Corporeal prisons: dynamics of body and mise-en-scène in three films by Paul Schrader

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Murphy, Ian
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University College Cork
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This thesis focuses on the complex relationship between representations of the human body and the formal processes of mise-en-scène in three consecutive films by the writer-director Paul Schrader: American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). While Schrader’s work has typically been critiqued under the broad category of masculinity in crisis (and often as a subset of the films of his more famous long-time collaborator, Martin Scorsese), I focus on a fiveyear early period of his filmography when he sought to explore his key themes of bodily crisis, fragmentation and alienation through an unusually intense focus upon the expressive potential of film form, specifically via the combined elements of colour, lighting, camerawork and production design. By approaching these three films as corporeal character studies of troubled figures whose emotional and psychosexual neurosis is experienced in and through the body, I will locate Schrader’s filmmaking process and style within the thematic and aesthetic contexts of both his own early film criticism and the European and Japanese art cinemas that he claims as his primary influence. In doing so, I will establish Schrader’s position as a director whose literary and theological background differentiated him from his peers of the postclassical Hollywood generation, and who thus continually sought to develop his own visual literacy through his relationship with the camera and his collaborations with more overtly style-oriented film artists. But instead of merely focusing on mise-en-scène to gain a formalist appreciation of these films, I mobilise stylistic analysis as a new critical approach towards the problematic discourses of identity and embodiment that have haunted Schrader’s career from the beginning. In particular, I argue that paying closer attention to Schrader’s formal choices sheds new light on how these films – which he approached as exercises in style – repeatedly deal with the volatile and unavoidably body-oriented categories of race, gender and sexuality. In the process, I argue that a formalist attentiveness to mise-en-scène can also provide valuable cultural insights into Schrader’s oeuvre.
Aesthetics , Body , Psychoanalysis , Paul Schrader , Film studies , Continental philosophy , Queer theory
Murphy, I. 2015. Corporeal prisons: dynamics of body and mise-en-scène in three films by Paul Schrader. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.