Monday, July 07, 2008

Paul Schrader/Dead Magazines

I have a piece at Artforum on Paul Schrader's Mishima (1985) and Mishima's only film as director, Patriotism (1966).

Not all of Schrader's films work for me, but in addition to Mishima and Affliction, I like his insomniac night-worker cycle: American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, Scorsese's Taxi Driver. There's a lengthy and interesting interview with him in the most recent issue of Rouge that's worth reading. Schrader is often open-minded and un-defensive about evaluating his own films and the choices he made in them. Here are two examples of things I've had trouble with in his films: (1) The bombast of Michael Been's songs in Light Sleeper and the over-insistent Philip Glass score in Mishima (although Giorgio Moroder's synth-rock score for American Gigolo works beautifully); and (2) The easy reaching for redemptive endings in Gigolo and Sleeper by pasting the ending of Bresson's Pickpocket on to them. But even this repeated Bresson gesture--I hear Patty Hearst also ends this way--bothers me less than it used to, and is even a bit touching in its slightly awkward doggedness.

I recently discovered to my surprise that one of Schrader's formative influences was the architect-inventor-filmmaker Charles Eames. Schrader wrote a lengthy essay on Eames for Film Quarterly in 1970 called "Poetry of Ideas"; it's available on his site in pdf form. In an interview in Schrader on Schrader, he speaks about his own strict Calvinist upbringing and how Eames introduced him to something new:

I had been raised in an environment that believed that ideas were the province of language, and that if you had something to say you used words to say it, and that if you wanted to speak of beauty or of spirituality you used words. This is what Calvin had used,, this is what Luther had used, this is what Knox had used. What Charles taught me, and taught me with great patience and dilgence, was that an image or an object can also be an idea.

So, for example, you have the word 'wineglass', a nine-letter linguistic concept, and you have this object, a wineglass, which is related to the word by a semantic code but which is not the same idea. And if you have a different wineglass, you have a different idea again, and again; and only when you appreciate that those ideas have as much validity as the word 'wineglass' will you be visually literate.

Eames taught me that there is a visual logic in life and that to be a poet, or a poet of ideas (which is what I called my piece), doesn't mean you have to use language. I was like Paul on the road to Damascus when I heard this. I had always believed that people who thought visually were inferior thinkers, and that painting was essentially an illustration of ideas, which is how it was taught at Calvin, rather than an idea in its own right. Whenever any truly powerful idea hits you it overwhelms you, and that just knocked me out and I was changed permanently.

* * *

Adrian's new column at Filmkrant is on "dead magazines":

[W]e must recognise the spectre of mortality which looms over Internet magazines - not to mention even more ephemeral sites such as blogs and 'listserv' discussions. How many of us print out the entire contents of the film pages we read on-line? One day, that may be the only trace left of them...On the other hand, the Internet gives us the spectacle of something that is just as ghostly but nonetheless gratifying: magazines that have reached their final issue, perhaps years ago, but still remain on-line, thanks to the good graces of whoever pays the archive bill.

In the comments to the previous post, Andy Rector wondered about the André Bazin unofficial tribute site, which seems to have vanished. A couple of years ago, I remember stumbling upon an interesting magazine called Cinemad and returning to it later to discover that it had gone poof, archives and all. And I've never manually archived the contents of this blog, simply assuming that nothing could possibly happen to it: a foolish assumption, perhaps?

Here's my nomination for archival resurrection of a "dead magazine": the CinemaTexas Notes archives that collect, in pdf form, hundreds of detailed program note/essays written in the 1970s at the University of Texas at Austin.

* * *


-- Dan Sallitt at Auteurs' Notebook: "I can’t think of too many current directors of Hiroki Ryuichi’s stature and skill who work almost exclusively from scripts written by others. Is he a modern-day Jacques Tourneur, submitting to random collaboration in order to explore the dimensions of his personality? Or does he have the clout to work with writers to develop material that is meaningful to him? He was unknown on the international scene before his excellent 2003 Vibrator - but the IMDb gives him 44 directing credits, and 33 of them are before Vibrator. Many of these are allegedly “pink films,” soft-core pornography. At what point did he turn into an important filmmaker?"

-- via Jim Emerson and David Hudson: At Test Pattern, Kathleen Murphy on Last Year at Marienbad and Jay Kuehner on James Benning.

-- Zach asks: "What Is Cinema (For)?"

-- David Hudson rounds up the new issue of Film Comment.

-- In that new issue, the following Marco Ferreri films have been announced for DVD release here: El Cochito, The Seed of Man, La Grande Bouffe, Don't Touch the White Woman, Bye Bye Monkey, Seeking Asylum, Tales of Ordinary Madness, The House of Smiles. For those, unlike me, who are familiar with Ferreri: might you have any specific recommendations among these films?

-- Blog discovery of the week, via David Cairns: Unsung Joe ("Where bit-part actors go when they die").

-- At The Evening Class, Michael Guillen posts a 2-part interview with Stephen Salmons, director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I'll be heading out West to attend in a couple of days.

Two hands, one pulling back, the other hanging on: Dana Delany and Willem Dafoe in the cafeteria scene in Light Sleeper.


Blogger Donal Foreman said...

Hi Girish-

I've found a good few lost treasures via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Worth investigating.

By the way, I forgot to thank you for that great Renoir quote you left in my comments a while back. So thanks!

July 07, 2008 7:27 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Where's the party in SF? I actually will be here, and not out of town on business

July 07, 2008 7:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Donal, that looks like a goldmine--I'd heard about but have never used it. Thank you!

Alex, if you'll be at any of the silent film screenings, and after you've decided which ones, you should drop me an email.

July 07, 2008 7:51 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Girish, watch PATTY HEARST immediately! It doesn't end with PICKPOCKET's 'O divine providence, such a strange road to meet you' (I exaggerate), but 'excuse me, Daddy, but fuck you!' Big difference. Alongside BLUE COLLAR, it's the most openly political of Schrader's films, but filtered through a very modern fog of cynicism and ambivalence. Hearst was a good character for him, because she's the Great Modern Blank: a formless identity who, apparently, would do anything to survive.

The Net Archive tools, by the way, in my experience of them, sometimes only deliver a ghostly, partial 'snapshot' of a site: try getting back all of the official Raymond Durgnat pages (gone for years now), for example.

July 07, 2008 8:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian, the ending of Patty Hearst sounds great--I had no idea. It's not on dvd here but a couple of minutes ago (FYI for anyone interested) I ordered a used VHS copy at Amazon for only a couple of bucks.

July 07, 2008 8:11 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

BTW, George Kouvaros' excellent book on Schrader is now out from Illinois University Press.

I had a commercial VHS of PATTY HEARST that was so murky it was virtually unwatchable (much of the film's first 30 minutes happens in a dark closet, which doesn't help matters!). In Australia, there's a MGM DVD (no extras) which is much better to see.

July 07, 2008 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

I regularly back up my web site onto CD. It only takes a few minutes. And store the discs off-site.
This will not keep it on the web. But it will keep it from disappearing or getting damaged.

July 07, 2008 10:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks again, Adrian--indeed the Kouvaros book is out, I didn't realize it. Perhaps the Australian MGM dvd of Patty Hearst means there is some hope that it will eventually find a release here.

In other book news: Peter Wollen's Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture is coming out in a new (and expanded?) edition in about 3 weeks.

I like how Schrader gives lots of extended interviews. I just read a good 10-pager about Light Sleeper (with Gavin Smith) in an old Film Comment. The audio commentary track on the Mishima Criterion dvd (a conversation with his producer) is also good, with no dull spots.

Mike, it's certainly easy and quick to do--I have no excuse (other than laziness) for not doing it!

July 07, 2008 10:34 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Of the few Ferreri films mentioned, do see La Grande Bouffe. I saw Don't Touch the White Woman at it's US premiere in Telluride, without subtitles, so I should probably give it another viewing. Bye Bye Monkey was OK. Were it available, I would put The Last Woman on the top of the list.

July 07, 2008 11:07 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Schrader's audio commentaries in general tend to be quite interesting, probably because of his background as a critic. I quite like the one for AUTO FOCUS, and his comments on LAST TEMPTATION are the best of that group commentary.

About the endings of Schrader's films, I know Robin Wood (and maybe others) labeled Schrader's massacre endings as fascist. I haven't seen MISHIMA, but it's intriguing that he would chose such a figure and wonder what you think the attitude towards Mishima is in the film.

July 07, 2008 11:09 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I have not seen anything by Ferreri, but Michael Guillen introduced me to an intrepid investigator of his work, Miljenko Skoknic. I was sorry to miss two recent screenings of Dillinger is Dead at the PFA.

Getting excited about next weekend!

July 07, 2008 11:42 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

El Cochito, The Seed of Man, La Grande Bouffe, Don't Touch the White Woman, Bye Bye Monkey, Seeking Asylum, Tales of Ordinary Madness, The House of Smiles.

Girish - I haven't seen The Seed of Man or The House of Smiles - among the rest, I'd second Peter's recommendation of La Grande bouffe. Not nearly as intense, El Cochecito is sharp and funny, and well worth seeing. The four remaining titles are not as successful, to my mind. But there are a number of other really good Ferraris: I'd certainly recommmend Dillinger Is Dead, Diary of a Maniac, The Ape Woman.

July 08, 2008 1:02 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Oops - I meant to write "Ferreri," not "Ferrari."

July 08, 2008 1:06 AM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

Criterion will be releasing Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead at some point in the (near'ish) future.


July 08, 2008 2:02 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Congratulations on your Artforum piece, Girish! It is beautifully written, and Mishima sounds like such a fascinating artist!

July 08, 2008 7:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you--Peter, Marc, Brian, Dan, Craig & Jen!

Marc, yes, I'd like to respond to your question about Schrader, Mishima, fascist characters etc., as soon as I get home this evening.

July 08, 2008 8:36 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

There are some good on-screen moments with Schrader (and a whole bunch of other filmmakers) in the excellent documentary, A Decade Under the Influence.

July 08, 2008 2:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Girish,
Despite several failures, most of what Schrader has directed is truly worthwhile. The same could be said about Marco Ferreri, about whose soon-on-DVD in the US films you have already received some advice, including much praise about some I'd rather reccomend to avoid (La Grande Bouffe, Touchez pas...), at least on a first stage. To be orderly, I'd start with "El cochecito", his third film, for me his best and one of the best ever made in and about Spain. Good luck,
Miguel Marías

July 08, 2008 6:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Miguel, I will then begin my Ferreri explorations with "El cochecito".

Yes, you're right: as I've been revisiting Schrader's films in the last couple of weeks, I'm realizing that I judged them a bit harshly before, and I'm warming to many of them (while simultaneously not forgetting their problem areas). I now need to see the ones I've never seen: Patty Hearst, Cat People, Touch, Hardcore,, Pollack's The Yakuza.

Flickhead: Thank you--I just queued it.

Marc, I think Schrader has been open in interviews about his fascination with these fascist-type characters and also his attraction for "the pathology of suicidal glory" that we find in Travis Bickle or Mishima. But I also think that his attitude toward them is a bit complex and ambivalent: he doesn't look upon them with undiluted admiration.

The expressionistic nightmare of Taxi Driver is undercut a little bit for me (for the worse) by the only two scenes in which Travis doesn't appear: at the Palantine campaign offices with Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks, and the candlelit 'romantic' scene between Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster. The scenes are good on their own but undermine a bit the fact that the film's expressionistic aesthetic is filtered through Travis' disturbed mind. (These were the only scenes Scorsese added to the film over Schrader's objections.) Schrader's view of Travis is complicated, I think. And although Mishima's politics were undoubtedly fascist, I don't think the film itself is.

Sheesh. After I typed that, Marc, I just realized that you're doing your doctoral dissertation on Scorsese! I'm sure you've spent a lot more time thinking about this stuff than any of us have. Just ignore my ramblings!

July 08, 2008 9:20 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...


Thanks for your comments. And although I am writing about Scorsese for my dissertation, that hardly means my critical insights are any more valid. In fact, maybe less so (I've been writing about Scorsese for way too long). My dissertation does not really analyze the films as much as Scorsese's reception and reputation as a cultural figure. I have written close analysis before for my MA, but they were on MEAN STREETS, THE KING OF COMEDY and GOODFELLAS, since I felt I couldn't really add anything to TAXI DRIVER.

When I discuss TAXI DIRVER in my dissertation, I'm more interested in its canonized status, especially given the problem so many critics have with it (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum as well as Robin Wood). Wood basically scapegoats Schrader and calls the text incoherent due to the clash of ideologies between radical Scorsese and fascist Schrader. However, I question this and I agree with the comments you made regarding the film.

Schrader is underrated I think. He's not the visual stylist Scorsese is, but he's often more thoughtful, if in a crude kind of way. I tend to like more of his recent stuff, but I definitely want to check out MISHIMA, which sounds like it may be a transitional text for him. And I'll be sure to read your article after I do, of course.

July 09, 2008 4:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You make good points, Marc. And I look forward to reading your dissertation writings when they are published.

July 09, 2008 9:01 AM  
Blogger adam said...

Just a thought (but I suppose that's the point!); I wonder if Schrader's writing on Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu inadvertently puts people into a slightly cynical frame of mind when it comes to watching his films. Although he clearly doesn't claim to work in the same league as them, people might still be quite keen to remind him of the gap between his own work and theirs! Especially when, in the case of Bresson, he openly tries to operate in a similar way.

I wondered if this might partly explain why people's initial reactions seem to be a bit on the suspicious side...

July 09, 2008 11:51 AM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

Schrader certainly has his share of failures, but there's always something interesting going on even in his weaker efforts. Have you seen Forever Mine? That's probably my favorite.

Among those Ferreri films I'd recommend Bye Bye Monkey, Don't Touch the White Womanm Seeking Asylum and Le Grand Bouffe first (and to avoid the Bukowski film). To bad that The Wedding March, Dillinger is Dead, The Last Woman and The Furure is Woman are all missing. Anyway, Ferreri is a very underated talent.

Adrian's column deals with a subject that sometimes hunts me. As someone who has lost a couple of articles written for web magazines that are now dead, it always amazes me how people assumes that everything on the web is safe when it's actually the opposite. I usually copy articles by people whose work I respect in doc archive, so everytime let's say Quintin wrotes something that I like a lot it goes into my quintin.doc for archive purposes.

July 13, 2008 1:33 AM  
Blogger whitney said...

I just wrote about Schrader over on my blog. I think I've already commented on him on this blog, but I just think he's a really interesting person. His Transcendental Style in Film blows my mind. My Masters thesis looks like a third grade essay on What I Did This Summer compared to his.


July 13, 2008 2:17 AM  
Blogger bradluen said...

Hi Girish, hope you're enjoying the SFSFF, apologies that I'm blog posting from a campus library instead of meeting you. One of these years/decades!

July 13, 2008 5:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there--Adam, Filipe, Whitney, Brad.

I've just returned from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which was a lot of fun. More travels coming up, this time to Toronto to catch some Eustache, make a pilgrimage to the Film Reference Library, and see & spend some time with cinephile friends. I should be back with a post some time next week. Have a great week, all.

July 15, 2008 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Miljenko Skoknic said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks, Brian, for the shout-out. It's an honor to research Ferreri's work, and I'm happy you've checked out my site (which I have to update. So many things have happened (The DVD Box Set, Azcona died, Ferreri's widow died, and all his estate got moved somewhere north of Italy.) I invite everyone who's interested in his work to check out and suggest references/sources. Your contributions will be credited.

I always find great things in all his films, but I'm specially fond of Chiedo Asilo. It's a testament to human perseverance (survival) and the socially unifying shroud of cinema in its most anarchic perspective. It took me 5 viewings to get this, so it's quite a personal view.

Girish, a pleasure to have had the chance to finally meet you (thnkx to Michael Guillen) and congratulate you on the great work this blog has done through the years.

The reason Ferreri's work is obscure, I think, is because his work, in abstract terms, becomes the problem, while never addressing the solution. And since he delves deep into the dark parts of the human animal (because we animals still are and will always be one), no insight will be contained within the films. This translates into irritating films to watch. As solitary as his films have become in recent history, so has their greatness. Ferreri's work is one of those things that is perpetuated solely on the basis of the films themselves. That is, only the works will perpetuate their own appreciation of their world view, especially since they so hard to find.

Ferreri is sometimes archaic, often anarquic, but paradoxically, profoundly modern. And like that quote by XX century composer Edgar Varese (which applies to the filmmaker in question); "The modern composer will never die!"Herein lies his contemporary relevance: he was modern in the 60's, and probably hasn't "aged" well as, say Antonioni, another Italian director whose glimpse into alienation proved influential. But the way he distorted the present he lived in, had a verve and aesthetic singularity that no other director has achieved since. Ferreri talked about how he made a cinema with "no obligations." many present day directors swear by these words, but a sit down with a bundle of his best film proves how actually -and scarily- determined he was. Poof, I went on a roll again. Thanks for reading. Best, M.S.

July 16, 2008 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Miljenko Skoknic said...

Errata: please forgive the horrendous typos and grammar (should write on TextEdit and edit before publishing) oh well,

July 16, 2008 4:02 AM  
Blogger whitney said...

Did you end up going to the SF silent film festival? I'm wondering what you thought. I was there for five films and decided that that is the perfect way to view silent films.


July 20, 2008 7:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Miljenko, it was a real pleasure to meet you as well.

Whitney, I managed to see 8 films at the festival. I hope to scribble a few words about them in the next day or so.

July 21, 2008 3:26 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget "Bringing out the dead" in the insomniac cycle ...

Hey and which film was shot first, back in 1964, "Une femme mariée" (Godard) or "Le bonheur" (Varda) ?

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