Light Sleeper

Paul Schrader is one of the most famous contemporary noir screenwriters—having written the critical smash Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese in the early 1970’s. While he’s an admitted lover of film noir, Schrader himself does not believe in neo-noir. He’s a scholarly film buff, having never been able to watch films in his strict religious household growing up, he made up for lost time, studying cinema at some of our nation’s top schools. A favorite and close friend of Pauline Kael, Schrader has hosted noir panels over the year and his comments were recorded by Foster Hirsch and used in the introduction to his book "Detours and Lost Highways." To Schrader, “noir was ‘a movement,’ and therefore restricted in time and place, like neorealism or the French New Wave and that the concept of neo-noir was therefore a mirage,” (1). He argued that “you can’t pull a style out from its roots and the roots of film noir are World War II, and German Expressionism, existentialism, and Freud as they were filtered into pop culture,” (3). “As a filmmaker, you look for rips and tears in the social fabric that can be addressed metaphorically,” Schrader noted specifying that circumstance led the noir directors to those great classic works and stating that it’s too easy for some to rip off and therefore “it gets easy to use the term to describe a lot of films,” (13). Despite his stance as a noir cinema purist, the films that Schrader has written and directed all owe a great debt to noirs of the past and one can argue that although they may not be recognized “children” of noir (in Schrader’s eyes) at the very least, they are the illegitimate sons and daughters of Welles, Lang and others. In his favorite and self-described “best” non-Scorsese screenplay Light Sleeper (Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia) Schrader gets behind the camera himself to continue the “lonely man in a room” stories he began with American Gigolo (and will continue in the near future with The Walker). One of America’s best character actors, Willem Dafoe, plays a forty year old drug delivery boy who’s getting too old for the business and realizes he needs to find new work when his good friend and lady boss, Susan Sarandon, decides to go straight and start a cosmetics company. The film is a very superstitious and almost pre-new agey work with fortune telling and psychics (Schrader’s wife Mary Beth Hurt has a small but vital role as a psychic) and it does border on the slightly campy at times but its moodiness and introspection make it a thoughtful character meditation, but a darn depressing ride. Dana Delany has a heartbreaking role as Dafoe’s former lover, who is trying to keep clean and while we predict that she will have a downfall it feels a bit too rushed and more scenes were needed for the maximum impact. Keeping with the idea of journaling as made famous by Travis Bickle’s contradictory entries and narration in Taxi Driver, Willem Dafoe too sits in his little ugly room scribbling away in a composition notebook. Similar to Driver in a bloody showdown at the end but this one feels a bit more necessary and logical than the over-the-top, exploitative satirical finale of Driver. All in all, although the setting has changed, Schrader’s works always have the recurring themes of loneliness, heartache, and desperation of the white man and one could write an entire paper linking them all together… scribbling away our thoughts like Dafoe or De Niro in his films.