-level industrial landscapes.
But the pacing is something else again, as much of Blue Collar turns out to be stylistically and thematically indecisive, inarticulate, and incoherent. At first the movie seems to be striving for a comically absurdist tone on the order of Rene Clair's A Nous la Liberte and Charles Chaplin's Modern Times…. [We] are slowly made to understand that something more serious is afoot. Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are propelled with minimal preparation into a robbery of the union treasury. But the model for this caper is less [John Huston's] The Asphalt Jungle than Big Deal on Madonna Street. Unfortunately, Schrader seems very wary of any possibility of laughter in the audience, and he throws away some very promising gags arising from the cliches of synchronizing watches and wearing masks (with dangling eyeballs yet!).
Somehow the bunglers succeed in spiriting away the union safe, only to discover that they have made off with a few hundred bucks in petty cash. But the safe also yields up an...
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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
[In Blue Collar, one feels that Paul Schrader] has a distinctive imagination and eye without as yet a sure directorial instinct. The discordant elements in the film—comedy, melodrama, social message—are imperfectly fused. But Blue Collar's vitality and drive generally prevail over technical flaws. It is continuously fresh, surprising, and absorbing….
Blue Collar, for all its documentary verve, does have two grievous faults. There is a grave disjunction in its internal logic. The key message, uttered mid-film by the wise ex-con and repeated behind a freeze finish, is straight out of the Thirties: The company's purpose, as the old black warns his comrades, is to preserve its power by setting the workers at one another's throats. The particular idea, Paul Schrader subsequently told an interviewer, was to show "how racism is used as a device by the corporate structure to keep the men divided and their statuses perpetuated."
But in fact the company is at best an ancillary villain. The central villain is the union; and the crooked union officials are stealing for themselves, not for the company. No doubt they have been corrupted in some larger sense by the ethos of an acquisitive society, but the film shows no specific collusion between the union and the "corporate structure." On the contrary, the film's implicit message is that the class war today is not between the workers and the corporations...
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[The films of Paul Schrader] are difficult to get hold of. They are not only about contradictions, they deal in them. As often as not they employ shock effects that appear to pander to what the moralists among us would call our baser instincts….
Once upon a time when we went to the movies, there was never any doubt about what we were supposed to think. We knew who were the good guys and who were the bad. Some of this had to do with typecasting but, basically, it was the result of the laws laid down by the old Production Code, which said that crime could not pay except, of course, for the producers who made films showing us the manifold ways in which crime could not pay again and again and again.
Moral outrage, though prefabricated, was built into our films. The Production Code made things simpler then. But so, too, did the times….
The extent to which things have changed today is reflected in the sort of films Mr. Schrader is making, particularly in "Hardcore," which will, I'm sure, upset a lot of people, principally because it gives every indication of exploiting the permissiveness about which it seems to have very mixed feelings. Even the title can be seen as a cheap come-on. Yet the movie isn't to be dismissed. It's a serious film, seriously conceived and executed….
"Hardcore" is not much more than straightforward melodrama that takes its audience on a sightseeing tour of...
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Hardcore must be the most perversely priggish movie in the history of the American cinema. It's impossible to think of another film that approaches its bizarrely knotted interweaving of prurience and dismay, lurid excitement and icy disgust…. [Paul Schrader has] combined his personal background and his violent obsessions into a single, uneasy package. Schrader's story is about the moral testing of a religious man—Jake VanDorn …, a businessman in Grand Rapids who adheres to the Calvinist absolutism of the Dutch Reformed Church.
The premise is simple: VanDorn's teenage daughter, Kristen, mysteriously runs away during a trip to Los Angeles and joins the porno-movie and sex-show underworld. After a dissolute private eye … fails to find the girl, VanDorn moves to L.A. himself and begins prowling the squalid night world of brothels and bookstores, bars and movie houses. What he sees fills him with revulsion, and as he averts his eyes and cringes and suffers, he begins to rage at our whole modern media culture in which "everything is based on sex, sold on sex."…
The movie's plot resembles Schrader's earlier script for Taxi Driver, which featured another angry, obsessed man … trying to save a young teenager … from prostitution. But Taxi Driver was an infinitely more expressive movie….
Directing his own material (a schematic, overexplicit, emotionally dead screenplay) …,...
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As a charter member and prime theoretician of the American nouvelle vague, Schrader has gone a long way in Hardcore toward defining his strengths and weaknesses. One can see in certain mysteriously lateral movements the author of a book on the transcendental art of Bresson, Dreyer, and Ozu. Schrader has written also, and with considerable expertise, on the parameters of the film noir. His formulas, consequently, are in opposition to those of the Philco Playhouse school of antigenre humanist playwrights with their endless explanations and motivations. Schrader goes to the other extreme of dissolving character in action. Curiously, his projects seem more lurid and violent in their conception than in their execution, which is to say his latest movie is neither as opportunistic nor as sensational as its shrewd and succinctly commercial title would suggest.
At the outset he shows us two young girls, standing side by side, one a cute, curvaceous blonde, the other a skinny, angular, comparatively plain brunette. From what many of us have heard of the scenario, we know that one of these two girls is to be violated, and the dirty old man in some of us hopes that it will be the blonde. Having set up this peculiar Judgment of Paris situation, Schrader turns away from erotic exploitation and toward sociological probability. Jake's soon-to-be-scandalous daughter is the brunette—a wise move in terms of the "realism" of...
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Paul Schrader has powerful raw ideas for movies, but he attempts to function as a writer-director without ever developing his ideas or his characters…. [Jake's search through the porno-prostitution world for his daughter in Hardcore] might be a great fiery subject if we could feel what the girl was running away from and if the father were drawn into experiences that scared him, sickened him, shook him up. In old movies that warned viewers about the vices lying in wait for their daughters (white slavery, prostitution, drugs), there was something to attract the audience: the thrill of sin. Even when the cautionary aspect of the films was just a hypocritical ploy, there was something at stake; the temptations of the Devil were given their due. In Taxi Driver …, the protagonist, Travis Bickle, had a fear and hatred of sex so feverishly sensual that we experienced his tensions, his explosiveness. But in Hardcore Jake feels no lust, so there's no enticement—and no contest. The Dutch Reformation Church has won the battle for his soul before the film's first frame. (p. 543)
Schrader, who has said that Jake is modelled on his father, doesn't explore the possibility that it's what Jake, in his firm religious morality, denies and excludes from his life that drives his daughter to sexual degradation. In this film, there's nothing between fundamentalism and licentiousness—no forms of sexual expression or pleasure that...
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Having now seen "American Gigolo," "Hardcore" and "Taxi Driver,"… I can't tell whether Mr. Schrader seizes on these sensational subjects because he is a canny picture-maker or because he is fascinated by moral sleaziness. I don't mean that he's just idly curious but that he is obsessed in the manner of a person who was brought up in a strict religious faith, as Mr. Schrader (Dutch Reformed Church) was, and somewhat late in life discovered what he takes to be the real nature of the world.
"American Gigolo" is a laughable movie but it's not without interest, if only because Mr. Schrader seems to be genuinely convinced of the worth of his hero, Julian Kay …, an almost physically perfect young man who makes a very good living as an expensive Los Angeles prostitute. (pp. D15, D42)
However, Mr. Schrader's interest in Julian quickly comes to look less like concern for the hustler's soul than like uncontrolled adoration. This is especially true in the way the camera focuses on [Julian's] mostly expressionless face, on his body and on those objects that the director has placed in Julian's apartment in a failed attempt to give the guy some class. Because the character met early in the movie would seem to have difficulty reading People magazine from cover to cover, it's a sight-laugh when Mr. Schrader's camera, in panning across Julian's belongings, just happens to spy works by Vladimir Nabokov and Colin Wilson....
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In "American Gigolo," Julian Kay (Richard Gere) skims around the Southern California freeways in a shiny black Mercedes 450-SL convertible, often with the top down, so that we can study his narrow eyes behind his tortoiseshell shades, his expensively cut hair, and his extraordinary but uninteresting good looks. When he alights, we see him buying expensive clothes at Juschi's boutique, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (or, rather, being bought clothes: a woman is paying the bill); or having a drink at the Polo Lounge (he keeps an odd jacket or two with the hat-check girl there, in case of social emergencies); or dining at Perino's or Chasen's; or discussing business with a beautiful female pimp (Nina Van Pallandt) at her Malibu beach house, where the sundeck is crowded with half-naked women catching some rays; or visiting other women in Westwood and Bel Air and Palm Springs. A great many older but well-kept-up women pay him hundreds of dollars to make love to them, for Julian is a top-level, 450-SL-model male prostitute, and Michelle (Lauren Hutton), the terrific-looking but unhappy wife of a California state senator, is in love with him. Inescapably, irresponsibly (we feel terrible about it, really), we find ourselves beginning to have the wrong thoughts about him: This cat has really got it made! What we are probably meant to think about Julian is to wonder where he comes from—in both the Webster's and the Cyra McFadden senses of the...
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[American Gigolo is] the most elegant of Schrader's directorial exercises, and there are never any lapses of tone. What's lacking, as always, are narrative flow, dramatic development, and psychological coherence…. [Up to now Schrader's] style has seemed either too obviously derivative, or too disruptive in terms of the very lurid material with which he has chosen to work. It is as if Bresson were trying to direct a [Luis] Bunuel script.
Curiously, American Gigolo is less lurid than it might have been because Julian Kay is never smug or jaded, and Schrader does not hold any of his characters in contempt. [Michelle] is strangely, if awkwardly, sincere as the great love of Julian's life. Schrader clearly lacks the flair for articulating this love with appropriate dialogue, but the iconic eye contact works just the same. Significantly, [Julian and Michelle] seem closest at precisely those moments when they are separated physically, but connected optically. As soon as the bedcovers are turned down Schrader seems to revert to an academic collage of flesh-signs suggested by Godard's two-dimensional skin shots in Une Femme Mariee.
When the plot takes a sudden twist into a frame-up for murder Schrader finds himself in much the same bind that [Francis Ford] Coppola did at the end of The Conversation, with realism giving way to stylization, observation to intuition, and experience to ritual…....
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With American Gigolo, Paul Schrader seems to have found his footing as a director—and achieved a measure of distance from (might one say transcended?) his obsessions as a writer. Not that he has really relaxed his Calvinist grip on the plot mechanism: characters are stuffed willy-nilly down a determinist tunnel, and one feels a tortured Providence-as-dramatist—rather than any inner necessity or logic—behind their every move and utterance. The hero of American Gigolo is more fortunate than most in that he doesn't have to say very much, though there is one grotesque moment of 'naked' truth in which he stands undressed by a window—the barred lighting that falls across him will be repeated to more ominous effect in a later scene—and professes his pride in having done "something very worthwhile" by taking three hours to bring a neglected woman to orgasm. He is spared the spiritual ordeal of the outraged father in Hardcore, who plunges through a meretricious purgatory to a hypocritical redemption. Though Julian Kay is presented from the beginning as being in a kind of hell: the camera prowls after him into the pinkly glowing inferno of a night-club, or snakes along much closer to the floor towards the bed in which Julian is doing something particularly loathsome (talking 'dirty' over the phone to one of his clients). That movement is repeated later in the film when Julian reaches the pit of this particular Hades, a disco which...
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Raging Bull is about a man with an iron skull and no brains inside, an enduring but mysteriously wretched man who can't trust anyone or enjoy himself and who finally destroys all his relationships through jealousy, paranoia, and fear. [Jake La Motta's] smile says that he's crazy and that his inhuman strength comes out of the craziness. Just as in the sentimental and melodramatic fight movies of the forties, to which this movie is a sour rejoinder, Jake is a Bronx slum boy, and the mob wants a piece of him. Only this time there's no upbeat ending: Jake may break free of the mob, but he can't break free of himself.
Directed by Martin Scorsese … and written by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, Raging Bull is a kind of morose American passion play, a chronicle of the successive stages of a fighter's disintegration. Starting in 1941, when Jake was a fierce young contender, punching in rapid volleys out of a closed-in crouch, the movie passes, in brief, violent scenes, through the great six-match rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson, the 1948 title fight against Marcel Cerdan, and the loss of the title to Robinson. It ends with a long, pathetic coda devoted to Jake's miserable time as a nightclub owner in Miami and as a lewd comedian—a fourth-rate Joe E. Lewis—introducing strippers in cruddy bars. Along with the fights, we see the volatile neighborhood life and urban hellishness … and also Jake's hapless efforts as husband...
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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.
[The end of] Raging Bull is a continuation of the scene with which the film begins, one where the aging Jake La Motta … rehearses a nightclub act he does after retiring from the ring. The scene is like a variation on that old cliché of having the fighter's life pass before his eyes in flashback between the counts of nine and ten, and this isn't the only instance in which the film seems to rely on fight-film conventions. Scorsese and at least one of his scriptwriters, Paul Schrader …, always work very much in the shadow of movie history. They're aware of the many ways that La Motta's story follows the standard plot line of boxing classics like Body and Soul. Like John Garfield in Robert Rossen's film, La Motta got mixed up with a dame and a gangster who both brought him grief. [This] film even suggests that La Motta himself is aware of such parallels between his life and the fighters in movies. The material Jake rehearses in that opening and closing scene includes a monologue based on Brando's speech to his brother—"I coulda' been a contenda, Chahley"—in On the Waterfront. The dive that La Motta once had to take was also set up by his own brother.
What sets Raging Bull apart, however, is the way that Scorsese and Schrader play against the grain of these fight-film conventions which their own film invokes…. In the movies, the hero of a fight film always has a character that develops slower than his...
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Paul Schrader's remake of the 1942 [Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur] classic, Cat People, is no pussycat. Where the original wove a subtle spell, the new version goes for the throat. The difference between the two may well be an indication of how esthetic responses by film-makers to suspense and horror have become knee jerk and jejune. That is certainly not to say Cat People isn't effective—it's astonishingly and crudely so—but some may resent being pounced upon by such schlock. (p. 62)
Obviously, Schrader wanted to eroticize the original story, which he does on the most superficial level. There is probably no better example of the anthropomorphically erotic than the panther—the lean, taut, muscular body and the soft, padded feet and tail—but Schrader doesn't pursue the possibilities, opting for a fade-out just when our interest is pricked. Instead, he goes for the gore: a trainer's arm being ripped from its socket; a gruesome autopsy on a big cat; and a hotel-room seduction ending in a blood bath. Such shocks are random and furious; they don't seem earned, merely exploited.
The violence of the original Cat People lay in its powers of suggestion, mostly through the interplay of light and shadow caught by the tracking camera. Schrader's Cat people is a Fiesta-ware movie—a lot of lime green and rich, peachy tones—and the New Orleans locations (which are curiously underpopulated)...
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[In Cat People] Schrader and screenwriter Alan Ormsby are trying for an obsessive "dark" myth of monstrous couplings, births, transformations. The movie is full of blood-stained floors and sheets, steaming, gelatinous gunk, alligators moaning in the night. [The original storyline] has been crassly refashioned so as to produce juicy Freudian horrors—sex as annihilation, as ultimate taboo—and after a while we seem to be watching not the possibilities that were always inherent in the material but the mucky personal fantasies that have been loaded onto it.
Paul Schrader's last two films, Hardcore and American Gigolo, were also weighted with a heavy load of sexual obsession; by this time I think it's obvious that this man is trying to tell us something. Schrader and Ormsby have invented a brother for Irena, given him the director's first name, and cast an actor who looks like him…. Glowering Paul keeps trying to seduce or rape Irena. Why? Because they're both cat people, and so they can safely sleep only with each other—if anyone else arouses them, they turn into leopards and must kill someone before returning to human form. Our heroine refuses, of course, so Paul goes on a rampage. A sequence in which a hooker chats away happily, thinking that her client is in the bathroom, while a black tail thumps expectantly under the bed has a charge of perverse wit in it that makes the bloody scene that follows easier to...
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There's no American director who gives his movies a tonier buildup than Paul Schrader does. His interviews about his new "Cat People" … might make the picture seem mouth-watering to those who hadn't seen his "Blue Collar," "Hardcore," and "American Gigolo." But if you did see that last one you know his trouble: his movies are becoming almost as tony as the interviews…. Schrader is perfecting an apocalyptic swank. When his self-puffery about magic and myth and eroticism and about effecting a marriage between the feeling of [Jean] Cocteau's "Orpheus" and the style of Bertolucci's "The Conformist" is actually transferred to the screen in "Cat People," each shot looks like an album cover for records you don't ever want to play.
While trying to prove himself a heavyweight moralist, Schrader has somehow never mastered the rudiments of directing. He doesn't shape his sequences. In "American Gigolo," the design was stunning and the camera was always moving, but the characters were enervated and the film felt stagnant, logy; it's only energy was in Deborah Harry's singing "Call Me" during the opening credits. And in "Cat People,"…, Schrader repeatedly kills your pleasure. Just when a scene begins to hold some interest, he cuts away from it; the crucial things seem to be happening between the scenes. He's trying for a poetic, "legendary" style—which turns out to be humorless, comatose, and obscure. You can fake out interviewers if you're...
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Without the compulsive plot mechanism that usually draws [Schrader's] characters ineluctably towards their destiny …, Cat People tends to disintegrate into a series of notations. That these in themselves remain watchable enough, and at times quite fascinating, is a testament—yet another paradox—to the extent that Schrader's transcendentalist cinema has transcended his own limitations as a writer. American Gigolo marked the point where the force-feeding of characters through the plot mechanism (which became an actual meat-grinder in Rolling Thunder) could be suspended in favour of more meditatively visual comment. Ferdinando Scarfiotti, Bertolucci's collaborator and Schrader's "visual consultant" on American Gigolo, is also at work here: one notices the colour co-ordination between a high shot of the multi-coloured décor of a church and a gaggle of children seen entering the zoo, and the rust-tinted prologue—a brief family history and anthropology of the cat folk—persuades one to accept its tongue-in-cheek hokum as psychological groundwork (an effect [Roger] Corman used to achieve simply by doing things on the cheap).
But such visual elaboration, which lent American Gigolo both a seductive and a quizzical European gloss, is too easily subsumed by the exoticism of Cat People. This is not so much inevitable as the result of another perversity on Schrader's part, who not only keeps...
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