Paul Schrader: cinema’s unfiltered, unsparing and uncompromised auteur

<span>Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryot and Yaphet Kotto in Blue Collar.</span><span>Photograph: Ronald Grant</span>
Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryot and Yaphet Kotto in Blue Collar.Photograph: Ronald Grant

There’s a certain danger in collecting the work of Paul Schrader, as the Criterion Channel has done in a new streaming series that assembles 11 titles in anticipation of his Cannes-feted latest feature Oh, Canada.

Related: Raging bull-terrier: did Martin Scorsese’s dog really eat Paul Schrader’s thumb?

Considered as a whole, the Schrader corpus may superficially appear repetitive to the point of stagnation, revisiting the same thematic concerns with the same narrative devices over and over through nearly a half-century on screen. He does so love his men in rooms, po-faced types haunted by their own capacity for sin as they morosely journal from their spartan living quarters between scandalized nighttime constitutionals to soak in the degradation of humanity. The cycle of transgression, penance and desperate grasping for salvation never stops, its eternal incompletion a key plank in Schrader’s repulsed view of humanity as fallible, alienated and forever at the mercy of its own urges. His characters are all just trying to get into heaven, but he can’t allow them – or himself – inside. Where would they go from there?

The selections that comprise Criterion’s Directed by Paul Schrader, however, make a compelling argument for the usefulness of auteurism in how they challenge and explode the entry-level understanding of the man and his oeuvre. Light Sleeper and Affliction adhere to the typical Schraderesque mold of masculine, noir-inflected moral turpitude, but each addresses finer particulars within it; Light Sleeper comes from a drug user fretting the sea change in New York’s narcotics market from his relatively trusted cocaine to fearsome, lethal crack, while Affliction notably deprives its harried protagonist of the customary “moment of grace” in the final beats as a gesture of respect for Russell Banks, the source novel’s author whom Schrader considered an indirect collaborator. The rest of the picks illustrate his versatility of genre and his flexibility of ideas, continuously tweaked and refined within the familiar terrain of his pet themes and tropes. His films evolve in the same hard-won way as a man locked in an unending struggle to improve his soul: damned to ultimately be themselves, while never giving up the striving to break free.

Schrader also makes for an illuminating subject of study for how legibly the details of his biography map onto his creative sensibility of severe asceticism. Raised by Calvinists under the strict guidelines of traditional piety, a former student of theology and philosophy with designs to become a minister, he didn’t even see his first movie until age 17. (He was “very unimpressed” with Jerry Lewis in The Absent-Minded Professor, so let’s count ourselves lucky that he was sufficiently taken with the Elvis vehicle Wild in the Country to shift his life path.) He pursued his master’s in cinema at the urging of critic Pauline Kael, who inspired him to join her in the time-honored profession. The same emphasis on the cerebral that yielded his essential tome Transcendental Style in Film blossomed naturally into a brutal, unsentimental film-making technique once he took up the camera himself. Judaism has Woody Allen, Catholicism has Martin Scorsese (for whom Schrader wrote such harrowers as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead), and Protestantism has Paul Schrader, the single most guilt-ridden, tormented man in Hollywood.

He made his directorial debut in 1978 with Blue Collar, a multifarious film – equal parts hangout movie in America’s dying auto belt, low-key heist picture and pitch-black commentary on the inhumanity of capitalism – that showed both his intellectual ambitions and his prodigious skill in building tension to unbearable extremes. Schrader’s assessment of industry management and unions as equally culpable in the exploitation of individual workers may seem unfashionable to the pro-labor present, but fitting in with an orderly notion of good politics has never been a priority for the provocateur. The biopic twofer of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Patty Hearst dares viewers to re-examine their perception of ideological radicals with reputations that far precede them, their iconoclastic motivations taken at face value and engaged with in a critical good faith. Though the former subject becomes obsessed with pushing the limits of his own power while the latter must confront just how little she has, either film mounts a sincere effort to square the complex calculus of human choice, as if on the hunt for a whiff of redemption in the spiritually condemned.

In fact, many of the selections in Criterion’s series can be paired off and used as mini-lessons in a grander curriculum on the consistency and change in a rich corpus. Hardcore (the one where George C Scott goes undercover as a pervert to extricate his daughter from the porno biz) and The Canyons (the one where Schrader attempted to calm panicking star Lindsay Lohan before a nude scene by stripping down to his birthday suit right there on set) deliver dueling eulogies for Tinseltown, portrayed first as a seamy underbelly in 1979 and then as a long-in-decline ghost town by 2013. Euro-chic erotic thriller The Comfort of Strangers and the remorselessly lurid Auto Focus put Schrader’s enduring, ambivalent obsession with sex under the microscope, two films joined in their treatment of seduction like a demented game with irresistible appeal that nonetheless exacts a terrible toll. Curious anomalies Cat People and Touch find Schrader toying with the supernatural as well as genre, his forays into horror and comedy both revisiting his signature difficulty of belief, just with panthers or faith healers in place of a distant, indifferent God.

In recent years, Schrader’s filmic output has drawn about as much attention as his posts on Facebook, spicy-to-problematic hot takes on fellow directors, Trump and Taylor Swift breathlessly relayed to other platforms by a cadre of fans. Yet he hasn’t threatened to turn into a parody of himself nor a mascot for the arthouse, never rendered lovable like fellow memefied quote machines Scorsese or Agnes Varda or Werner Herzog, despite his cuddly teddy-bear build. In his from-the-hip opinion-slinging that’s seen his distributors confiscate his login information during release cycles, in his informal apocalypse trilogy of recent features definitively declaring that the Earth is doomed beyond saving, and in his staunch refusal to stop interrogating systems of toxic American influence, he’s remained unsparing and uncompromised. In the last image before Affliction’s outro coda of voiceover, Nick Nolte’s shattered small-town cop sits at a kitchen table, drinking with a straight-ahead stare while a barn and the corpse inside it burn in the background. Schrader imbues all of his antiheroes with a piece of himself, but this shot in particular condenses his essence to one indelible sight: God’s lonely man, maintaining intense focus even as calamity swallows up the world around him.