By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Of course, Schrader might easily have been sucked into the psychic whirlpool just like Crane. He grew up in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, family so doctrinaire in its Calvinism, that most joyless of faiths, that he was pondering damnation when other kids were grooving to Elvis. Almost predictably, the rigors of his upbringing rocketed him into rebellion. The young Christian who didn‘t see his first movie until he was 15 had, by age 22, moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in film school at UCLA, landed a job as a movie critic for the L.A. Free Press (he got canned for panning Easy Rider) and become a protege of the late Pauline Kael, a crusty old broad who had no time for highfalutin spiritual guff.
Like one of those tormented souls in a Graham Greene novel who commits adultery in order to find God, Schrader has always been drawn to the debased and the sinful -- he’s turned on by the fallen nature of Man. Once he and brother Leonard had sold the script to The Yakuza for a then-record of $325,000 in 1975, he spent years arm-wrestling his demons. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind‘s dishy saga of ’70s Hollywood self-destructiveness, we see Schrader doing coke, getting depressed, pondering suicide, flirting with S&M and homosexuality. He is also the butt of some of the book‘s most memorable punch lines. When Nastassia Kinski suddenly broke off the affair they began during Cat People, he pursued her to Paris, where she told him: “Paul, I always fuck my directors. And with you it was difficult.”
Of course, nobody in Hollywood cares if you’re a nice guy as long as the industry thinks you can catch lightning in a bottle. And early on, the bolts seemed to shoot from Schrader‘s fingertips. In the years between 1975 and 1980, he scripted two fabled films for Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Ask him now which is better, and he doesn’t miss a beat:
“Taxi Driver. I‘ll tell you a dirty secret about Raging Bull. Michael Chapman, who shot the film, and I went to a screening at Paramount and saw the movie. We walked out, didn’t say a word, got out to our cars, and Michael said, ‘Well, Marty fucked that one up, didn’t he?‘” He laughs. “And I said, ’Yeah, I don‘t know what he was thinking.’ And that was the last time I saw it.”
Even as Schrader was turning out scripts for other people, he was writing and directing three films of his own. He calls Blue Collar, his 1978 debut, a Marxist movie, and in a loose sense it is, though its story of autoworkers and crooked unions is most remembered for tackling the bugbear of race as few studio films have ever dared to. His follow-up, Hardcore -- essentially The Searchers set in the world of pornography -- suffered from a campy tag line (“Oh my God, that‘s my daughter!”) but remains an impressive picture. It honorably portrayed the kind of devout small-business man that Hollywood normally condescends to, and offered an X-ray of Schrader’s own moral ambivalence at that time: He clearly identified both with the daughter corrupted by L.A. and the righteous father seeking to rescue her.
While these movies admirably looked into neglected corners of ordinary American life, Schrader hit his commercial peak in 1980, by going in precisely the opposite direction with American Gigolo, the shotgun wedding of Robert Bresson and Giorgio Armani. Thanks in part to its title, it remains Schrader‘s most famous picture and our culture’s most iconic portrait of fetishized consumerism. Who can forget Julian Kaye‘s stylish shirts and cool Westwood pad? Or a remember what actually happens? Roll me in designer sheets, indeed.
While Schrader is a born screenwriter, he’s never been a natural director (“Visual logic is not my first language,” he says). Following on the triumph of American Gigolo -- which helped set the stylistic template for the Simpson-Bruckheimer era -- he lost his bearings in the deliriously loony Cat People, of which his onetime idol Kael crushingly wrote: “Each shot looks like an album cover for records you don‘t ever want to play.”
An expensive, high-profile flop, Cat People marked the beginning of the end for Schrader’s career as a popular filmmaker. Although he would occasionally be involved in high-profile films -- including screenplays for The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ -- he would spend most of the next 20 years wandering the indie-film wilderness. Gone were the director‘s trailer, the fat expense accounts, the bankable actors, the sense that one’s movie was going to rock the whole culture. After Cat People, he would make small movies and live from picture to picture.
“It‘s a very adversarial process,” Schrader says, “and that isn’t fun as you get older. You wake up in the morning and you realize no one wants you to do what you want to do, and that has to be your cup of coffee. The day that stops being your cup of coffee, the game is over. So you have to be energized by opposition. And I am. The nice thing about a low-budget film is, you realize you‘re not going to get rich, so what’s in it for you is to do something really moving, something that you haven‘t done and that will catch people in a way they haven’t been caught before. But you‘re not making it for the mass audience. You’re making it for people who get it.”