There’s a new movie coming out this year, which I’m particularly eager to see, entitled First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke in the role of a morally broken priest. As I sat watching the movie’s trailer I noticed a critics’ praise for it: ”A fierce film from Paul Schrader. One of the crucial creators of the modern cinema.” This positive remark left me quite surprised. Sure, I knew who Paul Schrader was; longtime friend of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, director of one of the most important movies of the 90s, Affliction, director of the cult classic, American Gigolo, and screenwriter of Raging Bull and the Last Temptation of Christ. But as I read through his artistic credits I realized how little I had seen from him. The man’s body of work spans across four decades of fundamental shifts and changes. And that’s why I decided to dive into the man’s early body of work; to finally be able to comprehend the genius that stands behind modern cinema: Paul Schrader.
First of all, Schrader is in no way, shape, or form a remarkable director. Yes, that may sound odd since this post is dedicated to the artist himself. However, what I aim to focus on is the man’s voice, which comes through the attitude of his movies, rather than the form of the movies itself. Schrader has produced numerous films, especially in the last decade or so, but it is his early work that speaks volumes not only of Schrader as a man and artist, but about the society Schrader made these movies in, the chaos, confusion and turmoil that created the atmosphere that was needed for the screenwriter turned director to convey his vision to movie goers. It is this eternal state of confusion, madness and anger that makes Schrader such a crucial figure in the founding of modern cinema, because what is modern cinema? It is a hard question to answer. We all see different movies. We see what we like and it does not necessarily have to be considered modern cinema. At the time of Schrader’s rise in the mid 70s, American cinema was starting to acquire a certain power. Unlike the 60s, where experimenting with the technicalities of filmmaking such as improvisation, shooting on location or the use of handheld cameras was the main focus, the 70s focused on the attitude that was felt on the streets of American cities, mainly New York and Los Angeles, two metropolitan areas that differed enormously both in their landscape as well as their attitude. Around those years a new wave of young film directors emerged, all of them willing to change the course of cinema, willing to introduce a sort of spirit that cinema hadn’t been able to capture before. There was Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and De Palma. The five amigoes who grabbed cinema by the throat and produced some of the most revolutionary pictures. Schrader, on the other hand, did not make the cut. Perhaps because he came from a different part of the United States (Grand Rapids, MI), or perhaps because he simply wasn’t as talented and as well-liked by the studios of the time. But one thing is certain: Schrader had the same thirst to talk about the issues that troubled him and his generation, the issues that rocked his world.
Schrader’s thirst and need to be heard might have probably been the result of years spent working as a cab driver in Los Angeles, where he faced off with his demons on a nightly basis. His own depression, loneliness and anger translated into what we now know as Scorsese’s masterpiece – Taxi Driver. Indeed, one of Schrader’s earliest credits is writing the tale of a lonely cab driver in New York named Travis Bickle who decides to kill the favored presidential candidate. In this case, Schrader’s credit might only be that of a writer but the overall frustration with society comes through like in no other of his own feature films. PS creates one of the most complex characters ever portrayed on screen using every single characteristic that would have been considered vulgar and X-rated ten years prior to the release of this film; a lonely, dirty, mentally disturbed war vet in search of nothing, wanting nothing, enraged with the state of things, with tendencies of self-harm and sociopathic behavior. Travis’ world is the world we now know from numerous recent crime films such as Good Time, Collateral, American Gangster and Training Day. The idea of using an anti-hero as the protagonist and placing him in the middle of a sewer such as the filthy streets of East Village, populated by pimps, murderers and prostitutes, is a clear outcry for society to wake up, for cinema to start showing the real problems, the human issues that can trouble and be relevant even among the lowest members of our social hierarchy. The concept of having the anti-hero try to save a young, underage hooker, played by Jodi Foster, was at the time an idea that made countless heads shake in disgust. Taxi Driver showed everyone how low cinema can reach in search of an important story, a vital element of today’s cinema: a unique, unsettling atmosphere of threat and discomfort that can be found in some of the most popular movies of recent years including Nightcrawler, a prime example of today’s openness toward extravagant, borderline uncomfortable storytelling.
Finally, in 1978 and 1979 Schrader managed to get the required budget for two excellent directorial efforts, which aside from his later Mishima and Affliction, are his best work to date. The two films are Blue Collar and Hardcore. Both features come at the viewer in waves, like rapid machine gun fire, grabbing the viewer by the throat without letting go until the final second. Blue Collar, unlike Hardcore, focuses on the unit of a group, and more accurately: a group of three autoworkers and the union looming over them. It is about the force and at the same time, the powerlessness of a group that faces a clear rejection from the rest of society. The three protagonists, all behind their dues, wanted by the tax-man, committed to their families, are a representation of the underbelly of America, the common man struggling to make ends meet. Schrader tortures his characters with confrontations and challenges that can either make them or break them. There is no middle line for Schrader, it is all about the determination to succeed mixed with the awareness of the fact that the American Dream is nothing but a fairy tale for kids. The three men, played by Pryor, Keitel and Kotto are trapped from all sides; these are men whose lives have lost meaning, and yet they have to push forward, which leads us to interpret this film as a social commentary sparked by a heartbreaking character study of three imperfect individuals who belong to an imperfect society.
Hardcore, on the other hand, is a film solely focused on one character, Jake VanDorn, (played to perfection by George C. Scott), and this character’s individual quest to find his missing daughter. Sounds familiar, huh? Indeed, Schrader’s violent, psychologically disturbing film about a desperate midwestern businessman looking for his daughter in sex shops and titty bars can be described as an accurate precursor to the Taken series, as well as other modern-day depictions of an individual standing up to a system, even in blockbusters like John Wick. Again, it is Schrader’s ability and fierce determination to dive into the most disturbing social environments that set him apart from his contemporaries. The contrast between VanDorn’s religious background and the pornographic underbelly of LA and San Diego that he has to go through make of him the quintessential modern character; strong yet weak, stable yet capable of losing his mind very easily, innocent yet incredibly violent, religious yet lacking in true faith. This was a character that at the time was not wished to be seen or even acknowledged since it clearly pointed in the wrong direction; a direction Hollywood was not willing to take considering its strong and permanent will to remain a conventional medium, a medium of traditional, conservative characters. Schrader, known for being a blunt artist, said to hell with it! and rolled the dice, and what mattered was not the final outcome of the dice, but the sheer act of rolling it.
The act itself, rolling the dice in a dark alley, made of Schrader a voice worth listening to, similar to the raspy voice of a disturbed individual on the street, talking to himself, preaching to the crowd of passers-by. The voice, distinct, angry, loud, made of Schrader an under-appreciated and often forgotten figure of modern cinema. He wasn’t the one setting the rules like Spielberg and Scorsese; he was simply someone who taught viewers and aspiring filmmakers to always speak in their own language, articulate their own thoughts, profess what they feel is important and be personal. Because at the end of the day, that is what modern cinema is all about; having different voices be heard, as loud, or as shy or even as vulgar as they may be. Let them be heard.