On Familiar Ground: Paul Schrader and the Death Impulse

As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its projected peak, the need to stay indoors takes on a renewed urgency. But, for a good many, self-isolation is less than a luxury. Escape is needed, and there are fewer art forms that offer escape like the movies. 
For the upcoming days, weeks, maybe even months, I will be re-posting several old VagueVisage articles, all of which you can find either for rent or streaming online. Here’s hoping it will soothe your soul for at least an hour or two.

I always thought I wanted to be a film critic. Then I ran into a whole series of problems in my life, which could not be addressed by non-fiction. … I had to give life to these demons before these demons gave life to me. And that was ‘Taxi Driver.’ —Paul Schrader

A director only makes one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again. —Jean Renoir

First Reformed — currently streaming via Amazon Prime, Hoopla, and Kanopy — is the latest from writer-director extraordinaire Paul Schrader. The story follows Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, in one of his best performances), a middle-aged parish pastor slowly withering into despair as his congregation falls in obsolescence. His call to action comes when a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak with her husband (Philip Ettinger), a troubled young man who is buckling under the burdens of the world like a donkey buried beneath a heavy load.

Though Toller goes to instill some sense of hope in the troubled man, he quickly realizes he is not fighting for the young man’s soul but his own. Conversation gives way to purpose, and Toller is transformed from a knight of resignation to a man of action.

While the first two acts of First Reformed are decidedly Bergman and Bresson — with a dash of Tarkovsky and Dreyer thrown in for good measure — the finale belongs solely to Schrader. Many will draw parallels to Taxi Driver — the connections between the films are numerous — but there is another movie in Schrader’s filmography that provides the flipside of Toller’s asceticism; another true believer who was motivated to action. And not just any action, but the grand theatricality of action: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).

The more I wrote, the more I realized that mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression. —Yukio Mishima

Born Kimitake Hiraoka, Yukio Mishima was a novelist, poet, playwright, actor, director, model, and nationalist. He was a man of devout beliefs, obsessive creation, and profound action; he even managed to command a private militia, fully authorized by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). And on November 25, 1970, Mishima and four of his hand-chosen acolytes, the Tatenokai, stormed the offices of JSDF’s Eastern Command, captured the commandant, and addressed the soldiers outside. But the speech was drowned out by boos and jeers, and Mishima returned to the office where he committed hara-kiri, ritualistic suicide. He was 45.

I don’t want to revive hara-kiri itself, but through the vision of such a very strong vision of hara-kiri, I wanted to inspire and stimulate younger people: Suicide as stimulation. I wanted to revive some old traditional sense of order or sense of very strong responsibility.

 Mishima on the ending of his book, Runaway Horses, published in 1969.

Here was a man from a completely different culture, Eastern, very articulate, very accomplished, very successful in the world, yet afflicted with the same pathology of suicidal glory that had afflicted my Travis Bickle character. [Mishima] was a way to see this kind of pathology from radically different perspectives, because I had been accused, at the time of Taxi Driver, of writing down to the character; of using an illiterate to express my suicidal neuroses.

Paul Schrader
Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro during the making of Taxi Driver (1976). Photograph by Steve Shapiro.

When we talk about the cinema of Schrader, all roads lead to Taxi Driver (1976), and it’s easy to see why. This collaboration simultaneously feels like a typical Martin Scorsese film with its emphasis on isolation, obsession, and violence (along with a tour de force from actor Robert De Niro), and yet still comes across as wholly Schrader. Even the genesis of the script plays into a greater narrative: Schrader places a loaded gun on the desk next to the typewriter, prompting him to either finish the script or end it all.

Taxi Driver was neither the first time Schrader used suicide as a motivating factor, nor would it be the last, artistically speaking. Before Schrader came to Mishima, he was researching country musician Hank Williams (who died at 29 from prescription drug and alcohol abuse) in hopes of finding the artistic bookend for Travis Bickle. Then Schrader’s older brother, Leonard, brought the life and death of Mishima to Schrader’s attention. Schrader quickly realized it was Mishima, not Williams, who could provide the opposite of Bickle and switched projects.

Leonard, who fled to Japan as a missionary to escape the draft, co-authored the script with his wife, Chieko Schrader, translating the dialogue to Japanese. Thanks to financial help from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and a little wheeling and dealing to get Mishima’s widow to play ball, Schrader reteamed with cinematographer John Bailey — they worked together on American Gigolo (1980) and Cat People (1982) — and employed Japanese graphic artist Eiko Ishioka as production designer for the movie’s expansive and lush interpretations of Mishima’s novels. Schrader also brought in Philip Glass to write the score.

From the first frame to the last, Mishima pulses with life and urgency. Schrader tells the story using a tetralogy structure, effectively informing the audience about the timeline of Mishima’s life and work. The biographical elements of Mishima’s upbringing are filmed in black and white with a locked-down camera, while the scenes from his novels are set inside Ishioka’s lush and saturated sets. Schrader and Bailey then filmed Mishima’s last day in a hand-held vérité style invoking Costa-Gavras political thrillers.

As Schrader has stated in multiple interviews, what interests him most is “a man and his room.” With Mishima, Schrader didn’t just find a man who poured his heart and soul out in that room, writing feverishly every night, he found another protagonist who was willing to take the step that turns a private obsession into a public act. “The suicide captured the world’s imagination,” Schrader told interviewer Kevin Jackson, and it certainly captured mine.”

As Kevin Jackson points out in his essay on Mishima for the Criterion Collection release: “The themes of isolation, introspection, and self-destruction that had given such force to the likes of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo were brought to a new pitch of subtlety when [Schrader] found a real-life character in whom the opposing forces of self-creation and self-destruction fought a strange, and, in the end, terrible battle.”

Jackson’s assessment is equally applicable to First Reformed, forming a trilogy with Taxi Driver and Mishima; a trilogy that has something to do with death and everything to do with expression — from Bickle’s pent-up angst that can only be relayed through his journal or through his gun, to Mishima’s desire for a death as theatrical as his life, to Reverend Toller’s spiritual awakening. Taken together, they provide a sense of Schrader’s approach to expression and beautifully illustrate a line from another Schrader script, The Yakuza (1974): “When someone in the West cracks up, they open a window and shoot people outside. When someone in the East cracks up, they close the window and shoot themselves.”

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is available to stream at The Criterion Channel. All photos from Mishima courtesy Janus Films. Header image from First Reformed courtesy A24.