Soldiering, Winking, Filming
Paul Schrader simultaneously fascinates and repels me. That’s because he has such intelligent ideas for films, and then makes then in such a pedestrian fashion the inspiration is all but trod away.
And his ideas are so very clever in addition to being intelligently cinematic. Here’s the notion behind this one:
America is a synthetic nation and has depended heavily on film to define itself since World War II. The trunk of this tree is the war picture, in particular the character of American soldiers, and — even more pointed — situations that place in context with other nations. This trunk includes such stalwarts as the Americans in “Great Escape” and “Kwai,” where the Americans were notably more independent and plucky than others. Antiauthoritarian, interested in “girls.” More universally moral but reluctantly so.
Wherever there is a strain of archetype defining films, there is a countering strain to subvert or exploit the archetype. So we had TeeVee shows like “You’ll never Get Rich” (55) where Sgt Bilko took all the positives and made fun of them. “Hogan’s Heroes” was an extension, more abstract and internationally conscious.
But there was a subversion of THAT: the revelation that Crane was inordinately, openly promiscuous, even by Hollywood standards. That was news because we already had “moved the fold.” By that I mean that the point before was in defining what Americans were by straight depiction. With these TeeVee shows (enormously popular) there was a shift: the American was defined as this sophisticated being that was sufficiently self-aware and confident that they could make fun of the “old” selves. In other words, the definition moved to the actor, who embodied a charm and clean humour. Crane and others had dual jobs: they were as much personalities as characters, and those personalities helped us in making up who we were.
The subversion, therefore, was this character full of charm looking us straight in the eye and telling us that opportunistic sex was not only good, but a key component of American charm. All of a sudden, the backlog of film double entendres — all those Cary Grant-like seductions — made this make sense. This stuff is what contributed to the crisis of the late sixties, the invention of a media-led counterculture of folding, and the sex-drugs part of the trinity.
All well and fine. Schrader knows the Crane story is not a simple thread of “boy gets success and the excess destroys him.” Those stories are tired , and in this case just wasn’t true anyway. Schrader turns this into an examination of examining, a film about filming, a peek at peeking. The devil in this somewhat fictitious version of the story is not someone with sex or drugs, but with video technology. The enticement here is not the sex — Crane was already well into that in the radio days — but the film.
Schrader is always best with these types of complexities. A film about film in film, corrupting everything ON the film and making its point by that same, self-corrupting mechanism. It is where the name comes from. Long time collaborator DaFoe understands this. The obvious strategy was that the Crane character be completely unaware of any of these mechanics, a real gamble. So far, a work of genius. But then he gets behind the camera. His actual execution is so concerned with making things “work” he loses sight of what he is about. What we end up is mechanically competent, but lifeless, the genius is bleached away.
Posted in 2003
Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.