screened Tuesday, May 20 2007 on 35mm at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
The middle installment of Paul Schrader’s trilogy of urban males entangled in dead-end jobs and murder (including American Gigolo [TSPDT #873], and The Walker) stars Willem Dafoe as a middle-aged drug dealer sliding down the end of his professional and emotional rope. The film improves vastly over the nauseating mix of garish Sirkian camp and austere Bressonian transcendence of American Gigolo, a film too indulgent in B-movie jive to take its seriousness seriously. By contrast, Light Sleeper wears its earnestness almost to a fault, guided by Willem Dafoe’s channeling of Henry Fonda as a Manhattan coke runner, struggling for salvation when old flame and fellow ex-junkie Dana Delany turns up to rip open wounds of guilt and obsession. Schrader directs with professional competence, working with an impressive ensemble (especially Susan Sarandon as the drug den mother) who convey a city full of spiritual vagrants. Schrader’s screenwriting serves them with memorable lines (“You want me to suck your dick? Fine. You want a raise? No.”) and a genuine dose of dignity, as if he’s lived among them. As crisp as their dialogue is at times, their lives are inexorably banal, which might be why critics were unexcited about the film upon its release. But the malaise feels less compensated by style, and therefore less overheated, than even Scorsese’s interpretations of Schrader (i.e. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and therefore more genuine. The lyrics of Michael Been’s running songtrack rob some nuance from the proceedings, but, along with Ed Lachmann’s atmospheric lensing, add mightily to the overall sense of brooding and endangerment.
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At its best, “Light Sleeper” is merely theoretical. Most of the time, though, it is artificial and laughably unbelievable. Even the dark, gritty Manhattan locations don’t add authenticity…
“Light Sleeper” manages to be simultaneously uninflected and melodramatic, its narrative prompting neither intellectual nor emotional response. John is full of quirks (he keeps a journal) and wisdom (heard as narration on the soundtrack) that bend the mind. “When a dealer keeps a diary, it’s time to quit,” he confides at one point. It might also be time to quit when a dealer starts recommending rehab centers, but he doesn’t think of that.
The actors don’t have a very rich time of it. The material is dim, humorless and arid. This is especially true for Ms. Sarandon, an actress with a lot to give when a film treats her right. Mr. Dafoe’s John is a sort of contemporary no-cal substitute for the character the actor played in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” written by Mr. Schrader. John doesn’t have anybody up there to talk to, but he does heed the advice of a psychic. What paltry times we live in.
– Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 21 1992
Paul Schrader has always struck me as more ambitious than gifted. In the years since he wrote the script for ”Taxi Driver” (1976), he has directed a series of edgy, subversive psychodramas (”American Gigolo,” ”Mishima,” ”Patty Hearst”) that, on paper, sound fascinating and, on screen, have almost always turned out to be freeze-dried duds. Now, though, Schrader seems to have found his way. In Light Sleeper, he attains a new, fluid emotionalism. The movie is a small but absorbing mood piece, a canny insider’s view of the life of a Manhattan drug dealer…
In a rainstorm, LeTour runs into Marianne (Dana Delany), his girlfriend from years ago. They were in love, but mostly what they shared was drugs. LeTour explains that he’s clean now, and Marianne believes him (sort of), yet she’s terrified of what he represents — her own susceptibility to drugs. Dafoe and Delany get a beautiful interplay going. In an eerie love scene, LeTour’s reminiscences become a plaintive and shocking reminder of coke’s life-destroying powers.
As LeTour and Marianne fall back into each other’s lives, the movie grows both richer and more rickety. Schrader, in a nod to ”Taxi Driver,” has LeTour reading disaffected diary entries on the soundtrack. Yet we never quite feel what we did in that film — that the hero’s actions are expressions of his tortured psyche. The plot of ”Light Sleeper” is too contrived. When a key character jumps (or is pushed) off a roof, the tragedy just seems a convenience, a way of letting the hero work out his mid-life crisis. Still, even when the film doesn’t gel, one is held by Willem Dafoe’s grimly compelling performance. With his dread-ridden gaze, he captures the yearning desperation of a man who has given up drugs only to discover that he may not have anything else.
– Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
As usual with Schrader, dark moods and lurking evil pre-empt psychological credibility and sound dramatic structure. Neither Marianne’s being driven over the edge (in more ways than one) nor LeTour’s redemption carries much conviction. On the other hand, New York’s rain-tormented nocturnal pavements are scrutinized with unparalleled doggedness and a Steadicam, and the growing pries of black garbage bags (we’re in the midst of a sanitation workers’ strike) suggest something midway between Babel and Armageddon. John and Marianne make love in front of an enormous photomural of Vermeer’s Lacemaker: if this is, as rumored, an actual suite in the Paramount Hotel, prospective hotel guests should think twice; if it is merely an hommage to Claude Goretta’s incomparably superior film, it’s rather self-destructive.
The admirable Susan Sarandon does all she is able to for Ann–plenty, but still not enough. Willem Dafoe, who played Jesus in Schrader and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, delivers cocaine with the same outward impassivity with which he delivered mankind–a boring actor. There are good enough performances from Dana Delany (Marianne)and several others, but any semblance of believability collapses in the final scenes of ludicrous bang-bang mayhem, in which the fevered eschatology of the Calvinist is elbowed out by the febrile violence of the aging adolescent.
– John Simon, The National Review
On occasion in Light Sleeper, Schrader waxes nostalgic about the “good old days” of drug use, “before crack came,” when cocaine was the drug of choice. Otherwise, he graphically depicts the ravages of drugs. His junkies are unromanticized and ultimately pathetic. Despite its top-of-the-line cast, Light Sleeper was too unsexy a film to earn the widespread hype enjoyed by many of Schrader’s earlier films.
In film after film, for year after year, Paul Schrader has been telling this story in one way or another, but never with more humanity than this time.
– Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
Watch Siskel and Ebert’s television review, August 21 1992
The Schrader usage of a prison scene in Light Sleeper is inappropriate, or, more precisely, less effective than in Crime and Punishment or Pickpocket, simply because the protagonist, John LeTour, has not actually transgressed in any way. Or has he? Schrader’s rigorous, “stay on the outside” style does not help any, but clearly his script has problems: whether LeTour could have avoided killing Tis and his bodyguards, or whether he had to do so in order to survive, is slightly open to question. It seems that an element of the former is there, as the feeling of redemption gushes forth in the last shot. Either that or Schrader is a lazy writer, mixing a halfbaked script with a scene that has certain connotations. (Another Bresson aficionado and critic-cum-film-maker Scott Murray, has avoided this problem. In his Devil in the Flesh there is no prison scene, but the transgression-forgiveness pattern is very clear, and also very poignantly done.) Assuming LeTour has to kill in order to survive, then this is a different violence to the ones enacted by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Bruno in Autobus. This is “good” violence, under the euphemism of self defense. That Schrader does not see this violence as tragic, or at least regrettable, is a sign of weakness in his vision of human beings (the victims are reduced to non-entities).
Director Paul Schrader’s rigidly polarized worldview leaves no casual bystanders, and his image of New York City evokes two extremes of a literal cultural hangover: Everything is filmed in either funereal red tones or the cruel white glare of a forensic lab… Like Schrader’s other bleak masterworks, the largely unheralded Patty Hearst and Affliction, Light Sleeper isn’t as interested in its plot as it is in setting up a rotten situation and seeing how its quietly desperate characters adapt or perish. For anyone suffering any vestigial delusions about the 1980s — or, perhaps, our current alleged economic boom — Light Sleeper is an unsparing, unforgettable corrective.
– Ian Grey, City Paper
Read a transcript of the dialogue (missing character attributions)
Excerpts from interview with Paul Schrader
Interviewed by Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 1992
FILMMAKER: In your essay “Notes on Film Noir,” you point out some key elements of that genre, specifically romantic narration and a fear of the future. Both of these elements are present in Light Sleeper but you seem to have made a decision to play down issues of genre and de-emphasize plot elements in favor of character study.
SCHRADER: Each of those films has the same structure. A person goes from day to day, place to place, and has a job which takes him into other worlds. He’s sort of a voyeur who looks into other people’s lives and doesn’t have one of his own. And events happen and sometimes they seem of consequence and sometimes they don’t. At some point the events coalesce and form a plot and he’s under enormous pressure. There’s an explosion and an epilogue. I like that structure. I like that idea of the plot slowly insinuating itself into the drama.
FILMMAKER: What was the production history of Light Sleeper?
SCHRADER: It happened quite quickly. I had the idea in September and finished the script by Christmas and I started shooting in March. [The script] had been turned down by everybody, even with Willem attached, and then I got Susan and still it was turned down with Susan attached. I was able to put together some money. I started with a video deal and then I brought in some French money and then I upped the video deal. The video company was owned by Carolco. My agent pointed out to Mario Kassar, who had not read the script, what a sweet deal this was for the French and that his company was on the video end of it. He read the script and looked at the deal and said, “You’re right, why don’t we make the whole thing?” And that’s how it came about. But it had been passed on by Carolco until I put together this enticing financing arrangement.
FILMMAKER: Didn’t you at one point try to make this film with your own money?
SCHRADER: What happened was, the financing was dawdling. And I had given Susan and Willem a date of March 28 to start. Francis Coppola once said to me, “Just start making a movie and eventually people will believe you’re going to make it and they’ll finance it.” So one day I came into the office and said, “We’re going to go into pre-production.” And then I financed the first three weeks of pre-production until we got the money. I think that that’s what really made it happen, when people realized it was going forward.
FILMMAKER: You’ve scored Light Sleeper with rock ballads that have an almost literal relationship to what’s on screen. The approach makes the film warmer but it also makes the emotional drama kind of obvious.
SCHRADER: Yeah, I don’t’ mind that. Some people have said that it’s a little too obvious, but I like it. That gets to be a personal call. When I wrote the script I had Bob Dylan’s lyrics and I asked Bob for fives songs and he offered five other songs. I didn’t want the songs he wanted to give me and he didn’t want to give me the songs I wanted. But the idea even from the script stage was to have a third voice for the character. He has his dialogue voice and his diary voice and his song voice, which is his most romantic voice. Having it come out of the mouth of another person allowed it to be more romantic. [The music] sounds sort of like film scoring but in fact it’s another way the character can talk to you.
About Paul Schrader
While it is doubtless fanciful and recherché to read Paul Schrader’s movies as unmediated reflections of his own life and feelings, it is nonetheless true that the director/screenwriter’s “religious fascination with the redeeming hero” echoes his extreme fascination with himself. The incredible urge that his characters have to confess (Schrader frequently resorts to voice-overs and interior monologues), exemplified by Travis Bickle’s mutterings in Taxi Driver, Christ’s musings on the cross during his Last Temptation, and Patty Hearst’s thoughts about her abduction, suggest that his films are firmly rooted in self-analysis. The 1989 book Schrader on Schrader, and the filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the bio-pic (Mishima, Patty Hearst), a genre that had been more or less moribund since the time of Paul Muni, testify that he does indeed share the Calvinist urge to account for everything, to make his art out of the introspective inventory of his, or somebody else’s, life. Appropriately, for a confirmed fan of the films of Bresson, the image of the condemned man/woman attempting to escape his/her fate is a leitmotif in Schrader’s work.
– G. C. Macnab, Film Reference.com
I have, perhaps, 10 years of films left in me, and I’m perfectly content to ride the broken-down horse called movies into the cinematic sunset. But if I were starting out (at the beginning of my narrative, so to speak), I doubt I’d turn to films as defined by the 20th century for personal expression…
Motion pictures were the dominant art for the 20th century. Movies were the center of social mores, fashion and design, politics—in short, at the center of culture—and, in so being, dictated the terms of their dominance to the other art forms: literature, theater, and painting were all redefined by their relationship to cinema. Movies have owned the 20th century.
It will not be so in the 21st century. Cultural and technological forces are at work that will change the concept of “movies” as we have known them. I don’t know if there will be a dominant art form in this century, and I’m not sure what form audiovisual media will take, but I am certain movies will never regain the prominence they enjoyed in the last century.
– Schrader, from his essay “Preface: The Book I Didn’t Write,” an introduction to his personal canon of the greatest films of the 20th century, published in Film Comment, September/October 2006
Interview with Schrader by George Kouvaros in Rouge
About Willem Dafoe
Early life: Dafoe, the seventh of eight children, was born William J. Dafoe in Appleton, Wisconsin, the son of Muriel Isabel (née Sprissler), a nurse and Boston native, and Dr. William Alfred Dafoe, a surgeon. His paternal grandfather was from Belleville, Ontario. His birth name is William Dafoe; he changed it to “Willem” (Dutch for “William”) so people would not call him “Billy”. After being expelled from Appleton East High School for making a video that school administrators deemed “pornographic”, he finished his studies at nearby Lawrence University. He then studied drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but left before graduation in order to join the newly formed avant-garde group Theatre X.
Career: After touring with Theatre X for four years in the United States and Europe, he moved to New York City and joined the Performance Group. Dafoe’s film career began in 1981, when he was cast in Heaven’s Gate, but his role was removed from the film during editing. In the mid 80’s he was cast by famed director William Friedkin to star in the classic film To Live And Die In LA, in which Dafoe portrays counterfeiter Rick Masters. A year later he starred as the leader of a motorcycle gang in The Loveless (and later played a similar role in Streets of Fire), but his first breakthrough film role was as the compassionate Sergeant Elias in Platoon (1986). In 1988 Dafoe starred in another movie set during the Vietnam War, this time as CID Agent Buck McGriff in Off Limits. He has since become a popular character actor; due to his harsh facial features and crooked smile, he is often typecast as unstable or villainous characters, such as the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man film series and Barillo in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Before that, he was briefly considered for the role of The Joker by Tim Burton and Sam Hamm for 1989’s Batman. Hamm recalls “We thought, ‘Well, Willem Dafoe looks just like The Joker.'” The role ended up going to Jack Nicholson. He also played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). He once remarked “To this day, I can’t believe I was so brazen to think I could pull off the Jesus role”, though Dafoe received acclaim despite the controversy surrounding the film.
He starred in the erotic drama Body of Evidence with Madonna. In this film, he appeared totally nude, as well as giving Madonna cunnilingus in a famous scene in a carpark. In 1991, Willem Dafoe portrayed a Manhattan drug dealer in the film Light Sleeper. This film received very good reviews by both critics and fans. Dafoe played an eccentric FBI agent in The Boondock Saints (1999) and in American Psycho (2000). He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1986 for Platoon and 2000 for Shadow of the Vampire. After Spider-Man, Dafoe had a rare opportunity to play a heroic film role when he provided the voice of Gill in the animated movie Finding Nemo.
He worked briefly as a model in a 1990 Prada campaign. In 2004, Dafoe lent his likeness and voice for the highly successful James Bond video game Everything or Nothing as villain Nikolai Diavolo. In 2006, he played NYPDAnamorph, opposite Scott Speedman and Peter Stormare. In his most recent film he stars alongside Rowan Atkinson in the sequel to 1997’s Bean, Mr. Bean’s Holiday which was released worldwide March 30, 2007. detective Stan Aubray on the hunt for a serial killer, the lead in New York-set thriller
Personal life: Dafoe met director Elizabeth LeCompte at the Performance Group. LeCompte and Dafoe were part of the restructuring of The Performance Group and became professional collaborators and founding members of The Wooster Group, and began a relationship. Their son, Jack, was born in 1982.
He is part-owner of a restaurant with friend and fellow actor John C. McGinley.
Dafoe’s brother, Donald, is a renowned transplant surgeon and researcher.
About Susan Sarandon
Susan Sarandon answers questions from fans (Time.com, January 30, 2008)
Do you enjoy your recent roles as much as your older ones?
I’m kind of turning into Gene Hackman, doing a lot of these juicy, supporting parts. But I don’t mind. My ego isn’t bruised by not playing the lead. It’s nice not to carry an entire film. I’m a little bit lazy—I suffer from inertia.
I was deeply moved by your performance in Dead Man Walking. How do you feel about the use of capital punishment?
I am viscerally against it. I think it is done capriciously and arbitrarily, depending on color and income. I don’t believe it is the government’s place to kill citizens under any circumstance—especially when it is done badly.
How do you feel about President Bush throwing his weight around in the Middle East?
It has been a disaster. There is a huge disconnect between the real war and the politicized war. I wish that our representatives had more experience with the real war. If any of the men who were eager to get into this war had actually been in one, they would have found a way out.
How would you feel if a woman became President?
There’s absolutely no reason why a woman shouldn’t be in that office, but I am not sure about this woman. It’s insulting to assume that because you’re a woman or a person of color, you would automatically back any woman or person of color. It’s a little more complicated.
Have your political views ever prevented you from landing a role you really wanted?
I don’t know how you would know. People probably think of me as Debbie Downer—I have become kind of a joke in terms of activism for some people. But it is like worrying if your slip is showing when you’re fleeing a burning building. You have to prioritize.
Did you ever imagine that The Rocky Horror Picture Show would become a phenomenon?
Nobody thought that. I did it just to have fun, which is why I do most things I do. I was terrified to sing, and I thought it would help me get over that.
You and Tim Robbins are two of Hollywood’s most talented actors. What is a typical dinner conversation like in the Robbins-Sarandon household?
It’s mostly catching up with the kids. When we have friends over, the kids always bet on how long it will take before we turn to politics. We always forget, and then they say, “That was fast—only one minute and two seconds.”