Paul Schrader is A Great Director, But His Rant About Sunday’s Oscars Was Clueless
Especially When You Consider An Earlier Criticique About Movies Made By His Most Famous Collaborator
About three years ago Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest filmmakers in history, earned the wrath of the Internet when he stated point blank that comic book movies such as the ones making up the Marvel Cinematic Universe were not ‘really films.’ Naturally, the internet lashed out at Scorsese, calling him ‘out of touch.’ Quite a few female critics than argued that in Scorsese was a prime example of a toxic masculinity because all of his films were focused on aggressive males rather than female protagonists.
The latter comment fundamentally shows how out of touch so many people on the Internet are. It is true that more than a few Scorsese movies, including The Irishman and The Departed barely had the presence of a female character. But as anyone who takes a longer view of Scorsese’s work should know, those films are outliers. Ten different actresses earned Oscar nominations for their work in his movies: Ellen Burstyn and Cate Blanchett won Oscars for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Aviator respectively; Jodie Foster and Winona Ryder each earned their first Oscar nominations in his films and Sharon Stone and Juliette Lewis each earned their only Oscar nominations to date for working in his movies.
And there’s a larger point about his critique. While I’ll acknowledge that some of the marvel and DC movies that have been made over the years are cinematic masterpieces — few could argue the power of such films as Christopher Nolan’s reinterpretation of Batman or the genuine strength of the Black Panther movies, the fact remains that they are exceptions rather than the rule. And as someone who is a lover of cinema, there is something fundamentally wrong about the fact that any comic book movie will drown the cinemas across the country for months at a time, while Scorsese had to agree to make The Irishman for Netflix because no studio was willing to put it in the theaters. And he’s not the only great filmmaker who’s been forced to work outside the studio atmosphere: I don’t think it’s a great sign for cinema that Jane Campion won her Oscar for a movie that didn’t see the inside of a studio and that brilliant filmmakers like Sofia Coppola are heading in that direction too. The value of the Marvel films as art can be freely debated; the effect they’re having on the film industry as a whole cannot.
I was reminded of that a couple of days ago when Paul Schrader was interviewed in regard to the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, his commentary seemed incoherent and borderline offensive.
Its worth noting that Schrader has been as much of a force in movies as Scorsese has; indeed the two of them have been linking almost since the start of Scorsese’s career. He wrote the screenplays of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing out the Dead, an undervalued film featuring Nicolas Cage as an ambulance driver. He’s also written and directed some classics of his own, from Blue Collar and American Gigolo, the exceptional Affliction which won James Coburn an Oscar and the superb First Reformed, in which Ethan Hawke portrayed an priest undergoing a spiritual and psychological crisis, which leaves him determined to strap a suicide vest and blow up his church. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters the story of the celebrated Japanese writer who took his own life was listed in Roger Ebert’s third book of Great Movies. There are few filmmakers as gifted as Schrader — and fewer who have received less recognition from the Academy; his nomination for Best Screenplay for First Reformed in 2018 was the first Oscar nomination of any type he had received in his more than forty year career.
Which is one of the reasons that I found his Facebook post about this week’s Oscar’s very hard to comprehend particularly in comparison with Scorsese. Scorsese’s critique of the film industry was based on the problems with the industry. Schrader’s rant — and honestly that’s the kindest way you can consider it — shows that he is, at best, out of touch with how movies work, and at worst an out and out racist. To quote him:
“Oscars not so Hollywood. Diversifying membership, recalibrating how votes are counted these changes have transformed the Hollywood Oscars into the International Oscars. I rather like the provincial origins of the Oscars: Hollywood coming together to celebrate its own….The Oscars mean less each year…the need for revenue compounded by debt carried by the museum and lowering film revenues and the scramble to be woke.”
Quite a few people are struggling to figure out the meaning of this commentary when the xenophobia couldn’t be more clear. Clearly Schrader thinks the Academy Awards are being ‘polluted’ by these nasty foreign films such as Parasite, Roma, and All Quiet on The Western Front. Never mind the fact that for the first seventy years of the Oscar’s existence exactly two foreign films managed to get nominated for Best Picture and All Quiet on The Western Front was only the eighth to get that far. The Academy Awards were established by the American film industry; therefore let all other films be happy we give them Best International film. (I bet Schrader is pissed that we can’t call it ‘Best Foreign Film’ anymore.)
And its not like Schrader doesn’t know his film history. It took more than twenty years for the Oscars to except that films made in England weren’t ‘foreign’ films even when they participated in the nominating process. We eventually got over that hurdle but it took a while. Academy members were never entirely thrilled when Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa made it to the Directing nominations (to be fair, both of those time they knocked Steven Spielberg out) and it’s always seems something more of an obligation when we gave Lifetime Achievement awards to great international film directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Sajavit Ray than Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet. The Oscars has always had a bad history when it comes to diversity.
Schrader, however, seems to be leaning in to the idea that has been a strength of the Oscars rather than a weakness. He may not be the biggest fan of Everything Everywhere All At Once, but arguing against diversity the same night Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian-American actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress is pretty close to a dog whistle to those people — who probably make up a larger percentage of the Academy voting bloc than we want to think — that this is a step in the wrong direction for the Oscars. The fact that he chose to argue that other countries have their own organizations that give awards — which is essentially saying ‘separate but equal’ without saying it — can’t be ignored either. (BAFTA, for the record, gave Best Picture to All Quiet on The Western Front, which I guess according to Schrader’s logic is a violation of their credo.)
Now I will admit that Schrader, given his track record with the Oscars, has a right to some justifiable grievances with the Academy. If you’ve written screenplays for two of the greatest films of all time, directed several other masterpieces, and have to spend year after years watching actors win awards for films you wrote while never getting a nomination for yourself, you’d be entitled to some bitterness. What makes his attitude hard to fathom is that he was basically ignored by the Academy under the old rules and only earned his first nomination in 2018, by which point the rules had been shifting to increasing who voted. Why is he badmouthing changes that almost certainly helped him and hanging firm to a system that never recognized him?
Now I’m not saying the Oscars get everything right or even occasionally right. Martin Scorsese’s record with them is a prime example of this. The first quarter century of his career — from Mean Streets to Bringing out The Dead — is by far his best work, and he received a grand total of three nominations for Best Director for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas. He wasn’t even nominated for directing Taxi Driver, even though the film was and while many actors received nominations and awards for other films he made during this period, much of his best work, from The King of Comedy to The Age of Innocence went unrecognized by the Academy. I have a feeling that almost all of the six nominations he has received in the past twenty years are more done out of a sense of reparation than they are for actual quality of work: while I think quite a few of those films, such as Hugo and The Wolf Of Wall Street do stand among the best of his movies, they don’t compare to the work he was doing at the peak of his career. (And even now, there’s still a disconnect when it comes to recognizing his ability: modern classics such as Shutter Island and Silence never got the time of day from the Oscars.)
Similarly the lack of recognition for Schrader is more appalling, particularly when you consider his body of work. He is not as flashy when it comes to visuals in his directing as Scorsese is, but he as great a talent; in addition to the movies I’ve listed films like The Mosquito Coast, Auto Focus and The Walker are all quiet masterpieces of their genre. Nor is it as if his work has become any less relevant. First Reformed dealt with the issues of environmentalism, eco-terrorism, and corporate greed. The Card Counter, his most recent film dealt with a military interrogator turned gambler.
Both Scorsese and Schrader are entitled to their opinions about the film industry. But it’s hard to see any comparison between Scorsese’s measured critique and what seems to be a racist and xenophobic blast on the part of Schrader. Both men are arguing about way the industry is changing and perhaps a preference to the past, but it’s hard to look at Schrader’s as anything but an excuse for bigotry and xenophobia. Sadly, I imagine he’ll receive more empathy in certain circles than Scorsese did for his.