Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Afflicted

By Chris Herrington

MARCH 1, 1999:  Twenty-one years and 11 films into an erratic directing career, Paul Schrader – who’ll probably always be best known as the screenwriter behind Taxi Driver, a film he is as much an auteur of as Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro – has finally made a film better than his first, 1977’s scathing labor film Blue Collar. Affliction, which got a national release this month after sitting in distribution limbo for more than a year, is the kind of film Hollywood made in the Seventies but abandoned after the blockbuster mentality set in – literate, honest, unapologetically downbeat, with its plot driven more by the internal logic of story than the demands of test-marketing and audience pandering. It also may be the first film Schrader has directed that’s as felt as thought-out; the first, including Blue Collar, that’s as provocative emotionally as intellectually.

The cerebral coldness of Schrader’s films stems partly from his background as a critic. It’s a common transition in France (Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol) but Schrader is one of the few working American critics (Peter Bogdanovich is the only other example that comes immediately to mind) to exchange the pen for the camera and make a viable career of it. The product of a Dutch Calvinist upbringing in provincial Michigan, Schrader didn’t see a film until the age of 17, but when cinephilia finally hit him, it hit him hard. Schrader moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in film school at UCLA, and edited a film journal. He became a protege of Pauline Kael, perhaps America’s most influential popular film critic, and wrote a well-regarded book on directors Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Carl Dreyer.

This critical background no doubt informs both the analytical austerity of Blue Collar and the stylishly studied mise-en-scene of American Gigolo (1979), Schrader’s first and only hit. Blue Collar is not a perfect film. It is flawed in terms of character motivation and its plotting seems too tidy. It’s an idea movie, and despite the fine performances of Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel as a trio of Detroit auto workers, its characters are more polemical pawns than people. But as an angry, despairing, yet formally controlled indictment of a system that catches workers between companies geared toward maximizing profits and unions that are sometimes ineffective and sometimes corrupt, it is a searingly powerful film.

American Gigolo is a solemn, serious take on a lurid subject. Starring the inexpressive Richard Gere as fetish object – an almost saintly professional ladies man incapable of receiving love – American Gigolo is a sleekly stylized melding of two different New Waves (Godard + Blondie). The film was both widely seen (its superb title was no doubt the kind of high concept that assured box office) and widely ridiculed: Audiences didn’t know quite what to make of this almost spiritual film bathed in L.A. sleaze.

Kael knew. In a rebuke to her former disciple, she derisively (and memorably) termed Schrader’s style “apocalyptic swank.” Kael’s criticism had merits, but American Gigolo remains an oddly intriguing film. Schrader’s similarly stylized, high-concept follow-up, a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror classic, Cat People (1982), was more deserving of Kael’s wrath. She dismissed the rather silly film by writing that “each shot looks like the album cover for records you don’t ever want to play.”

After the failure of Cat People, Schrader’s budgets got smaller, his connection to the mainstream more tenuous, and, though this certainly isn’t a logical result, his films became less interesting. Until Affliction, it was Schrader’s early films, in addition to his screenplays, that formed his cinematic reputation, and one mustn’t conclude from their critical detachment that these films weren’t personal. Indeed, much of Schrader’s own unique life, at times reckless and painful, finds its way into these films. In many ways, Schrader’s early films unite the classroom and psychiatric couch. Take this anecdote about the origin of American Gigolo, from a 1980 Film Comment interview with Schrader:

“Well, American Gigolo began in the screenwriting class at UCLA. In one of those round-table discussions I was suggesting occupations for a character: What does this person do? Is he a salesman? Is he a writer? Is he a gigolo, an American gigolo? I made a joke and then said, ‘That’s an interesting subject.’ Then, after class, I thought, ‘Well, that is an interesting subject.’ The next day I was at the shrink’s office, and we were talking about a problem of giving and receiving love. …”

In his own words, Schrader was “obsessed with pornography, enamored of guns and drinking heavily” during much of the Seventies. His obsession with pornography, coupled with his strict Calvinist upbringing, resulted in a conflicted view of the sex trade that was a key component of both American Gigolo, and, especially, the film that preceded it, Hardcore (1978).

Hardcore was a transition from Blue Collar to American Gigolo in more ways than one. The film’s plot line moves from the Michigan of Blue Collar to the Los Angeles sex industry of American Gigolo, a Midwest-to-SoCal migration that, of course, mirrors Schrader’s own life. Hardcore originates in the same Grand Rapids, Dutch Calvinist community that Schrader was raised in, and stars George C. Scott as a strict Calvinist man whose daughter turns up missing during a California church trip, and is later discovered in a porno movie. Scott’s descent into the sexual underworld in search of his daughter is seen as a spiritual trial for this devout man, but Hardcore’s primary flaw is in refusing to let Scott’s character be tempted or titillated by the sexual elements he comes in contact with, at the same time that the film itself seems aroused by the sexual landscape it supposedly indicts. Hardcore’s unnecessarily sensational, cop-out ending shows a refusal to really deal with the conflicts of religion and sexuality that the film introduces.

Schrader’s comments about sex, guns, and booze seem to relate specifically to Taxi Driver, of course, and the enduring figure of Travis Bickle seems to reappear in many of Schrader’s films. In a recent Cineaste interview, Schrader concluded that he has only one story to tell, and that most of his films are variations of it. This story being one of “ ... a man who drifts around, often at night, peeping into other peoples lives. He is without a life of his own, and is trying to figure out how to get one, often operating against his own best interests in trying to find it.”

This Bickle figure (itself modeled after John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers) is a component of Hardcore, as George C. Scott descends into the underworld to rescue his daughter, as Travis Bickle did to rescue Jodie Foster’s child prostitute. But Bickle is also there in Gere’s male prostitute, a loner who struggles with emotional connection even as he makes his living by giving pleasure to others. There are scenes in American Gigolo, of Gere working out in his apartment, that almost directly mirror the obsessive behavior of Bickle. There are remnants of Bickle in smaller films and smaller roles too – in Malcolm McDowell’s night-stalking prostitute seeker in Cat People, and Willem Dafoe’s small-time drug dealer in Light Sleeper (1992), a film that climaxes with a violent, revenge-fueled holocaust very similar to Travis Bickle’s eruption in Taxi Driver.

But a bit of Bickle may be most apparent in Affliction, in Nick Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse, a man driven by anger and resentment, who tries, and fails, to connect with the rest of society, and whose psychic torment builds gradually and erupts into violence. Indeed, Affliction may bring the figure of Bickle into the realm of middle-American normalcy, just as it threatens to return Schrader to prominence for the first time in 15 years.

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