Paul (Joseph) Schrader Essay - Critical Essays

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.)

Stanley Kauffmann

[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 Pickpocket is, for Bresson, a tiny, lonely digit in the infinite calculus of God. The hero of Taxi Driver is a psychotic, nothing more, and his story is a case history, nothing more. It's as if one were to copy Macbeth including the murders for career-advancement but omitting the spiritual withering of the murderer.

The episode with the blonde shows further Schrader's bungling, strategically and tactically. After [Bickle] makes clear his adoration and near-reverence, the girl—seemingly impressed by his fervor and his awe—consents to go out with him. Where does he take her? To a hard-core porno flick. She soon leaves in disgust and refuses to speak to him again. His choice of films might be seen as a symptom of...

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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:

(1) A shy guy converts himself into a brutal killer after scenes in which he is a smart-ass with an FBI agent, a near matinee idol with his Miss Finishing School, and an unsophisticated, normal Lindbergh type with a teen prostitute. The latter girl similarly goes from street-hardened and cynical to open and cheerful, well-nourished and unscarred, in one twelve-hour time interval.

(2) The cabbie, after having readied himself with push-ups, chin-ups, burning dead flowers, and many hours of target practice, guns down a black thief in a Spanish deli. The brutality, which is extended by the store-owner golfing the victim's corpse with a crowbar, is never touched by the police.

(3) A taxi driver who's slaughtered three people, been spotted twice by the FBI, and has enough unlicensed artillery strapped to his body to kill a platoon, is hailed as a liberating hero by the New York press.

(4) A Secret Service platoon, grouped around a rather minor campaign speech on Columbus Circle, fails to spot and apprehend a fantastic apparition: a madly grinning young man who is wearing an oversized jacket on a summer day, sunglasses, and has his head shaved like a Mohawk brave, with a strip of carpeting for the remaining hair.

Although Taxi Driver is immeasurably more gritty, acrobatic, and zigzagging than the Jeremiah Johnson mythicizing of mountain men, the two films (one moves blandly forward on snow shoes, the other sets a grueling pace) are remarkably similar in their linear structure and ideology. Both are odes to Masculine Means in which a mysterious young man appears out of indistinct origins; learns the lore of survival warfare in a hostile land; after a heartbreak, lashes out in a murderous rampage; fades into a mythic haze. The lore Jeremiah-Travis learns has to do with manly self-reliance: the first learns to kill a bear, catch a fish barehanded; the "hackie in Hell" becomes a one-man commando unit. Both inhabit a world—an unpeopled wilderness and a callous jungle—where no one can be counted on for help. Women are the spurs to the climactic bloodbath: Jeremiah's Indian wife is murdered, while Travis's efficient blond tease rejects him, confirming him in his conviction that blood is the only solution.

The character of the Loner, which dominates American films from Philip Marlowe to Will Penny to Dirty Harry Callahan, has seldom been given such a double-sell treatment. The intense [Travis Bickle] is sold as a misfit psychotic and, at the same time, a charismatic star who centers every shot and is given a prismatic detailing by [Martin Scorsese], who...

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Michael Dempsey

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...

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Richard Combs

[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....

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Stanley Kauffmann

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...

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Pauline Kael

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....

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Andrew Sarris

[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...

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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...

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Vincent Canby

[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....

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David Denby

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....

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Andrew Sarris

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...

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Pauline Kael

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...

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Vincent Canby

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...

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Roger Angell

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...

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Andrew Sarris

[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....

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Richard Combs

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...

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David Denby

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,...

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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...

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Lawrence O'Toole

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,...

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David Denby

[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...

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Pauline Kael

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...

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Richard Combs

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...

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