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Schrader’s audience could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. "Many of Paul’s films are made out of his own life," says Biskind. "It’s very clear. He should be the first person to recognize that." Afflictionis about two brothers, Wade and Rolfe, living with the scars of their father’s brutality. The film’s central focus is the emotionally tortured Wade, played by Nolte, though the narrator is his younger brother, Rolfe, played by Dafoe. Schrader believes Rolfe may be the more important character, in part because of the bad advice he gives his brother. "He bears a lot of culpability, and he tries to apologize in the course of the narration," says Schrader. "When you have two children of an abusive parent, one of those children will be selected out for the violence. And the relationship of the younger sibling to the older sibling is very complex, in that the younger sibling is very grateful to his older brother for taking the beatings. On the other hand, he’s also jealous, because attention equals love in that family configuration. There can be almost no better recipe for passive-aggressive behavior than to simultaneously be grateful and jealous, so you’re being told this story by someone who has a very conflicted and guilty relationship to his story."
It’s a stunning read of the film, all the more so for its autobiographical intonation. But for all the evidence, all the clues and the hints, Schrader remains emphatic that any resemblance between his life and his movies is metaphoric rather than literal. "I never confused it with being my story," he says of Affliction, sounding as if he really believes it. There is a long pause. "I tried to write that story once, Light of Day. I tried to write that sibling story, and I didn’t quite get it right. Maybe it was too close. The truth is, given my druthers, I would much rather write about drifters, you know? The movie I have in my head is the next installment of that male loner. He’s now in his 50s and he’s homosexual and he lives in Washington, D.C., and basically, he’s Jerry Zipkin." Schrader laughs, obviously delighted with himself. "That’s what happened to the American Gigolo."
That’s what happened to Julian Kay, the beautiful hustler with the model physique, Armani wardrobe and Kafkaesque last name. And Travis Bickle? Maybe he got too old, too tired, too comfortable; it takes so much energy to stay that angry. Besides, for now, at least, the existential loner seems to have been supplanted in the popular imagination by what Schrader has called the "ironic hero" — the guy who asks not Should I exist? but Who cares? Which is why his next movie is a love story, Forever Mine. An obsessive love story, true, but a love story nonetheless.
"When I first saw Pulp Fiction," says Schrader, "I leaned over to my wife and I said, ‘Everything I have done is now obsolete.’ I mean, I had that very strong hit that the existential hero was over, you know? In some ways, why I’m making Forever Mine is that I think in this climate maybe the best thing is to go even further back and make a kind of 19th-century contemporary film. To take the soul of the 19th century and put it in a contemporary context and see how that works. Lack of irony, lack of cynicism. Just naked, naked emotion. Just commit to a world of unlimited horizons, you know? That crazy kind of end-of-the-19th-century belief in the future and in love and possibility."
This, then, is what happened to all the voices in Schrader’s head — they found a way to survive. What happened to Paul Schrader is this: He became a great American director.
Schrader onJames Coburn, Nick Nolte and Paul Newman
"I needed someone who was bigger than Nick. Both physically and iconographically. That didn’t leave many actors. Lee Marvin is dead. Paul Newman felt he was too young to play a grandfather. He did not want to play a bad guy — a vanity thing, I think. And also I think he still sees himself as the leading man. It’s a supporting role and it’s a bad guy. So I asked Coburn. He hadn’t been working that much, because his hands are kind of shriveled up from arthritis. He had the same problem with his knees for a while, had a hard time walking, but his knees have gotten better, and he was starting to act again. But I was concerned that Coburn might try to walk through the film, because he comes from that generation of actors — you know, stand and deliver: ‘Where’s my money, where’s my mark?’
"So after I hired him I went out to Los Angeles. He was wondering why I had come out all the way to have dinner with him. I said, ‘James, I just want to warn you in advance of the nature of the actor you’re working with. You know, Nick takes these things very, very seriously. He’s deeply imbued with the character. He reads, researches. You go in his room and it’ll be full of notes. He’s of that school of actor who lives through the character. So that if you try to just walk through this film, you know, it may not happen the first day, but I suspect by the second day, Nick’s going to be all over you. And I wanted to warn you, because when that happens, I won’t be there to help you.’
"So Coburn looked at me and he said, ‘You mean like real acting?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Like real acting, James.’ He said, ‘I can do that. They don’t ask me much. But I think I can do that.’"
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