By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Photo by Kathleen Clark
Paul Schrader once said that his script for Taxi Driver "jumped out of my head like an animal." Then as now, you got the impression that for Schrader, writing was less an act of creation than of exorcism. Perhaps it’s because the voices that so often have come out of the writer-director are like none other in American film — urgent, isolated, furious. Terrifying.Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man. This is Schrader’s most essential voice, the voice of a man alone in his head, alone in the world. A voice that, for better or worse, speaks to a late-20th-century rage (against what, though — God? Man? Death?), that seems, somehow, uniquely American. Travis Bickle speaks with this voice; so too does Theodore Kaczynski. Over the years, Schrader has made a desperate art out of channeling such voices, though they no longer seem as raw and pulpy with the violence that once made him famous. Now, increasingly, there is a melancholy in his voices, a clumsy tenderness. In Light Sleeper(1992), Willem Dafoe’s narrator scribbles in one composition book after another, only to throw them away after they’re filled up — a haunting metaphor for the futility of creation. In Schrader’s new film, Affliction, Dafoe returns, this time as an impassive witness to his family’s self-immolation. "You will say that I was responsible," he announces, echoing the lingua franca of recovery.
What happened to the voice that with biblical wrath told of a rain that would wash away the street scum? What happened to Travis Bickle? What happened to Schrader?
Paul Schrader likes to talk. Fortunately for his listeners, he is a very good storyteller. "I remember I was over at Paramount, and Warren Beatty and I had been fooling around, doing this Howard Hughes thing. He had made the film Reds and he was showing it on the lot, and he wanted me to come. I was so tired. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll sit way in the corner, way in the back. If I fall asleep, I’ll fall asleep, and nobody will know.’ Nobody told me there was an intermission. So the lights come up, everybody from Barry Diller on down is in the room, all of Warren’s friends, and I am sound asleep. Afterward, one of Warren’s minions came over to me and said that Warren had expressed his displeasure. And I said, ‘Look, I know it took Warren 10 years to make this movie, but it took me three hours to see it, and I can guarantee you that three hours of my life mean more to me than 10 years of Warren’s."
I first heard the Beatty story last January in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. Schrader was there with Affliction and as a juror for the dramatic competition. For some reason, he had decided not to wait for one of the special vans that ferry jurors around the resort town and was standing alone on a corner. A friend introduced us, and the three of us shared the short ride back to our various hotels. Schrader told the Beatty story then, along with another one about a successful studio executive who embodies Hollywood’s ignorance about its own history. He clearly took as much pleasure in telling them as we took in listening. I heard the Beatty story again last month, in the main dining room at the Four Seasons. Schrader didn’t remember that he’d already told it to me; he barely remembered that we’d met before. It didn’t matter. He was telling a story about Hollywood, and few people tell as good a story about Hollywood as Paul Schrader.
Schrader’s own story has the drama we have come to expect from our filmmakers; artfully nurtured by the writer-director himself, it is a biography to place alongside Scorsese’s Little Italy asthmatic and Spielberg’s suburban nerd. It plays something like this: A deeply religious Midwestern boy grows up to become a film critic, a screenwriter and, finally, a director. His friends become rivals, then legends. Some of his screenplays are lurid masterpieces. Sometimes, they’re nothing but lurid. His third script, a Japanese gangster picture called The Yakuzawritten with his brother, Leonard, sells for $325,000, an unprecedented sum in 1973; according to a new book by Peter Biskind, Leonard got 20 percent of the money and a shared story credit. During a three-year fever, Paul, sometimes with Leonard, writes Taxi Driver, Obsession, Rolling Thunder, Old Boyfriends, a draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blue Collar, American Gigolo and Hardcore, among others. He directs three of the scripts himself; his former mentor, Pauline Kael, pans them all. The Hollywood golden boy begins making art movies that neither critics nor audiences much like — Cat People, Patty Hearst. He and his brother have a falling-out during the making of Mishima. Schrader marries actress Mary Beth Hurt, has a couple of kids, directs The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleepers, Touch. In January 1998, he arrives at Sundance with the best American film of the festival, and what will turn out to be the best American independent film of the year. At a festival that makes a fetish out of the young and the unknown, he remains invisible. He is too old, too familiar, too unpredictable, too uncommercial. Maybe, finally, he is just too good.
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