Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor in Blue Collar
Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor in Blue Collar


Directed by Paul Schrader

“No matter how far or how fast you run, you don’t outrun your childhood,” writer-director Paul Schrader told Venice magazine in 2005. “And if you’re raised in an environment of good and evil, a very real hell, moral consequences, that stays with you your whole life.”

This palpable sense of guilt, rooted in the fear of eternal damnation, has been central to Schrader’s films, for better and for worse. An uncommonly serious figure in American movies, he’s confronted the darkest reaches of spiritual transgression more often than any of his peers from the 1970s. He’s also responsible for some of the most heavy-handed and joyless movies ever made in this country.

Yet even at his worst Schrader is still a courageous filmmaker, and the fact that he’s been so marginalized by the movie business in the past few years is a loss to our national film culture.

Born into a Calvinist community in central Michigan, Schrader was raised on the strict doctrine of predestination, which teaches that God has already ordained who will be saved and who will be damned. The ideology was literally beaten into him—his father was physically abusive as well as rigidly fundamentalist—and though Schrader formally renounced it in the 70s, it’s remained a strong influence on his work.

The sort of anxiety revealed in the above quotation permeates his stories to powerful effect. Yet Schrader’s Calvinism influences his movies most profoundly in his tendency to adopt the perspective of a cruel, impassive God, shutting down any alternative to his characters’ doom.

Schrader’s approach to most subjects is to pound away their contours until they fit his own established worldview. Neither American Gigolo (1980), an arid drama about high-class prostitution in Los Angeles, nor Light Sleeper (1992), a somewhat livelier movie about drug dealers in New York, has much to say about its respective milieu. In Schrader’s movies the texture of everyday life—which is often the very stuff of movies—often becomes irrelevant, a veneer for the characters’ spiritual crises.

One of the more offensive examples of this tendency is Auto Focus (2002), Schrader’s overreaching attempt to paint the pathetic, sex-addicted sitcom actor Bob Crane as a tragic figure. But I must admit that for days after seeing Auto Focus (or any Schrader film I’ve disliked, for that matter), I couldn’t stop thinking about it. He focuses so mercilessly on characters who destroy themselves that his stories demand to be reckoned with. To write Schrader off completely is to ignore a punitive aspect of Protestantism that’s always been part of American life.

Schrader has made some fine movies (Affliction, his 1997 adaptation of the Russell Banks novel, was the last), but I have a hard time regarding any of them (even the uniquely disquieting Gigolo and Sleeper) as masterpieces. With much of his work I get the sense that I need to feel guilty or uncomfortable before I can get a handle on the material intellectually. This may be commendable as an aspect of personal filmmaking, particularly when so much mainstream American cinema aims to make people feel blandly “good.” But it can also inhibit one from developing a broader understanding of the world, the defining characteristic of a truly great movie.

Blue Collar (1978)—which screens in a new print at Music Box this Friday and Saturday at midnight—was Schrader’s first film as director. It’s no less schematic than his later work: the three main characters, union men at a Checker Cab plant, are best friends at the beginning and by the end have turned violently against each other.

The feel of the movie, however, is significantly looser than any Schrader would achieve later: people joke, talk jive, and generally seem to enjoy each other’s company. The early scenes, set in a neighborhood dive bar, have an off-the-cuff vibrancy that’s comparable to those in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (or the diner sequences in Taxi Driver, which Schrader scripted). One is so convinced by the friendship between Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel), and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) that their eventual falling out registers emotionally, not as a theological proof.

Building on his fascination with characters’ inner lives, Schrader has always been a tremendous director of actors, and his work with Pryor here is one of his best collaborations with a performer. The qualities that made Pryor’s stand-up comedy so vital—a mastery of small detail, an empathy that enabled him to disappear into character, an imagination that made even his despair about social issues funny—are plenty evident in Blue Collar. Complaining to a union rep about his busted locker, Pryor riffs with an energy reminiscent of his best routines: “Now I have to use ballpoint pens [on the lock]. I’m sticking ’em in there and they keep breaking off. I done blew twenty dollars on ballpoint pens.” When the rep begins to interject, Pryor replies, “Man, flick my Bic!”

He’s just as affecting in the dramatic scenes, completely vulnerable as a man who’s terrified of going bankrupt and failing his wife and children.

Also unlike Schrader’s other movies, Blue Collar displays a remarkable specificity. The scenes in the auto plant feature compelling shots of machines and men hard at work that recall both the verité documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and the gritty realism of 70s blaxploitation filmmaking. The moral crises of Blue Collar are no less dire than in Schrader’s more religiously themed work, but here they spring from a fully observed environment. As a result, the movie is affecting as a social portrait as well as a psychological drama.

By the middle of the film the three men have been driven to crime by their money troubles (Jerry’s worry over how he’s going to afford his daughter’s braces without any dental insurance is especially convincing). The men are also resentful of and angry at their union leaders, who haven’t acknowledged their demands in years.

In this case Schrader’s determinism infuses the men’s frustrations with a violent dread: racial slurs are commonplace at the plant, and arguments between workers and management often break down into threats. The men’s scheme to rip off their union office seems like a case of two wrongs making a right, yet this moral transgression sets the stage for a despairing final act.

For all the movie’s pessimism, though, Schrader doesn’t force the conclusion that his characters are doomed by their actions. During the robbery the friends discover documents incriminating the union reps, and each of the three has a different idea of how to exploit this information. Their conflict remains unresolved even at the end of the film.

After the issue has driven the men apart, Jerry confronts Zeke on the factory floor; they’ve both made hard compromises, but neither can be judged as more right or wrong. Schrader ends the film with an abrupt freeze-frame as the men are about to come to blows, as if to confront us with an ethical puzzle. For the characters and the audience alike, it’s an exhilarating moment of free choice, the sort that’s become all too rare in Schrader’s ensuing work.