Originally published in July 2013, run again today in honor of Schrader’s 68th birthday.
In 1970, Charles Eames gave a talk at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In the audience that day was a passion and hungry 24-year-old man, eager to be inspired, and ready to give the world a taste of all that stirred inside him. That young man was the now-iconic writer and director Paul Schrader, who has attributed Eames—the architect, problem-solver, and all around Renaissance man—as the reason he was able to become a filmmaker. After taking in his speech, Schrader was compelled to write an article on the artist, and as he said in Kevin Jackson’s Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, “even the notion of an article was a rouse because I sensed that here was this person standing by a door, and if I approached him, he would open that door for me.” And fatefully, he did. Schrader conducted the interview—which eventually expanded farther than he could have anticipated—after visiting Eames’ famously thriving workshop in Venice and never wanting to leave.
It’s impossible to forget one’s first life-altering inspiration, the initial exposure to a new idea that makes the heart yearn for something it never knew existed and changes everything that comes after. With fresh eyes, there’s a new tune to the world as you see the emotional, psychological, and physical power of art to stimulate and create something beyond your own convention. And having been raised in the staunch Calvinist world of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader was brought up on the notion that sex was strictly for procreation, movies were the devil’s work, and “ideas were the provence of language.” He was taught that emotional and spiritual feeling was to be expressed strictly through words—Eames opened his mind to the belief that “images or an object can be an idea,” and that there was a “visual logic to life.”
After spending his early twenties writing film criticism and aspiring to make films of own, Schrader was hovering around Hollywood, unsettled by the films presented to him. What he saw were pictures that “exalted idiosyncrasy and the cult of personality,” focusing on me and not we, highlighting the importance of individuality as a means of understanding oneself on a greater level. However, through his time spent admiring Eames and learning from his work, Schrader came to find a person who exposed him that to the idea that the cult of personality was in fact ephemeral, flowing from one person to the next, uniting humanity with a deeper kind of likeness.
Schrader claims it was that sentiment, combined with the thought that “images are ideas,” which overturned his world. The article he wrote on Eames would be published in Film Quarterly in the Spring of 1970, and was titled “Poetry of Ideas.” The focus was on Eames’ short films created with his wife, Ray, and how they exemplified something entirely unique to the cinematic tradition. Amalgamating science and technology to convey their own means of communication, Schrader said the films possessed a “unified aesthetic with many branch-like manifestations,” and that they had a “cerebral sensibility” seldom seen in the medium.
Classified as his “toy films” and his “idea films,” Eames revealed both the “definitive characteristics of commonplace objects” and “introduced a new way of perceiving ideas into a medium which had been surprisingly anti-intellectual.” Since his earliest work, Schrader has been a writer and filmmaker who has unified both an intellectual sensibility through prose with aesthetically-rich ways to convey narrative ideas.
Jackson noted that Schrader’s “most mature films—following Eames—aspire to the condition of poetry.” But whereas Eames’ response to being referred to as a filmmaker—and someone Schrader had taken a cinematic interest in initially—was,”Who me, film?”, Schrader has always been obsessed with an “evangelical impulse to preach” his ideas to an audience. It’s his cri de coeur, he’s said, “that need to just lean out the window and yell.” And with his first major directorial work in five years, The Canyons, premiering this week, it’s compelling to look back on the beginnings of his career to understand the director he has become today. Below are some of Eames’ short films that inspired Schrader and changed his world. You can read the article in its entirety HERE.
Toccata for Toy Trains
Powers of Ten
Design Q&A With Charles and Ray Eames