Affliction: Paul Schrader and the violence we inherit

Paul Schrader, the man who’s been fighting the Hollywood system ever since he got his hands on a pen and paper and wrote Taxi Driver to chronicle his own experience as a depressed and lonely cab driver, is now entering a new phase in his life following the success of 2017’s First Reformed and the growing popularity of his latest project, The Card Counter. I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on what I consider Schrader’s best and perhaps most personal piece of work despite it being based on someone else’s material. His Oscar nominated film, Affliction (originally a novel by Russell Banks) is one of the most powerful portrayals of family-inflicted violence and trauma and another atypical addition to Schrader’s long catalogue of ‘God’s-lonely-man’ characters.

Paul Schrader (left) on set of Taxi Driver with Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro.

The story of Wade Whitehouse and his inevitable downfall is, although perhaps not clear at first sight, another example of Schrader’s fascination with the theme of alienation. Despite the story being set in a small New Hampshire town and revolving around a tight knit community of church-going people, Affliction deals with the kind of alienation and feverish anxiety that the characters of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and John LeTour (Light Sleeper) experience in the metropolis that is New York City or Julian Kay (American Gigolo) in Los Angeles.
In this case, Wade Whitehouse (played by an exceptional Nick Nolte) is also a man haunted by a tragic past, a man who’s been trained to cover it up, smile and nod as the good people of Lawford file out of church service. He’s the local cop, the local crossing guard, the local handy-man, etc: in short, everybody knows who Wade Whitehouse is. His father, Glen Whitehouse (a fantastic late career turn from James Coburn who won an Academy Award for his performance), was and still is the town drunk and a mean son of a bitch. Wade, unlike his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) who escaped the family’s grip and set up a new life in Boston, is chained to Lawford and to his own family blood.

Wade (Nick Nolte), Glen (James Coburn) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse.

Schrader’s trick in making this by-the-numbers set-up of a man slowly yet surely walking toward his own destruction works because he knows what he’s talking about. Having grown up in a small Calvinist community in Michigan with an up-bringing strictly focused on religious principles and family-oriented education, Schrader is able to transmit the claustrophobic feeling that our protagonist has been experiencing since the day he was born. Surrounded by town drunks and abusive fathers, Schrader conveys the seemingly simple surface-level manifestations of PTSD as Wade begins to crack with each passing minute.
In essence, Wade is a good man. That’s the whole tragedy of the film. He’s a good man who wants to make things work. He wants to make his daughter happy although he hasn’t the faintest idea about parenting. He wants to make the city a safe place and be loyal to the citizens of Lawford even though people around him treat him like dirt. Less than dirt. He wants to have a normal love life, but he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. He wants to rid himself of his tyrant of a father, but something deep down tells him to be there for him, no matter what.

The natural state of being of Glen Whitehouse – the boozing, abusive father figure.

Whereas Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was an unstable sociopath wanting to cleanse the earth of sinners, Wade is intent on beating himself up over someone else’s errors. Schrader, however, blurs the lines between the two characters by boxing in Wade Whitehouse into a society of close-minded people. Even in a small town like Lawford there is corruption, greed, murder and abuse. Townspeople are at each other’s throats, keeping receipts over who owes what to whom, and whose father did what and when. And Wade is no exception. He cannot seem to shake off the generational abuse and addiction that was strapped on his back when he was little kid. Early on in the film, Wade goes into a bar for a beer and has to listen to some young punk telling someone a story he overheard about Wade’s father drunkenly abusing his two sons. Wade’s suffering is common knowledge in Lawford.
And although Paul Schrader as a director has never been known for his eye for detail, Affliction is a film that feels lived-in. It feels like it was forged and chiseled in the snowbanks and pine barrens of New Hampshire. Even a secondary character like Margie Frogg (played by Sissy Spacek), Wade’s love interest and the only person whom he is not afraid of letting into his life, exists on her own, rather than serving the sole purpose of comforting Wade when he needs a good word or two. Her reality is separated from Wade’s, as the film follows everything through Wade’s hazy point of view merging past memories with present events, seeing things that might as well not be there for anybody else to see besides Wade.

Margie is the only good thing in Wade’s life.

Throughout the entire film, Wade is haunted by a painful toothache. Nolte’s performance is tapped into this constant, dull pain that does not let up, slowly building over the course of the film. His smile turns into a grimace. He walks hunched over, broken physically as well as spiritually. For a big guy (and Nick Nolte is one hell of a big guy), Wade sports a rather timid figure. The only thing that sets him apart in a crowd of people is the ticking time bomb inside of him. The slide into darkness is inevitable as he begins to take care of his dad following his mother’s sudden passing.
Given that the film opens with Wade’s brother narrating the following passage – “This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behaviour and disappearance. We who loved him no longer speak of Wade. It’s as if he never existed,” – we know that what we’re about to witness is something of incredibly mournful nature. It’s as if we’re plunged into a world that is no longer there. As if someone dropped us right into a faded postcard. In a way, we feel powerless. Wade’s destiny is sealed. We know how it ends, and yet Schrader wants us to consider how generational abuse and violence take their toll on somebody who could have had potential, could have been well liked and respected. Could have been. But wasn’t. And what’s worse is that Glen Whitehouse doesn’t see any of this. Wade’s booze-soaked father doesn’t have interest in Wade’s pain. The only interest he has is in using that pain to his own advantage and turning his son away from the few people that care about him. In a town like Lawford that’s the end for anybody.

Wade’s defeat is everybody’s defeat.


The Father

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.

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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.

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The openness of violence in Taxi Driver.

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 TimeCollateral, 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.

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Travis Bickle. A character for the ages.

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.

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Three men unable to escape their reality.

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.

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The state of confusion of Jake VanDorn and his descent into madness.

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.

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It may be worth looking out for the next cab driver.