Paul Schrader, the director of American Gigolo, is like a curmudgeonly grandpa: He has opinions on Avatar: The Way of Water (“The movie started. There was a bunch of cool stuff on screen. Then the movie ended”), reviews of the Home Depot consumer experience, and sometimes he just wants to know how to get his iTunes playlists to play. In Schrader’s movies, a man often hunches over a desk with a pen and paper and a steadily diminishing supply of brown booze. One can imagine the 76-year-old filmmaker similarly hunched over, composing his latest Facebook post.
In 1967, the critic and theorist Roland Barthes wrote “The Death of the Author,” his famous essay on literary criticism that suggests the figure of “the Author” had monopolized interpretations of literary works, as if the work’s truth lay in allegory. For Barthes, writing was instead “the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” The Author has to fall away so that the Reader’s rich array of meanings can flourish. But if Barthes murdered the Author, what would he say about the Poster? Because if Paul Schrader is anything, he’s a certified, unapologetic Poster.
I found out about Schrader’s scribbles from the twitter account @paul_posts, which curates the filmmaker’s Facebook for the timeline. Untethered from their source, Schrader’s dispatches are anachronistic and amusing; moments when he’s surprisingly correct—he disdains Elon Musk, loves Taylor Swift—coexist with other unapologetic opinions. When his 2021 film The Card Counter premiered, distributor Focus Features asked Schrader to take a little break from posting, and it’s easy to see why. His politics might have a radical bent going back the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he protested the Vietnam War—misgivings channeled into screenplays for Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder—but his anti-establishment vibes can easily slip into anti-wokeness: While he decries David Mamet’s rightward turn, he also bitterly called the results of the 2022 Sight and Sound Poll Greatest Films of All Time poll a “politically correct rejiggering.” Both posting styles travel the timeline on the cloud of comic absurdity shared by that early Twitter success, “Shit My Dad Says.”
So, how do we square the man who gets kicked out of online poker rooms for trying to play matchmaker for “an attractive girl” who probably just wanted to play poker, with an austere and melancholic film like First Reformed, which follows a minister during a crisis of faith when he can no longer ignore the ongoing catastrophe we nickname “climate change.” Some scholars have read the film as a queer melodrama about facing impossibility. Maybe the Schrader who missed the chance to “go bi in [his] younger years” would agree. Maybe the Schrader who scored as “straight” on a very weird youtube sexuality test would disagree. But the legacy of Barthes’s essay means that the Poster and these readings of the film can coexist. Squaring the two is a dead end; the opposite is what opens art to interpretation.