Half an hour before showtime the line outside the Music Box stretched a good way down the block. We weren’t the most attractive bunch. A lot of bald spots, beer bellies, and numerous unfixable fashion faux pas. But we were excited. Because we were about to be the first people in town to see Paul Schrader’s new movie and he was going to answer our questions afterward.
The screening of Schrader’s First Reformed was part of the Chicago Film Critics’ Festival, so the high quota of ugly people was a foregone conclusion. There’s a reason film obsessives come alive in darkened rooms, where they themselves can’t be seen. Perhaps having been in more than my share of such rooms I have no room to judge, but I prefer to think what I’m doing is describing what I see. I’m certainly no better looking or more well-adjusted than any of the others in the neighboring seats.
First Reformed concerns a tormented priest, ecological apocalypse, and humankind’s hopeless longing for grace and meaning. Watching the movie I kept thinking of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Schrader’s own Taxi Driver. The grappling with faith is in most of Schrader’s work, but it’s fully out in the open in this new one. I have little use for religion in my everyday life but find that some of my favorite art is consumed with it. I don’t know how to reconcile that but I’m not too bothered by the contradiction. Schrader’s belief feels genuine so I can accept it.
During the Q and A afterwards, Schrader talked about the influence of Bresson and other filmmakers, confirmed that there’s a lot of Taxi Driver in this new one, and expounded at length on many of the hidden symbols he’d embedded in the story. He was a polished and bemused speaker, ready with a quip to defuse every last pedantic audience query.
Outside the theater a guy I know came up and said I was looking biblical. He was talking about the beard I’ve let get out of hand. Maybe I’ve been growing it out to look the part of a pilgrim on Schrader’s spiritual quest. But more likely it is just a symptom of a person who has stopped minding his appearance, preferring to live vicariously through the flickering images on the walls of darkened rooms.