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Paul Schrader at the HFA

American contradictions
By CHRIS FUJIWARA  |  January 29, 2009

HARDCORE: George Scott transforms himself with alarming ease from a devoutly Calvinist Midwestern businessman into a porn-movie producer.

“The Style of Loneliness: A Paul Schrader Retrospective” | Harvard Film Archive: January 30–February 1
"I'm not sure what happened to me," says Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst, one of the least reliable of the director's succession of unreliable narrators, in the film named for her. Schrader — the subject of a retrospective this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive — doesn't deal in the kind of Hollywood psychology that explains people's actions in terms of devotion to a clear goal. Avowed motives and causes might do for a short plot description. (Hardcore: a father ventures into LA's sordid underbelly in search of his runaway daughter; Mishima: a famous novelist's obsession with what he sees as modern Japan's loss of honor leads him to commit ceremonial suicide.) But the films contradict such simplifications, taking off at tangents to their ostensible main impulses. Schrader's intellectual complexity sometimes leads to murkiness, but it's also yielded at least one superb film.

Schrader will be present at this Friday's screening of MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985; January 30 at 7 pm), which some consider his masterpiece. Ken Ogata's sober, recessive performance confounds expectations: moments of brazenness, of charm (such as the author's sardonic confrontation with left-wing students occupying a Tokyo University building), keep hinting at an underlying self-denial — more like absence of self than self-hatred — that links Mishima to other Schrader antiheroes. The subtlety of this conception of the character seems an unlikely basis for a feature film, but the idea doesn't have to fill a feature, since Schrader interpolates set pieces based on three Mishima works, each stylized in glowing colors and a theatrical mise-en-scène. Furnished with one of Philip Glass's most maddening scores, Mishima is both a grandiloquent and a circumspect work, in tune with the contradictions of a protagonist forever withdrawing from his own tragedy.

In the entertaining AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980; February 1 at 3 pm), the concluding homage (if that's what it is) to Robert Bresson's sublime Pickpocket is at odds with a movie whose logic is that Richard Gere must be punished for being too adept at trading on his good looks. The skepticism that is the keynote of Schrader's attitude toward Gere's high-priced gigolo results in a film that works as an ironic, disabused takedown of the LA of the period and also as (the embryo of) a dark frame-up thriller but falls short as the account of the redemption that comes the character's way via his affair with a senator's wife (Lauren Hutton). The gliding Steadicam shots and the production design combine with Giorgio Moroder's music to steep the characters in waves of free-floating hostility.

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