PAUL SCHRADER’S LONELY MEN

Paul Schrader has established himself as one of world cinema’s most potent and prolific filmmakers. Raised in an Amish family whilst attending the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, he had no encounters with the cinema of any kind until the age of 17; but he more than made up for a lost time. He graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in film criticism and published Transcendental Cinema at the age of 26, where he studied and compared the works of filmmakers such as Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer. He had written his first film by the age of 28, but his own style didn’t really originate until two years after, with Taxi Driver. 

Taxi Driver is an extensive character study of Travis Bickle, whose mental instabilities drive him into his own nightmarish reality in his pursuit of purpose. He attempts to fit into a society that does not exist to anyone but himself, maniacally striving for a sense of purpose by his own twisted standards. Eight years later, he continues to explore similar traits in the biographical Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a successful Japanese author who believed that his works were not only an extension of his but an amelioration of it. Most recently he dives back into the same concepts in his film First Reformed, in which a parish priest’s belief in his religion comes into question when he contemplates the evil of the world, forcing him into a stage of agnosticism. Though these three characters live in different places at different times with different lives, there are most definitely similarities that Scharder has investigated in each of these films.

The most obvious connection is the loneliness they all suffer; we can look to the start of Schrader’s career for more insight. After being dumped by his wife and fired from the American Film Institute, he lived in his car, not speaking a word to anyone for weeks. The isolation fed the brutal imagery in his head, which he would then explore through the eyes of Bickle. He, like Mishima and Toller, is a rejected member of the world he inhabits, living on the outskirts of the society they’re supposed to be a part of. Despite his desire for the rain to wash away the scum, Travis attempts to fit into 1970’s New York. He constantly drifts through the city but is simultaneously shielded from it by the four steel walls of his cab, where the only time he really has any contact is through his rearview mirror. The isolation he lives with slowly deteriorates his mental state, with an ever-growing rage that’s unable to be cured by anyone. His drug-permeated insomnia drives him into seeing a nightmarish reality of the one he actually exists, whereby the world behind his eyes is a hellish realization of the one in front of it; as Schrader puts it, he “is creating the nightmare, not subject to it.” His need for gratification forces him to stray away from his own ideologies for the sake of others; he looks to Betsy to cure his loneliness, and in doing so, chooses to believe in what she does. Palantine propaganda fills the interior of his bleak and seedy apartment, mirroring the disorderly state of his mind. In simple terms, his loneliness has forced Travis to think in such a way that he otherwise wouldn’t.

Mishima, though in a less extreme manner, isn’t integrated into modern Japan he lives in, where he’s still stuck in the older, traditional Japan that he worships. He is also a brooding, lonely man who operates on the outskirts of his environment. If we, as Schrader does so effectively throughout the film, analyze his work, we can see that the basis of a lot of the ideas he explores is the aggressive clash of traditional Japan with the inevitable sweeping of modernism. What’s interesting is how alone he is and how he’s afflicted with the same pathology as Bickle, whilst also being very successful in the world. His inner rage drives him away from the rest of his compatriots, to the point where he even forms his own private militia, where any action that’s carried out is based on his own moral code. Toller’s isolation is much less conceptual; we know that he lives in the church on his own, not really integrating with anyone on a personal level. Furthermore, being a devoted member of the First Reformed Church, he lives with his own perception of reality, building a bridge between himself and the rest of his society, as all holy men tend to do. However, he slowly comes to despise the apolitical sense that most holy men acquire, and chooses to release his anger in such a way that would attempt to close the almost closable gap between himself and the rest of the world.

All three of our characters suffer from their own sexual insecurities and anxieties forcing them into violent acts. Travis identifies Betsy as a way into the world he wants to occupy, as well as being a means for him to release the sexual tension that is so pent up inside of him. That being said, he’s too mentally unstable to be in any kind of relationship. He constantly drifts in and out of pornographic theatres so often, he seems to think it’s an appropriate place for a first date. His obsession for romantic gratification may stem from his constant exposure to pornographic material, hoping that Betsy is able to act as a release for his sexual tension, like a valve releasing excess pressure. So, when he goes to Wizard (who’s probably the closest thing he has to a friend) and asks him for advice, he says, “I envy your youth…go and get laid,” it seems to be the worst advice he could give. He’s telling him to do the one thing that, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot do, which is only going to act as a catalyst to his already rapid decline into madness. Once he’s romantically rejected by Betsy, it becomes a question of whether he’s man enough, continuing the uncertainty about whether or not he’s able to prove himself, turning his attention from Betsy to Palantine. If he can’t be with the woman he wants, he’s going to go for the one man he knows she respects. A lot of the film is concerned with him building his body turning into the one thing we know he can do; kill.

Mishima’s repressed homosexuality, though it is merely suggested throughout the film, acts as another catalyst for violence. His inability to showcase his true self forces him to project disgust onto the people of his country. He, too, spends time becoming a bodybuilder getting into peak condition. Though Schrader did not create Yukio Mishima, he seems to be a character born for him to write about; and if he hadn’t existed, it was only a matter of time until Schrader invented him. Similar ideas can be seen in Toller, who’s repressed sexuality stems from being a holy, devout man. Despite his claims that he’s beyond love, he rejects the attention he receives from Esther in the workplace whilst being attracted to Mary. It also seems that his suicidal release has coincided with a fantasy of sexual consummation.

Each of our three characters seems to find comfort in violence; one of the only things we know about each character is that they were all, at some point, military men. Taxi Driver follows Travis as he searches for his purpose in the world around him. His loneliness has built up a fury that he’s unable to release no matter how hard he tries, so he turns to be the only thing he knows he is fully capable of becoming. Travis was a veteran who served time in Vietnam, accustoming him to violence. This is where he finds his comfort, but not for a lack of trying. He looks to sex for a release but when Betsy denies him of this, he plans to assassinate the political figure she looks up to and is prepared to kill himself once this occurs. He has deluded himself into thinking that shooting the presidential candidate, and then himself, is an act of heroism. When that fails, he then turns to the other female character in his life: Iris. This is perhaps where the idea of Travis being a contradiction is heightened; Betsy was the person he wanted but could not have, whereas Iris is the person he can have but does not want. Though Iris’ (sexual violence) and Betsy’s (politicized superficiality) worlds are very different, they’re both connected by the clouded journey of Travis’s purpose. Even when he plots to kill with the belief of becoming a pure soldier, his affections for Iris continues to grow, whereby our sympathies towards him are questioned. Throughout the film he tries to understand how he can rid himself of the malice in his head but finds no other way than to kill, leading up to the violent finale. The most interesting part of which is how even though we know of his evil, monstrous intentions, he can be seen as a hero.

Mishima and Toller are perhaps more similar to each other than they are to Bickle. They both attempt to overthrow the system they’re attached to by planning some sort of coup. Their anger both comes from a growing hatred for the people they’re surrounded by. Mishima is a misunderstood narcissist, who devotes his life to becoming a national hero, constantly fighting for the retention of Japan’s ‘heart and soul’ against western inundation. He even forms his own private militia, retaining traditional Japanese morals and codes, whilst his commitment to these ritualistic practices blur his logic, as he forgets the reasons he followed them in the first place. His need to maintain the beauties of the old Japan often escalates into an urge for suicide, finding beauty in ending his life on his command. As he puts it, “suicide as stimulation. I wanted to revive some old traditional sense of order or sense of very strong responsibility.”

        Mishima’s desire for death is as theatrical as his life, whereas Toller’s seems to be the spiritual awakening he was deemed to have many years ago. His building rage comes from him slowly coming to terms with the evil in the world that he has perhaps been shielded from for so long. His downfall into nihilism forces him into agnostic thoughts, questions the very beliefs his whole life has seemingly been built off of. The first two-thirds are much slower in revealing the rage than other films Schrader has made, being more reminiscent of filmmakers like Bresson and Bergman (who Schrader studied extensively in his earlier, formative years). The last third, however, is pure Schrader, chaos bursting through the cracks until Toller himself implodes. As well as Bickle and Mishima, he too is willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the higher ideal he is striving for. They all look to attack their societies violently whilst hoping to find some kind of personal release within these aggressive outbursts. This, again, stems from Schrader himself who wrote Taxi Driver with a loaded gun beside him; he either writes the film and gets everything out or he ends it all.

Even though Schrader did not create the character archetype of ‘God’s lonely man’ and his growing rage, he was a pioneer of it, using it as a vehicle to explore greater existential ideas. These three characters (among others) seem to be very similar at the core, and whose main differences are derivative of living in different times, places, and political states. His exploration of self-destruction, loneliness, and obsession (and, of course, how these thoughts can spiral into violence) make for timeless pieces of cinema that will continue to be relatable for years to come.

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