The Glittering Surfaces of Paul Schrader

Perhaps it's the difference between American culture and French, or the difference between Jansenism and Calvinism, but there has always been a significant disparity of means between the films of Paul Schrader and those of his hero, Robert Bresson. This isn't a knock on Schrader, who is a director of considerable talents; I suspect even he would readily grant that Bresson is simply playing in another league.

What I am talking about, rather, is Schrader's approach to what he once called "transcendental style." To roughly paraphrase the idea at the heart of his now-famous book, Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader argues that Bresson, Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, reversed the error of most ostensibly religious films, what Schrader calls “over-abundant means,” the cinematic excesses we associate with Cecil B. DeMille. Instead, each of these three directors constructed their visual universe austerely, with blank walls and restrained camera movement or none at all. Bresson went even further, eventually using only non-actors who he tried to purge of all “actorly” habits. For each of these directors, Schrader theorizes, there is a movement from ‘abundance’ to stasis that takes place when the main character is released from a set of circumstances in such a way that the audience experiences it as a moment of transcendence.

It's not a huge leap to say that for much of his career Schrader has been adapting and modifying the transcendental style for his own purposes, particularly, I would argue, in his "lonely man" trilogy of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and his new film, The Walker. What sets these three films apart from the Bressonian model, obviously, is that where the French filmmaker pares away at the universe in which his films are set, Schrader actually does something like the opposite, albeit for similar ends.

The Walker is a sumptuously appointed film about the very wealthy and powerful. The production design by James Merifield and the cinematography by Chris Seager give the world of Washington power-brokers and their seemingly indolent wives a sheen, a patina that extends to their "friend" Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), the "walker" of the title. But that patina is not a protecting shield, and when Page finds himself caught between his friendship with Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the police investigating a murder in which he may be a suspect, it is withdrawn.

Each of the three protagonists of Schrader's self-described trilogy is an outsider by choice: gigolo, courier, gay escort to the powerful. Schrader describes these men as "watchers," and they are, in a way, voyeurs to their own lives. They are also men who must live by their outward images, either because that is what they are selling (Julian in American Gigolo and Carter in The Walker) or because an imposture is a necessary part of their illegal business (John in Light Sleeper). So they retreat behind those glittering surfaces, the glossy and pricey clothing and accessories they wear and all that comes with them.

It is part of Schrader's ingenuity and talent that he can uses these most UnBressonian means to indicate the spiritual poverty of his heroes' lives and, of course, he gradually strips them of a lot of their pretty armor. Inexorably, both the heroes and the audience come to the realization that it may look nice when polished but it gives no protection. In The Walker, he starts that process almost immediately with a scene of Carter undressing after a hard day of canasta and gossip, finally divesting himself of his lush and handsome head of hair. (You can't get much more stripped-down than that.) The scene is so obviously a reference back to American Gigolo's dressing scene that it barely escapes being self-parody.

Like its predecessors, The Walker uses the trappings of the crime film to give the audience entree into its world and to set in motion the forces that will bring its protagonist to self-understanding. Unlike either of the earlier films in the trilogy, The Walker strives for a degree of political commentary, trying hard to cut the Bush administration down to size, albeit with a very expensive manicure set rather than a more practical weapon. (Not that a fiction feature is likely to sway political opinion in any meaningful way.) The conspiracy at the heart of The Walker is not all that far-fetched, but its verbal assaults on the right-wing ideologues and climbers running the government are not nearly as potent as they could be. If the film didn't aspire to a certain political savvy, I probably wouldn't even mention it.

Frankly, although I thoroughly enjoyed The Walker -- it's certainly never dull, it's handsomely mounted and wonderfully well-acted by a cast as glittering as Carter's cufflink drawer -- it feels like Schrader-Lite, transcendental style for dummies. What keeps you watching is a gracefully nuanced performance by Woody Harrelson, who is virtually never off-screen. It isn't hard to be convinced that Carter undergoes the same kind of revelatory moment as his predecessors in the trilogy, simply because Harrelson makes you believe it.


Daryl Chin said…
It's funny, but i've always had a problem with Scharder's attempts at "transcendental" style, because (as someone who is a devoted partisan of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer), i always felt that he was trying to put in what should have been taken out.

The height of this was his screenplay for TAXI DRIVER, which was a film that upset me no end when i first saw it. (In fact, i had to rush to the men's room and vomit; the only other film that had that effect on me was Pasolini's SALO.) Because i recognized the "tropes" of the film (the diary, the voiceover, etc.) as coming from DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, but to what end? The seaminess of the setting, the violence (especially explosive at the end). It's like Bresson's style and subject matter were "pruned" to leave out overt sex, violence, obscenity, and this script piled it on! And i hated the hubris of Schrader, who interviewed Bresson at the time, and told Bresson (at the end of the interview) that Schrader felt Bresson should really see TAXI DRIVER. Why? So he can see his style travestied?

But over the years, i've come to respect Schrader, and i do feel some of his films (such as AFFLICTION) are considerable achievements. But movies like AMERICAN GIGOLO: again, like TAXI DRIVER, in this case, remaking PICKPOCKET but adding sex and swank. What a concept!
Of course, one could argue that TAXI DRIVER is a Scorsese film, although the pair share quite a few obsessions (including movies). In fact, I had similar misgivings when I first saw it. I felt that the ostensible irony of the ending made a hash out of everything that went before.

At any rate, I think the "lonely man" trilogy is Schrader's best work -- As I believe I said in the posting, I believe LIGHT SLEEPER is his best film, period. I think the inversion of the Bresson formula works quite nicely in all three.
Daryl Chin said…
I would rank AFFLICATION and LIGHT SLEEPER as his two "best" films (though i also admit to an affection for THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS).

And i also think that TAXI DRIVER should be seen as a Scorsese film as much as a Schrader concept.
I am embarrassed to admit that I stil haven't seen Affliction, which sounded to me like really promising material for Schrader.

And hasn't Russell Banks been fortunate? Atom Egoyan and Paul Schrader are the first two people to adapt his work for the screen. Not a bad pair. The rest of us should only be so lucky.