Saturday, March 26, 2011

Schraderfest 2011: Taxi Driver at the IU Cinema

Many moons ago, when Roger Ebert's review of Taxi Driver first came to my impressionable attention (in one of his earliest anthologies, possibly the 1984 or 1985 edition), little did I imagine that one day I'd have the opportunity to speak in person with one of that movie's key creators. Two nights ago, I had the honor of leading a Question-and-Answer session with Paul Schrader following a screening of the newly restored 35th-anniversary Taxi Driver that's been making the rounds, from Berlin to New York to Bloomington, IN. I'm not employed at the IU Cinema (I work nearby), but Jon Vickers, the Cinema's intrepid director, kindly offered me the opportunity to introduce Schrader before the film and do the Q&A after. It was an exhilarating experience that's left my brain abuzz. Here, in an attempt at reflection, were some of the highlights:

1. During a reception before the introduction before the movie before the Q&A, I told Schrader that my research for possible questions to ask him led me to conclude that there probably are no questions about this movie that he's never answered. He laughed and said, "That's okay. I often make up a question in my head and answer that one instead."

2. Paul Schrader is relatively short (though not as short as Scorsese) and stocky, highly verbose and articulate. From interviews I'd seen on YouTube, I was under the impression that he was a mellow, low-key guy. That's sort of true, if one goes in preconceptions about the man who created Travis Bickle. In an academic way, though, he has major backbone, bridles at questions he doesn't like and likes to argue. I can imagine that experiences with cultural lightning-rods like Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ would tend to rid one of fear, if one had any to begin with.

3. I wrote my own introduction of Schrader, calling him "a unique and significant voice in American cinema for more than 40 years." I meant that, too. How many people have contributed important work in film criticism, screenwriting, and directing? I also gently kidded him about having to choose between becoming a Calvinist minister and becoming a film critic, with his mentor Pauline Kael steering him in the direction you can guess.

4. I was nervous about introducing him (especially when the podium, which was on wheels, suddenly lurched forward when I started talking), and deeply relieved that he seemed moved by what I said. He came up to the stage with his head bowed, shook my hand, held it for a second, then spoke for a couple of minutes about how the idea for Taxi Driver came into being. Veteran movie fans have probably heard parts of that story before: Schrader lost his wife, lost his job, checked into the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, was lonely, depressed, and squatting at his ex-girlfriend's apartment in Los Angeles when a vision of the homicidal New York cabbie first appeared to him. I suspect, though, that for much of the sell-out audience (which leaned toward a younger demographic than other movies I've attended there), they had never heard the background of the story before, and that may have helped their understanding of the movie.

5. The restoration looks great, by the way. My first encounter with Taxi Driver was on shitty VHS tape shortly after reading Ebert's review. (I was only a toddler in 1976, when it was originally released.) More recently, I saw an edited-for-TV version on AMC and a decent 25th or 30th anniversary DVD. Needless to say, none of these experiences compare to finally seeing in on the big screen. The damn thing envelopes you.

6. Paul Schrader went to dinner during the showing and came back for the Q&A. Amazingly, he hasn't viewed Taxi Driver in its entirety in 35 years; neither has Scorsese. But he knows the movie by heart and was up to speed on all the issues involved in the new restoration, though not involved in them directly.

7. Surprisingly, I didn't feel nervous at all onstage during the Q&A. The only glitch was that my microphone had been attached to the left lapel of my sport jacket while I was facing Schrader on my right. During our preliminary remarks, my voice faded in and out with every turn of my head, like Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain. Quickly I switched the mike to my right lapel; things went smoothly after that.

8. For my first question (which I had struggled with all week), I quoted Jonathan Rosenbaum's review that Taxi Driver was "the work of four auteurs: Schrader, Scorsese, De Niro, and Bernard Herrmann," and asked Paul to talk about how they each came to collaborate on the film. "I don't care much for Jonathan Rosenbaum," he growled amusingly, which got the first of many laughs from the audience. "We're off to a good start, then," I replied.

9. Schrader spent more time than I expected talking about Herrmann. Perhaps he'd talked about Scorsese and De Niro so often that he was happy to talk about something else; it's also significant that the last two movies that Herrmann scored (Taxi Driver and Brian De Palma's Obsession) were both scripted by Schrader. Later on, I mentioned that Herrmann's score was the only thing Pauline Kael didn't like about the movie. "She was wrong about that," he said.

10. When the discussion turned to De Niro, I asked Schrader if he felt that the actor's presence "subtly altered the concept of the character" from a fish-out-of-water Midwesterner shocked by what he sees to a born and bred New Yorker who's been living with "filth and scum" all his life and finally snaps. I don't recall his answer (beyond "Bob tried to do a Midwestern accent"), but it seemed like he'd never been asked before. That may have been my best question.

11. My worst question was a long-winded comparison between Taxi Driver and Nashville -- the latter of which, we immediately learned, is a film for which Schrader has nothing but contempt. "Why would somebody who hates country music want to make a movie about country music?" he asked. Actually, I wasn't implying that the films were similar in form or content; I was trying a different tack to bring in the John Hinckley, Jr./Jodie Foster/President Reagan issue that he's had to endure a million times, and that Taxi Driver -- like Nashville only three months earlier, when John Lennon was killed -- had been accused in some quarters of influencing the assassin. I could have asked the question more succinctly, though.

(11a. This is pure conjecture, but I wonder if Schrader's aborted 70s-era project on Hank Williams, Jr. - whom he has hilariously called a "Travis Bickle who can sing" -- colors his opinion of Altman and Nashville?)

12. That said, Schrader did come around to addressing the topic. He recounted the story (which he's told before) that when he heard on the radio that Reagan had been shot, his first thought was, "It was one of those Taxi Driver kids." He also admitted again that he'd initially told the FBI that he'd never heard from Hinckley, when actually he'd been bombarded with requests for Foster's contact info.

13. Questions from the audience were far-ranging and excellent. I'd held off on the race issue in the movie and was glad that a perceptive student broached the subject. For time's sake, I also hadn't asked a question I'd written about Taxi Driver's relationship to film noir, and Schrader seemed happy to answer that one from the audience too. (In sum, he believes there isn't one.) It was also an endearing moment when another student raised his hand to tell Schrader how much he liked the scene in the porno theater when Travis, spurned by the black cashier (played by De Niro's at-the-time real-life special-lady-friend Diahnne Abbott), "asks for Chuckles." I know what he means; I like the Chuckles scene too.

14. Paul Schrader is more technologically-savvy than one might expect. He's a connoisseur of social media, loves i-Phone, and eagerly downloads movies (like his own Rolling Thunder) from BitTorrent. My question about whether he'd be willing to shoot a movie on digital prompted an unqualified "Absolutely."

15. Schrader is also grim about contemporary cinema and what it bodes for the medium's future. "How many good movies came out of Hollywood this year?" he asked. (Answering his own question, he named one: The Social Network.) "There was time when a good movie came out every week." While I'm getting tired of apocalyptic pronouncements (everything is always dying, in a sense), it's hard to dispute his point. Especially when he supported it by dryly referring to a trio of projects he's currently working on not by their titles but rather "Mexican money, Indian money, and Colombian money." What Schrader meant was that Hollywood no longer finances the kind of movies he's interested in making; he (and other filmmakers) have to find other sources of revenue.

16. Funniest Q&A moment: Schrader describing Pauline Kael's reaction the first time she read his script (which we had discussed earlier at the reception). So disturbed was Kael by what she had read that she tossed the screenplay into her closet, threw clothes over it and shut the door. Runner-up funniest moment: At the end of the Q&A, a cute perky blonde girl in the back excitedly raised her hand for the final question, prompting Schrader to address her as "Reese Witherspoon!"

(16a. Actually, he called her "Renee Witherspoon." He'd knocked back a few that evening.)

17. My favorite moment may have been the revelation about how much Schrader dreaded Scorsese's casting of himself (filling in for another actor who had dropped out) as the jealous husband in that crucial scene where the seed is planted in Travis's head that he should take up a colleague's offer to buy a gun. "I know that I'd hate seeing myself act onscreen," Schrader said, adding that he told Scorsese that he would hate his own performance and would want to cut the scene. Turns out, "He loved himself!"

Thus concluded my experience with Paul Schrader. It's a thrill to be able to talk with someone whose work you have genuinely admired over the years.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Chameleon Kid (Rango)

Why, you ask, would a self-promoted animation agnostic opt to see Rango? Needing a light-hearted and colorful palette-cleanser between Netflix viewings of Taxi Driver and The Warriors compels a man to resort to desperate measures, though in truth Gore Verbinski's foray into Pixar territory has more in common with that kind of adult fare than one might expect. An oddball Polanski-Leone mashup, Rango chronicles a journey of self-actualization for a day-dreaming lizard protagonist (voiced by Johnny Depp, but you already knew that) who becomes the sheriff of a Western town occupied by assorted creepy-crawlies in the midst of a deadly drought. It's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Chinatown, with a menagerie of desert critters (possums, bats, armadillos) less engagingly repulsive than the likes of Tuco or Noah Cross, yet generally amusing enough to hold your attention.

Or, at least, the attention-span of adults. Rango is a good illustration of how disaster-proof Hollywood fare has become: the last time an alleged kiddie movie ended up being so kid-unfriendly, it went by the name of Babe: Pig in the City and was a megaton bomb. Movie marketing is too savvy to allow that sort of thing to happen anymore. Rango's been hyped as a "Johnny Depp movie" (to the point where reviewers are giving the impression that he's actually in the film), with trailers suggesting quite the bouncy entertainment. The bounce is there, all right, but it just barely propels the narrative over a surprising amount of visual grotesqueries (talking road-kill) and out-of-place scatological humor (a mammogram joke in an animated movie is, I think, a first). A disgusted mother taking her young son out of the theater afterward said, "Thank God we didn't pay full price for that!" Still, they'd been enticed enough to come.

The second-half of the movie was more involving than the first -- maybe because its free-associative spirit settles into something more substantial, or maybe because I finally moved a few rows down from the teenage couple necking in the disabled section directly behind me. (From the looks of it, they were fully mobile.) Rango doesn't have the dizzying highs of Babe: Pig in the City; Verbinski's not a crackpot visionary like George Miller. At his best, he's an able showman with a flair for viual slapstick: the action set-piece halfway into the picture echoes Apocalypse Now (with a banjo cover of Ride of the Valkyries), the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the climactic pursuit from Miller's The Road Warrior. Verbinski also brings in a dash of emotional heft when Rango encounters The Spirit of the West, a.k.a. Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name (well-voiced by Timothy Olyphant). The scene is a standard movie trope -- the hero's encounter with a sage during a point of crisis -- yet The Spirit's suggestion that we are what we do is fairly profound. So is his alluring description of heaven, which apparently has something to do with Kim Novak and Pop-Tarts.

Rango occupies a welcome middle-ground between Pixar's manic blandness and David Lynch's strenuous eccentricity. If you're going to reference pop-culture, the references in Rango are just unexpected enough to work. (The only missed opportunity was a Polanski-voiced cameo for a knife-wielding midget: "You're a nosy fella, ain't ya?" could have been easily included without breaking the mood.) All the same, I am growing weary of movies that flatter our knowledge of other movies; it's moved to the opposite extreme of American cinema from a generation ago, where film characters usually spoke about films they'd seen in vague generalities. ("I liked that character." "Well, I liked the other character"....) I'm not asking for a return to hermetically-sealed cinema. An original idea or two, though, might be a nice change of pace.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Write It Again, Sam (Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart)

A few notes on Stefan Kanfer's Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart (2011):

1. I've no reason to doubt Kanfer's assertion that Bogie's straight-shooter persona cloaked bottomless contradictions. Yet his biography made me wish -- just once, for the sake of variety -- to read about an individual whose complex facade disguises a deep, profound simplicity.

2. Kanfer is a good writer with a prose style so clean it's practically ironed. If that's not exactly compelling or sexy, it's enough of a rarity to keep you turning the page.

3. Tough Without a Gun raises an intriguing question: How has Humphrey Bogart, an actor very much of his time, managed to stay relevant for more than fifty years after his death? The book's mistake is delaying the answer until the final thirty pages, rather than giving the "Afterlife" portion of the title more weight.

4. Without that, Tough Without a Gun becomes a by-the-numbers biography, rehashing colorful anecdotes that have been written and told before. Kanfer peaks early, pointing out that contemporary actors, while "well-trained, skilled in their craft, buff, (and) manipulated by powerhouse publicists," are devoid of distinctive personalities. "Impersonators don't 'do' Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale et al. because these actors don't have imitable voices or faces," he notes, whereas 'Golden Age' actors "like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart" were fodder for comedians and impressionists.

5. The above statement isn't entirely true. For years, director Tom DeCillo was dogged by the accusation that James LeGros's performance in DeCillo's 1995 comedy Living in Oblivion was a devastating parody of Brad Pitt (with whom the director had previously worked). (Recently, DeCillo revealed that LeGros was mimicking Patrick Swayze.) And both Bale's husky-voiced Batman and his notorious on-set tirade were prominently spoofed across the late-night airwaves. But, yes, any stand-up comic doing impressions of Leo DiCaprio or Josh Hartnett or Channing Tatum won't get very far.

6. I've always heard the comparison that Humphrey Bogart, who specialized in low-lifes, was actually an Ivy League sophisticate; whereas Cary Grant, who played blue-bloods, was the son of a coal-miner. Bogart's case, at least, is a little more complicated: His family had money, but his father (a physician and graduate of Columbia University and Yale medical school) would lose much of it over time in unsound investments. His parents' marriage was also falling apart. Unsurprisingly, Bogart was a troublemaker, involved in gangs, disinterested in school, sports and everything else other than the vaudeville stage, silent-movie houses, and playing chess. Enlisting in the Navy during World War I, while offering an opportunity to see the world, did not instill discipline: he was tossed in the brig for drunkenness and insubordination many times.

7. After the war, Bogart tried various behind-the-scenes jobs in show business before making his stage debut in the 1922 melodrama Swifty. Bogart's portrayal of a "young sprig of the aristocracy" typecast him into playing rich twits for years to come.

8. His (first) big break came in 1935, when theater director Arthur Hopkins cast him as the gangster Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest. The distinguished stage and screen veteran Leslie Howard had the lead role, but Bogart stole the show. His entrance drew "audible gasps (from the audience), in part because he was so dark and menacing, in part because John Dillinger...had recently escaped from jail. Thanks to Bogart's diction, gait, attitude, and prison pallor, Kanfer writes, "the real-life gangster have materialized onstage." Both Bogie and the play won rave reviews.

9. This didn't stop Warner Brothers from casting Edward G. Robinson as Duke Mantee in the movie adaptation, along with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Bogart, who had appeared in random screen parts before with no distinction (such as 1931's The Bad Sister, also featuring Davis), was devastated. Fortunately for him, Robinson was pressing for equal billing with Howard and Davis, and the ever-magnanimous Jack Warner, eager to put Edward G. in his place, replaced him with the less-expensive Bogie. "In the film version, Humphrey conveyed the same weary authority that had been so effective on Broadway," Kanfer states. "But the close-ups gave him something more...His unshaven face was a map of distress." Bogart was thirty-seven years old.

10. One of the book's strongest sections is a brief yet revealing description of the old studio system: "MGM specialized in elegance and high production values, as in Gone with the Wind...Paramount concentrated on sophisticated comedies, RKO on the sparkling Astaire-Rogers musicals...Columbia showcased Frank Capra's directorial touch, and Twentieth Century Fox made a mint with Shirley Temple vehicles." Warners, on the other hand, portrayed the sordid underbelly of American society: Scarface, with Paul Muni; The Public Enemy with James Cagney; and Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson among the most prominent examples. Kanfer makes a good case that the brothers' hardscrabble roots (from the Polish ghetto) had much to do with their creative output and nothing to do with how they treated their employees. "Actors chafed under restrictive, long-term contracts; writers, in Jack's view, were 'schmucks with Underwoods" (i.e., typists). This is the environment Bogart entered following the success of The Petrified Forest.

11. The weakest sections in Tough Without a Gun deal with Bogart's personal life -- his three failed marriages and, finally, his fourth, successful one with Lauren Bacall. We should count ourselves lucky that we were spared the drooling, gossipy Peter Biskind writing about the 44-year-old actor's love affair with a 19-year-old actress. Kanfer's heart isn't really in it, and that's part of the problem. All the romantic interludes throughout the book reek of creative compromise -- of editorial insistence that the author include something "for the lay-dees." Ditto the weird anecdote about Bacall's crush on Adlai Stevenson, and the vague allusion to her possible affair with Frank Sinatra either shortly before or shortly after Bogie's death...too depressing to be coy.

12. Kanfer compounds the problem, however, by confusing the role of author with enabler. He's always quick to justify his subject's less-than-glamorous behavior with wives or colleagues (the gist being, Well, you see, what Humphrey really meant to say was....) or file it under either rough childhood or macho bonhomie. (I know I'm supposed to slap my knee and giggle like Kate Hepburn whenever there's an anecdote about Bogie or John Huston or some other hunk-a-man behaving falling-down drunk and cruel to friends or colleagues, but all I envision is a bunch of towel-snapping frat-boy assholes with too much time on their hands.) I've also been reading Simon Callow's superb two-part biography on Orson Welles (part one right before the Bogie bio, part two right after), and Callow shows it's possible to convey a person's failings without denigration. (For example, how Welles's decision to handle post-production by remote-control allowed RKO's hatchet-job on The Magnificent Ambersons.)

13. Anyway, the Golden Age studio system seemed to demand that an actor marry three or four times per lifetime and make three or four movies per year. While the latter would today help get Nicolas Cage out of hock, back then it threatened to stymie Bogart's growth as an actor. It would be another five years and nearly thirty movies (many of them stock bad-guy supporting parts) before his next major step up the latter: Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941). Another gangster part, yes, but one sympathetic enough to rile the Production Code censors. Ida Lupino got top-billing, but Bogart got the accolades and attention.

14. Bogart continued to make a couple of pictures each year, with at least one of them each year a hit. Later in 1941, John Huston, who co-wrote the screenplay for Raoul Walsh's High Sierra, cast Bogie as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and we all know what happened there. Ditto 1942, when an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick's became adapted as Casablanca. Kanfer quotes the appraisal of the play by a low-level underling at Warners (named Stephen Karnot): "Excellent melodrama. Colorful, timely background., tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum. A box office natural, for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft..."

15. Kanfer does some welcome appraising of his own regarding The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He challenges Louisa Brooks' opinion that Bogart ruined Sam Spade's climactic exposition scene. "Just the opposite is true. There was no other actor in the Warners studio...who could have so effectively brought off the finale, with its crowded words and thoughts." (Additionally, Bogart thought up the final line, a spin on Shakespeare's The Tempest: We are such stuff/as dreams are made on...") He also argues that Casablanca transcends its standard plot outline through a mix of distinctive elements (compelling subplots, witty dialogue, fresh locale) and happy accidents (Joseph Breen's insistence that a key confrontation scene between Rick and Ilsa end with a dissolve, making it more sexually suggestive, not less). Auteurists may turn up their noses at Casablanca, but for me no auteur has ever made a more perfect film.

16. Through the years, Bogart alternated between forgettable films and huge hits. 1944: Passage to Marseille and To Have and Have Not. 1946: Two Guys from Milwaukee and The Big Sleep. 1948 was a high-watermark year for Bogie: a popular success (Key Largo) and a towering artistic achievement (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with, in my opinion Bogart's greatest, ballsiest performance). Still, what should be the heart of the book -- Humphrey's experience filming 1951's The African Queen, ultimately winning the Best Actor Oscar -- ends up being rather rote. (Hepburn liked manly men, Huston was obsessed with shooting an elephant, blah blah).

17. The waning years of Bogart's life and career are depicted as a sad slog, with one bizarre, lively exception: the homophobic Bogie's admiration for flamboyant screenwriter Truman Capote during the otherwise miserable shoot of 1954's Beat the Devil.

18. That same year, Bogart was miscast in Billy Wilder's Sabrina. He was also evidently ostracized: Wilder, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden forming a nudgy inner circle. (As an aside, Bogart's fine 1950 film noir In a Lonely Place was overshadowed by Wilder's thematically similar yet far slicker Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, starred Holden). He finished his career with good roles in The Caine Mutiny (also 1954) and The Harder They Fall (his final film, 1956), but even before his health failed him, Bogart was already lamenting the dearth of good roles for an aging actor. It's difficult to imagine where he would have fit in in 60s cinema.

19. Nevertheless, his iconography has endured. It's here that Kanfer's book becomes particularly disappointing, an overlong buildup to what amounts to a laundry list: Godard includes a scene in Breathless where Jean-Paul Belmondo spies a photograph of Bogart; college students admired Bogie's no-bullshit honesty; his name became a verb for refusing to share a marijuana joint. Woody Allen conjured him as a dispenser of romantic wisdom in Play It Again, Sam; Bogart-themed film festivals, bars, and even furniture stores popped up across the country. But, wait: Umberto Eco, Kenneth Tynan, and John Berryman all made references to Bogart or Bogart's movies, so he appealed to high-culture as well!

20. Well, great. And so what? Before concluding with the kind of swoony romanticism he thinks he's taking pains to avoid (the hat in the author photo is also a mistake), Kanfer comes closest with "the larger theme of American masculinity," taking issue with the claim made by others that Bogart stands out due to the emasculation of the American male (via gay rights, women's rights, etc.) "The male ego...that has been fragile for generations," Kanfer notes, an astute observation. But his subsequent claim that Bogart actually stands out due to the infantalization of cinema seems self-contradictory: Okay, there may never be another Bogart onscreen; but that doesn't explain the innumerable attempts to emulate his style. (Asserting that "the Bogart style" may now be found offscreen "in the principled action of individuals uncomfortable with compromise and conformity" is even more overreaching.)

21. Tough Without a Gun ends by claiming "sociologists and historians" frequently cite "Humphrey's rough-hewn persona and barroom misbehavior as early signs of the disintegration to follow." (Really? Who?) Kanfer counters this by pointing out Bogart's nobler aspects: "He helped Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Lorre when they were in extreme need, defiantly hired people on the studio blacklist, aided Joan Bennett and Gene Tierney when they were in distress, and quietly donated to a long list of charities. He was courteous to women and straightforward to men, and when he made a promise he kept it." He also liked puppy dogs, apple pie, and long walks on the beach, though Kanfer doesn't mention that.

22. More persuasive, to me, is a near-throwaway passage halfway through the book, recounting that during the making of 1997's L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson screened the period-relevant In a Lonely Place for Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. "'I wanted them to see the reality of that period and to see that emotion,'" Hanson is quoted. "'When I first saw In a Lonely Place as a teenager, it frightened me and yet attracted me with an almost hypnotic power.'" However deeply Humphrey Bogart may have entered the cultural fabric, the lexicon, or the finer virtues of Man, it's the work onscreen that is the reason for why he has endured.