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This past year, Schrader’s biography was on the minds of a lot of movie lovers I know. To his evident displeasure, he had inadvertently become a featured player in Biskind’s compulsively readable exposé on ’70s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Among the book’s many weird tales is the occasionally humiliating and deeply strange story of the Schrader boys. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Leonard and his younger brother, Paul, were raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a small, fanatical branch of Dutch Calvinism, by religious parents who rarely spared the rod. Leonard told Biskind he was whipped "six, seven days a week." More than once, Paul has volunteered how their mother jabbed a needle in his thumb, then asked, "Do you remember what it felt like the moment it hit your thumb? Well, that’s what hell is like, all the time." By the time they were adults, the brothers had developed a fascination with suicide and a thing for guns. Leonard would stick one in his mouth in order to fall asleep — "like some infant’s pacifier," he told Biskind. Paul kept a loaded gun under his pillow.
Schrader didn’t see his first movie until he was in high school, but made up for it in college by becoming a ravenous lover of film. He got into the production department at UCLA on the recommendation of Kael, whom he’d met while a student at Columbia. He got kicked out of the department and snared a job as a critic for the L.A. Free Press; he was fired from the paper after giving Easy Rider a bad review. ("The characters of Easy Riderwill become a joke too because [director Dennis] Hopper has not taken the first step to protect them from the ravages of time, he has not withdrawn them from the puppet world of propaganda and made them real human beings.") Like a shark, he rarely stopped moving: He hung out with Jean Renoir, struck up a friendship with Charles Eames, became an AFI fellow, edited a well-respected film magazine and wrote his first script. In 1971, he penned a landmark monograph on film noir for Filmex, and broke with Kael that same year. She wanted him to take a critic’s position in Seattle; he wanted to stay in L.A. and write movies. He did, and in the process made lots of money. He was profiled in magazines, owned a blue Alfa Romeo with an "OZU" license plate (in dubious honor of the legendary Japanese director) and, if you believe the Biskind book, endured some very bad times.
Schrader doesn’t think much of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. "It’s the revenge of the gossip culture on the counterculture. I said to Peter, ‘You know, the book is disappointing in many ways, but it’s most disappointing for you, because you had a wonderful theme, you had original material, you had unprecedented access, and you wrote a trivial book.’" Schrader insists that Biskind, a former editor at American Filmand Premiere, published off-the-record stories. "He would do interviews, and you would dish your dirt and promote your film, then that would be over and you would move into a kind of generalized Hollywood conversation. That would never turn up in the article, but he saved all that material. It was all off the record at the time it was said, and a lot of it is unsubstantiated, third-party hearsay."
"None of it was off the record," counters Biskind. "Everything I used was on the record or unattributed. Nothing was off the record with Paul, because he always shoots from the hip. As far as ‘revenge of the gossip culture,’ that’s just a lot of nonsense. One person’s gossip is another person’s texture. The reason that there’s so much personal material in the book is because this was an era of personal filmmaking, and it was impossible to understand these movies without understanding people’s personal lives. And it was certainly impossible to understand what happened to these people without understanding their personal lives, because their personal lives, in many cases, essentially destroyed them at the end of the decade. That was certainly true of Schrader, or nearly true of Schrader.
"Paul enjoys talking," says Biskind. "He opens his mouth and it comes out uncensored."
Spend any time with Schrader, and that much becomes quickly obvious; it’s part of his enormous charm, and the reason even a crank such as critic David Thomson can call him "one of the most likable of film directors."
"What I really like about Paul," says Schrader’s friend, novelist Bruce Wagner, "is that he’ll say anything. And he’ll not only say anything, he’ll say anything articulately, whether he’s savaging someone very close to us or not. It’s always bracingly entertaining and noxious."
Over the years, some of Schrader’s most bracing and noxious comments have been reserved for himself. That too is part of his charm. He has a gift for balancing his self-aggrandizement with self-effacement — over the course of an interview he gives the assistant cameraman on Affliction credit for the film’s most powerful image, Nick Nolte credit for his towering performance, along with coaching some of the other actors’ performances, and author Russell Banks, on whose novel it is based, credit for the film itself. "Affliction is a Banks/ Schrader film. I really believe that," he says unblinkingly. "They’re Russell’s themes. I found a place for myself inside them, but it’s still more Russell’s film than it is mine. I certainly recognize the configuration. Two male siblings in the snowy environment with a strong father. But I do not have an abusive, alcoholic father, and James Coburn is not playing my father, you know? He’s Russell’s father, or more accurately, Russell’s grandfather."
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