Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Essential Paul Schrader: Focused And Hardcore

One of the most telling moments of Paul Schrader's career actually doesn't occur in one of his films but instead in an interview he gave concerning Peter Biskind's book EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS. During the interview a rather frustrated Schrader correctly notes that the biggest problem with Biskind's book is that he seems incapable of admitting that many of the seventies best director's did quality work after the early eighties. It seems to be a common misconception by many film fans that all of the best work by artists like Schrader, Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich and so on just happened in that very special period in the seventies. While that might be true to an extent it is certainly arguable in all of their cases that some of their most important, personal and challenging work came later and of Schrader this is absolutely true.
I had originally hoped to write reviews of several of Schrader's films this week but the death of Heath Ledger and some personal issues have kind of stopped me. I will eventually though but in the meantime here is my own offering of what I think the great Paul Schrader films are. I find his career to be much more balanced than most fans give it credit for and he remains I think one of the only key directors who have managed to deliver masterworks in the seventies, eighties, nineties and finally this decade.
I hope the following list proves of interest.

1. BLUE COLLAR (1978):
Schrader's directorial debut is one of the best films of the seventies and one of the most searing. With one of the most combative casts in any film in place, Schrader delivers a mesmerizing tale of corruption, friendship, betrayal and the often forced difference between both class and race.

2. AUTO FOCUS (2002):
Schrader's stunning return to form stands as one of his great works and one of the best films of this, now not so young, decade. Featuring amazing performances from Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe and Mario Bello, Schrader's film about tragic HOGAN'S HERO star Bob Crane is a complex and moving work that got lost in the shuffle when it came out back in 02.

3. PATTY HEARST (1988):
I wrote a long piece on why I think this is one of the great and essential films of the eighties before. It can be read here. The current unavailability of this important film is baffling and absolutely criminal.

Richard Gere's performance as hustler Julian Kaye remains as electric and right on as it was nearly thirty years ago. With Schrader's studied direction, the music of Giorgio Moroder and the slick production design of Ferdinando Scarfiotti this is the film that created everything eighties cinema should have been but finally rarely was.

5. CAT PEOPLE (1982):
I took a long look at Schrader's most controversial film here, which I hope everyone will check out.

6. HARDCORE (1979):
One of Schrader's most personal and interesting films featuring a terrifying performance by George C. Scott (just about a career best) and a moving supporting turn by Season Hubley. The key to the film, in fact, lies not in Scott's obsessive search for his daughter but in the unlikely relationship he forms with Hubley. The film's final chilling moments are some of the most effective Schrader has ever shot.

7. AFFLICTION (1997):
Often considered the best of Schrader's later works, this film falls just below AUTO FOCUS as his best film from the past ten years. Steered by an eerie and astonishing performance by Nick Nolte and Schrader's expertly handled script from Russell Banks novel, AFFLICTION briefly returned Schrader to everyone's cinematic radar where he has always belonged.

A striking extremely well thought out film that unfortunately seemed to slip under the radar immediately. The Venice locations and work by Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson combines into an unforgettably hypnotic and seedy cocktail.

9. MISHIMA (1985):
Considered by many to be Schrader's best film and it is definitely his bravest. I must admit the film has always left me a little at a distance, which is perhaps the point but it keeps me from including it higher on the list.

10. LIGHT SLEEPER (1992):
An almost masterpiece that garnered a lot of acclaim when it has first came out but it feels oddly dated now, much more so than almost any other work in his canon.

11. FOREVER MINE (1999):
Schrader's attempt at an all out modern noir is misguided, little seen and frustrating. Still when his camera focuses on the face and body of Gretchen Mol it is quite striking and sublime, like they are both channeling an erotic fever in cinema long since vanished.

Schrader's weaker films are for the most part noble failures. Works like LIGHT OF DAY (1987), TOUCH (1997), and DOMINION (2005) all suffered from studio manipulation and were bitches for the great man to get made. I have yet to see his newest film, THE WALKER, but am eagerly anticipating it.
Schrader's legend was cemented with his script for Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER but his career as a director needs more attention.
For a great if outdated look at his career, may I recommend SCHRADER ON SCHRADER and it looks like coming in March is the new PAUL SCHRADER CONTEMPORARY FILM DIRECTORS which will hopefully prove to be a worthwhile companion to his films.
My look at BLUE COLLAR will hopefully appear this weekend.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

He has made some great films over the years. I really loved Affliction. It's one of his best films in my opinion. I thought Nick Nolte was outstanding in it, but it was James Coburn's performance that really struck a cord with me.

Robert Monell said...

AUTO FOCUS is a great film taking an uncomfortable look at a taboo topic: Sexual Addiction. I was once hounded off a message board for praising the film. I went to see it with friends and they all hate it. I like films that present subjects people don't want to deal with.

Scott Stambler said...

Cool post about Schrader. I just scored the documentary about his getting fired from the Exorcist Prequel. It's a fascinating down journey.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks so much Scott and congratulations on doing that score. That is fantastic and I will add your blogs to my link list. Thanks again for stopping by...