Next month, the Aero Theatre is hosting a Paul Schrader retrospective, with the man himself appearing in person at several of the screenings. In addition, the Egyptian Theatre will be showing Taxi Driver alongside Schrader's new film Dog Eat Dog as part of Beyond Fest.
Writer-director Paul Schrader was already on a roll when he made American Gigolo (1980), having already directed two terrific movies (Blue Collar and Hardcore) and written one flat-out masterpiece (Taxi Driver), but Gigolo represented a kind of cinematic alchemy unlike anything he had ever done before – or would be able to replicate afterward. A morally complex, idiosyncratic art film that’s also an unabashedly slick mainstream entertainment, it’s one of those rare movies like The Godfather or The Exorcist that manages to be all things to all people without being remotely compromised. The personal impulses that weave throughout Schrader’s work aren’t diluted by serving the conventions of a big Hollywood crowd-pleaser - they’re intensified by them. The movie works the other way too: the purity of Schrader’s vision infuses the pop surfaces with energy and meaning, resulting in a movie that’s chilly and scorching hot in equal measures. American Gigolo isn’t necessarily Schrader’s best film – I might save that designation for Light Sleeper or Affliction – but it’s the one that best embodies and is enlivened by his contradictory nature as a filmmaker.
American Gigolo is the second incarnation of a story that Schrader essentially told four times, that of an emotionally detached man cut off from society even as he works in a job that thrusts him into that society. In three of these films – Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo, and The Walker (2007) – the title provides the main character’s profession; in Light Sleeper (1992), the protagonist is a drug dealer. Schrader’s repeated return to this isolated figure – “God’s lonely man,” as Travis puts it in Taxi Driver – makes the films even more fascinating when viewed together than they are as individual works; in each movie the character ages around ten years, corresponding roughly to Schrader’s age at the time he wrote the screenplays. The result has similarities with Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, or his experiment in Boyhood, as Schrader works over the same ideas in different ways, showing how his feelings about certain philosophical and psychological notions have evolved over the years. Taxi Driver is a young man’s movie, angry and confused and fearless; by the time Schrader gets to The Walker, weariness and resignation have set in – they’re very different approaches to the same spiritual problems.
All four approaches are equally valid and provocative, but American Gigolo is, by virtue of its setting and style, the most fun – it’s the one that makes you work the least for its rewards. Yet it’s every bit as rigorous and singular as the others; Schrader doesn’t soften his voice for the masses, but when the movie was released in 1980, they came in droves – and I think they came partly because of Schrader’s riskier and more unusual choices, not in spite of them. Take Schrader’s use of unmotivated camera moves, a technique that permeates the movie. His camera constantly glides over and creeps through the action, often without a clear point of view – it isn’t tethered to what the characters are doing or where they’re moving in the frame. This gives the movie a voyeuristic quality, since if the camera’s perspective doesn’t belong to anyone on screen it logically follows that it belongs to someone else, someone unseen – someone on the outside like us, the audience. The result is a pleasurably naughty undercurrent to the proceedings, as we feel like we’re spying on a forbidden world – an effect that Schrader amps up with salacious dialogue that alternates between the darkly funny and the genuinely nasty.
The notion that we’re getting an intimate look at something usually kept behind closed doors is connected to one of Schrader’s greatest strengths, which is his comprehensive sense of research. His screenplays are jammed with vivid details about how his characters live and work, whether they’re Detroit auto workers (Blue Collar), New York ambulance drivers (Bringing Out the Dead), or working class rock and rollers (Light of Day). In Gigolo, the fact that the title character (played to perfection by an almost unbearably sexy Richard Gere in the role that made him a star) makes his living in the sex trade gives these journalistic details an added bit of juice. The picture is positively fascinating when it comes to its depiction of the logistics of Gere’s character Julian’s life as a male escort, and there’s a great early scene between Julian and one of his clients in which they negotiate what is about to happen in a manner that both clarifies and obfuscates what exactly is happening. Julian and the woman who has hired him speak in euphemisms and are aware of each other speaking in euphemisms, at the same time that they pretend not to know what the other is really saying, but must pick just the right time to simultaneously acknowledge what’s really being decided upon.
It’s the first time Schrader used such multi-layered dialogue in one of his films – the dialogue writing in Blue Collar and Hardcore, while strong, is more direct and straightforward – and it’s a talent he would develop and refine over the course of the next several decades. (This was true even of movies he directed from other writers’ material, such as the Harold Pinter-scripted The Comfort of Strangers in 1990.) American Gigolo strikes a remarkable balance between clarity and ambiguity, and this balance extends beyond the dialogue to every aspect of the film. The plot of the movie bears some resemblance to the movies Schrader wrote about in his seminal essay on film noir, as Julian is accused of the murder of one of his clients and feels his world constricting around him when all the evidence points in his direction. Schrader is razor-sharp when it comes to the noir plotting, but teasingly abstruse when it comes to Julian’s guilt – initially we assume he’s being framed, but when someone close to him accuses him of the murder and he doesn’t deny it, suddenly everything is thrown open to question.
Schrader doesn’t allow us to identify with Julian the way we usually do in a Hollywood movie; the character is emotionally detached from everything and everyone around him, and that includes us, the audience. He’s constantly photographed in and around mirrors and other reflective surfaces that present alternate sides of Julian but don’t really tell us anything about him, and I think this sense of remove is another instance of the movie being both artistically satisfying and commercially sound – mainstream audiences probably don’t want too direct an identification with a male prostitute. Yet Schrader has it both ways, allowing the audience to revel in the shameless materialism of the character; a montage in which Julian lays out his clothes is one of the most sensual scenes in the film – it’s certainly more conventionally romantic than the so-called “love scene” between Julian and the woman who falls for him, which is shot in a series of clinical, disembodied close-ups. We know Julian’s world is collapsing around him when his consumer goods are threatened – when his apartment is ransacked by the cops, or when he needs to take his car apart to see if incriminating evidence has been planted there. Much as Cecil B. DeMille used to let audiences wallow in sin in his biblical epics before bringing God in for the final act, Schrader lets us vicariously enjoy Julian’s lifestyle and the punishment that comes down on him for living a life more glamorous and self-centered than our own.
The tension between our proximity to Julian and our distance from him is emphasized by the sound design as well. The effects are mixed curiously low in the film; in scenes where Julian walks down crowded streets, we hear only the faintest traffic noise and maybe some footsteps, and the dialogue has an ethereal quality – it often sounds like it was recorded separately from the action, whether or not it actually was. Just as Julian is cut off emotionally and physically from other people and his environment, he’s isolated aurally – at times the sound is nearly so unrealistic in its emphasis that American Gigolo starts to feel like a science fiction movie. This sci-fi feeling extends to the visuals: Schrader uses Bernardo Bertolucci’s production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, whose European eye gives the L.A. of American Gigolo otherworldly properties, and cinematographer John Bailey shoots Scarfiotti’s designs with the atmospheric lighting of film noir. Somehow the fact that he’s using deep, saturated colors rather than black-and-white emphasizes the artificiality instead of diffusing it.
There’s formalism and style to burn, yet even with all of Schrader’s visual affectations and riffs on genre, American Gigolo is more than a mere exercise. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen the film, it’s ultimately the tale of a material man’s spiritual journey – in its own way it’s as interested in matters of the soul as the Schrader-scripted The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). This aspect of the film sneaks up on the viewer, but when the final awakening comes, it’s earned, and it’s powerful. The flesh and the spirit don’t clash in the film, they coexist; this is a movie with a broad enough vision and a strong enough command of visual language to successfully encompass human experience from its most prurient aspects to the most exalted. Schrader is an acknowledged disciple of Robert Bresson, a filmmaker whose “transcendental style” was explored in a book of Schrader’s before he turned to directing himself. In Gigolo he pulls off the unthinkable trick of merging Bresson’s transcendental purity with the gratifications of a commercial Hollywood product – in terms of style and emotional effects, many scenes have as much in common with later movies by Jerry Bruckheimer (who produced Gigolo) as they do with the work of the European auteurs Schrader revered. Schrader has always been drawn to characters with contradictions, like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle – a guy who talks about getting healthy and strong while he drinks and pops pills. As an intellectual philosopher and moralist working in Hollywood, Schrader is every bit as contradictory as his own creations – and his creations are all the better for it.
Jim Hemphill is an award-winning screenwriter and director whose latest film is The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.