The king is dead, long live the king. Though this readily adaptable idiom is often used to illustrate the absurdity of a situation, it stems from the purely practical. Once a monarch passes away, immediately there is another who takes his or her place. It’s not meant to highlight a contradiction then, but rather a natural progression, a continuation, even a means of survival. Thus: The cinema is dead, long live the cinema. With laments over the end of 35mm film, the struggles of repertory cinemas, and complaints over a culture of remakes, it’s easy to buy into the belief that there’s nothing new left to be done. There are some, however, who are actively working to ensure that the reign of cinema continues.
Video magazine The Seventh Art was founded about a year ago, and has been curating video essays and doing long-form interviews with directors ever since. A three-person show run by Chris Heron, Pavan Moondi, and Brian Robertson, the digital publication is a labour of love, but one that benefits the whole city—or at least its cinephiles. Last December, the trio brought Whit Stillman to The Royal as part of their Live Directors Series of screenings and Q&A sessions. This time around, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader will be in attendance, screening his seminal film, Taxi Driver (1976). Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Schrader (who was only 26 at the time), it’s the story of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a damaged Vietnam vet who works as a taxi driver in New York. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to become a cornerstone of American cinema.
Schrader’s directorial efforts have never been as successful as his scripts, though some of the films he’s helmed have become cult favourites—particularly American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982), and Adam Resurrected (2011). Heron, who will moderate the Q&A, said of the programming choice: “We wanted to be able to draw attention to his films by screening a well-loved film as an entry-point into a conversation about his entire career.” Following Taxi Driver, Schrader will introduce a new clip from his forthcoming feature, The Canyons. Written by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, it’s a film whose lore was established before it even wrapped: there were firings, fights, and creative differences, among other things. Rejected by Sundance, it was picked up by IFC and should be released—fingers crossed—later this year.
Schrader, from his home in New York, talked to us during a phone interview about the future of film culture, why “event cinema”—like this upcoming screening—matters, and how The Canyons could be the next American Gigolo. Long live cinema.
Do you consider yourself a cinephile?
I began as a film critic, have written a book on film aesthetics. As we speak I’m writing an article for Film Comment. So I guess, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, maybe it is.
Glad you brought up your time as a critic. You were mentored by Pauline Kael, and you wrote during the “golden age” of film criticism. With the recent passing of Roger Ebert this question has really come to bear: Where do you think film criticism stands?
That’s the entrée into a much bigger subject. The entire mechanism of film history and [film]making is a 20th-century phenomenon and we are reinventing it now. If you are in the process of reinventing movies I don’t know how you could not reinvent the question of film criticism at the same time.
By reinvention do you mean the move to digital?
I think movies as we know them are a 20th-century concept. The idea of a two-hour film in a dark room in front of an audience projected on a wall—that’s really old hat. That’s going away. What’s taking its place, we’re not sure. And I don’t know when we’ll ever be sure. We may be entering a world of constant audio-visual entertainment, where from one year to another it keeps redefining itself. This idea of a stasis period for 60 years where movies were relatively unchanged, that’s over.
How do you see contemporary film culture, then?
Films don’t have the importance they had when I was younger. They don’t have the importance in society. They don’t have the importance to young people. My kids and my students, they don’t love movies the way I did. Movies don’t mean that much. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. We live in a different perceptual world because of our media, which rewires our brains. I don’t have a lot of nostalgia. I love the old movies, but the idea of keeping that world alive? No, I think that world is over.
The fact that The Seventh Art would bring you in for a screening suggests that screenings are now events.
Oh, and that is simply great. And that is part of the future. What’s really dying is the concept of the multiplex. There’s no reason for them to exist. There’s a reason for event cinema, and personal appearances are part of event cinema—like a film club, or IMAX. But even in this screening I had an argument with the people setting it up because they wanted to show it on 35mm. I said: “Why are you bothering with a 35mm print? Who cares anymore?” [Laughs] I’ve seen a number of my 35 prints and they don’t look so good anymore. They’re all beat up. The video ones look much better.
This raises the issue of preservation, which is a hot topic in film circles now.
The problem with preservation is that 35 is still the best means of preservation, but not many films are being made on 35 anymore. Now there’s a huge amount of material being put out that we don’t know how to preserve. Every day as much material gets put on YouTube as had existed in the history of television. All of that is in digital form and all of it unpredictable as to whether is can be saved in the future. And a lot of is of huge historical importance.
Taxi Driver is nearly forty years old. You’ve seen it introduced to different generations. Have you noticed a difference in how its been received?
You know, not really. I’m kind of surprised. It holds its own, it has become a piece of film history. It’s clearly a film that was made in the ‘70s, but it has an immediacy. I can only attribute that to the fact that it was pretty close to the real deal. Which is that Scorsese, De Niro, and I all knew this kid [Travis Bickle]. We all knew who this kid was. And somehow we tapped into that, us three young men who happened to be at the right place at the right time. We caught something.
This is a hypothetical, but we’re in a climate of remakes these days, so: how would you feel if it was ever remade? Or do you feel that was already done with 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead?
Some people have tried and we’ve been able to block them. De Niro wanted to remake it at one point and Marty and I talked him out of that. I think it was a singular moment in film history, I think it would be crazy to do a sequel or remake it. Those remakes never work anyway. Taxi Driver is of a genre—the isolated loner—and there are a lot of films like that. But I see no reason to remake this one.
Your last film, Adam Resurrected, was financed in part by Germany and Israel. The Canyons was funded in part by Kickstarter—
Well that one was really paid for by Bret Easton Ellis, myself, the producers, and Lindsay Lohan.
Right. So are international co-productions and self-financing the way things are going when it comes to making movies in America?
It’s not only the way things are going, but it’s getting pretty close to being the present. The tradition dramas, those still get made, but not as much as they used to. Most of the movies that are made for theatres are made for non-English-speaking audiences anyway—they’re made for overseas. If you are making a serious drama, you are either looking at Lincoln, low-budget, or long-form television.
You’ll be showing new clips from The Canyons following the screening. Can you talk about the coastal contrast of these two films, especially given that Taxi Driver is the quintessential New York movie while The Canyons, is seems, is pure LA?
It’s much more like American Gigolo. But the difference [between New York and LA] is like the one between the sun and the shadow. The Canyons is this sunbathed movie, a lot takes places in the canyons in Malibu. As I was directing it I found myself slipping back into the American Gigolo groove—the tone, the camera style, the kind of music, the beat, the rhythm. It’s very laid back, a little hip, but always moving forward. It’s not too broody.
And you are working on an adaptation of The Devil’s Right Hand?
No, that was a bit of Berlin Film Festival misinformation. That was something I was interested in about a year ago and suddenly they announced it without telling me. [Laughs]
Are you working on anything currently?
I should be in front of the camera by the end of the year on a more conventional film. Although it will be a personal and serious film, it won’t be a DIY film.