For Paul Schrader, It All Started on Pauline Kael’s Sofa

Near Columbia University the other day, two young men walked up Broadway balancing a mattress on their heads. “Somebody’s moving up in life,” an observer remarked, from an outdoor café table. The voice—more like a growl piped in from a rough night in 1976—belonged to the filmmaker Paul Schrader. Seventy-five and meaty, with a silver mustache, Schrader was dressed in black, having dumped a black sweater on the sidewalk. (When a woman pointed it out, thinking he had dropped it by accident, he grumbled, “Jewish mother for hire.”) He sipped a coffee, black. He had not ordered booze, he explained, because he was back “in the rooms,” meaning Alcoholics Anonymous. “With all of this travel coming up, I decided that I better exercise self-discipline,” he said. “It’s been three weeks now.”

Paul SchraderIllustration by João Fazenda

The travel—Venice, Telluride—had to do with Schrader’s new film, “The Card Counter,” opening this week, in which Oscar Isaac plays a man who roams casinos while trying to forget his past as an Abu Ghraib torturer. In other words, he’s the latest in a long line of Schrader’s troubled loners, stretching back to Travis Bickle, the Robert De Niro character in “Taxi Driver,” which Schrader wrote and Martin Scorsese directed. Why all these disaffected drifters? “They say you never forget the music that was playing when you first fell in love, and that was the music that was playing when I fell in love with cinema—that kind of agita,” Schrader said. “You have a problem and you have a metaphor, and then you have a plot. When I wrote ‘Taxi Driver,’ the problem was young-male loneliness. The metaphor was the taxicab. Great metaphor! And so it goes. The metaphor for a person who’s been deadened by his own guilt is counting cards—it’s a non-life. You see these commercials of people in casinos laughing and having fun. When was the last time you were at a casino and saw anybody laughing?”

Schrader was at Hex & Company, a board-game café—good, clean fun having long since replaced the grime of “Taxi Driver.” He’d chosen the location, he said, because a chance encounter there had changed his life, back when it was the West End Bar, a countercultural hangout. Schrader was raised Dutch Calvinist, in Michigan, and movies were considered sinful. He didn’t see his first (“something about Flubber”) until his teens, and was unimpressed. He entered Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, as a pre-seminary student, and discovered Ingmar Bergman at a local cinema. In the summer of 1966, he enrolled in film courses at Columbia, “but mostly I was just watching movies all day, and then I would come here at night.” One evening, Schrader was at the West End reading Pauline Kael’s “I Lost It at the Movies.” “The guy down the bar came over to me and said, ‘You like that book?’ I said, ‘I love this book.’ For my generation, that book was an explosion. Then he said, ‘Would you like to meet her?’ ”

The guy turned out to be the son of the critic Robert Warshow, and the next night he brought Schrader to Kael’s apartment. “I had seen twenty, thirty films, but I had a lot of opinions,” he recalled. “I remember saying, ‘How could you like “L’Avventura” and not “La Notte”?’ ” Too drunk to leave, he slept on Kael’s sofa. “The next morning, she made me breakfast, and she said, ‘You don’t want to be a minister. You want to be a film critic.’ ” They kept in touch. Kael helped him get a spot at U.C.L.A.’s film school and a reviewing gig at the Los Angeles Free Press. By 1972, his life was falling apart. “I turned to writing a script as personal therapy,” he said. “I was alone and living mostly in my car—you could sleep at those big porn theatres at night—and drinking, drinking, drinking. I had a bleeding ulcer at twenty-five. I went into the hospital, and, while I was there, I had the image of this taxi-driver. That’s me—this kid in this bright-yellow coffin, floating through the open sewer of the city.” He wrote “Taxi Driver” in ten days, in Silver Lake, and sent the script to Kael, who later told him that she had to bury it in her closet, because she felt so much evil emanating from it that she couldn’t sleep.

Schrader poked his head inside the bar. Where in 1966 college kids read The Paris Review, they now played Dungeons & Dragons over beer. “Here’s the Beat generation, circa 2020,” he said.

Outside, he hailed a taxi and said, “Go straight down West End.” The driver, Mahboob Alam, had heard of “Taxi Driver” but hadn’t seen it. He’d been on the job for just six months. “Do you like driving a taxi?” Schrader asked.

“No choice.”

“How many hours do you work a week?”

“Fifty, fifty-five.”

“That’s a grind,” Schrader muttered. “I mean, that’s a metaphor: fifty-five hours a week in this box.” ♦

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