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Contemporary Film Directors: Paul Schrader

George Kouvaros

(University of Illinois Press)

In this new book, film scholar George Kouvaros, of the University Of New South Wales in Australia, analyzes the films of Paul Schrader, his screenplays as well as directed works. Part of the 1970s US cinema’s Nouvelle Vague-inspired explosion of creativity, Schrader has not been given the auteur treatment like contemporaries Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Dennis Hopper. Rather, he has been traditionally seen as a better screenwriter than director; Kouvaros seeks to compose an academic study of his work, and in doing so, prove this conventional critical “wisdom” wrong.


Understandably, the more famous movies in the Schrader canon are given ample treatment by the author. Taxi Driver, Schrader’s misanthropic, nihilistic breakthrough screenplay, is justifiably analyzed at length, with Kouvaros citing much of the academic discourse on the film in the process. Taxi Driver is pioneering especially in relation to its unflinchingly contradictory anti-hero Travis Bickle, the character Schrader conceived who can perform noble deeds as well as insane violence. In subverting a narrative type such as this, Schrader explores the depths to which humanity can sink; it is also a pragmatic viewpoint—that humans have the capacity to be as corrupt, or as virtuous, as they choose to be.


This anti-humanism is all the more apparent in Blue Collar. Where the portrayal of hypocritical politician Palatine in Taxi Driver was an indictment of mainstream liberal politics, Blue Collar presents both left and right as bogus, both persuasions being only a veil for self interest and corruption. It is full-blown anti-politics. Unfortunately, Kouvaros does not pursue this thread all that much, even though the film’s grim portrayal of both sides of mainstream politics is prescient of today’s postmodern cynical attitude towards politics.


A recurring connection that Kouvaros pursues is the link between Schrader and existentialist writers, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre. The bleak view of mainstream society in Sartre’s novel Nausea—a world consisting of complacent and smug bourgeois, idle drunks, absurd intellectuals, and hypocrites—is effectively Schrader’s viewpoint as well. The filmic portrayal of this vision is stronger and, in a sense, more uncompromising—compare this to the existentialist name dropping/genre exercises of Woody Allen’s Bergman pastiches. Kouvaros is on the money with his comparisons, and the depth of references Schrader makes to French New Wave cinema is also looked at: Bresson, Godard, Truffaut. The debt that Schrader owes to Bertolucci’s The Conformist in his direction of American Gigolo is explored; he is always paying homage to his European forebears, even in a seemingly quintessentially American setting. The use of Moroder and Blondie in that film is also pioneering in terms of soundtrack use; the book is at pains to underline the tightness of the syncopation of the music with the images on screen.


Schrader’s exploration of historical figures in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Patty Hearst is another genre through which he can put forth his somewhat pessimistic vision, but also (in terms of his division of the narrative of Mishima) a recurrent experimental spirit. Kouvaros highlights the director’s versatility in more current work, from exploring family fragmentation and loss in Affliction, to taking on bachelor subculture with a humourous slant in Auto Focus. Indeed, his later work seems to be less apologetic in seeking to engage the audience emotionally.


Overall, Kouvaros’ analysis is somewhat over-academic—trains of thought are sometimes stifled by over citation. However, this is still a good book for film students and Schrader enthusiasts, and it provides ample springboards for further discussion of the director’s oeuvre.

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