Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
PASADENA, Calif.--The existentialist hero wonders if life is worth living. The ironic hero is greatly amused by people who wonder about things like that. And there you have the difference between the work of Paul Schrader and Quentin Tarantino, who have had more of an influence over the writing of movies than anyone else in the last 25 years.
Schrader wrote the great Martin Scorsese films "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." He has written many other films for others ("The Yakuza," "Obsession") and written and directed many of his own ("American Gigolo," "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters," "Cat People" (1982), "Light Sleeper"). Tarantino has written and directed "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." For two years we have been in a post-"Pulp Fiction" period, our screens crowded with ironic heroes who express themselves in colorful prose made out of slang, arcane knowledge, obscenity and tradecraft. In the years after Schrader and Scorsese made "Taxi Driver," we went through a period crowded with existential heroes; make a list of the credits of De Niro, Pacino, Hackman and Hoffman, cross out the comedies, and what's left is post-"Taxi Driver." (With some exceptions, of course, but we're talking trends here.)
Paul Schrader and I are sitting under a tree in the parking lot of an abandoned Pasadena hospital, talking about the fundamental change that has taken place in American movies between "Taxi Driver" and "Pulp Fiction." We are talking here about good American movies, of course; the mainstream has not changed and is as faithful to genres as ever. Schrader is on the set of "Touch," which he is directing from a script he wrote from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name.
Leonard is as influential among crime novelists as Schrader and Tarantino are at the movies, but until "Get Shorty" (1995) none of the movies based on his books did the dialog justice. There were good Leonard movies, like "52 Pickup," but they weren't good because of the dialog.
Now comes "Touch", starring Skeet Ulrich as a former Franciscan priest who bears the five stigmata of Christ on his body, and may be a faith healer. Two people want to control him: Christopher Walken, as a failed southern evangelist, and Tom Arnold, as a right-wing Catholic traditionalist. Bridget Fonda is Walken's former partner, who eventually becomes the only person he can trust, after creatures like a talk show hostess (Gina Gershon) and a journalist (Janeane Garofolo) publicize his apparent miracles.
When he got the Leonard novel, Schrader said, he quickly figured out how to adapt it for the screen: "You put the book next to the typewriter, and you turn the pages. They're that easy to adapt. But his books often start to peter out toward the end; he gets tired of all the characters and he wraps it up. So I needed to add a few things. Also, I wanted to add another comic character. At the time I was writing it, I was reading an Elmore Leonard book every week, so I must have taken four or five lines from other novels and just threw 'em in there."
Leonard's dialog is quirky, personal, funny in an off-center and unexpected way, and not plot-driven. Sometimes his characters will get off on a tangent, and he'll follow them, as in "Touch," where a barroom conversation turns into a heated discussion about whether or not one of the characters is entitled to call herself a Catholic. The freedom to use dialog like that--meandering, specialized, tangential--exists to a great degree because Tarantino did it in his films. (Recall the long discussion of fast-food terminology in France.)
"They were able to use his dialog in 'Get Shorty'," Schrader said. "And that was because of the dialogue in 'Pulp Fiction.' After "Pulp Fiction" was a hit, you realized you could do Elmore Leonard the way Elmore Leonard is meant to be done.
"I think there are basically three rules we're talking about here. First, they're character driven, not narrative driven. It's basically about how people talk and behave. And if they start talking about something off the point, it doesn't matter--because it's about what they're talking about. Second, there are no good guys or bad guys. They're all just interesting people. In the old movies they tried to split them up into good and bad camps, and that's not what the books are about. The third thing is, Elmore Leonard's books are not crime novels. They're comedies of behavior. I think that's why "Get Shorty" worked, and why it's taken so many years and so many movies to figure out why his books were selling."
"Travolta," I said, "claimed he read the script of "Get Shorty," which was all rewritten, and said he would do it if they put Leonard's dialog back in." "Could be. He knew why they should do that, because he was in 'Pulp Fiction.' And they did it, because he was in 'Pulp Fiction'." "As influential as Tarantino's script is now, you were when you started out."
"You must have wanted to do some of this stuff."
"No, no. There is a big difference. I mean, I'm really of the existential tradition, the 20th century tradition. Tarantino is tying into the ironic hero. I know the existential hero's in trouble and I know this century is almost over. But I don't know how nourishing the ironic hero can be.
"I shouldn't say this, because it puts me on the spot, but what I have in 'Touch' is a whole cast of ironic characters, with an existential character in the center. The existential dilemma is, 'should I live?' And the ironic answer is, 'does it matter?' Everything in the ironic world has quotation marks around it. You don't actually kill somebody; you 'kill' them. It doesn't really matter if you put the baby in front of the runaway car because it's only a 'baby' and it's only a 'car'."
"In other words, the scene isn't about the baby," I said. "The scene is about scenes about babies."
"Right. So at the end of the day, or the end of the era, we'll see how influential 'Pulp Fiction' was. It may be influential in the way that 'Easy Rider' was. It may change the industry. 'Easy Rider' made it possible for Hollywood producers to contemplate a low-budget free-form story. Movies like that change the industry--but we'll see what history thinks of them." He paused. "I'd be very interested to see what 'Pulp Fiction' looks like in 25 years. 'Easy Rider' and 'Taxi Driver' were both re-released in 1996, after 20 years, and..."
"And 'Taxi Driver' held up a lot better," I said.
"Yes, it does. It was massive serendipity. Particularly very early in your career, to have that weight lifted off of your shoulders--the question of, will I ever do anything worthwhile? You know you've done something worthwhile and now you can get down to working. People said it must be terrible, knowing I had to top it. I said, no, it's just the opposite. You're free from feeling that you're never going to accomplish anything."
Which is a great freedom if you are an existentialist, although if you are an ironist your problems are only starting--because then what does it mean to accomplish anything?
Editor's Note: "Easy Rider" has also been reviewed in the Great Movies section.
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