“An Endlessly Repeating Evil Loop:” “Taxi Driver” and Paul Schrader at IU

[image from Wikipedia]

Wow, what a treat: Paul Schrader himself introducing the film he wrote, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in its new 35 millimeter restoration at the IU Cinema.  I must have seen Taxi Driver in the 1980s at the Brattle Theater, and I’d seen it at least a couple times, but seeing this new print in the beautiful theater was a pretty amazing aesthetic experience, starting with the gorgeous-evil blurred lights of the porn theaters of Times Square seen through the rainy windshield of Travis Bickle’s taxi in the opening shots.

Schrader introduced it briefly and then spoken for at least 45 minutes afterward, doing an on-stage interview and then taking questions.  I didn’t take notes, but here are some comments & points that stuck out for me (wording not exact):

  • He started by saying (I think I’d heard this before) that when he wrote the movie he was “in a very dark, morbid place,” sleeping in a car, and that when he went to a hospital for what turned out to be stomach ulcers, he realized that this was the first time he’d spoken to a human being in a month.  He said that the idea for the film came to him in a vision of a metaphor: a yellow taxicab as a “metal coffin,” a container for a dead person, floating through the city streets.
  • Someone asked about the slightly jarring coda, which I actually did not remember.  I thought the movie ended with the bloodbath (when Bickle rescues 13 y.o. prostitute Iris (!) (played by Jodie Foster) from her pimp), but it’s followed by a few minutes explaining how Bickle became, improbably, a celebrated hero for his actions.  It ends with him picking up as a fare the Cybill Shepherd character (Betsy) who’d previously rejected him; she seems interested, but he basically blows her off, and the whole thing plays, I thought, as pure fantasy, Bickle’s hallucination as he’s dying in the Harlem East 13th street walkup covered with blood.  Schrader commented that people often assume that the studio forced this more upbeat coda to be added, but he said “just the opposite” (that was a common refrain of his), that this had always been in the script and was integral to his vision of the movie.  He pointed out that the final shot of the film essentially is the film’s first shot: or perhaps literally is the first shot.  We once again see Bickle’s face in the rearview mirror and the blurred lights outside.  “Nothing has changed,” Schrader said, it’s all going to begin again in “an endlessly repeating evil loop.”  Someone in the audience tried to make the case that Bickle had changed and progressed and had gotten over his obsession with Betsy, but Schrader cut him off: “he’ll find someone else, he hasn’t changed, he hasn’t learned anything.”  His rage and delusion trap him in an eternal repetition.
  • Schrader was discussing how much he and Scorcese had/have in common — “we’re both short, asthmatic, movie-obsessed” (I forget what else he specified), with the key difference being that “Marty” was Roman Catholic and urban, whereas Schrader was raised in a strict Calvinist household in rural Michigan (wiki: “When he disobeyed his mother, she would stab his hand with a pin, asking, “You think that felt bad? Hell is like that, only every second and all over your body”).  These rural/urban cultural differences played out in different metaphors Schrader and Scorsese used to think about the film and Bickle; Schrader said that for him Bickle was “a lone wolf on the frozen tundra staring at the fires of civilization with envy and rage.”  Interestingly, in a subsequent discussion of Hollywood and his current work financed by non-American investment sources, he commented that a screenwriter or filmmaker these days is “a stray dog picking up scraps from any table he can find.”
  • Schrader was famously Pauline Kael’s protege/discovery.  He says that when he sent her the original script for Taxi Driver, he never heard back from her about it.  Later she told him that she found it so disturbing that it was sitting on her bedside table and she first turned it over to face down; that wasn’t enough, so she moved it to a shelf in her closet and covered it with boxes so it wouldn’t be visible.  (She loved the movie, however.)
  • Someone asked him if he could say anything about the movie’s racial subtext.  His answer was disturbing!  He said that “the movie is sanitized; the original script was much more racist.”  “I’m unapologetic about it: that’s who this character was,” explaining that Bickle’s rage was “fundamentally racist” and that his final “rescue mission” was originally “all about killing black people;” Iris’s pimp and everyone else in the building were originally black.  He said the studio told them that if shot this way, “there would be riots,” saying that “you can make a movie with a racist character, but filmed this way, you’d be right on the line between that and a racist film.”  As a result, Scorsese asked Schrader to find an actual white pimp who could serve as a model for the Harvey Keitel character Champ.  Schrader said he began referring to this as “the Great White Pimp Search,” and said that he literally could not find a white pimp, so they eventually gave up and Scorsese just made up Keitel’s character (who does feel a bit fabulized).
  • As part of the Great White Pimp Search, he met the 16-17 y.o. prostitute who became the model for Iris; he says almost everything about Jodie Foster’s character was based directly on this girl, who you see walking with Iris at one point wearing a big hat (they hired her as a consultant).  Schrader said he brought her up to his hotel room and left a note for Scorsese saying “I found Iris; we’re all having breakfast tomorrow morning at 8,” and that this meeting was reproduced almost exactly in the scene with Iris in the diner.  Disturbingly, Schrader said “I didn’t want to get sexually involved with her because it would have been way too complicated.”  Hmm, good reason for not sleeping with the underage prostitute. Roman Polanski much??
  • Someone asked him about the comparisons people often make between this film and Altman’s Nashville, which also draws on material from actual political assassination attempts.  Schrader basically dismissed this and characterized Nashville as “technically imaginative, but why on earth an intelligent man would want to make a movie about country music, a genre he doesn’t like and doesn’t understand…”
  • I asked a question!: “This movie could obviously never be made by a major studio today.  Do you think it might be possible for it, or some version of it, to be made by an independent studio?”  He said something like “well, now you’re opening up a whole new topic that brings us into a very empty, hollow place,” or something.  He said that Hollywood no longer is in the business of making dramas: they only want to make action/technology based movies, comedies, and family movies.  “If you want to see drama, watch [HBO’s and Todd Haynes’] Mildred Pierce, it’s fabulous, but don’t expect it from Hollywood.”
  • He praised Bernard Herrman’s score to the skies and commented that he thinks this was one of Scorsese’s most brilliant/crucial aesthetic choices.  He said that he’d assumed that this film, like Scorsese’s previous Mean Streets, would have a “needle-drop” score.  I’ve never heard that term, but I guess it means punctuated by previously-released songs (in the case of Mean Streets, pop songs of the era) as opposed to an actual score.  But instead, Scorsese got this unforgettable “horror-movie score” that becomes the soundtrack of Bickle’s inner life.
  • Schrader was pretty gruff and irascible; as I commented, he several times responded to questions by saying, “basically, the opposite of what you just said.”  But, he was actually noticeably kind at one point.  The Q&A was wrapping up but then Schrader said, “oh, Reese Witherspoon has a question in the back.”  A presumably IU undergrad who really did have a Reese W. look asked a somewhat confused/confusing question which Schrader dealt with very generously and responded in a way that pretended it was perfectly clear.  Her question had something to do with Scorsese’s penchant for ensemble dramas as opposed to Schrader’s tendency to focus on single protagonists (at least that was what Schrader made of it, the question as spoken had something to do with “lifestyle”), and he commented that he tends to write “monocular” narratives where you “take one centimeter in some guy’s skull — sometimes a woman, but usually a guy — and bore all the way into that one head” (I forget the full wording).

Well, there was more, but those were some highlights for me.  I would have liked to catch his talk the next day about his entire career — Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Blue Collar (which he directed, with Richard Pryor in a rare dramatic role), Mishima, Brian De Palma’s Obsession (I actually don’t recall what that movie is at all), etc — but didn’t make it.