Paul Schrader double-feature! Before I go into one of his best films and one of his average-but-ambitious films, I’ll briefly mention Second-Story Man.
I started this blog to talk about films I make and films I watch, so here’s a bit of shameless self-promotion and update: we recently signed a distribution deal for Second-Story Man to go out worldwide with Osiris Entertainment. Additionally, the film will be screening at the Ambler and County Theaters in PA in May (http://www.amblertheater.org/cine.php) and Chicago in April. If you haven’t already seen it, there’s a trailer at http://www.secondstorymanmovie.com. We’ll be adding screening dates and more info there shortly.
Now, back to Mr. Schrader. I’ve been doing a good bit of Paul Schrader watching of late. The man has an odd filmography surrounding his masterpiece, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Those films that precede it – Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People – and the plethora that proceed it (the most famous of those probably being Affliction or Auto Focus) really demonstrate a) a burgeoning, evolving aesthetic, and b) the difference in a changing film industry pre and post-mid 1980s.
Schrader’s Blue Collar, one of his best films, in some way picks up where he left off with Scorsese. As the title suggests its a street-level film, boasting a good sense of realism in the traditional usage of the word, on-location shooting, and social concerns. Tracing the evolution through Hardcore and American Gigolo, both of which keep things on the street but start to work in a neon lighting scheme, fantastical elements and a formalism not nearly as prevalent in Blue Collar, leads one to Cat People.
Cat People is on one hand a bit of a failure. It’s updates of the Jacques Tourneur picture takes that film’s best elements and mixes it with a hodge-podge of sexuality and brooding that sometimes verge on the comedic. Malcolm McDowell is slightly miscast and, though Nastassja Kinski plays her Irena quite well, she ends up being a bit lost in a film that wants to be serious and funny, surreal and very-real, figurative and literal.
On another hand, Cat People is a resounding success. It’s a full display of Schrader’s willingness to push some visual aesthetics. Without it, the leap from American Gigolo to Mishima would be impossible. I think that Cat People is therefore most successful in hindsight and as a segue film. The script has its strong moments and the off-kilter mixture of sexuality and violence – each one undercutting the other – has its incredibly tense moments – but ultimately it feels like an exercise designed to lead the director to a greater extreme (Mishima).
You can see an evolution in the look at some of these stills, starting with Blue Collar. Yep, that’s Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor in the last still. What a cast! Ordinary locations, streetwise characters, and a lighting scheme that feels dominated by the tungsten overheads or natural light:
In Hardcore (1979), the images are both more sexual, and also more saturated, the angles more extreme. This is as close to Taxi Driver as Schrader would come, though it’s entirely his own film. Here we slowly start his transition from the social drama of Blue Collar to the dreamlike biopic of Mishima:
American Gigolo (1980) takes this a step further. I blogged about this one recently. Sexuality is again a major theme, and again one of the protagonists is involved in sex as a profession. Instead of the urban-fantastical locations and lighting we get in Hardcore, the aesthetic is cleaner and smoother, moving us away from the true cityscape, and closer to something like a west coast noir/fantasy hybrid:
By the time we get to Cat People, Schrader has moved further from the city. Indeed, though the film is set in New Orleans, we see surprisingly little of the city itself and instead are largely confined to small locations within – a house, a zoo, a hotel, a swimming pool. The lighting scheme is pushed further from reality and the sexuality at play is more interested in metaphorical taboos than literal dramatic scenarios:
All of this leads to Mishima (1985), which is a gorgeous film, full of sexual restraint and set design and cinematography that put Cat People to shame:
Schrader himself says that when he returned to the US after shooting Mishima the industry had changed, and a look at his post-1985 films are testament to that. Immediately following it is 1987’s Light of Day with Michael J. Fox, where the aesthetic is closer to Blue Collar than any of the above. From 1988 to 1992 come Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers and Light Sleeper. I haven’t seen all of these, but will be blogging on the latter soon. Rather than having any discernible evolution, what we get is a (perhaps unwilling) entrenchment within the evolving studio system. The freedom that allowed Schrader to move from Blue Collar to Mishima is largely gone and in its place are his themes, frequently clouded by a set of regulations (for lack of a better word) not as strictly in place prior to 1985.