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Film review: Light Sleeper and Defending Your Life (Blu-ray release)  

06 August 2021

Stephen Brown revisits two films from the ’90s

Susan Sarandon and Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper

Susan Sarandon and Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper

ANY Paul Schrader film lacking transcendence would be Hamlet without the Prince. The new Blu-ray re-release of his 1992 Light Sleeper (Cert. 15) is the next stage of development for the protagonists of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo.

As in his First Reformed (Arts, 17 July 2018), each is a lonely man seeking redemption. This time, it’s John (Willem Dafoe: Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, which Schrader also scripted). This middle-aged drug-dealer is increasingly uncomfortable as errand-boy to upper-class Manhattan clients, counselling them while delivering. He sits, his scarf simulating a priest’s stole, listening to an addict’s “confession” and ruminations about God.

Ann (Susan Sarandon), John’s boss, announces that she is abandoning drugs and going into the make-up business. Crisis time: he can’t really see himself as an Avon lady. His life, till he went clean, was disastrous. He can do better, he is sure, once discovering a true calling.

Meanwhile, a newspaper headline, “Fall from Grace”, summarises his current state. John happens upon Marianne (Dana Delany) with whom he underwent a dubious wedding ceremony at the Church of Universal Harmony. She is John’s vision of Beatrice as he escapes his circles of hell. Ann even has a statue of Dante’s muse in her apartment.

Things aren’t always what they seem, however. The way of transcendence which Schrader depicts consists of extended emotional confinement for his central character before release occurs. That moment owes much to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Hard-pressed by “the crooked timber of humanity”, from which, Kant said, “no straight thing was ever made”, Schrader presses on with hope that divine salvation ultimately prevails, probably in strange ways.

The writer-director was brought up in a strict Dutch Calvinist home. Now an Episcopalian, after an earlier cocaine-addicted period, he maintains elements of the Reformed tradition. Notable is the idea of predestination. The grace of God condemns, out of love, our sinfulness, and yet brings us home.

Light Sleeper goes about painting this picture of salvation with various levels of narration. Straight dialogue takes us some way, dangling before audiences intriguing lines such as “Convenient memory is a gift of God.” It is John’s voiceovers that provide further insight into what lies beneath these spoken exchanges. Added to this is a song cycle expressing poetically what in natural conversation would sound clunky. Schrader originally wanted to use tracks from Bob Dylan’s religious-phase albums Mercy and Empire Burlesque. When this didn’t work out, he commissioned Michael Been, vocalist with The Call, a metaphysically inclined rock band.

The result is a powerful counterpoint to what is happening on screen. “World’s On Fire” (“I trust myself to Providence”) concludes the film. This is significant because the end is where Schrader starts from. Everything that precedes what he calls the Epilogue has been building towards this transcendental moment, a homage to Robert Bresson’s directing style.

This cinematic masterpiece probably could have done without its action scenes, a concession to commercial pressures. Though the film is available on streaming platforms, the Blu-ray from Lime Wood Media Ltd comes with a banquet of fascinating extras.


Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life

ALBERT BROOKS’s Defending Your Life (Cert. PG), now on Blu-ray, differs significantly from most films that focus on what happens when we die. Their main characters are anxious to return home to complete an interrupted task. Like these, Brooks’s film is set in some sort of transit station. Here, however, a straightforward return to earth as if nothing had changed would be deeply regrettable.

For Brooks, the afterlife is where we examine our spiritual progress so far with a view to moving us towards further growth here or, better still, hereafter. If this sounds a bit like the self-improvement books prevalent 30 years ago, that’s no accident. It’s a 1991 film.

Daniel (Brooks), an advertising executive, is killed in his swish new BMW as he sings along with Barbra Streisand to “Something’s Coming”. For him, it’s Judgement City: a Disneyland with delicious food, bowling alleys, perfect weather, and nice people. Bob (Rip Torn) mentors him through the process, which decides whether he is ready for self-actualisation.

Defending Your Life might appear to be about reincarnation, but Brooks is Jewish, and his film suggests the influence of Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol (1718-1800). In heaven, Zusha asserted, we won’t be asked why we weren’t like Moses, but why we didn’t we live up to our own God-given potential.

Daniel’s formal examination consists of viewing several episodes from his life which Lena (Lee Grant), the prosecutor, presents to two judges. A sequence shows Daniel rehearsing a job interview with his wife, unconditionally demanding a $65,000 salary. The next day, he jumps at the $49,000 first offered, fearing that anything higher would be rejected. Even a snowmobile mishap in which Daniel painfully drags his broken leg to the nearest town is attributed by Lena to survival needs, not courage.

What the missed opportunities of this montage have in common is fear. As Bob says, “It blocks everything: real feelings, true happiness, real joy.” Fortunately for Daniel, along comes Julia (Meryl Streep). She has been saying yes to life, while he always led an existence judging by appearances and rules. Julia demonstrates how perfect love casts out fear.

That is what Lena as well as Bob is urging him towards, too: recognising something about his character which leads to growth. While this old film remains warm, touching, and funny, it chimes in well with he idea of needing spiritual discernment. The film is available on various streaming platforms, but the Blu-ray edition from Criterion Collection has interesting extras, including a theological appraisal from Professor Donna Bowman.

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