Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.
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As anyone who has seen Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self (2002) documentary series will doubtless agree, one of the most important developments in 20th Century psychology was the creation, by Abraham Maslow, of the hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy of needs is one part pop psychology, one part classical philosophy and one part mysticism. It presents us with a series of levels to human flourishing. If you can sort out survival then you can work on security. If you become secure then you can work on your emotional health. Once you have healthy relationships you can work on esteem and after esteem comes Self Actualisation. The beauty of Maslow’s hierarchy as it is not only a model for the growth of the self, it is also a justification for a rigid class structure. Not only must the poor struggle to feed themselves but the fact that they are struggling to feed themselves suggests that they’re somehow less evolved as people than the rich people who never worry about skipping a meal. Indeed, Curtis suggests that Maslow’s hierarchy maps directly onto the advertising industry’s ABC model of class. When you market at rich, successful people, you are also marketing at Self Actualised individuals and you should treat them as such.
Obviously, Maslow’s hierarchy is deeply flawed. If you want an insight into how Self Actualised the poor can be then I urge you to go and see Martin Provost’s Seraphine (2008), a film about the creative life of Seraphine Louis who, until she found a patron, washed dirty linen and scrubbed floors in order to buy art supplies. However, Maslow’s hierarchy does demonstrate how easy it is to start talking about relationships in very capitalistic terms. This is an idea that is powerfully explored by Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience.
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