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Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Schrader Scripts (originally published 10/99)

Among living American movie directors, few command the level of respect accorded to Martin Scorsese. Because of the high esteem in which he is held, the premiere of his new film, "Bringing Out the Dead," has been treated as something of an event in the cinema community, which is as it should be.

Although I share this feeling, I'm equally excited about the fact that the film's script was written by Paul Schrader. Partly this is because Scorsese and Schrader have collaborated very successfully in the past, but also because Schrader is a fascinating filmmaker in his own right. If you are impressed by "Bringing Out the Dead," you should certainly seek out Scorsese's other films, but I would also suggest that you look into the earlier films written and/or directed by Schrader. Here are a few prime Schrader titles to look for on home video.

"The Yakuza" (1975). Schrader's first important screenplay was co-written with Robert Towne, one of Hollywood's most renowned screenwriters. Some of the polish may have been the result of Towne's more experienced hand, but the substance of the script is pure Schrader, whose fascination with Japanese culture clearly informs the storyline. Robert Mitchum stars as an American who returns to Japan, where he had served during World War II, to help out a friend. The nature of his friend's trouble requires that he cross paths with the Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime syndicate that combines modern weaponry with ancient samurai codes of honor.

"Taxi Driver" (1976). A defining, career-making film for both Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, this harrowing descent into the heart of darkness remains a modern classic. The cabbie referred to in the title is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an intense, solemn loner who spends each night navigating his taxi through the forbidding streets of New York City's slimy underbelly. Travis is a rather creepy fellow, but since Schrader and Scorsese have given us no one else with whom to identify, we can only follow his peregrinations with growing uneasiness. Soon enough, we realize that our main character is in fact a full blown psychopath. From that point on, the film unflinchingly pursues the consequences of his madness to their logical conclusion.

"Blue Collar" (1978). With the success of "Taxi Driver" under his belt, Schrader was given the opportunity to both write and direct "Blue Collar," a well crafted and affecting story of three automobile plant laborers at the end of their ropes. Supported by exceptional performances from Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel, Schrader's script solidly evokes the quiet desperation of blue collar workers caught between the twin monoliths of uncaring management and corrupt union representatives.

"Mishima" (1985). As one of Japan's most colorful and eccentric artists, author Yukio Mishima was a natural subject for a Schrader film. However, because Mishima ended his own life prematurely, committing ritual suicide at 45, the Japanese were not anxious to see his life story told by a Western filmmaker. But Schrader was not interested in exploiting the potentially sensational aspects of Mishima's life, such as his homosexuality or his extreme political views. Instead he wanted to make a serious meditation on Mishima's art. The result is a tour-de-force, interweaving Mishima's final hours with scenes drawn from both his life and his writings.

"Affliction" (1998). In its own way as difficult to watch as "Taxi Driver," "Affliction" is another kind of descent into Hell. Instead of the mean streets of New York, Schrader's protagonist in this film prowls the labyrinth of his tortured relationship with an abusive father. Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is a small town sheriff on the trail of what may or may not be a criminal conspiracy in his tiny Vermont community. The real story, however, is the ongoing conflict between Wade and his father (James Coburn), who has always been mean as a snake and has not mellowed one whit with the passing years.

Don't forget, by the way, that Schrader has also written two other scripts for Scorsese: "Raging Bull" (1980) and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). These collaborations between Schrader and Scorsese have already achieved a legendary status, and with good reason. I'm hopeful that "Bringing Out the Dead" will add to that rich legacy.

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