Hardcore: Paul Schrader in the 70’s – 3

This is pt. 3 of my meditation on a theme drawn from Elliot Lavine’s typically-inspired grab-bag film series NOT NECESSARILY NOIR, currently in progress at the Roxie Theater (Click on highlighted sections for trailers, etc. Click here for pt.2, the previous entry in this series):


Hardcore (1979), Paul Schrader’s second effort as writer/director, is both a fascinating and pleasurable document of now long-lost spaces and gestalts, and an artistic failure. After a short but spectacular career of killing off malevolent father-figures, either by bullets or scorn, Schrader dealt with his father directly — and choked. In this modern day version of probably the greatest film western, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the director recreated the story of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a racist veteran of the Confederate army who pursues a Comanche tribe for seven years in order to recover his abducted niece, Debbie. Wayne is accompanied by Debbie’s “half-breed” adopted brother (Jeffrey Hunter), who is even more dedicated to the pursuit, and aims to find and save her first — for he’s discovered that Wayne’s repressed hysteria regarding miscegenation motivates him not to rescue the now adult Debbie (played by Natalie Wood), but to kill one of his own blood who’s “been livin’ with a buck!”

John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers

Wayne’s rich, complex portrayal of a man of mystery characterized not just by his racism and psychosis, but by an undeniable, deep humanity, has for many decades been the prime cinematic cipher to decode for all who wish to unravel the dark enigma of American racialized madness. The Searchers and its majesty had been the primary source for Schrader’s generation of narrative film artists to study and model in their necessity of coming to terms with their fathers, grandfathers, and all the rest who bore the mark of an Aged Cain in the on-going generational conflagration. Schrader himself had organically enfolded The Searchers’ Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter characters into Travis Bickle’s make-up. But while Travis’s “redemption” had been — appropriate to the Vietnam era — tersely ironic, a man of the “movie brats'” grandfather’s generation had sought and found the emotional/historical/aesthetical deliverance for which they all yearned in the creation of The Searchers‘ climax: the supreme transcendental moment of the American cinema, Wayne’s miraculous transformation and reconciliation to Debbie. It is a moment which can only be understood by the preparation of the film’s preceding two hours, but had been aptly described in the days of the movie brats’ youth by “uncle”, Jean-Luc (Godard): “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema… How can I hate John Wayne upholding (Barry) Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?” Wayne reaches down to pick Wood up

Natalie Wood in John Ford’s The Searchers

with what she and the audience have every reason to believe is murderous resolve. As she is scooped up and lifted by Wayne’s massive hands, Ford, against all rules of illusionist film grammar (and three years before Godard’s Breathless), employs the most subtle and profound jump-cut in narrative film history — there is the tiniest elision, and Wood finds herself up in the air, as if pulled from the womb and lifted into light. This jump-cut is invisible to the untrained eye, and contains within it an invisible, but psychically registered spiritual transformation: rage given over to love, age reconciled to youth, feminine united to masculine, a psychotic reconnected to his soul. This brief moment by Ford was the culmination of forty years of filmmaking and a lifetime of contemplation. Schrader was a rigorously trained academician (of the now old school) specializing in spirituality and the transcendent, as well as a brilliant writer on and of films — but The Searchers was not yet a model for which he had the chops.


75 Reasons to Live: Craig Baldwin on Wallace Berman

Craig Baldwin is a filmmaker, curator, and publisher, and as long-time host of ATA‘s Other Cinema, has been premiering experimental, essay, and documentary works for over a quarter century. He’s talking about the legacy of  Wallace Berman and the art/poetry journal Semina (1955-1964). Keep your eye out for Rick Prelinger w/ video camera off to one side of the frame. Iain Boal, too. Sans camera.


Remember the end of Manhattan, when Woody Allen asks himself what makes life worth living? Last January, during SFMOMA’s three day 75th anniversary celebration, 75 people from the Bay Area creative community gave extremely short talks—7.5 minutes or less!—on a single collection work of their choosing. Someone called it ‘manic splendor’—and it was. You can follow the 75 Reasons to Live talks as we post them by checking in here.

75 Reasons to Live: Rick Prelinger on Willard E. Worden

Rick Prelinger is a archivist, writer and media-maker, and founder of the Prelinger Archives.  Here he’s talking about Willard E. Worden‘s Observatory in Ruins, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco (1906), imagining the observatory’s contested construction and subsequent collapse by earthquake, as prophecy towards a proposed re-siting of the digital panopticon. Does that sentence make sense? Rick shows up in a number of other 75 Reasons talks side of frame. Look for him in Craig Baldwin’s, coming up next.


Remember the end of Manhattan, when Woody Allen asks himself what makes life worth living? Last January, during SFMOMA’s three day 75th anniversary celebration, 75 people from the Bay Area creative community gave extremely short talks—7.5 minutes or less!—on a single collection work of their choosing. Someone called it ‘manic splendor’—and it was. You can follow the 75 Reasons to Live talks as we post them by checking in here.

75 Reasons to Live: Iain Boal on Elaine Mayes

Iain Boal is a writer and historian. He’s speculating here (to quite a crowd) about the couple in Elaine Mayes‘s Interracial Couple and Baby, Golden State Park, August, 1968.


Remember the end of Manhattan, when Woody Allen asks himself what makes life worth living? Last January, during SFMOMA’s three day 75th anniversary celebration, 75 people from the Bay Area creative community gave extremely short talks—7.5 minutes or less!—on a single collection work of their choosing. Someone called it ‘manic splendor’—and it was. You can follow the 75 Reasons to Live talks as we post them by checking in here.

Hardcore: Paul Schrader in the 70’s – 2

This is pt. 2 of my meditation on a theme drawn from Elliot Lavine’s typically-inspired grab-bag film series NOT NECESSARILY NOIR, currently in progress at the Roxie Theater (Click on highlighted film titles for trailers. Click here for pt.1):

Cliff Robertson in Obsession

Schrader was back in six months, and immediately engaged by furious bouts of automatic transmission via typewriter. Script upon script poured out, some of them within a matter of weeks or days. The first sold was written with his brother; The Yakuza, drawing on Leonard’s experience of Japan, auctioned for $325,000, then a record for a spec screenplay. Brian De Palma became very enamored of the Taxi Driver script, but couldn’t

Genevieve Bujold in Obsession

find financing, so they moved on to an unofficial remake of Vertigo–a film admired by both enormously–eventually titled Obsession. In their plotting, they employed the cinéphile-cinéaste’s incestuous methodology of intertwining elements from other sources: a key theme from Ozu, a brilliant kidnap ransom-delivery device from Kurosawa’s masterpiece, High and Low. The project enabled De Palma to go gaga with his already patented elaborations of Hitchcockian stylistics. Schrader had other interests: at some point, he’d discovered Dante in a big way, and become fascinated by his Beatrice, obsessed by the idea of obsessional love. It was “an idealized version of… the shining goal… the redemptive moment or, in sexual terms, (in) the form of Beatrice, the female equivalent of Christ”. If hell was the pin-prick, Beatrice was heaven, only now something of a pin-prick herself, due to her inaccessiblity — women worth getting obsessed over seemed unavailable to this self-confessed formerly schlubby kid from the Midwest. “They’re like a union”, says Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle. Then, too, Schrader had long lost his faith, and had come to the adult realization that his form of ideation produced projections no actual person could live up to — like so many dreams involving sex, there was always something askew.

Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

De Palma’s Obsession (1976) considerably altered Schrader’s script, and the Young Turk disowned it, as he did another project he’d been originally slated to direct: Rolling Thunder (1977), a Walking Tall-esque reworking of Taxi Driver. Despite these disavowals, the films made from his scripts were (and are) of enormous interest; Schrader was feeling the full force of his authorial talents, but none of their presumed concomitant powers — he yearned for control of his work, a hunger only exacerbated by the stunning realization of Taxi Driver when it finally fell into the firm, equally talented hands of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. It is possible that to this day (with the exception of Bernard Hermann)

Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver

the film represents the finest work of anybody associated with it. On set, Schrader watched as “the value of the script (was) multiplied twice over — once by Marty, once by Bobby. DeNiro’s contribution was much of the schizophrenic quality of the character, which (wasn’t) in the script. That quality in Travis of shooting the guy and then saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do about this gun’—all those schizo elements come straight from his personality. The character I wrote was going crazy in a more linear fashion than the (one) Bobby acted; his characterization zigs and zags.” Martin Scorsese’s hallucinatory Manhattan-as-Inferno was the perfect theater for Schrader’s mysteriously haunted Underground Man (whom the writer described as “me without any brains”) to engage in pastiches of courtly romance: the self-hating Schrader/Travis pursues a potential Princess/Beatrice (in the form of a zaftig Cybill Shepherd) only to rub her nose in the filth of his profane inner world when she gives him a chance. Filled with existential rage, Travis turns psychotic latter-day Don Quixote, tilting his .44 at father-figure politicians and pimps. Failing to despatch one Evil King, he turns a child-

Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver

prostitute (Jodie Foster) into his reluctant Dulcinea, making an assault on the castle/whorehouse of her imprisoning Evil Wizard/procurer, Harvey Keitel’s “Sport”. The results are still — 35 years later — the most shocking chamber-play blood-bath in cinema history. It should be no surprise that to the product of an abusive family, Taxi Driver‘s climax was practically orgasmic: “The ending… is in no way horrifying to me”, said Schrader at the time the film came out. “It’s rich. It rolls out so right and so naturally, like the ending of The Wild Bunch.” Following this release were compounding shivers of irony: at the end of the slaughter, Travis hasn’t bullets left to carry out his planned suicide, and instead lives to become a media hero. Seeing the realization of this absurd and baroque universe become the surprise runaway box-office hit of ’76 must have been mind-blowing to a group who’d taken minimum salaries in order to see their art-film produced, and especially to Schrader, who had endless fantasies of blowing “that shit out of (his) head” unspooling in his brain, and who judged American society from the fixed emotional spectrum of the adamantine Dutch Calvinist morality he’d imbibed in the crib. The dreams of one who saw his central theme as “the need to transform one’s surroundings, to recreate the world” seemed about to come true.


Hardcore: Paul Schrader in the 70’s – 1

Inspired by Elliot Lavine’s typically-inspired grab-bag film series NOT NECESSARILY NOIR, currently in progress at the Roxie Theater, I’ve been contemplating a particular theme (from among many possible) dealing with several works in this series, most of which have yet to play:

William Devane in Rolling Thunder

Nobody has ever talked more cogently about film than Paul Schrader. In the early 70’s, after his first flush of success as a screenwriter, an old girlfriend approached him for a diagnosis of her new script, a feminist western. “What it needs”, he said, grabbing a loaded .38 from his writing desk, “is more of this!” A one-time theology student and aspiring minister-turned-film critic, he’d proven his spiritual inclinations and intellectual chops with the recent publication of his book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. As a critic, he’d been something of a snob, wading into pulpy territories with the condescending curiosity of a taxonomer exploring outré genre forms—this approach hit pay dirt with his article Notes on Film Noir, arguably the key piece published in English on this cinematic realm. Now, having taken the gamble to try his hand as a filmmaker — first as screenwriter, then later director — he was confronted by the classical dilemma of the narrative artist’s prima materia being the make-up of his or her own personal psychology. Schrader’s psyche was filled with vermin and demons. His sexual repression, justified rage, and fantasies of self-destruction/deliverance, involving self-administered bullets and plumes of blood and brain-matter, would make for one of the most potent overriding visions in American cinema of the 70’s.

Genevieve Bujold in Obsession

Paul Schrader grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the product of a Dutch Calvinist family. As a boy, his mother gave him a lesson in Calvinist doctrine by pricking his finger with a pin: “You know how that felt? The moment the pin went in your finger?” “Yes”, answered the child. “That’s what hell’s like all the time”, his mother informed him. Paul witnessed the constant abuse of his elder brother, Leonard. “I got whipped six, seven days a week”, Leonard later recalled. “My father leaned me over the kitchen table, took the extension cord from his electric shaver, and whipped my back with the plug so I’d get little pinpricks of blood, a nice little pattern of dots up and down my back, like I’d been to the doctor for an allergy test… My mother whipped me with a broom handle… Sometimes she’d break it right over my back.” The ritualized beatings seared a profound sense of injustice into the young Paul’s psyche: “(It) helped me build up strength to confront my father, and I swore that when my time came to do battle with him, I would not lose.” In keeping with Dutch Calvinist convictions, the brothers were forbidden to go to movies, and pop music was banned from the house — catching him listening to a Pat Boone song one day, Paul’s mother smashed the radio against the wall. Dying for a bit of freedom, Paul often begged to be sent to a military academy for the summer. Finally getting his wish, he was sent to a school in Virginia where he became radicalized: “We had a Jewish boy on our floor who was relentlessly hazed. I hadn’t even met a Jew before; I had no idea why he was being hazed, so I took his side. And at the same time, Martin Luther King was marching just about ten miles away across the (North Carolina) border… I snuck out and watched the marches and saw all the people being arrested. My mother… blamed everything that happened to me, and everything I did afterwards on this.” Schrader returned a rebel, entered Calvin College (a seminary also offering a liberal arts curriculum), and — while remaining a “damn good” student — blazed a trail of raucous revolt across campus, at first via the usual drunken partying, then—guided by his brother—by taking over the school newspaper and starting a campus film society to show such previously forbidden fare as Last Year at Marienbad, Dreyer’s Ordet, and films by Ingmar Bergman. By the end of his time at Calvin, the newspaper offices were covered with pictures of Mao and Ho Chi Minh, and Schrader had participated in diverting school funds to pay for the newspaper staff’s trip to Washington D.C. to partake in an anti-Vietnam war rally at the Pentagon.


The Expendables

Sometimes during my tenure as blogger, I will go see Hollywood blockbusters with artists and document, in impressionistic fashion, our experience. This is episode five.

I went to go see The Expendables (2010, dir. Sylvester Stallone) with the writer and artist Ariel Goldberg. We met at the Metreon and admired all the vending machines on the way to the theater. We saw the film. Walking out, we gave each other a spirited high five. Afterwards, we took the 14 and had a drink at the Uptown and we talked about The Expendables.

We talked about how Ariel’s dad would have called The Expendables either a “get ‘em up” or a “shoot ‘em up” movie. We talked about how we could call Ariel’s dad to find out but that he was probably watching the last inning of the Yankees game. We decided that The Expendables was like a musical. There were small pieces of dialogue that supposedly drove the plot, but most of the film was given over to a symphonic display of death and destruction.

We talked about the portrayal of masculinity and sexuality in The Expendables. There are essentially no women in the film. There are technically three, but we thought two of them were like swimsuit calendars. One was Mickey Rourke’s girlfriend who almost immediately departs the scene to make him a “six-olive martini” and never returns. The other one is played by Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia on Buffy The Vampire Slayer). Since her character in The Expendables has virtually no depth or elaboration, we’ll just call her “Cordelia” from now on.

There were a few half-hearted but successful attempts at homophobia in The Expendables. In the church when Bruce Willis pitches the mercenary job to Sylvester Stallone and the Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger he asks them if they’re going to start sucking each other’s dicks in a mocking way. We talked about how we hoped the Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger would donate his salary from the film to perhaps offset cuts to the state’s budget. Another time there’s a reference to some body guard’s “hairdresser,” which probably wasn’t a homosomething comment at all and just about him being bald. We surrendered to a homoerotic reading of the film also being sort of impossible.

The film is all about the simplest possible definition of being a man. Ariel said that it was a good butch research film inasmuch as it reminded her of feeling slight while lifting weights next to the yeah muscles at 24 hour fitness. The men in the film make it a point of pride to have nothing holding them down: no families and no women. There’s only one kiss in the entire movie, between Christmas and Cordelia, and it is really very tame peck, a “honey I’m home….from my month-long mercenary gig in Somalia” kiss. We also talked about how the film was sort of like shopping for a really big—the biggest—dildo.


The Things in our Lives (Home & Studio) Here and There (Inside and Out)…

Peter Fagundo. Smooth Stones and Flowers. 2010

In an exchange of emails with Peter Fagundo, we discussed our relationship to the “things” in our lives. Peter is an artist living and working in Chicago, we have never met, but share similar sensibilities in our work. I had first emailed a link to Peter, he responded and then I followed up other thoughts. Shortly there after I asked if I could share this conversation with the readers of Open Space. Then we both left on family trips out of the city. When we returned, we continued our conversation with poetry written by the campfire while drinking wine and my own experience attempting to see nature in what can be best described as Disney Land in the middle of Yellowstone National Park (on a side note, I recommend anyone traveling to Yellowstone to drive an hour south to experience the Tetons, less people, more wonder).

Here is our exchange of emails unedited:

Peter Fagundo: I have been thinking a great deal about the nature of images and objects, realizing that everything has a beauty, a magnetic quality, it’s only a matter of doing something to it… contextualizing, re-framing, cutting, painting it, putting it next to something else… in order to show it’s  true nature, it’s beauty.   Your work makes me think of these approaches.

Brion Nuda Rosch: I am obsessed with images, and objects, and yes a continued rearrangement makes for interesting discoveries. I find myself at work constantly organizing piles of supplies and art (I work as an Art and Exhibitions Preparator for Creativity Explored). If I am not at work, I find myself responding to the chaos of my life at home, and again, always rearranging an influx of “things”. Then for brief moments in time (sometimes longer) I find myself in the studio making the most mundane adjustment to an image or object that has been resting in place for a long period of time. What I enjoy about your work is this similar approach to “things” in our lives. Your drop-cloth placed on the wall is a perfect example. I am currently contextualizing a body of work involving my studio floor. As I am moving to another studio I am looking at the ephemera of my current space, and the floor is the last place you look. I am not sure how this will result, I plan to cut the wood I have laid down over the refinished hard wood floor of our apartment into the dimensions of the walkable space of my current studio. The past floor will be brought to my new studio, and I will work in the space for some time. Then the floor will be shown in a gallery, on the ground (or possibly on the wall?).

Peter Fagundo. A garage poem… 2010

PF: Bringing order to chaos, perhaps in order to understand the true nature of things… there’s something of the create and destroy aspect in what we do, in our lives and in the studio.  I lived for the past year in a space where life and studio completely overlapped, there was not enough room for a separation.  It was in a separation from my wife, interestingly, which caused the fusion of spaces, things and functions.  We are back to together now and I have a “studio” again.  We did a designer show house together in the house where we live.  She has spent the last 12 years restoring an old manor house in Evanston, just North of Chicago. I found myself putting together paintings, furniture and objects in domestic spaces.  It felt like painting, using the same tools of color, light and form.  But there was the added aspect of working with designers, choosing art, wall color and arrangement of things.  But now I am looking forward to making some things alone again, in a space wholly dedicated to making discrete objects.  I have been reading this biography of deKooning, talk about personal chaos, but what holds me is the willingness he had to be “in between” “both” and “everything” in his work.  “Both” has been sort of a mantra for me lately… what ever the conflict, the only beautiful truth is it’s both… find the “both” and that is the truth.  sorry I’m rambling.


Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week

Chris Gruhl: There, I Fixed It

Chris Gruhl aka Shadowgolem says about the mono-colored painting, “A big solid gray canvas? Really?…Art needs to have more than just intention, it needs execution” and instead of just thinking it, he created his own work of art using Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s poster available in the 2nd floor galleries. He says, “this composition was our attempt to add a bit to it. Still very abstract but not quite so, well, boring.”

Thanks Chris!

We choose the Flickr pictures of the week from anything tagged “SFMOMA”. You tag too!

Musings: on artists

My last post was on the nature of being an artist’s artist. This month I thought I’d step back and follow up with thoughts about artists more broadly. I’ve been curating since 1979, have worked with literally thousands of artists, so inevitably I have developed certain impressions of the way many artists engage the world. However I take these steps very tentatively, as so much silliness has been foisted along these lines. Most particularly, my friends and I often talk about the way artists have been depicted by Hollywood and tv. These are the predictable and familiar cliches: self-destructive, violent, egomaniacal, effete, cruel, miserable, drug- and alcohol-addicted, childish. The artist Tracey Moffat, in her video Artist, (2000) nails this depiction, with clips from several commercial films and tv.

My idea, then, is to tread very lightly, while making an attempt to offer a few small observations toward the ongoing goal in these posts of understanding the field to which I’ve given my life. Most artists’ existence has the same outward form of most everybody else’s. They’re in relationships, have children, hold down jobs, own houses, have circles of friends with whom they socialize, et al. The specifics of how they fill out the details of each of these traits might skew unusually (e.g loft over tract house), but in essence the form of their lives is much as everyone else’s. Yet there are times when I find myself thinking about someone I’ve recently met, and realizing that, for me, he or she share particular traits that I always recognize but don’t have a name for. Does this list resonate with you? At best I think this might be an interesting baby step toward a taxonomy of the artist, at worst — oh my god! — a recapitulation of the Hollywood cliches in sheep’s clothing. And, clearly not all artists share all these traits and you don’t have to have any of them to be an artist.

(1) Some artists seem to know at a very early age that what he or she will do with their life is make art.

(2) Some artists have no option — it is not a choice — to be anything other than that artist; they will make art in a vacuum. If they wake up alone after the apocalypse they will go right on making art.

(3) Many artists essentially only care about making art; their engagement with things that most of us care about — income, nice homes, comfort, health, safety — is indifferent to uncaring.

(4) Many artists are never fully present except when in the studio. If you can get them to share a meal with you, you realize that at best they’re only three-quarters present, with the best part of them thinking about what’s going on in the studio, or guilty about not being there, wasting time.

(5) In the studio time disappears for some, and worldly matters like rest and food can become mere distractions and annoyances.

(6) For some, there is  endless fascination with the progress of their research, and in the nature of the world, and their minds’ encounters with the world. They comprehend the experience of being alive in the world primarily as not a political nor a social experience, but an aesthetic one. The complexity and beauty of the universe is more than enough for a lifetime’s investigations.