Thursday, December 30, 2010

Close-Up: Paul Schrader - I

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


FADE IN:

...we see Travis' taxi speeding down the rain-
slicked avenue. The action is periodically 
accompanied by Travis' narration. He is reading 
from a haphazard personal diary.

                         TRAVIS (V.O.)
                   (monotone)
            April 10, 1972. Thank God for the
            rain which has helped wash the
            garbage and trash off the sidewalks.
                                                         
TRAVIS' POV of a sleazy midtown side street: Bums, 
hookers,junkies.

                         TRAVIS (V.O.)
            I'm working a single now, which
            means stretch-shifts, six to six,
            sometimes six to eight in the a.m.,
            six days a week.

A MAN IN BUSINESS SUIT hails Travis to the curb.

                         TRAVIS (V.O.)
            It's a hustle, but it keeps me busy.
            I can take in three to three-fifty
            a week, more with skims.

---Excerpt, Taxi Driver

For me, when Paul Schrader burst on the scene in the early 1970s, it was eye-opening. He could generate powerful, visceral tales that, nonetheless, had deep intellectual concerns. As he’ll say below in a moment, what interests him is the confrontation of mass culture by the aberrant and crazy, the “sacred” by the “profane.”

From Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976, Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson, January 26 and 29, 1976:

When I came to movies as an adult critic, I tried to write religious film criticism, in the sense that I saw art in religious terms. As I understand it, religious art is the art of unification, the art that tries to find the common code of symbols and Jungian elements in all experience. It seeks to discover how we are all alike and all unified in a single spiritual purpose. That’s how I was taught to view art, and that’s how I came to film.
I was intrigued by the auteur theory, but I wasn’t taken with it because it seemed to be a pursuit of individuals and idiosyncrasy, and I was interested in just the opposite: common elements of genre, theme, and style that ran through cultures and through individual filmmakers.
When I switched (from film criticism) to screenwriting, I found I no longer saw film as religious art but as secular art. Because in order to be successful, I had to find something that was unique to me by reaching into my own personality and formulate my own problems in a way that solved them. I had to pursue my own idiosyncrasies. As a screenwriter, I found myself doing exactly what I opposed as a critic: writing the kind of things that I would not approve of formerly. I felt I had to do this to be able to create things important to me. So I see myself at this point as a very secular screenwriter pursued by his own demons.
The pursuit of the crazy (aberrant behavior) in his screenwriting …

…provides a very definite problem you have to solve. Will I commit the aberrant form of behavior? Will I vandalize or steal or kill or mutilate myself? You’re dealing with a very definite problem, crazy people; you have to solve it. It’s an easier way to approach cinema, which is (a) kinetic form dealing with action and character, than (film) criticism (his former occupation), which deals with cerebral problems.
His taste in films—as a filmmaker, compared to his earlier critic’s more distanced interest—are his personal, idiosyncratic concerns as an artist, reflected in the sacred to the profane; and his taste:

…splits right in half. On the one hand, directors who are community-oriented, thinking in terms of two-dimensional iconographic relationships to a mass (movies as mass entertainment, mass communication)… I like that…group… That’s one side, regarding the way the architect looks at building a church. Then there’s the other side I’m attracted to: craziness, pure idiosyncrasy, completely antisocial films. Kiss Me Deadly, where it’s just random anger and violence; Rocky Horror Picture Show, (Luis) Buñuel, (Sam) Peckinpah; all those who say, “The whole world is wrong, only I am right, only I exist, my reality is transcendent.” My likes went right to the edges of the bowl. The great American middle didn’t appeal to me—Capra, Cukor, the conventional John Ford. Only the mad John Ford appealed to me; The Searchers, the Ethan Edwards half of him, which I love.  Only the Vertigo side of Hitchcock, the crazy side. In Taxi Driver, those two compelling things are clear: half of it’s Pickpocket, the other half is Kiss Me Deadly or Mean Streets, random brutality all around.
We’ll continue these explorations of Schrader in the next few posts. #

FADE OUT

Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

My likes went right to the edges of the bowl. The great American middle didn’t appeal to me—Capra, Cukor, the conventional John Ford. Only the mad John Ford appealed to me; The Searchers, the Ethan Edwards half of him, which I love. Only the Vertigo side of Hitchcock, the crazy side.
            ---Paul Schrader

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