on 2 September 2013
Schrader's masterpiece, a real life portrait of NYC before it became a yuppie haven. A story about personal discipline, trust in one's self and one's friends with a big time Bressonian payoff at the end. The story ( a drug dealer's life transition) is trite. The real story, about how trust and hope and the belief in outside grace can make life worthwhile, is deeply touching, suspenseful and joyous. Schrader had not presented this kind of payoff in a film since American Gigolo. It is among the most moving and comforting climaxes of any movie in the last 25 years and I've seen 90% of anything worth watching or even considering. With career best (including Last Temptation) performances by both Dafoe and Sarandon and a really decent widescreen transfer by Optimum (although no decent extras) any real fan who has missed this has missed one of the truly sublime moments in Paul Schrader's career. And you know that he is an artist who counts. Watch it, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. In an article in Film Comment, Schrader lays down some groundrules for great cinema. One of them, which had not really resonated with me before, is repeatability. This is a film which one can watch over and over again with special friends and by oneself, and always receive a tremendous and positive emotional charge. See for yourself.
on 1 February 2006
This is one of a related group of films, written or directed by Schrader, in which the principal is typically a spiritual insomniac, sleepwalking through life. It includes Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (1980) and, more recently, Bringing Out The Dead (1999). They are notable in the way interior states are portrayed, rather than the dynamics of plot, as is so often the case with conventional Hollywood product. Characteristic of this is the way criticism of the present film, for instance, has often focussed around the peremptory nature of the final gunplay. In most of this group of films, the pivotal scene is elsewhere, in an 'epilogue', inspired by the transcendental conclusion of Bresson's Pickpocket (1950). (Schrader has written a book on a small group of directors, Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson, who have a particular world vision.)
Typically Schrader's most successful films have at their centre a social outsider, each of who needs to justify themselves, or to be justified. An unstable war veteran, a male prostitute, a burnt out paramedic: in turn they stumble through an insecure world, a personal earthbound hell, or "a world on fire." Schrader's cinematic somnambulists ultimately find belated grace in the eyes of providence. But when it arrives, it is inevitably achieved through the catharsis of violence, deliberately initiated or not.
Light Sleeper is apparently Schrader's favourite film, and perhaps his most personal. Full of religious overtones, it reflects his background and upbringing in ways that are less explicit in his other films. His parents were strict Calvinists (such was the home regime that it was not until he was 17 that he saw his first film). During his early years, before his big break with the sale of Taxi Driver he himself faced the spectre of drug abuse. He apparently spent long nights awake in porno theatres and overate wildly. While LeTour is not a personal portrait, it is clear that the dealer is someone with whose moral crisis the director has much sympathy, as he faces self-disgust.
As the hero, the gap-toothed, haunted Dafoe is perfectly cast. Critics have remarked upon his white "prune-skinned horse-toothed beauty," the paleness of his flesh suggesting that he can only function at night. As he visits the hotel rooms and penthouse suites of addicts, passing through streets filled with the bagged garbage of the city, he does indeed seem damned, condemning himself over and over. Apparently doomed, he also fulfils the role of confessor. People, he notices, "think they can tell a DD anything - things they wouldn't tell anyone else." His fondness for cheap cologne, evident at key moments, suggests the act of anointing. In the excellent commentary that accompanies the film on the DVD, the director recounts how LeTour drifts round society, a 'peeper', a figure as anxious as Travis was angry in Taxi Driver, or as narcissistic as Julian Kay was in American Gigolo. For Schrader this is essentially the same figure, but one facing a mid life crisis of the soul. We can see the success of Schrader's approach by comparing his work to Landis' underrated Into The Night (1985), which takes sleeplessness as a theme, and in which the hero also ventures out into the unforgiving night. Landis' film is successful in its own terms, but lacks Schrader's moral rigour.
The elegance, and cool classicism, of Light Sleeper produces a style, characteristic of the director, that matches content. There are no jump cuts or abruptness. Instead the director lets his camera remain at a distance or glide suggestively through the streets and corridors of LeTour's world, as if assessing events with a deliberation of its own. Much of the exterior work recalls Taxi Driver, notably when LeTour is being driven through the rain swept streets, although here the position is reversed. The driver in the earlier film has become the driven, perhaps reflecting the dealer's inability to overcome his present moral inertia.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, notably Sarandon, who did the film as a favour to the director, ensuring its finance. Apparently based on a real acquaintance of Schrader, Ann is a notably glamorous supplier, one who remains un-besmirched by the nature of her business. Unlike LeTour, she survives the ups and downs of her profession, to presumably start her new life. It is her hand that offers LeTour moral succour in the notable final scene. The epilogue of Light Sleeper is the most important part of the film. "One and a half hours," blithely remarks the director in his commentary, just "to get to one shot." It's a shot that haunts Schrader, as already mentioned, and echoes down his work. LeTour has been concerned throughout the film that his luck is holding, even consulting a psychic to get favourable readings. By 'luck' Schrader really means grace, and his hero's final scene is as moving and as effective as the parallel one in American Gigolo. Perhaps more so, as here the religious allegory has been so thoroughgoing.
Sharp-eyed viewers of the present title will see a very young David Spade playing the 'Theological Cokehead', sparking off blurry philosophy during one of LeTour's earlier deliveries. The director admits, with amusing candour, that this character is he himself, "the one who got high and talked about God." This is closer to the truth than he modestly suggests. In Light Sleeper, his best film, he reaches a career high detailing providence in a way both stylish and characteristic of his talents.
Light Sleeper is another one of Paul Schrader's nocturnal God's lonely men movies, although Willem Dafoe's drug runner is a lot better adjusted than Travis Bickle and has no delusions of divine purpose even if he does end up in another shootout en route to another of Schrader's 'Pickpocket' endings. The plot is fairly minimal: with his boss (Susan Sarandon - great legs, terrible 80s fashion sense) planning on going respectable and moving into cosmetics, Dafoe finds himself increasingly suspicious that he's going to be sold out on a permanent basis. This is more about character vignettes, many of them pretty good, as he works his way to a kind of redemption. There's one strikingly good piece of visual direction in a scene where Dafoe tries to talk to ex-wife Dana Delany, shot with a foreground pillar seemingly standing before them like an impenetrable wall, and there's a neat throwaway dismissal of the tenets of Calvinism delivered by David Spade's stoned yuppie, but while the film goes down easy it never adds up to much that we haven't seen before. The major change is the milieu - these may still be little people, but they sell to the nouveau riche and travel to drugs drops by chauffeur driven Limo. A good late-night movie, but it's no Bresson.
The widescreen UK DVD also includes an audio commentary by Paul Schrader, scene specific commentary by Susan Sarandon and Willem Dafoe and theatrical trailer