The Common Good
January-February 1997

A Translator of Transcendence

by Jeremy Lloyd | January-February 1997

The religious dimension of Paul Schrader's films.

Paul Schrader is a strange fish in a big lake. The fish is a film director and Hollywood the lake. Unlike the likes of Quentin Tarantino and a burgeoning tide of young filmmakers whose primary frame of reference seems increasingly to be the vast lexicon of movies themselves, Paul Schrader's imagination was shaped by one of Hollywood's biggest taboos—religion.

And unlike peers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Schrader holds little interest in producing sure-fire Everyman dramas. He prefers making a case for the marginal and the bane of the status quo. In all this Schrader has elbowed a place for himself in the film industry.

As a writer Paul Schrader has to his credit Raging Bull, Mosquito Coast, and The Last Temptation of Christ. As a director his repertoire includes Patty Hearst, Light of Day, and The Comfort of Strangers. Many argue that the little-known film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is his masterpiece. But Schrader's signature works are Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Light Sleeper. In these films, more than any others, one witnesses the spiritual mindscape of Paul Schrader's cinematic imagination.

Schrader's films do not directly reflect the fact that he was once a pre-seminarian reared on the catechisms of the Dutch Christian Reformed Church. Watching movies was never a casual affair, as it is for most of us today, because as a youth he was prohibited from such worldly activity. His subversive aesthetic awakening coincided roughly with his joining in Vietnam War protests. If Schrader was already a misfit among the conservative subculture of his childhood, he is no less so in Hollywood today.

Schrader remains an anomaly not only in his generation of filmmakers but in the genre of religious films as well. His protagonists include an assassin, a male prostitute, and a drug dealer—hardly what we'd deem recognizable spiritual heroes. Repentance and conversion and most anything we associate with spirituality do not appear in traditional form. But from the very beginning Paul Schrader's concept of religious film differs markedly from traditional understandings.

Schrader argues that, within the genre of religious films, inspirational content must be distinguished from genuine spiritual dramas. Conventional religious films absurdly reduce the supernatural to our senses, or objectify and eliminate God completely, he says. For example, in the classic The Ten Commandments, God inscribes God's will on the screen for all to see. This deus ex machina technique immediately suffocates the drama's place in the realm of possibility and reduces it to mere fantasy; it no longer correlates to our lives.

The Mission, on the other hand, contains genuine religious content—a conversion—but leaves the Transcendent, so to speak, out of the picture. Although the existential dimension and ethical conflict go hand in hand throughout the film, the latter gains the upper hand. As the ethical debate is ushered in, God is ushered out. The audience is left to decide for themselves between the two roads of action—violence or nonviolence. Perhaps that is the point. But the Transcendent itself no longer has a voice amidst the flurry of activity. Humanity attempts to work on God's behalf instead of the other way around. By the end, the film, arguably, no longer correlates to God.

IF A FILMMAKER rejects both the skywriting approach and the passive objectified God, what method remains? Schrader argues for a transcendental style in film. This means that God is paradoxically both the "wholly other" (invisible and silent), while at the same time being present in the drama. The Transcendent may speak through a character or be expressed in camera shots empty of dialogue and scenery. But Schrader believes that even transcendental style is ultimately futile in its attempt to express the religious.

Art, he says, can never inform us about the Transcendent but can only suggest its presence or absence. So, in transcendental style too, God is left out of the picture. But in transcendental style, the parallel lines of art and God come closest to touching. Schrader shows at length in his published graduate thesis, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Drever, the transcendental style found in the works of several internationally known filmmakers.

In his own films, Schrader does not attempt to work out this thesis. Before he made films himself, Schrader spent several years making a name for himself as a critic. One day, to the astonishment of his peers, he bagged his career and spent several suicidal weeks living out of his car while writing the harrowing script for Taxi Driver. Within a short time it and other scripts sold, and his new career had begun.

Human depravity thickly enshrouds his characters. In one of his more recent films, Light Sleeper, his subject is a drug dealer to the upper class who is approaching middle age and wants to get out of the business. Action and dialogue are juxtaposed against silent, actionless scenes—a technique from transcendental style. Instead of relying on a narrator to carry the script, the silence of many scenes allows the alienation and purposelessness of the character to speak for itself.

This spiritual vacancy composes the religious dimension in Schrader's films. While an audience expects to be filled up, Schrader argues—more like a theologian than an established member of the entertainment industry—that the subject comes to understand herself as a spiritual vessel only when she is emptied out.

All of Schrader's characters lack connection and freedom. John LeTour, the drug supplier in Light Sleeper, listens to his drug-addicted customers wax philosophic. They comprise his parasitic and abusive community, but community nonetheless. He ultimately fails to find in them what he needs. In the end violence achieves transcendence for LeTour from the alienation and meaninglessness of his life. Only by sinking deeper does LeTour encounter grace. Paradoxically, in jail he finds freedom from the bonds of his life and trade.

American Gigolo concludes in much the same way. Here, sex is the means of a futile attempt to overcome alienation. Julian Kaye, a high-priced gigolo (played by Richard Gere), is paid to entertain and "love" women. Framed for murder, he does not himself experience love until a senator's wife, Michelle Stratton, sacrifices her marriage and social status to prove his innocence and her love for him. Michelle represents the Christ figure when meeting Julian in prison.

Violence in film has become so profligate and banal that it is doubtful it serves a function anymore. Schrader applies it carefully, however. In the haunting The Comfort of Strangers, the color red appears only once in the climactic murder scene and the film's sole violent moment. Used this way—sparsely and non-grotesquely—violence is disturbing, like it should be. With selective use, it catches us vulnerably rather than desensitizing us to it from the start.

THE FILMS OF Paul Schrader are not for the entire family. Not unlike many of the Psalms, they are dark and brooding excursions into the troubled human heart. Schrader asks much of us to jump into the shoes of his characters. They are ugly, hard to like, and morally unjustifiable, which is also to call them the poor in spirit and incarnations of the potential within each one of us.

However, for some viewers his characters will remain on that side of fiction. Kaye and LeTour may be too unrecognizable to point to the Transcendent in each of our lives. (A film like Robert Redford's Ordinary People may better succeed at this.) But there is reason to doubt the medium of film and television affording us much of anything anymore.

Schrader's most recent piece is Witch Hunt, aired on HBO. In this dark-humored mystery set in Hollywood in 1953, magic is not just in the movies but afoot in everyday life. Shakespeare is conjured from the dead to rewrite a script, and silverware floats across the room. Ordinary people commit supernatural acts; all is blasé. Any ounce of social commentary one can wring from this most light-hearted of Schrader's work (though he directed it only) suggests that what at first appears miraculous eventually reaches a level of banality that we come to accept without protest.

Perhaps film and television have done just that. They futilely try to teach us something new about ourselves, more often inducing need and the anxiety that something more important than our own lives is going on somewhere else. The hyper-reality of television has become sovereign over our own. The one is not a tool for understanding our own world and stories but rather represses and replaces it. Taken as such, Schrader's latest piece very nearly deflates his own thesis.

Schrader once said movies can change people's lives. More recently he has altered this thought: "Movies don't really change people's lives, but they can open up people so that they can think about their lives and maybe even change them themselves." In America, television is as commonplace as furniture—it is furniture. And it is increasingly hard to distinguish film from television since the VCR has blended the two mediums together. With all the messages mass media scream at us daily, can movies really open us up so that we can change?

The locus of truth today is fixed upon the visual realm. From the Rodney King trial to the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum, in American culture words stand down to the primacy of images. And yet in this reviewer's life, the haunting passages from Elie Wiesel's Night speak volumes more than hours of awestruck horror staring at cold facts. Beneath a barrage of images, the Word of truth remains undetected if only because we are looking for the spoken and unseen. The visual realm revolves outside us while the word reaches within.

But Paul Schrader holds something of a trump card, even if only for himself. Movies definitely have changed his life. His work and life hearken back to an age not long gone when the visual realm was not taken for granted but presented a whole new world and mode of discourse. Insofar as his work pursues a religious understanding of life in front of secular audiences, he traverses into the dark recesses of the human condition and finds the Transcendent there. He creates, if nothing else, an urban milieu so barren that the need for spiritual recovery and discovery become achingly apparent.

In this he has been persistent in that other bleak and antagonistic landscape, Hollywood. To this end his career bespeaks an act of faith.

JEREMY LLOYD, a former Sojourners intern, is a teacher and naturalist at Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Townsend, Tennessee.

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