Paul Schrader’s writing is as varied as it is prolific.
His work often bridges an otherwise untenable gap – that between the ‘transcendental cinema’ of his grad school thesis and the sticky pulp entertainment of the midnight movie circuit. His films are often defined by their schlock and violence, and yet bear a deeper, perhaps more integral relationship to the precipitous films of Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer.
This cinema of opposites has, however, created something of a constant. Throughout the work of Schrader exists the titular ‘raging bull’, a character archetype whose nature acts as a throughline for Schrader’s essential thematic preoccupation. He (always he) has many ancestors – somewhere between Pickpocket’s rueful loner and The Searcher’s irascible John Wayne – but under Schrader’s pen (and through his camera), he takes on a new and specific tenor.
To illustrate this point, four of Schrader’s characters will be examined against four recurring themes. These are Travis Bickle, the lonely cabbie of Taxi Driver (1975, dir. Martin Scorsese); Jake LaMotta, the real-life boxer depicted in Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese); infamous Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in the also-biographical Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, dir. Paul Schrader); and Reverend Toller, the Bergman-inspired parish priest of First Reformed (2017, dir. Paul Schrader). These individuals, and the films to which they belong, might appear distinct at first blush. Two are fictitious, two are based on real people. They range in socio-economic position, in time period, even in language. Not necessarily obvious bedfellows; but each of them are built from the same thematic tissue.
Perhaps the crucial binding fabric of these four characters is their inherent rejection from, or rejection of, society. Travis Bickle is something of an ur-text in alienation, a man without any real connection to his environment, a man who despite his efforts, cannot understand the world in which he lives. Even biologically – he is unable to sleep, unable to function properly. As a palliative measure he becomes a taxi driver, though in doing so he embodies the distance between him and his city.
He is physically separated from the world by his vehicle, a machine from which he can observe in safety, metal casque and glass visor. He drifts through the city, though is at once apart from it. His filter is only so effective – to maintain his peripatetic life he must occasionally permit entry from the outside. From the driver’s seat, he experiences a cross-section of society: politicians, cuckolds, lovers. And yet, as the camera often signifies, he only sees these people through his rearview mirror. Only a reflection of reality: Plato’s Cab.
Though never so extreme, this dichotomy between the internal and external is consistent. Jake LaMotta is similar in his general failing to interpret the world around him. He cannot see a loyal brother or a faithful wife; his spiteful projection of the world is his only stimulus. Like Bickle, he is defined by his corrosive pessimism, a fundamental belief that it is the exterior – and not the interior – constantly conspiring against him.
The alienation of Mishima and Toller is, as according to their characters, more intellectual. Mishima’s dichotomy divides art and action: he cannot bear this discrepancy. ‘The harmony of pen and sword,’ he wrote, believing truth only lies in the meeting of art and action. Praxis over theory. Toller is of the same mould albeit less abstract. For him, he finds the Church – his Church – discrete from the world it supposedly serves. The apolitical bent of modern holy men intolerable. For all of them, the perceived state of their environment is justification for their separation from it. And each of them, in their way, will make some attempt to bridge this unbridgeable distance.
Their manner of combating alienation is, in every case, a reflection of their own masculine precepts. Bickle, Mishima, and Toller were all at one point military men, and LaMotta’s sport – boxing – necessitates a similarly violent mindset. Bickle, LaMotta, and Mishima each build their bodies in accordance to their belief in the necessity of physical supremacy – in lieu, Toller augments his own with a suicide jacket: his body becomes a weapon. Each of them will ultimately approach their central grievance with their societies violently, hoping to find personal release with aggressive outbursts.
For Bickle, he plans first a political assassination, and upon his failure to execute this plan, he instead shoots the purveyors of a child brothel. This latter act might seem heroic, but Bickle holds it equivalent to the mindless slaughter of a presidential candidate against whom he holds no particular grudge or opinion. For Bickle, violent release is necessary. The exact target of this release, however, is mutable. If his militaristic aims initially implied some ideological intention, any such ideology falls away for a personal, indulgent gratification.
This idea of violent and explosive release is particularly clear in Mishima and Toller, too. Both also plan a grand coup of some kind, and like Bickle they intend to die on the completion of such a coup. And while both have potent ideological foundations, personal, physical need appears to overcome any realistic hope for social or political change. Jake LaMotta is the least pretentious in regard to masculine release, but his behaviour is effectively the same. Instead of one all-encompassing act of violence, LaMotta is defined by constant, smaller bouts.
Outside of the ring he is anxious, nervy. In the ring he can be truthful, direct; he can expel the alienation that, like all these characters, constantly grows within. Scorsese’s direction emphasises this idea: the boxing scenes are shot expressionistically, against an impossible black. LaMotta is isolated with his foe, often caught alone in reverse shot. The very first shot is taken long, a small LaMotta caught between the ropes. His freedom, his cage. LaMotta’s constant failure to find lasting peace is then indicative for the other characters – their enraged outbursts will not save them. Masculine aggression only leads to more pain, for the individual or those close to him.
Inherently interlinked to these violent ejaculations is that word’s more typical connotation. As is often accompanied by masculine conflagration, sexual insecurity and anxiety dominate the psyches of these characters to varying degrees. Bickle might be the most obvious candidate again: he drifts into pornographic moviehouses, attempts to chat up the cashiers thereof, then thinks it an appropriate destination for a first date.
This is a man who doesn’t understand courtship, and is totally removed from sex beyond his own voyeurism. He mentions the cum he has to clean off the backseat of his cab; his initial assassination plot is closely related to the woman who had spurned him; his replacement massacre takes place in a brothel. After concluding his spree he leans back on a couch, pleased and consummated. A finger-gun to the head: la petite mort. Not just an emotional release, but very specifically sexual: orgasmic.
Jake LaMotta’s own sexual inadequacies are alluded to constantly. His violence is primarily fuelled by the wrongfooted belief that his wife is unfaithful; any comment that even vaguely implies as much is enough to trigger a verbal (or physical) onslaught. An offhand comment about a good looking boxer from his wife is met with utter scorn: less a comment on Mrs LaMotta than it is the insecurity of Mr. His failure to perform in the bedroom (as is at one point suggested in dialogue) leaves him emasculated – to retrieve this masculinity, as above, extreme action is required. But much like any orgasm, the relief of combat can only sate him so long, until the guilt and anger return to the fore; the supposedly happy ending of Taxi Driver is tinted by this same knowledge.
The sexuality of Mishima is somewhat more clean-cut, with a repressed homosexuality building to a fever in a society that most assuredly denied that right of being. Indeed, Mishima was (and still is) banned in Japan partially on the grounds of its depiction of Mishima as gay. Toller’s case is a touch more complicated, him rejecting the priary female attention in his workplace, the bespectacled Esther. But despite his supposed claims that he is beyond love (and so, in his profession, sex), he finds himself nonetheless attracted to Mary, his vulnerable charge. Indeed, the final scene of the film (by my money a dream sequence) has the two embrace in a Vertigo kiss, with spinning psychedelic camera. His suicidal release has coincided with a fantasy of sexual consummation – by no means a coincidence.
Central to all of these films are mirrors. As already mentioned, Bickle interprets his world through the mirror in his cab, but more than seeing others, it is best used to see the self. The mirror-scene in Mishima is most striking and indicative. Initially he uses the mirror to dress, ceremoniously donning his military uniform. It is essential that he fulfil his role visually as well as mentally, that his image is correct. Mishima’s military fantasy, the war he never got to fight, is here embodied in his appearance. He looks at himself, his self-perception most essential. But in full costume, several other images flash the screen in monochrome. Mishima in a mask, Mishima in kendo bōgu, Mishima as a fighter pilot. Images of memory and fiction, the internal identities that Mishima is projecting. All of them masked.
Each character has a costume similar to this. Bickle’s has ironically become something of an icon itself, but this is but a reflection of a reflection. His mohawk, military gear, aviator glasses – this is not his identity, but the assumption of an identity. One more derived from cinema than reality, an attempt to relive his own missed military opportunities (he was an honourable discharge). He looks at himself and speaks to the mirror: ‘You talking to me? Well I’m the only one here.’ Another abstraction of himself, alone. Toller’s relationship to iconography is again similar. He dons his bomb vest like Mishima does his military outfit, with dutiful direction. He wishes to encompass something of a cross between eco-terrorist and Thomas Merton – but again, there is an artificality to this presentation. More true is his final appearance in a mirror, in which he coils barbed wire around himself, squirming in agony. This is not noble sacrifice, but consummatory self-flagellation.
LaMotta first looks at the mirror in his tiger-print boxing robe, his own performative appearance for the ring. But his second mirror scene is entirely reversed – he sees an old, corpulent burnout. Like Bickle, he talks to the mirror. He refers to ‘Charlie’, but means himself. LaMotta alone – by his uniquely long life – is granted a modicum of self-awareness. He accuses the mirror, he accuses himself; he accepts that the icon he so wished to be, that of a ‘somebody’, a ‘competitor’, had eluded him. He, like them all, has succumbed to self-indulgence.