Light & Dark

Picked up a DVD of DYING OF THE LIGHT in a charity shop, which seems like the movie’s natural destination, and had a dim memory of it being a disastrous production that was taken out of writer-director Paul Schrader’s hands. Then, however, I was able to do a direct comparison with DARK, which is sort-of the director’s cut. Sort of.

DYING is a middling thriller in which a CIA officer with frontal lobe dementia (Nic Cage) tracks down a terrorist with anemia (Alexander Karim). You could say that the producer’s cut is anemic, and Schrader’s response is demented, and you wouldn’t be far off. Obviously demented is better. But not ideal.

DARK was made without access to the original materials, so Schrader and editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr scrambled together the producer’s cut with deleted scenes from the Blu-ray, refilmed shots with a cell phone, and generally exploded and reassembled the material into a radically different form. The director’s cut is 75 minutes to the original’s 96 (Schrader didn’t have to worry about hitting a commercial length since he had no rights to the material and couldn’t commercially release his version). His reclaiming of the footage is a heroic act.

(In fairness to the producers, however, their notes, as quoted by Schrader, seem fairly respectful and reasonable — a case could be made for synthesising what they wanted from the film along with what Schrader wanted, to make something that satisfied everybody. It’s not quite clear what made Schrader decide such an understanding was impossible.)

But is DARK a better film? Is it really less conventional? In some ways, yes, but Schrader can’t escape the fact that he shot fairly conventional coverage. Both cuts even contain establishing shots of building exteriors, like you’d see in a sitcom. I was a bit unfair to Brian DePalma’s DOMINO a while back, not knowing at the time that BDP’s film had run out of money and he hadn’t been able to stage the setpieces he’d had in mind. At least on paper, Schrader’s film is more interesting than DePalma’s, with at least one proper character, Cage’s, and one borderline case, the late Anton Yelchin’s. He does what he can with an underwritten part, and the DARK cut restores a couple of character moments. But DePalma has said, “establishing shots are a waste of time” and when it comes to building exteriors he’s pretty much correct.

Both versions of the film require Cage to wear a FALSE EAR, which is supposed to look like a part has been cut away, but of course they couldn’t do that to Cage (he did have some teeth removed for BIRDY but they were baby teeth that would have had to come out anyway) so they’ve stuck a couple of bits on, resulting in an ear that always seems to be waving at you from behind its owner’s face.

The disruptive effects Schrader is going for in DARK, what he calls “a more aggressive editing style,” is not really anything new, it strikes me as artsy rather than really expressive, and it doesn’t really convey the Cage character’s disorientation in a way that feels subjective. Actually shooting the movie with disorientation as a goal would have achieved that better (but, to be fair, maybe there’s unused coverage that would have done that, but which Schrader couldn’t access). If disorientation is a goal those establishers are REALLY destructive.

There’s also a slight disadvantage in having a lead character plagued with mood swings and sudden shouting, played by an actor who’s made a career of mood swings and sudden shouting. Nothing’s very wrong with what Cage is doing, it’s just a little familiar.

Schrader follows his original plot (another place the disorientation should’ve been used more is in the WRITING) until the end, basically changing the visual and aural texture, and then he boldly has the film disintegrate instead of reaching a climax. It’s a big lightshow meant to signify the state of the protagonist’s mind, though it’s very electronic in both its pictorial effects (digital fragmentation, videotape static) and sound. Even here, Schrader can’t quite commit to abstraction, however, and ends the film with a character’s gravestone, so we can’t complain we never learned how things came out.

Still, it’s undeniably an auteurist disgorgement, able to be read as the most uncomfortable allegory — an aging pro, considered past it and suffering mental decline (Schrader is, I trust, quite healthy, but some of his social media posts might make you wonder) goes on a last desperate mission, with his bosses disowning him, helped only by a younger colleague who has to ignore the quixotic nature of the quest… it’s all there. Not all of it is flattering to the filmmaker. But he reclaimed his movie! And he screwyoued the producers in a highly noncareerist way. I have to admire that.

16 Responses to “Light & Dark”

  1. Miscellany: Schrader sent me two Madonna tickets once. He also argued, quite publicly, that framed Jesus portraits belonged over water fountains in public schools. A strange dude who appreciates your Chiselings, David!

  2. He’s definitely a queer duck, but talented. I do love Mishima and Blue Collar.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    On the Criterion Channel streaming service, there’s a “Meet the Film-makers” docu-series. One episode features Schrader and it’s directed by Alex Ross Perry and it’s quite good and it has him dishing out on the fiasco about this film (reminiscent of the one with Dominion/Exorcist Prequel, so that’s the second time he’s been in this).

    I haven’t seen either version yet. I will say that I like some of the recent Paul Schrader films – The Canyons which was misunderstood and underrated, Dog Eat Dog also with Nicolas Cage and that’s a terrific crime film though quite dark. And First Reformed is a masterpiece. So I don’t think Schrader’s lost any faculties though he’s probably been spending a little too much time on social media doing weird stunts, like giving his private number to anyone to call him online (Full discl.: I called him, he responded and said thanks for the great movies).

  4. I can’t think of another filmmaker whose fixation on an existing film, in his case PICKPOCKET, tried to remake it over and over for decades. FIRST REFORMED is really good. PS-I have news.

  5. Through the usual channels (charity shops) I have Blu-rays of both First Reformed and Dog Eat Dog, and am curious to see both.

    I never felt Schrader’s Pickpocket obsession did his films much good. As he notes, Performance and The Conformist are great films to steal from, since they’re already glittering grab-bags of style. Bresson resists sampling, and I always rather resented the fact that I saw American Gigolo before I saw Pickpocket.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Considering that Paul Schrader grew up without seeing movies and that he gravitated to cinema through specific touchstones rather than the overt cinephilia of others in his generation, to me the references to Pickpocket and others makes sense. Over time, the references take on a different resonance and function than simple cinephilia. At least that’s how I feel.

  7. I used to feel that way. And I still maintain that most of his quasi-knockoffs are garbage. But First Reform (while it doesn’t necessarily vindicate his obsession as a whole) returns to the formula — and it’s an excellent film. MISHIMA has some great color choices that are subtler than I first noticed. Ok, you’re not going to hear my news. You’ll find out soon enough on your own. MUAHAHA!

  8. bensondonald Says:

    Re establishing shots: I love a low-budget plaque bolted to a brick or stone wall, perhaps with a shadow of a tree branch: “Hotel Acme” … “Department of Atomic Science” … “Broadtree Apartments” … “State Women’s Prison” (in smaller letters: “Keep Out”) … Rarely part of the set, always an insert shot.

    A gag I’m still seeking a home for: A character says something is a matter for the proper authorities. Dissolve to the plaque on the wall: “Proper Authorities”.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “First Reformed” is one of Paul’s best. He’s a very original talent ad a very nice guy. His interest in Bresson, specifically thelast scene of “Pickpocket” stems from his obsession with personal redemption — a “sinner” who tries to “make things right.” The difference is Bresson was gay and Paul is straight — though his interest I gay subject matter I prodigious. He hired Fernando Scarfiotti to design “American Gigolo” because of his work on “The Conformist” They became good friend.”Nando” was an “A-Gay Supreme.” But as fascinated as he’s been by the gay world Paul sometime schokes when it comes to the crunch. Everyone know male hustlers make far more money servicing men than women. But Paul couldn’t bring himself to go there. In “The Walker” however he does. He puts the “Pickpocket” scene n the middle and makes it a dramatic interchange between the film’s society gadfly ant-hero and his lover. Woody Harrellson is a very odd piece of casting as te lead, but it works.

  10. I went into FR with a bad attitude, but I have a soft spot for Light Sleeper’s mood. Not a film I’d defend on any other basis, except for Sarandon’s presence. Anyhow, it persuaded me — AND THEN SOME. I get a creepy vibe fro Schrader as if I’m watching him summon a ghost of a ghost of a film.

  11. As our mutual friend B. said of Schrader’s use of his favourite movies, “He leaves slime trails on them.” Again, I make allowances for Performance and Conformist which suit sampling. I allow him to recycle the plot of The Searchers multiple times, and swiping from Taxi Driver in Light Sleeper is arguably allowable, though Jake Hannaford’s “It’s OK to steal from each other, what we must never do is steal from ourselves” is a good line.

    He should do an illegal remix of Light Sleeper using the Dylan songs he originally planned, even playing them on the set. It was a major blow when Bob refused permission.

  12. b’s abiding paranoid obsession? being filmed from below. one resentful camera artisan reacts: “go fuck yourself!”

  13. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “b”? Who’s that?

  14. Daniel and I are talking at cross-purposes. His B is Barbara Steele. Mine is a New York-based writer we both know who doesn’t like being talked about.

  15. OH! Ha. Thanks. Listen, the Barbara book is almost done! Self-publishing? Dunno.

  16. “Cross-purposes” — A GREAT TITLE FOR SOME CO-AUTHORED BOOK! But I think ours is pretty harmonious. In fact, upon further reflection, our Babs book could be done already. Sent you emails.

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