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.


Adam Zanzie said...

"I don't care much for Jonathan Rosenbaum." HA! Awesome question, Craig. It's one of the first Q's I might have asked Schrader had I gotten your opportunity myself, but you've beaten us to it. Schrader has spoken!

That's odd how Schrader hadn't read Kael's notes until you guys had given them to him. Kael's story about how she took his script and threw it into her closet sounds rather exaggerated, but if it's true, it's totally one for the books. As for Schrader's comments about modern Hollywood, I can see why he's getting sick of it, I guess--the kinds of movies he likes to write don't get as much attention as they used to. Still, Schrader shouldn't be too concerned. He's still got a devoted fanbase, and they'll always keep his career alive.

I gotta commend you for asking him the Nashville question, too, even if the way you worded it may have confused him. I ask convoluted questions like this to directors all the time, often to get a response out of them that the public hadn't been aware of before. Your question helped reveal his distaste with Altman, and perhaps this bit of leaked detail will go into biographies of him long after he's departed. Not to say he should be damned for hating Nashville or anything, but I do think it's always interesting when noted directors express outrage over universally-celebrated films. Howard Hawks didn't like The Godfather, High Noon or The Wild Bunch, for example, and since then everybody's taken note of it. Same with Schrader and Altman, hopefully.

"Renee Witherspoon". lol. He was drunk? Did he give any other drunken responses to questions?

Craig said...

Not drunk, just harmlessly tipsy. Or at least that's how it seemed. Completely in control of his faculties, though. The Reese/Renee thing was rather endearing, and he was very polite in answering her rather convoluted question -- which I think had to do with the issue of Schrader's focus on character vs. Scorsese's emphasis on "lifestyle." (She was quoting, I believe, Marty's own description of Goodfellas.)

I led off with the Rosenbaum quote with some trepidation, his review not being completely complimentary. (Big surprise, I know.) But it was a good way to introduce the main players in the making of the movie. I really enjoyed hearing his thoughts on Bernard Herrmann.

The Kael anecdote may sound exaggerated, but I've read enough about her by now to know that it sounds totally in character. Also, the Altman thing is just idle speculation. I just read a piece that mentions Schrader and Altman once attempting to arrange a tribute for Kael at the Museum of Modern Art, so it seems they weren't completely antagonistic. All those 70s-era guys were friends and rivals at the same time.

My top three Schrader-directed films are, in order: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters; Blue Collar; and Affliction. Mishima seems to be the one with Criterion-level staying power, his most visually imaginative film; it holds up very well. Blue Collar is rough around the edges but electrifyingly angry and passionate. Affliction is angry in a more tempered way, formalism at its finest.