[Warning: The following contains minor spoilers.]
A rare opportunity
I was about 10 years old when Paul Schrader made Light of Day, about two years before my awakening as a Jetthead, so I never had the opportunity to see it in a theater. I just assumed I never would.
But Light of Day’s 25th anniversary–which totally snuck up on me by the way–offered the chance of a lifetime last Friday when Paul introduced a special screening of the film and fielded questions from the audience at The Cleveland Institute of Art’s Cinematheque, just a 2.5 hour drive from my home. I took the day off from work, rescheduled a bridesmaid’s dress fitting, and hit the road.
The Cinematheque (pronounced Cinema-tec), which also celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, shows films in the Institute’s 616-seat Aitken Auditorium, nestled among classrooms in one of the buildings on campus. I loved it. The seats are cushioned, but the backs are plain blond wood, and each one has its own fold-up half-desk. I didn’t take any pictures of the building, because I had to navigate a traffic circle to get there and I just wanted to collect myself and not have to fiddle with any electronics for awhile. (I’m glad Pittsburgh doesn’t have too many of these, because they are terrifying if you don’t know where you are going. *deep breaths* 🙂 )
The theater was not packed, but we still had a pretty decent crowd. Every row was at least partially filled. There seemed to be a mixture of Paul Schrader fans, Light of Day fans, and locals who had never seen the film.
The show started around 7:30 PM, with trailers for the animated Idiots and Angels and Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Cinematheque’s director, John Ewing, then made a few remarks about their upcoming films and introduced a video montage of select films from Paul Schrader’s body of work as a writer, director, and both. I’m not sure what order these were aired in, and I hope I didn’t miss any, because it’s kind of hard to write in the dark:
- Taxi Driver
- Blue Collar
- Cat People
- Light Sleeper
- American Gigolo
- Raging Bull
- The Walker
- Auto Focus
- The Last Temptation of Christ
- Patty Hearst
- The Comfort of Strangers
Following the montage, Mr. Ewing introduced Paul, who then introduced Light of Day with the story of how it was created. Jettheads know the story of how the title came to be as well as we know the lyrics to the song, but it was fun to hear it from Paul’s point of view. We learned that Bruce Springsteen was originally courted to star in the film but never read the script, which we all know at the time was called Born in the U.S.A. (Paul actually got that from a Cleveland band called The Generators, who he followed around to get material for the script. The cleveland.com website posted a fabulous article about this story, and other Light of Day filming details, including some great pictures of Joan I’ve never seen before. Read it HERE.)
Unadulterated fandom bliss
After Mr. Schrader’s remarks, the theater darkened, and my breath hitched the same way it does just before The Blackhearts walk onto the stage at a live show. The old Columbia/Tri-Star Pegasus galloped into the frame to start the movie, just like on my old, well-worn VHS tape. And just like my well-worn VHS tape, the film shows its physical age. It has a graininess and a scratchiness to it that we don’t see in today’s films, like the visual equivalent of the pops and hisses of a great vinyl record. During a few scenes, the sound became a little too high-pitched, transforming even Joan Jett’s throaty growls into chipmunk squeals. I’m not sure if that was the print itself, the sound in the auditorium, or both.
It didn’t matter. Time crawls for me when I watch this film, and thank goodness. Every time I see it, I find myself studying the clothes, the background noises, the furnishings, looking for things I haven’t seen before. And I always find something. Despite its age, the print’s picture is still fifty times clearer than my old VHS tape, and the wide screen allowed me to see more of each scene than I’d ever seen on my old square 4:3 TV.
A few new gems for me this time:
— Patti says a line (in sarcastic answer to her mother’s inane question about road conditions on a sunny day) that is partially obliterated by Joe trying to change the subject, and that has stumped me for over twenty years: “Euclid Avenue? Under a foot of water.”
— During a confrontation between Joe and his co-worker in the men’s room, a sign on the wall asks, “How’s your image? Neatness counts.” I knew the sign was there, I just could never make out the word “image”, which is too blurry to read on my TV.
— To break up a fight between Patti and their mother, Joe hands Patti a beer and takes her down to the game room to chill out. Patti uses a Bible as a coaster.
The crowd laughed at the funny one-liners. (“Let’s not get nasty, I know the sixties must have been rough.” 🙂 ) I heard a few people mention later that they were pleasantly surprised by how many local Cleveland references are in the film. I didn’t turn around to look, but I wonder if I was the only one whispering the dialog and bouncing to the songs.
The power of The Barbusters’ final performance hits me square in the chest every time. As the credits rolled, the audience applauded. The lights came up, and it was time for Paul’s Q&A.
A bliss not everyone shares
Paul needed help tracking down a print of Light of Day for this event, because he doesn’t own one. He never wanted one for his collection, and he was quite candid about why.
I’ve known for a while that Paul doesn’t like Light of Day, and I’m glad I finally got to hear it from him directly. As a Jetthead, it sometimes gets hard to hear anything that sounds like criticism of Joan, especially for a piece of her work that we hold in such high esteem. But Paul made it clear that his misgivings are not about Joan herself. They are deeply personal.
Paul admits that he cannot see the film through objective eyes. When he set out to make Light of Day, he wanted to make a film about a bar band that wasn’t going anywhere, but he was also dealing with his mother’s recent death and wanted to write about that too. The relationship between Joe, Patti, and their mother was highly autobiographical for Paul, down to his father winding his mother’s watch in her coffin. He felt a great responsibility to get every detail exactly right, but he doesn’t think he did. It still plagues him, and he may never grow to love this movie the way we do. But I respect him greatly for that.
Paul also thinks the film was miscast. He said that Joan and Michael J. Fox were great separately, but that they didn’t have any chemistry together as brother and sister. I obviously disagree, and others in the audience did too, but I get it. A New Yorker and a Canadian are trying to play people from the Midwest, with their respective accents intact. That could easily take people out of the story and turn them off. A bartender from the Euclid Tavern sat behind me during the screening, and she told me later that although she loves Light of Day, she couldn’t really believe Joan and Michael as brother and sister because they didn’t sound like each other. I can relate, because I have the same problem with nearly all of the movies and TV shows filmed in Pittsburgh. I’m lucky that, since this film is not set in Pittsburgh, I can be objective about those kinds of details and get lost in the emotion of the story. I think Joan and Michael pulled that aspect off very well, and I believe that their characters love each other very much.
The man wrote Taxi Driver, dammit!
And a bunch of other famous movies the crowd was interested in. (I wonder if his fans call themselves “Schraderheads.” Hmmm.) Paul was funny and engaging, and most of the conversation revolved around his other work and his philosophies on filmmaking. I told him that I’ve loved Light of Day since I was 13 years old and thanked him for making it. Nobody asked any Joan Jett-related questions, and I kept my fangirling low-key out of respect for the man. 🙂 I jotted down a few highlights:
— When asked why he doesn’t remake Light of Day, Paul said that the family drama genre was dead. Studios don’t make them anymore because they don’t make money. (Actually, I think they do still make family dramas, only now they’re called “chick flicks”.)
— When asked what advice he has for new filmmakers, he said he would tell them to get interested in the technology of filmmaking. When he was starting out, filmmakers had what he called a “crisis of content,” meaning all they had to worry about was a good script. Now, filmmaking is in a “crisis of form”: the industry is focused more on inventing new technologies and special effects.
— Someone asked about a rumor that the epilogue to Taxi Driver was tacked on by the studio without anyone’s consent. Paul denied that, and explained that the last scene was always designed to feed back into the first scene, all the way down to the colors and the music. In theory, if you could splice the last scene to the first, you could watch the movie in a loop and hope that the character would make better choices in the next viewing.
— Paul is a fan of Stanley Kubrick, which has contributed to the variety of genres represented in his work.
— Paul used to be a film critic, and he said it was very difficult to be a critic and a filmmaker at the same time. A critic is like a medical examiner, dissecting a film and figuring out why it lived, how it died. A filmmaker, or any artist really, is like a pregnant woman whose only job is to keep the baby alive until it’s born. If you allow your inner critic into the room while you’re trying to create, the critic is going to kill that baby. (I know!!! This is why it took me three days to write this freaking thing. My inner critic is a serial killer.)
Paul signed autographs afterward, and then I went back to my hotel. But Paul finished off the night by hanging out at the recently re-opened Euclid Tavern and chatting some more. I went the next day instead and took some pics, which I will share later. The Euc deserves its own post. 🙂
The runt of the litter
I really don’t care how many awards Paul Schrader wins for all of his amazing, critically-acclaimed pure-bred movies. (Sorry, Paul.) My heart belongs to the tiny, scruffy mutt that is Light of Day. Sure, I only watched it for the first time because Joan Jett is in it. But that’s not why I keep watching it.
I could go on and on about why I love Light of Day, and I probably will on this blog, many times. But for Paul, the critics, and anyone else who doesn’t like the film, there’s really no point. Nothing I say will change their minds, and that’s OK. Convincing them is not my job. I am not a critic or an artist. I am a fan. To expand on Paul’s metaphor, I am not a medical examiner or a pregnant woman. I am the foster mom that takes in the babies no one else wants, and I’m happy to do it.