Paul Schrader’s latest film, The Card Counter, was released this week — but you’re excused if the director’s name doesn’t ring a bell.
He’s produced some major film hits over this nearly 50-year career: he wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s seminal thriller Taxi Driver and directed the 1980 crime drama American Gigolo which launched Richard Gere’s career as a leading man. But he’s hardly a household name.
“Paul Schrader doesn’t make commercially-oriented films,” said Howard Suber, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Suber was also the chair of Schrader’s Master of Arts thesis committee.
“He doesn’t make films that the general movie-going public, at least in the days when people did go to movies [in theatres], were interested in seeing.”
Schrader’s films often feature thoughtful discussions over philosophical matters about consumerism in American culture, according to film scholars.
In an era where fast-paced action movies drew big audiences, major studios bristled at funding Schrader’s “slow cinema” films. His 2013 film The Canyons was crowdfunded on Kickstarter.
“Schrader is not so easily associated with those fixed generic structures that dominate American cinema,” said Brian Brems, an English professor at College of DuPage and co-editor of ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader. “And because of that, I think widespread celebration and even access to his work has been a little bit more elusive.”
However, as Schrader’s latest starring Oscar Issac hits theatres exclusively, and following the critical and box office success of First Reformed in 2017, the 75-year-old filmmaker is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
WATCH: Trailer for Paul Schrader’s new film, The Card Counter
But according to Brems’s colleague and co-editor Michelle E. Moore, slow films come in and out of vogue in the U.S. — and Schrader is currently on the upswing.
“It’s very interesting to see that Schrader has come back, that he is getting attention again. He is getting love from American film audiences, really finally since he began his career,” said the English professor.
“I really think that is because we’re in a place where we as a nation are rebelling a bit against the quick pace, and the pandemic has only helped that.”
‘Man in a room’ films
Schrader began his career not as a filmmaker, but a film reviewer under the guidance of Pauline Kael, a renowned critic who wrote for the New Yorker.
From there, he crossed paths with Scorsese, leading him to Taxi Driver. It’s a relationship that remains close today.
“Schrader is one of a group of filmmakers who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Hollywood, the so-called movie brat generation — new Hollywood — that took a new approach to making films within the studio system that challenged the status quo,” said Brems.
The so-called “movie brats” was a group of filmmakers — including Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, John Milius, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg — who found success in Hollywood straight out of film school with a deep understanding of film as a medium.
Schrader’s stories typically centre on a so-called “man in a room” — a troubled individual navigating the trauma they’ve experienced.
The films “are about, usually, a lonely young man who is writing in his diary, who’s going through some big psychic struggle and edging towards the sort of inevitable burst of violence,” said GQ writer Gabriella Paiella.
The Card Counter is no different. Starring Isaac as William Tell, a former military interrogator turned gambler, the film explores his dramatic past after crossing paths with a young man seeking revenge on a military colonel.
For now, you’ll have to go to a theatre to see the film, even as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on into its fourth wave across North America.
“It is not going to be available for streaming, at least initially, which is a very interesting choice,” said Moore.
“When we interviewed him at length for our book, he essentially said the movie theatre is dead. It’s a dead form. So it’s interesting watching us now with this new film, he’s going in and saying now only theaters.”
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Sameer Chhabra.
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