The Walker Paul Schrader – USA /UK 2007 Woody Harrelson, Lauren Bacall Lily Tomlin, Kristin Thomas
Viewed: 6 Aug 07 Empire Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne: Gala screening free ticket
Woody Harrelson as Carter Page, is the eponymous walker, the name given to a male consort who accompanies high placed ‘society’ ladies to events or situations which their husbands (if they have one) don’t want to attend. Page walks his ladies round and round the social whirl. Schrader’s camera (continually moving – tracking panning) registers an incessant agitation but that does find a point of stillness in the scene in Page’s bedroom, a sort of Egyptian tomb like space where he stores and displays the tools of his trade: his clothes jewellery and male sartorial appurtenances. This scene takes place early in the film. It not only reinforces the perception of Washington as a necropolis, but when Page divests himself of his wig, his manly mane is replaced by stark baldness, a nakedness that points directly to the charade he conducts. A hollowed out man in a dead hollowed out city. A man without a centre in a town without a centre.
I think Paul Schrader’s film compromises its own intention and ambitions.
Schrader’s intention as I read it was to conduct an expressive exploration of the form taken by American power during the Bush administration. This intention would be actualised not through a script that directly probed the central machinations of power, but through an examination of the peripheral zones – the hangers on, the petty criminals the courtiers, courtesans and lackies – such as Carter Page. Instead of allowing Page’s hollowness to pursue its own dance its own logic to find his own lines of flight, Schrader’s script follows a sentimental humanising line of development to suggest the possibility of redemption for his protagonist. This chosen line of development involves a homosexual relationship which becomes increasingly meaningful and central to the plotting in as much as it offers a solution to Page’s problem of personal vacuity. A relationship in which he can ‘find’ himself and confront his Oedipal demons. Of course this is bullshit – redemption of a kind may have worked in Taxi driver, but in The Walker it is unconvincing on its own dramatic terms. At the point that Schrader picks him up, Carter Page is too deeply excavated by the cancer of vanity empty desire and outward presentation for the pat mechanism of a relationship to offer any hope of a new start. Page is a citizen of a bloodless corrupted and debilitated culture. To permit Page the easy relational route through the script compromises the vision and undermines the force of the film’s logic with no dramatic or filmic gain.
Basing the film on the periphery of power was premised on the perception that from the point of view of power the US at this moment is an empty centre. The empty centre of the world. Power has abandoned Washington DC, leaving the town with all the outward signs and indicators of power such as its architecture the self importance of the minor players(courtiers) and an enforcement system. But there is no substance. It is a city of tombs memories and monuments where the living are long gone. It is a city of the dead that is true to a Kafkaesque image of a power that recedes eternally and becomes ever more remote except when suddenly its close up and personal. Like the big corporation that suddenly threatens you with a bill or the consequences of their pollution. Remote and close. Washington has become like Japan under the Shoganate where real power belonged to a war lord who concealed himself behind a series of puppet institutions. Real power lay concealed away from the vacuum of the empty centre.
The Walker works as an assemblage of expressive settings and players Strips of action taken from the social cultural business and criminal events that comprise life in Washington DC. The mood of the film is caught in the opening shot: a wallpaper shot. An endless circular pan across the wallpaper and fittings of the card room in a grand classically apportioned house. As the camera revolves we hear the chatter of the card players who are eventually revealed as Carter and his ladies. The circular nature of the shot evokes the idea of an eternal recurrence with the wallpaper exerting a mesmerising effect (more interesting than the dialogue which is held back) with its richly pattered geometric surface suggesting entrapment and introducing the idea of prison or tomb. Motifs that work its way through the Walker: entrapment; life of the tomb, Rome in precipitous decline, the Egyptian worship of the dead. Moods reinforced by Harrelson’s speech, remarkable not for what he says, “I’m not a very interesting person, ” but more for manner of his enunciation, the monotonal bass quality of his deep Southern accent. Enunciation of death.
The shot also called up for me memory of the opening shot of Resnais’ Last year in Marienbad. Except Resnais’ shot tracks relentlessly forwards in its repetitions, whereas Schraders shot rotates. And the two shots perhaps share something of the same intention to establish a mood and lay out the parameters of the films loci of concern. Among Resnais’ concerns are the problem of memory with its invocation of differential perception the perception of time in the otherness of the other. Resnais has both his own discipline, and that of his scenarist Robbe Grillet to ensure that he never allows plot line to sabotage the form and content of his film. Clarity of intention and commitment to his thesis of the nature of time and film never waver. Schrader allows his film to be muddied by meaningless clutter of oedipal character concerns and a weak plot line which weaken and attenuate the real forces that the film initially sets in motion.