Deconstructing Director Paul Schrader's Love for Taylor Swift
Allow us to get playfully unhinged!
Miss Americana Courtesy Netflix, Paul Schrader Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed — one of the most ecstatic films about religion ever made, as well as arguably one of the best films of the last decade — is, according to its most literal reading, a love story between a despairing and God-fearing man, and an ethereal blonde woman with a pure, untroubled soul. That man, as played by Ethan Hawke, is Reverend Toller, a protestant Pastor with a drinking problem and a growing sense of hopelessness when faced with humanity’s failures. The young woman, Mary, is played by Amanda Seyfried, her doe eyes and gentle manner lending her a superhuman kind of sweetness. It would be hard to deny that the Reverend Toller shares some qualities with Schrader, the writer-director — like God making man — having fashioned him at least partly in his image. Who, then, might have served as inspiration for Amanda Seyfried’s glowing, totally angelic blonde? Which woman could possibly ever live up to the holy hype?
Which indeed! In case this fact had previously escaped your notice, please allow me to enlighten you vis-à-vis what is objectively one of the best pieces of pop cultural trivia in recent history: Schrader is in fact a "Swiftie", meaning a committed fan of Taylor Swift. His fandom does not seem to be ironic so much as anti-ironic — pure, sincere, and so untouched by any concern for the way the general public might receive it that it ends up seeming cute rather than creepy. Not since Werner Herzog’s late-career endorsement of The Anna Nicole Smith Show has a great auteur’s obsession with a very famous babe managed to occupy my thoughts with the same level of consistency. “Paul Schrader is a genius,” I thought while watching First Reformed, “and also, he’s a Swiftie.” “Paul Schrader has been robbed,” I mused when Green Book inexplicably won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2019, “and also he’s a Swiftie.” Learning that a new Swift documentary had its premiere at Sundance 2020 a few days ago, I had to wonder: “What does Paul Schrader, a Swiftie, think about it?” When the film critic Dilara Elbir tweeted that the director had attended the documentary’s screening, as a joke, I misinterpreted the tweet as factual. “Of course he did,” I told myself, self-satisfied. “Because Paul Schrader is a Swiftie!”
“We mortals are enhanced by Taylor Swift's existence,” Schrader wrote on Facebook, way back in 2014. “She brings meaning to life, purpose to the void. I'm not kidding. Live in the glow.” The references ramped up, coincidentally enough, in interviews regarding First Reformed. “When you do go to [an] arena-based church,” he said to Vox in June 2018, “you are getting the same emotional hit as you would at a Taylor Swift concert or at a football game: that emotional bump you get from being in a crowd, all believing the same thing and saying and doing the same things.” “I would love to go [to a Taylor Swift concert]! I don’t know how to get a ticket,” he told Polygon the same month. “Taylor Swift is the closest thing we have to the godhead in this country. We only live by her good graces. She is the essence of the life force. She’s keeping us together. If Taylor were to leave us, everything would fall apart.” “Let there be no doubt,” he wrote on Facebook on July the 26th, not long after he spent his 72nd birthday seeing Taylor Swift in concert for the first time. “She is the light that gives meaning to each [of] our lives, the godhead who makes existence possible and without whom we should wander forever in bleak, unimaginable darkness.”
Formerly a Calvinist, briefly Episcopalian, and now a Presbyterian, Paul Schrader’s work is inextricable from his relationship with faith, with God, and with the troubling push-pull between the animal, and the divine. Grace, in its most spiritual sense, preoccupies him; often, he has chosen to explore it by sketching its absence. There is very little ugliness in the musical oeuvre of Taylor Swift, for all its heartbreak — her efficiency holds listeners at arm’s length, even when she is singing about fury or revenge. In that new Sundance documentary, Miss Americana, Swift identifies as “Christian,” and although she does not technically belong to the oft-maligned “Christian music” genre, there is something of the Sunday school about her. Mostly, I am joking about the idea of Taylor Swift serving as inspiration for a character who ends up representing — depending on your interpretation — something more like God than a cute girl. (Schrader does not have his tongue entirely out of his cheek, either.) Still, things do not necessarily need to deal directly with religion in order to provoke something like a religious experience. “Just because you put Jesus Christ into a Hollywood melodrama,” Schrader points out, “doesn’t mean that it’s a spiritual film.”
"Stanning a pop star is itself a kind of faith: a devotional act inspired by a distant figure, driven by their perceived betterness."
Stanning a pop star is itself a kind of faith: a devotional act inspired by a distant figure, driven by their perceived betterness. “Unconditional goodness,” the director argues in Schrader on Schrader, “is the same as spiritual grace.” Few pop stars are as “good” as Taylor Swift, her image squeaky-clean enough to make her the most spiritually-graceful singer of her era. I spend too much time considering Paul Schrader’s love of Swift because whether or not he truly means to, what he presents in his interviews and Facebook posts is in effect the ur-example of a fan — a person who believes the star they love to be not just a star in the traditional sense, but celestial, capable of inducing ecstasy. There may, of course, be one more reason that he found himself, from 2014 onwards, in the mood for something pure: in 2013, he reportedly had one of the trickiest filmmaking experiences of his life working with the wild, unholy Lindsay Lohan on The Canyons. Like George C. Scott’s wayward daughter in his 1979 movie Hardcore, she gave the distinct impression of not wanting to be saved. Once dance with the devil might send any man looking for Daylight rather than “bleak, unimaginable darkness.” Speaking of bleak, unimaginable darkness: I’d be curious to know how many times he has seen Cats.