Alex Abramovich | Conversations with SchraderLRB January 7, 2022
For years Paul Schrader was revered for writing Taxi driver and Angry bull, for his other collaborations with Martin Scorsese, and for the films he had made himself: Affliction, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and Mishima, among others. Then he experienced a lull. Die of the light, a spy film starring Nicholas Cage, was taken from Schrader and slaughtered in post-production. âThese people tried to kill me,â he said a few years ago. âI fell into alcoholism, depression. I thought that was it.
Around the seventies, Schrader could have retired. Instead, he made his own cut of Die of the light from working print DVD. Then, as if to purify the air, he made another film with Cage: Dogs eat dogs. Maniacal, violent, and slightly off-balance, it looked a lot more like a Paul Schrader movie, although the script was written by someone else. He followed him, almost immediately, with First reformed, featuring Ethan Hawke as a pastor facing climate change and the end of the world as we know it.
Working quickly and inexpensively, Schrader made a magnificent film that no one expected; the kind of movie he wrote about in his 1972 book Transcendent style in cinema, but sworn never to do: ‘You will never surprise me skating on this thin Bressonian ice cream.’ Last year with his thriller The card counter, He did it again. Now he’s getting ready to shoot Master Gardener, the last film in what appears to be a trilogy made according to the principles he set out fifty years ago.
Last month, I left Brooklyn to visit him. It was unbelievably hot for December: 18 Â° C. That morning, Schrader posted the photo of Shawn Triplett of Mayfield, Ky. On his Facebook feed; tornadoes that swept through the state, killing dozens of people, had torn off the back of a movie theater, leaving a window onto the crumbling street where the screen once stood. Omicron had arrived in New York; I had done two quick tests before leaving.
But Schrader’s house, at the end of a road by a man-made lake that had been drained for the winter, was quiet and peaceful. The coffee table was filled with books: Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, a biography of James Coburn (who had appeared in Affliction), a prayer book of Saint Gregory of Narek, brought back from a trip to Armenia. While we were talking it was easy enough to forget about the outside world.
We agreed to talk about slow cinema, the subject of an essay Schrader had written a few years earlier. He had been invited to a conference in Baltimore where there was a panel on Transcendent style: “I got off the train,” he said. ‘I have not spoken. I listened.’ But on the way back to New York, Schrader thought to himself, “If I’m still alive, and I still have my faculties, and if anyone has to rethink this, I should.” That line of thinking led to the essay, which picks up where his book left off and serves as an introduction to a revised 2018 edition. As Schrader worked on it, he found it kept sparking.
âI had always refused to write a spiritual script,â he told me:
1) because I didn’t think it was my job. I was too interested in violence, empathy, revenge and sexuality. By nature I did not feel an austere filmmaker. Even though I enjoy these films. And 2) I knew it would be a financial flop. Someone was going to lose money. And I had kept my career alive by making films that – with the exception of Mishima – had a credible possibility of returning their investments …
At the time, I was still in this hustle and bustle business: “I’ll make you some money.” I’ll make some money. We will do it together. But while I was researching slow cinema, I realized that film technology had changed to the point that I could do this material – and not lose money. I was like, âWell, why don’t you make one yourself? You are no longer building your career. Your career is coming to an end. If you don’t write it now, you’ll never write it. Fewer and fewer films were making money in theaters. But everyone on First reformed has been reimbursed. Everyone on Card counter made some money. Not much, but they had a glamorous movie and they were making some money. People to whom you lie and say, “You’re covered”? Well, I didn’t lie to them. They were covered.
There are, of course, downsides to the opportunities offered by technology and streaming. It’s now possible to make movie movies on an iPhone, but harder than ever to cut through the static. âIt helps me to have an analog name,â said Schrader, âfrom the pre-digital age.â If he started today, “I’m not at all sure I’m a director.”
The two generations before me entered the theater. They have become novelists. What would be I to do with these creative impulses? Maybe I would explore new forms of communication. Maybe I would write some code. My brother was only three years older than me. He aspired to be a novelist and I aspired to be a screenwriter; that’s sort of the line. Now, less and less aspire to be screenwriters. So, I don’t know where my impulses would take me if I was young, looking to break through somehow. I don’t know if cinema is the ideal medium. I can’t say it is and I can’t say it isn’t. Granted, that’s been very helpful to me, but these folks in the immersive arts – they kind of do what I would, but I’m too old to do it.
Reading Schrader’s essay on slow cinema, I had been struck by his refusal to go in search of the “transcendent style” in films today, where it may no longer exist. He traced, instead, the tendrils that the style had projected. It seemed like a youthful move: to go where the material takes you and not look back. Even though, in Schrader’s case, the road led back to where it started.