Light of Day

(Paul Schrader, USA, 1987)


I’m pretty sure it’s not just the vision, swimming in my tears, of Gena Rowlands on her deathbed that has me delcaring Light of Day – originally slated to star Bruce Springsteen in the ‘70s, under the title Born in the USA – to be among the best and most important films of the late 1980s, and unquestionably one of Paul Schrader’s finest.


What a strange road writer-director Schrader had to take – through the five-finger, mannerist exercises of Cat People (1982) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) – to get back to what he did first and best: the naturalism of Blue Collar (1978).


On the baseline levels of structural elegance and observational authenticity, Light of Day is stunning. Certainly, as a largely downbeat dramatic essay on the relation of music and its pleasures to an everyday lifestyle – the dream of making it, and then making a hopeful career of it – Light of Day shows up David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) for the dreadful, patronising document it is.


Schrader’s vocation is deeply naturalistic. As an artist, he has always been more of a problem-solver than an expressionist; he takes to problems (such as how to construct a narrative exposition, how to craft dialogue exchanges that pick up both narrative and thematic threads simultaneously, and how to keep stylistic procedures unobtrusive) like an old pro.


But, given that naturalism (or classical narrative realism, as we tend to call it these days) is usually, on both formal and ideological grounds, conversative, then Schrader’s real investment is in bending this naturalism into an expressive and symbolic form (as he did so well in Blue Collar).


The typical realist movie is dedicated to a notion of the given, the universally human, the ‘what just is’. Light of Day certainly rehearses a few realist verities of this sort: life is a matter of constant change; after the dark night of the soul comes the light of day; the necessity for compromise and compassion.


But Schrader understands here – like John Cassavetes or James L. Brooks – that naturalism can both lay out the limits of the familiar, and then also expand, subtly and powerfully, what can be thought, imagined and represented within (and beyond) those limits.


This is why Light of Day is, ultimately, the story of a (fundamentalist) family, where the key moments involve a breaking-down and going-beyond the set, cosy, familial situations – moments such as Joe (Michael J. Fox) sharing a bath with his young nephew, or confessing to his sister, Patty (an absolutely spellbinding Joan Jett) that he compares all girlfriends to her – and where the tale’s generic identity is finally revealed to be skeleton-in-the-closet melodrama. The massive gear-change in the drama is not a flaw (as some took it to be), but the source of a true profundity.


Light of Day struck some reviewers, on its release, as an unwieldy hybrid of rock’n’roll teen movie and family melodrama. But this view misses a lot. Throughout, Schrader plays a quiet, cagey game with generic expectations – approaching and then appropriating those conventions that a realist movie is meant not to be aware of.


He uses the heightened, affective possibilities of the kids-in-a-band teen movie as deftly as he dampens down Fox’s star energy – thus creating at film’s centre a brave, complex mediation between the two principal, semantic poles of the fiction.


The symbolic war at stake here is between two ways of living: “common sense” (relying on traditional structures, morality, ethics) vs. “an idea” (living passionately, for and in and the moment). The conflict and resolution of these two life-styles is neither clean nor smarmy but, on the contrary, rough, messy and heartbreaking – and still, somehow, finally optimistic.


Patty looks at her mother on that deathbed and says: “I’m not sad”. She means it; but she also cries. Both Patty and her brother sing at the end:


I’m a little hotwired, but I’m feeling OK.

And I got a little lost along the way.

But I’m just around the corner in the light of day.


Light of Day earns its tears and its joy.

tracking Schrader through better and worse: Affliction, Auto Focus, The Comfort of Strangers, Touch, Patty Hearst

© Adrian Martin May 1987 / January 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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