Friday, December 31, 2010

Close-Up: Paul Schrader - II

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.



Halfway down the corridor, Courtland sees Sandra in the wheelchair surrounded by hospital attendants. He raises the gun to fire.

Sandra stares blankly down the corridor. She sees a man racing toward her, carrying a briefcase. He’s pointing something at her.

Courtland aims the gun and is about to pull the trigger when a SECURITY GUARD exiting an adjacent men’s room sees him.
             Hey! What do you think you
             Are doing?

The Guard rushes him, attempting to abort Courtland’s tragic mission. Courtland mercilessly clubs him down with the briefcase. The Guard’s bloodied head falls at Courtland’s feet as the battered briefcase breaks open.

Sandra has emotionlessly watched the men struggle. But when the briefcase breaks open and the corridor begins to fill with swirling bills, her face ignites. She jumps to her feet and starts racing toward the rapidly approaching man.

Moving quickly, now Courtland raises the gun again. He’s just about to pull the trigger and finish the tragedy when he hears Sandra cry out.
             Daddy! Daddy! You came with
             The money!

Courtland stops in his tracks as the horrible truth descends on him. Sandra falls to his feet, scooping up the money and crying joyfully.
             Daddy! Daddy! You came! You

Courtland stares down the gun at his daughter.

Ever so slowly he releases the gun, letting it fall from his hand. Then, suddenly, with the scream of a dying animal, Courtland cries out:

             Amy! Amy!

Their eyes melt into each other. Michael kneels down and sweeps Sandra up into his arms.

Sandra/Amy is overjoyed to have found her father again. Michael is not sure who he is holding in his arms – Elizabeth, Sandra, or Amy – but whoever it is, he loves her. This is all he has ever lived for.

Michael and Sandra spin clockwise in each other’s arms as the CAMERA TURNS COUNTERCLOCKWISE around them. They drift into SLOW MOTION as the SOUND of Patti Page’s soaring VOICE fills the soundtrack:

     “So I’ll keep changing partners until
          You’re in my arms and then,
       Oh, my darling, I’ll never change
               Partners again.”

From the ending of Déjà vu (Obsession), by Paul Schrader, from a story by Paul Schrader and Brian DePalma. 1/17/75 Revised Draft. Slightly edited for space.

Having come out of film criticism, writer-director Paul Schrader has thought a great deal about his art. He’s formed very definite ideas about what makes worthwhile films, and he works toward that in his own films.

There are almost as many “Best” lists as there are films. Every established film writer and most film academics has a variant, and many of the same titles appear over and over, from one to the next of these. Consider this one.

Paul Schrader was solicited by a publisher to offer a definitive “canon” of film, a list that would include the highest examples spanning the length and breadth of cinema. It would do for film what Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon does for literature.

Schrader talked about this in an interview from 2005. We excerpt relevant portions, and then link to his list and an article Schrader wrote explaining his rationale.

Interview with Paul Schrader

by George Kouvaros

PS: ...I’ve been doing a fair amount of research because I agreed to write this book for Faber on the film canon, and I found myself thrown into all this work about the history of the notion of the canon and why it went out of fashion. Film itself, in fact, is one of the things that destroyed the notion of the canon. When people talk about a film canon, it’s kind of a contradictory phrase. So, how can you have a film canon? I’ve been thinking about that. While I was writing this morning, I was thinking about an argument put forward by Dudley Andrew concerning the transitional nature of cinema. It comes from a seed idea by Walter Benjamin. Andrew’s contention is that motion pictures are a way-station in the cavalcade of art history, a stopover en route from nineteenth century written narrative to the twenty-first century world of synthetic images and sounds. While this is perhaps a little bit extreme, it’s also very much to the point.
GK: One thing that cinema did, certainly back in the ‘60s, was to make a canon out of things that were considered non-canonical.
PS: Yep, the Andrew Sarris thing.
GK: Then we had a period where the canon lost its value and film came to be treated as just another cultural text to be analyzed. Among film writers, things are changing again. There is now a sense that we need to be able to recognize, discuss and try to teach what constitutes the landmarks of cinema.
PS: That’s the whole point of what I’m working on now in this long introductory essay. There’s a de facto canon in populist literature and there’s a de facto canon in the academy. So, if you have a de facto canon, why not try to find a way to justify it and raise the bar so fucking high that only a few films get over it?
GK: So, the de facto canon lives?
PS: Yeah, I mean, since it exists anyway. We’ve now reached that point in film history where, without a canon, you cannot talk about history. When I was starting out, there were still people who had seen virtually everything. There’s now so much out there that it beggars the imagination. Film students today have to specialize. You can’t be a film authority in a way that you could be thirty years ago. There’s just too much. (Laughs)
GK: To specialize one needs to first get a sense of the films that constitute the general field.
PS: That’s right, the canon. So, you can look at the high points of Japanese cinema and Iranian cinema and screwball comedy and ask ‘What interests me?’
GK: You said that the canon would be quite an exclusive group. What criteria would you use to define the qualities of a canonical film?
PS: That’s what I’ve been working on now. I’ve been working on this for almost a year and taking classes at Columbia. I’m up to that point in the introductory essay where I’ve gone through the history of the notion of the canon and the history of aesthetics in terms of the creation of the canon and why the canon collapsed. And now I’m in the section of the essay where I’m trying to say under what conditions can there still be a canon. The first condition is that you have to understand cinema as a transitional art in that it’s the art form of the twentieth century, and it’s maybe all over already. You have to look at films in the context of where they came from and where they’re going, somewhere between Victorian melodrama and Andy Warhol rethinking the static shot.
GK: Given your own history as a critic, what role do you see for the critic in defining the canon? For the canon to exist, it needs people to invest in it and sustain it through a practice of critical writing that is quite different to the kinds of critical writing that we confront on a day-to-day basis. This comes from reading some of your comments about criticism as a cadaverous activity, in that it deals with something that isn’t alive. When I read that, I thought immediately about the role of the critic in animating a film, a painting or piece of music. It seems to me that if one sets out to revive the notion of the canon – whether it is in film or any other medium – one is also setting out to revive a form of critical writing capable of bringing the work to life for a reader.
PS: The book was presented to me initially as a variant of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Bloom starts off by asking: If you have a canon, what author must be included? If it’s literature, it must be Shakespeare. How can you have a canon without Shakespeare? And if you have Shakespeare, what work? You must have Hamlet otherwise you don’t have Shakespeare. So, let’s look at Hamlet and say: what makes it canonical? And then you start to work from there. That’s a very clever argument. For me, the key film would be Rules of the Game (1939). You can’t have a canon without [Jean] Renoir and you can’t have Renoir without Rules of the Game. So, the question becomes: ‘What makes Rules of the Game canonical?’ (Laughs) But I’m not that far yet. I’m still talking about the history of the notion of the canon. I’m not even into specific works.
GK: It reminds me somewhat of the opening scene in Hardcore (1979) where the elders are gathered in the room on Christmas morning, debating the theological significance of passages from the Bible. This type of endeavor still seems very important to you.
PS: Yeah, well ... Are you a Christian?
GK: Yes.
PS: Which?
GK: Greek Orthodox.
PS: Well, when it comes to Protestants, people get confused between the evangelicals and the fundamentalists and so forth. There are basically two kinds of Protestants: there’s faith-based and doctrine-based. Mostly, when people think of evangelicals they are thinking of faith-based people. And that’s just: ‘I believe ... and there’s nothing to talk about because I believe. God and Jesus told me and I know.’ Doctrine-based people are people who argue their way through. So, a lot of my upbringing in the church was really just argumentation ... a lot of catechism, a lot of intellectual debate. There is such a large part of Christianity that is anti-intellectual. And the moment you start talking about Christianity, people assume that you’re part of the anti-intellectual group, the anti-Darwin, anti-science group. And, God knows, there are plenty of those. But that wasn’t my background at all.
GK: Have you got to the stage where you have an idea of what you would put into that canon apart from Renoir’s Rules of the Game?
PS: I have a rough idea: a lot of Frenchmen. But because of the nature of film, I don’t know if it’s necessarily auteur-driven. It’s important to understand that there are great collaborative films. The Third Man (1949) is a great collaborative film. And maybe it’s as great a film as a film that has a much stronger sense of authorship.
Schrader went on to publish his canon, and his choices can be found here. His rationale for them can be found in the Preface and Introduction to the full article published in the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment. His key point is, for me, saddening. As I have come to believe, and he concludes, contrary to all those folks who say “movies haven’t scratched the surface” of their potential, movies are pretty much at their end as a relevant art-form. Consider:

Aesthetics, like the canon, is a narrative. It has a beginning, middle, and end. To understand the canon is to understand its narrative. Art is a narrative. Life is a narrative. The universe is a narrative. To understand the universe is to understand its history. Each and every thing is part of a story—beginning, middle, and end.

The much-debated “end of Art” is not the end of painting and sculpture (they abound), but the closing of the plastic arts’ narrative
(italics, LR). Life is full of ends; species die or become outmoded. There are still horses, but the horse’s role in transportation has come to an end. Likewise movies. We’re making horseshoes.
This is abundantly clear by the films that have been produced since the 1960s: fewer and fewer great films. But it is also clear by the advent of other things, primary among them, the internet and its interactive potential. Also, film and video entertainment has long-since expanded out from theaters. But the three things which already have, and will continue to alter the art-form are economics, digital production, and digital delivery/distribution. Television has usurped movies in terms of quality story-telling and prestige productions. YouTube has re-defined what a “movie” is. So, while there will still be motion picture entertainment, it will have lost its preeminence and so its importance.

Schrader’s 60 choices for his canon are interesting.  A case might be made for the argument that says the most important films for any generation appear during that generation’s third decade, its 20s. In Schrader’s case that is 1966 – 1976. And, in fact, he lists 13 films from that time in his life, occupying over 20% of his canon. Another 4 appear within three years either side of that period. Nothing appears from before 1927, just prior to the advent of sound films. And 43 of the 60 titles come from the period, 1940 – 1980. Only 9 films come from the first thirteen years, and only 8 come from the last three decades.

I disagree with the Cinematical writer’s (Jeffrey Anderson) opinion to remove writer-director, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, primarily because of its place among musicals, a bona fide sub-category within cinema. It displayed world-class innovation in its construction (five acts), subject matter (an artist killing himself with his art), its universal relevance despite its specialized subject, and its organic dynamism displayed by its music and dance. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Certainly there were others at this level: for me, The Music Man, Cabaret and West Side Story, to name three. But none quite ascends to the innovative heights reached by the Fosse film (at least for me). And disagreement on lists like these is, of course, the rule, isn’t it? #


Lee A. Matthias

Quotes of the Post:

The first condition is that you have to understand cinema as a transitional art in that it’s the art form of the twentieth century, and it’s maybe all over already.
There are still horses, but the horse’s role in transportation has come to an end. Likewise movies. We’re making horseshoes.
---Paul Schrader

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