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Roy Anker

Deliver Us from Evil

The films of Paul Schrader show that he got the most important part of his Calvinist upbringing right.

In the fall of 1967 a restless, really smart Grand Rapids boy was working hard on getting kicked out of Calvin College, doing everything he could, in fact, to make that happen so he might fulfill his image of himself as hip firebrand out to vandalize the cultural guts and soul of the old tradition.

Paul Schrader had gone to Calvin as a matter of course; it was the college for brainy "covenant children" of the staunchly creedal, ardently cerebral Christian Reformed Church, a school at once rigorous and safe, adept at molding mind and spirit to fit the purposes of "kingdom work" and the CRC. Schrader entered Calvin pre-sem, but he fast grew discontent and rebellious, getting himself kicked out, says he, for vandalism and general trouble-making (the college has no record of the expulsion, but Schrader says that his father bought his way back in with a big donation).

In any case, by his senior year at Calvin, young Schrader had imbibed ample quantities of ideas, literature, movies, and booze, the last a first installment of long-term addiction problems. After the "expulsion," older brother Leonard introduced him to the intellectualist malcontents of the newspaper crowd. It was this arena that gave Schrader his last chance for Calvin to boot him permanently when, in a fuss over inviting black activist Dick Gregory to campus, Chimes published the private phone numbers and addresses of college board members.

By this time, too, Schrader had already become a huge pain for his lead role in finagling film into the college's life (the CRC condemned film until 1966, when Synod belatedly sanctified it as art). With this as a backdrop, Schrader hoped the newspaper ploy would finally bring his coup de grace. By this time, though, the college was on to Schrader's stratagem, and so it only slapped the wrist of the enfant terrible. In the spring of 1968 Schrader graduated, a simmering mix of idealism, bravado, protest, zeal, and the troubled hell-bent rowdyism that passed for virtue in the sixties.

To learn film criticism, Schrader went off to UCLA film school, and the rest is, well, history. His rise was indeed meteoric, although not as spectacular as the ascent of film school pals Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg. Together they composed the heart of a "brat pack" that would revolutionize American filmmaking.

Schrader's progress in filmdom was brilliant but erratic, seemingly haphazard, indirect. From fledging critic he moved to really hot screenwriter and then to director to arrive now in mid career within a small high rank of distinguished writers and directors. The screenplays alone have made Schrader legend—Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—as have the many films he has both written and directed—Mishima (1985), American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1991), and the just released Affliction (1998), a "quietly stunning" adaptation of a Russell Banks novel that has won rave reviews and acting awards (James Coburn) and nominations (Nick Nolte). While many of Schrader's contemporaries have greater fame, none has forged so singular, incisive, and ultimately wrenching a body of work. The American film community has belatedly re cognized his achievement with retrospectives aplenty, and in March he received the Writers Guild of America's prestigious Laurel Award.

And all the while, Schrader's natural constituency has either ignored or derided his work. Many church people, it's reasonable to assume, have never seen even a single one of his films, even though his insistent preoccupation is with how we understand personal evil and the possibility and shape of grace. Schrader's relentless pursuit of these themes does not make for a pretty trip, for the routes to both perdition and redemption are not the stuff of goo or slogan. Then again, truth hurts, and well it should in a place where people maim and suffer in body and soul.

Has any other artist of Schrader's generation rendered so uncompromisingly the somber Calvinist vision of human depravity? His stark, in-your-face depictions of evil and suffering exude a "blackness of darkness" so intense that it prompts metaphysical reflection—like from what Underworld did this come, anyway? But Schrader has simply taken his heritage at its word on the everywhere depth of evil, out there and especially inside, and he bothers to brood on it and what harm it does, lest it be glossed over.

Almost always, though, Schrader's mature personal films conclude with stunning poignant comings of grace, moments that are all the more revelatory and jolting because of the condition of utter despair or animus to which they come. The notion is that we only really fully grasp Light—know, relish, love, and exult within it—after we have on our knees for a long time scrounged about lost in the dark wood of destruction: only after suffering descent can we fathom the wonder of ascent; brokenness, wholeness; lostness, home; and so on. In work after work, Schrader struggles to render that destination narratively and cinematically. That is the toughest of aesthetic riddles in any medium, and much to his credit, Schrader has repeatedly risked the wrestle and has sometimes wondrously triumphed.


It was not that Schrader was likely to fail in his early choice to be a film critic. In those days, fresh out of Calvin and grad school, Schrader could have made it huge as a film critic. Not only could he write like an angel, terse and feisty, winning already Atlantic Monthly's national college essay contest, but he had met up with the great lioness of American movie reviewing, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, and became one of her proteges, along with now-eminent critics Roger Ebert and David Denby. Several early pieces, notably a dissent on Easy Rider and an M.A. thesis on religion and film style, have become classics in American film criticism, and Schrader remains the most articulate of American filmmakers.

Rather, Schrader seems to have turned to screenwriting for three good reasons. The first came in a revelation of sorts, specifically the influence of famed designer-architect Charles Eames, in whose studio Schrader hung out for a time. Eames convinced Schrader that visual images themselves could carry every bit as much intellectual heft and smack as any verbal formulation. For a young Calvinist, that was a heretical but liberating notion, one that disputed head-on the exalted privilege bestowed on words by the obdurate creedalism of an antithesis-driven Calvinism. Fearful of the lures and caprice of both sensous reality and human subjectivity, Reformed precisionism argued that only words, specifically stringent logical-verbal constructs, offered a sure enough knowledge of the transcendent inscrutable God. The tradition went for abstract distillation in words (the Word); Schrader opted for light (Light) that not only animates and illumines visual story but also penetrates into the dark recesses of ordinary life.

Then, too, Schrader seemed to doubt the capacity of words, or at least a career as a cinema wordsmith, to quell the deep personal tremors within. So considerable was Schrader's inner woe—a roiling inchoate swirl of grief, fear, guilt, rage, and yearning—that it is unlikely he would have found surcease in the secondhand creativity of film criticism. Images in stories offered the potential for distilling, picturing, making clear what oceans of words could not reach or seemed only to occlude and smother.

And strangest of all, perhaps, writing screen stories seemed to offer a route by which to test out the truth of the central inmost assertions of Schrader's inherited Kuyperian Calvinism, a theology and a culture from which Schrader felt, at the very least, disaffected. Most of Schrader's screenplays cook up hard-nosed "worst-case" scenarios of evil and dereliction, of a thick darkness that defies the capacity of grace to penetrate or dispel. And no doubt, for the varieties of forsakenness that Schrader carried about inside him, the traditional pious argot and nostrums of rearguard Calvinism proffered insufficiently meaningful balm. Back then, steeped still in emotional stoicism, neither the CRC nor its God seemed likely to grasp or forgive Schrader's many interior distresses. Worse still, far from providing salvific hope, much of that Calvinism seemed responsible for the very baggage from which derived a good many of the self's horrors: just for starters, fear, guilt, unworthiness, shame, self-righteousness, coldness, and rigidity.


At least some of Schrader's emotional and religious turmoil shaped his first and, in some ways, prototypical screenplay, the devastating Taxi Driver, the story that turned Schrader and director Martin Scorsese into full-blown culture heroes (star Robert De Niro had already won an Academy Award for Godfather II). In 1973, only five years out of Cal vin College, Schrader wrote a near-perfect first screenplay, including revision, in ten days while living in his car following the demise of his first marriage, drinking heavily and attracted to pornography, guns, and suicide. No surprise, then, that Taxi Driver (1974) is not a cheerful work, displaying at length the badly tangled psyche of marine-vet Travis Bickle (De Niro), a New York cabbie who drives the night shift be cause he can't sleep anyway.

A displaced midwesterner, Bickle is the man who doesn't fit, anywhere, the everlasting stranger, a man of furious moral drive who nonetheless imbibes all the very stuff he loathes—booze and porn mostly—and whose work goads him with all the great clouds of vileness that the sewers of a megalopolis can spew. Indeed, with Scorsese filming New York's "mean streets," the city has never looked more garish, cold, surreal.

From his cab, this "God's lonely man," as Bickle sees himself, sights a classy, gorgeous, knowing blonde (Cybil Shepard) at work in a campaign office. Bickle botches the date this Beatrice agrees to, taking her to a porn theater. His overture rejected, spurned and angry, Bickle trains to lash out, his adulation now guns, which Scorsese photographs with the same loving care he bestows on the blonde. Now a half-primed recipe for explosion, Bickle plans to use his fancy arsenal for the ultimate comeuppance: the assassination of the blonde's Kennedy-esque candidate. After botching that too, Bickle ends up a media hero by "saving" a pubescent prostitute (12-year-old Jodie Foster), a runaway Ohio Dutch girl, when in graphic violent catharsis he kills her pimp and his henchmen.

American movie audiences hadn't ever seen anything like Taxi Driver, an urban gothic version of Dostoevsky's underground man, a creature full of the malaise of utter disconnect—hungry, furious, and nowhere to bring it. It is a theme on which Schrader has since played many riffs; one critic has described Affliction as "Taxi Driver in the snow."

Schrader's head-on religious take on this theme comes in Hardcore (1979), written and directed by Schrader and starring George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a prominent Grand Rapids businessman and member of the "Dutch Reformation Church" (as it is called in the movie, providing scant cover). The film starts with sweet Rockwellish glimpses of Van Dorn's world—churches, sledding hills, and Sunday dinners of Dutch clans—but when Van Dorn's teenage daughter disappears on a Christmas-break youth-group trip to Los Angeles, the scene abruptly shifts to hell, Southern California style. A seamy PI Van Dorn hires (Peter Boyle) identifies the daughter in a cheap porn film but fails to locate her, after which the resolute Van Dorn takes up the search himself, diving into the sleaze and mire by posing as a would-be producer of porn flicks.

What slowly comes clear—without any romanticizing of the porn world, which Schrader pictures in all its jagged extremity—is the hollowness of Van Dorn himself, a cold, driven man whose hard insularity drove off his wife and then his daughter. His strain of Calvinism walls him off from the world, safe, certain, and quietly smug, so much so that when a young hooker who is helping him find his daughter asks him what he believes, all he can do is recite the arcane tulip rendition of Reformed belief, telling her finally that she can't possibly understand it, and presumably get or receive it, which is to usurp God by proscribing the reach of Love. He fails to muster love for his daughter in her desperate need; the judgment reflex runs too heavy.

The achievement of Hardcore is its careful portrait of the form of religion without the substance, the words of faith without their meaning, the Law without Love. Such unflinching honesty about the "hurt" of the human plight characterizes virtually all of Schrader's work, and it comes from a central artistic commitment, namely that "One of those things you should do in art is lift up the rock and look at those things inside you."

For Schrader's persistent exposure of the dark recesses of the soul, we should be glad, and so also especially for the bursts of arresting pure Light that convey grace itself, a homecoming for even the coldest isolates. The close of Hardcore lurches toward this destination; its full expression, searching and poignant, comes only in Schrader's next film.


In his most popular and probably best film, American Gigolo, Schrader dwells again on lostness but forges beyond to supply a cogent and compelling rendition of divine grace. A young Richard Gere plays a suave male hooker, Julian Kaye, who prides himself on his professionalism and success, both of which give him status and autonomy in the trade. Soon, though, Julian overreaches, stepping on the toes of those who sponsored his rise, and he is set up to take the rap for the murder of a onetime client.

In contrast to the grating expressionist angularity of Hardcore, Schrader films Gigolo with an elan and style befitting Julian's tony world: elegant production design, fluid camera work and editing, and a dead-on rock sound track (the opening song, as Julian drives his Mercedes 350 convertible along the coast highway, is "Call Me"). The film also foretells the new male narcissism that now reigns in American culture. Most of all, though, the film stands out because at its core, and fully realized in its telling, is the perfect Calvinist parable of redemption, surprising, radical, and reaching the unlikeliest of people.

As usual, Schrader is good at showing the lostness of Julian's soul, although that fact is for a long time concealed by the strutting splendor of his life, a daydream of sexual and material plenty, a fantasy Julian himself believes. And even though Julian deals intimately with loveless lives, he too is a walled-off self, defined entirely by what he does and possesses: he finds satisfaction in giving pleasure but cannot receive any himself—performance yes, love no—and as soon as he thinks he can pull it off, he breaks free of all dependence on others.

It is this very lack of human connection that makes him vulnerable to being set up; no one cares enough to protect him. Rather, clients and pimps—and many husbands—are glad to see the tables turn. A long train of betrayals pushes Julian to confront the shabby flimsiness of the hip self-reliance he pursues. Eventually a pitiless storm of human cupidity swallows him. Deserted by all, accursed be fore the law and Law, and stripped of all his pre tenses of cool and control, he comes at last to know his own utter nothingness.

The agent of Julian's sudden, gratuitous rescue is his only friend, an aspiring politician's lonely wife, Michelle (Lauren Hutton), who goes public with an alibi for Julian, even though it costs her marriage and her wealth and wrecks her husband's bright political future. The transfixing, luminous conclusion, in homage to Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), tracks Michelle into the jailhouse visitor's room, where she confirms her choice to prisoner Julian. In the film's first close-up, he lays his head, childlike, against the glass barrier that supports her hand, sighing his recognition that "It has taken me so long to come to you." It has indeed taken Julian "so long" to receive sheer grace, the end of all his yearning, which heretofore he had formulated exactly wrong. So much for autonomy.

All of Paul Schrader's writing is of a piece, and in sensibility, subject matter, and the quest for a consonant film style, he is the closest this country has come to producing its own distinctive Ingmar Bergman. Like the Swedish filmmaker whose haunted Lutheran past has propelled his exploration of the interplay of evil and goodness, destruction and love, and atheism and belief, Schrader is a restless soul and an uncompromising artist. His most recent film, Affliction, follows in excruciatingly honest detail the steady encroachment of a terminal darkness on its main character. In this case of acute familial alcohol ism, the sins of the furious violent father smash the lives of wife, children, and innumerable by standers. Here is a darkness so hungry and crushing that it seems to preclude the least possibility of light. For Schrader, as for Bergman, evil is no joke, no Batman laugh-a-minute fantasy, and it goes everywhere with guile and ferocity.

Yet unlike Bergman, Schrader reaches in this dark world for the source of an effulgent Light that can come in strange ways to the rawest dark emptiness. No where is that clearer than in Schrader's most controversial work, the screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ. There the troubled, disconnected solitary is God himself, whose love for humanity demands that he fore swear the beguiling real sweetness of ordinary life as found in friends, food, love, work, and children. In what is a fully orthodox exploration of the cost of the Incarnation, Schrader and director Scorsese posit that it is necessary to dwell on Christ's humanity in order to grasp the full measure of divine love: what it cost Jesus in real human terms to be come the Lamb. Darkness is thick and plentiful, to be sure, and Schrader insistently reminds the comfortable of life's perduring tangle of evil and of the constancy of suffering. Of greater import, though, is the glad riddle of grace, the Love that ex tends the welcome of homecoming to the wrong, the lost, and the weary, which is just about everybody on this painful earth.

Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College.

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