[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, February 18, 1999]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
The Whitehouse brothers, Wade (Nick Nolte) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse, chat together in their father’s garage about their father Glen (James Coburn), a bitter alcoholic who tormented them as children with a constant barrage of insults, taunts, and outbursts of violence.
“I was a careful child,” confesses Rolfe. “I became a careful adult. At least I was never afflicted by that man’s violence.”
Wade laughs his response: “That’s what you think.”
Paul Schrader’s Affliction, from the novel by Russell Banks, is ostensibly the story of Wade, an unambitious, jocular small town sheriff and odd job man to a small time entrepreneur. But the cold, objective narration of college professor Rolfe, who holds the story at arm’s length with his writerly diction and disconnected voice, refracts the tale through his own perspective. As he puts into words his clinical take on Wade’s affliction, he unwittingly reveals his own.
Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.
A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
First things first: The way they say it in the movie is yaw-ku-zah and, as a headnote explains, the Yakuza were roughly parallel to the western’s good badmen—gamblers, con men, drifters with short swords and no samurai code of bushido to sustain them, sometime Robin Hood figures who stood between the defenseless and the marauders who would prey upon them. Yakuza stories within a modern gangster framework are immensely popular in the Japanese cinema, and Paul Schrader, former editor of the American film magazine Cinema, wrote a comprehensive survey of the genre for a Film Comment of about a year ago. Remarking therein that anyone who’d seen a few examples of this relentlessly formalized genre could write one himself, Schrader spoke from experience: his own TheYakuza, touched up a smidge by Robert Towne and formally permissive enough to incorporate some double-dealing American gangsters along with its Japanese pro- and antagonists, looked a likely enough successor to the kung-fu cycle in popularity that Warner Brothers paid a hefty price for the screenplay ($300,000, according to Newsweek).
Ostensibly a remake of the 1942 classic by the same name, Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People is a cat of a different species entirely. At the time, it was accused of being garish and gory and literal in its exploration of sexuality as an animal impulse, in contrast to the shadowy psychological suggestions of the Jacques Tourneur-directed original. Schrader, who was a brilliant film critic before he turned to writing scripts and then directing films, had written Taxi Driver and Obsession and Raging Bull and came to Cat People after American Gigolo, his third film as a director but his first big success. Cat People was the first project he had not written himself, a script that had been developed by other directors, and while he had screenwriter Alan Ormsby significantly rework the script with his own ideas, Schrader took no screen credit for it. Yet Schrader himself remarked years later that “when I look back on it, I see Cat People as being almost the most personal film I’ve done.” He reunited much of the creative team from American Gigolo–director of photography John Bailey, composer Giorgio Moroder, and most importantly visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti–and transformed a sleek, sexy horror remake into a Paul Schrader film.
The film opens on a dream-like scene in a desert of blowing amber sand where young women are sacrificed to leopards. It plays more like myth or metaphor than literal flashback, a beguiling, beautiful, terrible fantasy of sex and magic and flesh and fur in what could be the most magnificent cinematic snow globe ever shaken on screen.
Sunrise (Fox, Blu-ray) – A deliriously romantic fable on a magnificent scale, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise is a story of reconciliation and renewal and a Utopian vision of paradise lost and regained. A strapping young farmer (George O’Brien) under the spell of a sexy vamp from the city plots to kill his innocent Madonna of a wife (Janet Gaynor), but just when it seems to be playing out An American Tragedy, fate sends them on a second courtship through the bright lights and busy culture of the big city. It’s subtitled “a song of two humans” and it plays as much like verse as it does a story.
German master Murnau was lured to America by William Fox to give his studio class (Fox had money but he wanted was a masterpiece) and the director let his imagination loose upon the machinery of Hollywood to create the most beautiful piece of cinematic poetry to come out of America. There may be no more beautiful shot in all of cinema than the creeping prowl through the swamp, the camera pushing through leaves and branches and breaking through the mist, subtly shifting perspective without ever breaking it’s measured pace or floating gaze. His big city is like Metropolis for the jazz age, but invested with a benevolence that American filmmakers save for their small town portraits, and his storytelling is as unabashedly romantic as it is sophisticated. Sunrise reminds us of the silent cinema dream worlds lost in the new realism and visual literalness of the sound revolution. Almost a century of sound filmmaking has never equaled its emotional power or the cinematic purity. If there is a single essential silent classic, this is it.
Though produced as a silent film, it was released at the dawn of the sound era with a synchronized score by Hugo Reisenfeld in the U.S. and the disc features the original Reisenfeld soundtrack (with sound effects but no dialogue) and a subsequent score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock for the home video release. The disc presents two editions of the film, the original American release and a European silent version discovered a decade ago, created from alternate takes and sometimes different shots (a common practice in the silent era). The European print has a stronger image while the American version, mastered from an archival print (the negative was lost in a studio fire decades ago), is as close to the director’s definitive version we’ll find. Both are mastered in HD and debut on Blu-ray in the U.S. (many American collectors picked a British Blu-ray release few years ago; this is produced from the same digital masters).
Also features commentary by respected ASC cinematographer and cinematography historian John Bailey, outtakes with commentary by Bailey, the original scenario by Carl Mayer with annotations by F.W. Murnau, the original screenplay, and note on the restoration.
Cat People: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is not the 1942 classic of shadow and suggestion and Freudian sexuality clawing its way out of a virginal young woman but the 1982 remake directed by Paul Schrader. Nastassja Kinski, in her second American film, is entrancing as Irena, who arrives in New Orleans to be reunited with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) only to discover that she belongs to a race of shapeshifters who turn into leopards when they have sex. Unless, of course, they keep it in the family.
Calling this a remake isn’t really accurate, I confess, even with the homages to the original film. Alan Ormsby’s screenplay doesn’t just update the story, it reimagines it with a backstory mythology that is both more literal and more dreamlike than the original and Schrader paints it with a palette of old world atmosphere and modern, unreal colors.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Once you’ve experienced the multiple twists and revelations in the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Obsession,and you think about what’s gone before, the basic storyline appears not only terribly contrived but in several ways downright impossible. But the film nevertheless works by the sheer power of a marvelously inventive, multi-layered screenplay brought to life by the simultaneously literary and stylistic genius of one of the most important young American directors. A story as involved and rich as Paul Schrader’s scenario must be firmly grounded in explicable plot; but Vilmos Zsigmond’s richly suggestive cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s relentless-pace editing, under the careful and inspired direction of De Palma, mix memory and desire even more effectively than Schrader’s story. The ultimate achievement of Obsessionis not a matching of style to content so much as a resolution of content into pure style.
At its most immediately obvious, the film’s title refers to New Orleans businessman Mike Courtland’s fixation on, first, the death of his young wife Elizabeth in a 1959 kidnap plot; second, his guilt for her death, in having delivered false money to the kidnappers; and, third, the stunning resemblance of a young Florentine art student, met 16 years later, to his dead wife. Court’s is the central experience of the film, the one which most drives its development.
Yet a second association with the idea of “obsession” arises when Court’s psychiatrist describes the student, Sandra Portinari, whom Court has brought back from Florence to his home, as having become “obsessed” with the idea of Elizabeth, to the point of hoping completely to replace the woman she so dramatically resembles. (This is the turning-back point for those who have not seenObsession; reading on can irreparably harm one’s experience of the film.) When, toward the end of the movie, we learn that Sandra is really Amy, the daughter of Court and Elizabeth presumed killed with her mother 16 years earlier, we perceive yet another obsession motivating her: a methodic repetition of the events of 1959, with the hope of either restoring lost certainty of a father’s love or confirming forever his guilt and avenging herself on him for her mother’s death.
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Hereâ€™s the problem: (1) American Gigolohas just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolois not a good movie, no matter that itâ€™s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage isâ€”far from being a weaknessâ€”essential to the filmâ€™s design.