Paul Schrader’s Manhood


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López



Three elements are immediately striking in the cinema of Paul Schrader. First, at least since American Gigolo (1980) and certainly all the way to The Canyons (2013), Schrader has had a pronounced interest in – and a fond appreciation for – the superficial aspects of life: clothes, glamour, money, designer drugs, fast cars, all the latest technological devices such as mobile phones.


Auto Focus (2002) for example, anticipates by five years the mania for recreating the surface style of the 1960s (and on to the ‘70s) that exploded worldwide with the TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) – just as the almost forensic attention to exactly duplicating traces of the mass media archive (TV clips, sound bytes, etc) in Patty Hearst (1988) anticipates Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) by three years, and the later David Fincher/Olivier Assayas trend in hyperrealism by almost two decades.


Schrader’s camera caresses material detail; and his plots frequently stop in pause-mode while we see the beauties of an apartment (The Comfort of Strangers, 1991) or of a city (almost every film boasts a touristic montage, which extends far beyond the usual establishing-shot function). He shares with a subsequent generation of novelists (such as Bret Eason Ellis, author of The Canyons), and then the following generation of multimedia artists like Harmony Korine (who worked on costumes for Light Sleeper [1992]), a certain fascinated, curious, even sympathetic feeling for social and personal alienation in its newest, ever-changing, mutated forms. This is, we could say, the profane, American version of Yukio Mishima’s code of Beauty, the subject of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).


Closely related to this specific sensation of alienation – alienation almost like a sensual costume that one can wear – is the second noticeable element of Schrader’s cinema: the very particular intensity accorded to sin in his well-known (thanks to his many interviews) “post-Calvinist” universe. Although there is some agony of guilt and remorse in his films – with the consequent trauma of denial or self-inflicted blindness that also characterises Abel Ferrara’s cinema – there is also something undeniably, even proudly sleazy: in other words, a pleasant drifting-along with an amoral attitude, strictly neither good nor evil.


In Hardcore (1979) – whose story is, in many ways, a variation on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) that Schrader scripted – isn’t there some smug pleasure in seeing the uptight, hyper-moral and disapproving character of the father (George C. Scott) slowly adapt his look (sunglasses, outfit) and manners (walk, talk) to fit into the porno world? Even to the point of his hired private investigator (Peter Boyle) believing (mistakenly) that he has just caught this upstanding, paternal figure in a tryst with an available young woman – the exact reversal of an earlier scene involving these two men.


Light Sleeper perfectly illuminates the relation of Schrader’s cinema to amorality and alienation. LeTour (Willem Dafoe) spends 20 years working as a drug delivery dealer for Ann (Susan Sarandon), but she is able, seemingly in an instant, to abandon this world to embark on a career in the cosmetics industry. By contrast, the hero’s anxiety comes less from any ethical dilemma in relation to the job than from an insecurity attached to the prospect of starting a new life.


Light Sleeper – very much in tune with Ferrara’s universe, for instance in ‘R Xmas (2001) – presents the business of drug dealing as the work of a well-balanced family, united by strong emotional bonds. It is a movie in which there are no good or evil actions that lead to Heaven or Hell; here, everything depends on encounters and chance, on the “strange roads” (Schrader lifts from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket [1959] for his final line) that lead to unexpected revelations.


It is especially striking how Light Sleeper, following its hero, immerses itself in a dark, superstitious dimension: fears are concentrated in the shadow of a bad streak, in the threat of luck running out. It’s a cinema of everyday omens, a gearing-down of (for instance) Jean-Pierre Melville’s haunted crime-thrillers. For LaTour, this ambience begins when he resumes his sexual and sentimental relationship with ex-girlfriend Marianne (Dana Delany); just as for Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) in Touch (1997), it is a sexual encounter with Lynn (Bridget Fonda) that triggers the loss of his powers. Light Sleeper is not only among Schrader’s best films; it also gives us one of the most powerful images of alienation in his entire career: LeTour, lying on a mattress, listening over and over to Marianne’s voice on his answering machine,


In Auto Focus, alienation is closely tracked through a particular history or archaeology of visual media. When he is just a voice on radio, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is popular, but not yet a star. It is being famous on TV that incites and inflates his ego-ideal fantasy – attached first to still photography, then early video technology, and finally to domestic cataloguing and editing of his own serial sexual conquests as captured on tape. Auto Focus is surely the only portrait of modern showbiz decadence more interested in the history of videotape than in the effects of drugs or alcohol!


We see something similar in Patty Hearst (1988) which covers, from a quite different angle, some of the same slice of Auto Focus’ American popular-cultural history: both the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and, later in jail, Hearst herself, are obsessed with the media image they project, the photographs of themselves they stage, and the story they spin to the TV and newspaper-absorbed public. The actual content of their supposedly radical political positions seems secondary to the ego-thrill of celebrity they experience and anxiously manage. Where Auto Focus shows us the alienated pleasure of direct video recording at home, Patty Hearst presents a more chilling spectacle of real-time media alienation: on live TV, Patty watches the death of her comrades at the hands of the FBI, a scene that could have easily included her.


The third major element of Schrader’s work – and not unrelated to the sometimes camp superficiality of glamour – is an intriguing undercurrent, never entirely avowed or closely scrutinised, but not denied either, of queerness. In Mishima, the writer declares that “a homosexual looks in a mirror and sees what he fears most, the decay of the body”. And Mishima’s statement is literalised in The Walker (2007), when Carter (Woody Harrelson) is seen – from the POV of his mirror, straight on – in his nightly ritual of taking off his hairpiece and carefully storing it in its own compartment. (Hairpieces and wigs constitute a very particular fetish-object in cinema, from Samuel Fuller’s Naked Kiss [1964] to David Cronenberg’s Crash [1996] via the initial 1967 footage of Raúl Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento’s The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror [2020].)


Homoeroticism is regularly present at some level of Schrader’s films, often in a cool, allusive way: this current runs from the mythologisation of Japanese male warriors (and of Robert Mitchum!) in The Yakuza (1974), which he co-scripted for Sydney Pollack, through to the deliberate tomboy look of Nastassja Kinski in Cat People (1982), via the mascara lovingly applied by the protagonist’s father in The Comfort of Strangers.


Then there are the more explicit markers and dramatic/thematic instances of queerness, sometimes covered with the alibi of a conventional hetero-normative treatment. Leon (Bill Duke), American Gigolo’s black, gay villain (“I never liked him”, he rasps in relation to Julian/Richard Gere); Robert, the repressed homosexual played by Christopher Walken in The Comfort of Strangers – in denial but, in the typical manner of Harold Pinter (who adapted Ian McEwan’s novel), endlessly creating new, perverse ways to play out his true sexuality; and, finally, the relations of siblings or friends that carry a strongly queer association in Cat People, Auto Focus and residually in the Jake/Joey team of Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull  (Schrader added the Joey character to Mardik Martin’s initial script draft). The Walker represents, by far, Schrader’s most concerted attempt to show the gayness of his central character in a positive, redemptive light – at least this once, unlike many a Schrader (or William Friedkin) character, he has managed to transcend his “father issues” (a theme to which we shall return).


Can this preliminary sequence of observations lead us to the heart of Schrader’s cinema – to the logic that unites it? Superficiality, amorality and queerness all congregate upon a central figure in his work: masculinity, and especially the self-image that a man forms within his mind, and then attempts to project into the external world.



Although its details may have resulted more from on-set improvisation and active collaboration between actor and director than anything in Schrader’s written screenplay, the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver serves as an indelible emblem of a “man in the mirror” and his masculinity. (1) The men in American cinema of the 1970s often live with an image of themselves in their mind – and they frequently confront, converse with, or shatter this image of themselves when it literally materialises in front of them, in a mirror or other reflective glass surface. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) enjoys a narcissistic relation to his own image: he performs in front of his own reflection, and fantasises himself into what he sees, his ego-ideal. He looks into his mirror, but sees only his fantasy. The world that men like Travis inhabit is their privately fashioned hallucination or virtual reality, reflecting back to them their desires and (more usually) their fears.


In Schrader’s script for Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986), this virtual projection becomes the tropical Utopia built by a deranged father. In Affliction (1997), the paranoid distrust felt by Wade (Nick Nolte) – one of the signs of his father’s influence – leads him to plunge into a fantasy about real estate speculation, and to invent a crime in order to explain a simple hunting accident.


In fact, there are two kinds of mirror-image that structure the cinema of Paul Schrader. There is the literal mirror that either mocks or flatters the man who looks into it. And then there is the social mirror – inescapable, haunting, paranoia-inducing – that is established by the gazing eyes of other people. The deformed, stuttering hero of the “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” episode in Mishima even speaks of the gazes of other people forming, en bloc, “a mirror that cannot be broken”. That is one of the reasons why Schrader so often returns, throughout his career, to stark, frontal shots from the main character’s POV of those who are talking to him, and thus looking straight into the camera lens in a deliberately flat, confronting way. The opening scene of The Canyons, which is completely structured on such shots, provides the most extreme example –  although, amusingly, the scene is equally built on editing mis-matches: when we cut back to Christian/James Deen or Tara/Lindsay Lohan, they are usually looking down at their mobile phones!


In general, the hero in both Schrader and Scorsese films (and especially on the work they did together) has a particular complex, a neurosis or psychosis driving him: he cannot bear to be only himself, just a man among other men. He hates to be reminded that he even looks like himself, and thus like everyone else. He hates to be a type, and especially hates being typed by others in society. And he especially hates to ever become aware that his body is ordinary, hence ageing, and therefore to himself potentially ugly, far from ideal. This is as true of Travis – who in the final moments of Taxi Driver seems to recoil from the sudden glimpse of his own true reflection in his cab’s rear-view mirror – as it is of Yukio Mishima. These men idealise themselves, and never want to be reminded, in any way, that they might, in reality, be less than this ideal.


Auto Focus is especially revealing on this topic. Schrader underlines, with cruel humour, how his two real-life anti-heroes, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) and Bob, quickly grow old and seedy in their decadent lifestyle – while still believing themselves to be glamorous and seductive. In a sharp joke, Crane even ensures that the TV above him in a bar will be broadcasting “yesterday’s Bob” in an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, to incite girls to recognise and approach him.


Although Schrader is not a systematic director of looks like Brian De Palma (with whom he clashed over the severe editing of his script for Obsession in 1976), there is a pattern of vision that runs through his films: characters see the world, and sometimes see their own inner fantasy fleetingly actualised – but they are also, sometimes, remarkably blind to the reality around them. A key moment (one of Schrader’s best) in The Comfort of Strangers occurs when Mary (Natasha Richardson) sits in a bar with her husband, Colin (Rupert Everett) and the bar’s owner, Robert, and sighs admiringly, “This is the real Venice!” – while the roving camera shows us the extremely obvious truth that she cannot recognise, that it is a gay bar. Likewise, “Carpy” in Auto Focus enjoys his career as a video-technology sales representative only as long as black-and-white remains the standard format: the moment he has to demonstrate the new technology of colour, he is exposed as colour-blind. And blindness of another sort – a complete blindness to the social codes of class-bound behaviour – leads Travis to invite Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) on their disastrous porno cinema date in Taxi Driver.


It is Mishima that gives us our second indelible image of the men in Schrader’s cinema. In the opening scene of the film, we see what many a Schrader hero does: prepare himself for the coming day – in Mishima’s case, the momentous, final day of his life. Mishima admires himself in a mirror as he perfects his image: dressing, arranging his look. The camera pans lovingly over his clothes, his accessories – it’s virtual Japanese Gigolo territory. Mishima’s entire life is devoted to the elaboration of a fantasy-image of himself on every level – in the public eye, in a silent movie he directs of himself as a samurai warrior – and the film spells out the rigorous, all-encompassing logic of this fantasy.


As the chapter structure makes clear, Mishima begins from an impossible ideal of Beauty, which comes about through artifice, preparation – a very queer ideal, since the alchemy behind it has the power to “change men and women”, as at the Japanese theatre that he discovers as a child – in which such Beauty must be fixed, static for all time.  This leads Mishima to an idea of Art, and of his own creativity. But creativity – which belongs only to the Mind – must be married with the life of the Body. At this point, Mishima devotes himself to bodybuilding, piloting, soldiering and other frankly fascist activities: for Mishima, the Emperor must be upheld and worshipped at all costs. Finally, the Beauty of Art and Body must reach its natural culmination in the act that halts the ravaging effects of time and freezes the Ideal at its peak: namely, death, in the form of an elaborately stage-managed suicide.


For much of the wonderful 1939 book Manhood – similar, in many respects, to Confessions of a Mask, the 1949 novelistic memoir written by Mishima in his early 20s that Schrader used as a framework – Michel Leiris fixes on two, now lost 16th century pendant paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Lucrece and Judith”: a dual image, of ­ martyrdom and sacrifice on one side and danger and savagery on the other, that perfectly sums up the author’s idea of sex and eroticism. In Confessions of a Mask, the hero is obsessed by another painting, Guido Reni’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” (ca. 1615); in Mishima, we see how the subject projects himself into his fantasy, recreating the model’s pose in photographs that mimic Reni’s painting.


In both books, these painted images – in which a sadomasochistic drive is conflated with reverence for everything ancient and sacred – are related to the heroes’ sexual awakening. In another passage of Manhood, Leiris writes: “Nothing seems more like a whorehouse to me than a museum. In it you find the same equivocal aspect, the same frozen quality. […] If I have always loved whorehouses it is because they, too, participate in an antiquity by their slave-market aspect, a ritual prostitution”. (2) In Mishima, the various temples of artifice (brothels, libraries, theatres, etc.) where the hero goes are also united “under the sign of archaeology”. (3) And if Mishima believes that the figure of the Emperor must be preserved, that’s because the Ideal is always situated in the past.


Although Schrader, too, has sometimes been attacked by his critics for exhibiting quasi-fascist tendencies, we should not too easily assume a complete identification between Mishima and the director. Rather, this film served the function of providing Schrader with a rare, total externalisation of his fantasy, as reflected and heightened through the extreme, historic case. That also allowed him the opportunity to sculpt a certain shape, give a certain perspective to this fantasy. And here we can gauge a big difference between Schrader and Scorsese. The latter practices a certain form of “energy realism” (as Raymond Durgnat called it), immersing us within the subjectivity of his characters all the way to their irresolute dead-ends, but also their redemption, in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or the 1999 Bringing out the Dead (all from Schrader scripts). But Schrader himself has developed, from the start of his directorial career, a more detached and dispassionate, more ruthlessly logical – and self-critical – vision.


Schrader’s films, his view of the world, take an intriguing perspective that turns back on itself: he projects or enacts his hero’s fantasy often in order to reach and test its limit, to see where the dream dissolves, where the hero blows out. Never forget that, as much as Schrader (like his brother and sometime collaborator Leonard, who died in 2006) enjoys a certain Orientalist identification with Old Japan (as well as the New Japan evoked in the strange 1985 clip for Bob Dylan, “Tight Connection to My Heart”), he is also lucid about the difference between the America that formed him and the Japan of which he dreams. As he has often said, a Japanese man in crisis shuts a window and kills himself; while an American man in crisis opens a window and shoots somebody else.


This is the dual vision – of both the fantasy and its unravelling – that Mishima leaves us with: the penultimate act of the celebrity’s grand, public speech that “no one hears” and everyone rejects – the end of his dream of transforming the world through the power of his artistic-theatrical performance – and then the final, personal radiance afforded by his suicide. But is it really Mishima, or just his remembered fictional creations (as they destroy temples or kill themselves), truly experiencing this sun, this final epiphany? Does the reality-principle – in all its ordinariness or ugliness – claim Mishima in the end, in his final, flickering moments of life?


And so it is that dissociation and dissolution of the self lurks everywhere in Schrader – the flip-side of the ideal image in the mirror, the mocking gazes (and comments) of others that can send the hero over the edge. Even Mishima, at the height of his fame, is troubled by the ever-present thought that his career is worthless unless he is translated in the West: it is always the Other who dictates the success (and anxiety) of the Self.


The flipside or inversion of almost everything we have outlined so far in Schrader’s cinema occurs in Patty Hearst – precisely when he moves, as storyteller, from having a man as a central character to having a woman. Is it only coincidental that in both Schrader films where a woman takes the lead – Cat People and Patty Hearst – they are both largely passive characters, not active heroes, whose dramatic trajectory (although they may try to resist or flee it throughout) is to accept and manage their destiny (as a cat person or as a revolutionary fighter) or, at least, the situation they find themselves trapped in or condemned to? And the destinies for women are announced, laid down and enforced by men – often with brutally coercive means, as in Patty Hearst. We can note here an intriguing political ambiguity or complexity in Schrader, very much a product of his mixed or contradictory formative experiences (from Calvinism to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-era Hollywood and New York): although many of his discernible political attitudes lean to the conservative right (the relentlessness of his satire on revolutionaries in Patty Hearst – almost a sequel in this regard to Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise  (1967) – is proof enough), this essential, overarching insight into the oppressiveness of a man’s world expresses, by its nature, a left-wing, feminist sympathy.


There is one intriguing exception to the gender divide in Schrader: the central Jewish character played by Jeff Goldblum in Adam Resurrected (2008). He occupies, in fact, the feminine position in Schrader’s universe: a victim of history (literally turned into a dog by a sadistic Nazi Commandant) and of the past, he must learn, slowly and painfully, to face and negotiate this legacy – as, in another register, does Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005), which also draws in the Holocaust, as well as historic atrocities committed by the British military in South Africa. (For sympathetic discussion of the ‘alternate’ version of this film made, at the producers’ behest, by Renny Harlin in 2004, see Exorcist: The Beginning.)


The world that Schrader presents, in all of his films, is overwhelmingly patriarchal, based on the Law of the Father. In The Comfort of Strangers, Robert’s childhood as the "favourite" of his sadistic father determines his adult life and, when Mary asks him how he met his wife, he replies: “Ah, that would be impossible to explain without describing my mother and sisters. And then it would only make sense if I first described my father. In order to explain how I met my wife, I would have to describe my father”. In many of Schrader’s films, the father is at the origin of all evils – a fundamentally negative figure who leaves an indelible mark on his children by depriving them of affection and caring. This is the case in Patty Hearst and Hardcore, his two films dedicated to exploring the relation between fathers and daughters: in the former, Daddy’s lack of interest is one of the factors in the heroine’s surprise conversion to the SLA cause; in the latter, papa’s tireless search for his missing daughter ends up saving him from his own excesses.


Even when Schrader’s heroes openly despise their fathers, their life is dominated by that figure, and they lead an existence that revolves around their presence or their shadow. In The Canyons, Christian’s inability to transcend the father figure – represented by the threatening portrait of T.S. Eliot hanging in the psychotherapist’s office – seems to lead him immediately to murder; at the end of The Walker, Carter leaves the father’s portrait in his old apartment, and manages to overcome this influence – but also recognises that his behaviour has been that of “a grown man acting on the fears of a child, trying to impress a father dead ten years”.


Affliction, with its tragic story of father-son transference, is the Schrader film most deeply focused on the terrible and devastating effects of the paternal figure. It traces a portrait of Wade in the perpetual winter of New Hampshire – from a childhood marked by physical and psychological abuse, to a present menaced by a fatal chain of events. Affliction also provides us with the third and final image of a man in front of a mirror in Schrader’s cinema. This is a very different variant to those found in Taxi Driver and Mishima but, at the same time, deeply related to them. Wade wakes up in the middle of the night and walks over to the mirror in his room. On the soundtrack we hear a future telephone conversation he will have with his brother, Rolfe (Dafoe): “I glanced up and there he was, only it was me”.


In Taxi Driver and Mishima, the mirror is the place where the protagonists labour, projecting the image of their ego-ideal; in Affliction, on the other hand, the mirror shows Wade the fruit of a process that has been happening for years but has, in his eyes, gone unnoticed. In Schrader’s cinema, there is always this primordial threat: if you’re not alert, if you lower your guard as Wade does, one day you will wake up to discover that you are possessed by your father, that your face no longer belongs to you, that the image which the mirror gives you is of an Other. Travis and Mishima fight to conquer their fantasy, and make it their Destiny; this entails a preparation of body and mind, but also implies a renunciation of the past: distancing themselves from it (as Travis does in Taxi Driver) or reinventing it (like Mishima, choosing the Emperor as his father-figure), in order to be able to take action in the future.


These are the two poles between which Schrader’s heroes move: the anxiety of adapting to a fantasy designed beforehand; or the nightmare of being devoured by an unforeseen reality.


Update September 2020: Since we wrote this essay in 2013, Schrader’s career has proved to be an eventful, rocky road. Like Scorsese (but in a different way), he’s everywhere in the film-public eye (and ear): as well as updating his early Transcendental Style in Film book in 2018 to include (somewhat awkwardly) international “slow cinema”, he has also become an ubiquitous (and sometimes contentious) opinion-mongering figure on social media. Film-wise, he has bounced from an “interference” disaster (The Dying of the Light in 2014, also released semi-clandestinely in a fiddled 2017 “director’s cut” titled Dark), to a commissioned piece that is the absolute nadir of his career (Dog Eat Dog, the second Nicholas Cage collaboration, 2016), to the perfect cliché of the “comeback revival” AKA “return to form” in First Reformed (2017), a ponderous, often risible spiritual drama, taking the hard-left road of an “art film” exercise. Its relative success has – once again – put him in a good bargaining position to continue working, and he has subsequently made The Card Counter (2021) and Master Gardener (2022)..


MORE Schrader: Blue Collar, Light of Day



1. This point draws upon a 1992 essay by Adrian Martin, “Martin Scorsese: Will and Representation”; updated version forthcoming. back


2. Michel Leiris (trans. Richard Howard), Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), pp. 30-31. back


3. Ibid., p. 30. back

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin September 2013 / September 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search