Alone in a Room, Wearing a Mask

The following is from an interview with the writer and director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Light Sleeper,” “First Reformed”) from the L.A. Times, September 13, 2020.

“ … over the years I’ve developed my own little genre of films. And they usually involve a man alone in a room, wearing a mask, and the mask is his occupation. So it could be a taxi driver, a drug dealer, a gigolo, a reverend, whatever. And I take that character and run it alongside a larger problem, personal or social. It could be debilitating loneliness like in ‘Taxi Driver.’ It could be an environmental crisis like in ‘First Reformed.’

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in “Dr. Zhivago”

“I’m looking for deep-seated problems, either personal or societal, and some kind of oddball metaphor. The more you get closer, you run these two wires next to each other, the more sparks you see flying across. And it’s in the sparks that the viewer comes alive.  If the wires ever touch, there’s nothing left for the viewer to do. But if you keep these two wires really close to each other, the viewer will start to spark from one wire to the other. And that’s the greatest thing you can give a viewer or a reader, an opportunity to be part of the creation.”

I love analogies like this because they really help me as a writer.

When Mr. Schrader says “a man alone in a room with a mask on,” that strikes me as a different way of saying “get to true identity.”

“Man” of course means man or woman.

“In a room” means a contained dramatic environment.

“Mask” is false identity.

The story’s job is to get the mask off and reveal the hero’s true identity.

But I love the second part of Mr. Schrader’s construct even more—the idea of the “two wires”—the character’s story running side-by-side with a greater story but never quite touching.

I started thinking about Dr. Zhivago (even though it wasn’t written by Mr. Schrader but by Boris Pasternak, the novel, and Robert Bolt, the screenplay.)

The man in the mask is Yuri—Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif). 

The room is Russia in the time of the revolution.

Yuri’s true identity (mask off) is that of a great poet, whose works and depth of sensibility transcend temporal upheavals, however monumental or Earth-altering.

The parallel societal problem is the White-Red clash that ended with the victory of the Communists and their idealistic, well-intentioned but in the end soul-destroying totalitarian worldview.

The central scene to me, if you recall it, is when Zhivago, seeking to flee with his family to their dacha in the countryside, is snatched up and dragooned by Red Army partisans under their ruthless commander Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay), whom Zhivago had known briefly in pre-revolutionary days as the unhappy student radical Pasha Antipov (who became briefly the husband of Lara [Julie Christie], whom Zhivago would come to love as well and for whom his greatest poetry would be written.)

The scene between Zhivago and Strelnikov takes place on Strelnikov’s armored high-speed train. It’s an interview, face to face, in Strelnikov’s office/cabin. The two men speak briefly of Zhivago’s poetry, which Strelnikov dismisses, not with contempt or ill will but simply as out of phase with the times.

                        STRELNIKOV

I should find it absurdly personal.

Zhivago is stung and even unnerved by this appraisal. To him, the personal is everything. Love. Depth of emotion. The imperatives of the heart.

                        STRELNIKOV

 The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it.

See the sparks?

Paul Schrader is right. When you set a greater issue in parallel with a unique personal one, particularly one that involves the hero seeking his or her true identity, you get drama and magic and insight.

Zhivago’s life-odyssey (and his poetry) is a testament to the permanence of the personal … of love and of feeling … over the transience of “greater” political events, even if these produce massive societal transformation that, in truth, could not have been brought about in any other way.

Zhivago collapses and dies at the end of the story, post-revolution, dismounting from a streetcar in a moment of frantic passion, after spotting his great love, Lara, on the street and pursuing her as she walks past without seeing him.

          YEVGRAV ZHIVAGO (ALEC GUINNESS)

The walls of his heart were like paper.

The story ends with the triumph of Communism and the conclusion (justifiably true) that such a brutal and heart-annulling mass movement was necessary to awaken Russia and bring her into the modern world. The final scene takes place in the control room overlooking a massive hydropower dam—a feat of engineering and construction that pre-revolutionary Russia could never have even dreamt of.

But who “won?”

In the end it is Zhivago’s poetry, speaking to the timeless Russian soul, that remains vivid and ineradicable, ever-alive in the hearts of the people.

Paul Schrader’s concept holds true.

Sparks did fly between these two parallels, didn’t they?

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19 Comments

  1. Mary Doyle on October 28, 2020 at 6:17 am

    Superlative! Now I want to go and watch Dr. Zhivago again and come back and reread this. Thanks to you, and to Paul Schrader for this morning’s post.

  2. Joe Jansen on October 28, 2020 at 7:45 am

    In Schrader’s observation of:

    “The more you get closer, you run these two wires next to each other, the more sparks you see flying across. And it’s in the sparks that the viewer comes alive. If the wires ever touch, there’s nothing left for the viewer to do. But if you keep these two wires really close to each other, the viewer will start to spark from one wire to the other. And that’s the greatest thing you can give a viewer or a reader, an opportunity to be part of the creation.”

    This brought to mind a comment from last year on “the beholder’s share” (a term coined by art historian Alois Riegl): you have a painting, but that painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it. Here’s a cool (5-min) talk by Eric Kandel (a Nobel Prize winner). In his brief discussion of why the Mona Lisa is considered one of the masterpieces of western art, he points to the ambiguity of her facial expression: Is she smiling or is she not? We’re EACH drawn in because we’re compelled to participate by engaging and wanting to understand her.

    Since the beholder’s share varies for each of us, we’re each bringing an element of our own creativity into it, we each derive our own meaning. The sparks between the wires mean something different to each of us. We’re co-creating.

    https://youtu.be/IoubVUSk7h0

  3. Skip on October 28, 2020 at 8:03 am

    good stuff, steve!
    yes, xlnt movie….a top 10 one for me…first place Still goes to “Lawrence of Arabia”!

    as for paul schrader, one might check out his: American Gigolo !

  4. Lindsay on October 28, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Expanding the analogy? A current in one wire induces magnetism — and that magnetism induces, in turn, a current in the second wire. Everything’s connected.

  5. James McCabe on October 28, 2020 at 8:13 am

    An excellent movie to be sure, but whenever Lean veered out of Englishness into Russian depths or Irish complexity he became a landscape painter primarily. He and Bolt understood the English dilemma like seers… Another excellent essay, Steven.

  6. JJ on October 28, 2020 at 8:14 am

    This is gold. Really valuable and helpful way to look those parallel threads. Sparks went off in my head with my WIP.

  7. John Hutson on October 28, 2020 at 8:17 am

    thank you Steven! That metaphor of “the sparks” makes a lot of sense to me! I’m always wondering where the audience is in any scene, what are they waiting for, what do they know, what do they expect. Those questions happen on the second on third edit. Anyway I wanted to share the opening page of TAXI DRIVER script. It’s the introductory description of the character Travis Bickle. And takes a full page!

    TRAVIS BICKLE
    Age 26, lean, hard, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears
    good-looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming
    smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But
    behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can
    see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and
    loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always
    cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the
    expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking,
    piercing empty space.
    Travis is now drifting in and out of the New York City night life, a
    dark shadow among darker shadows. Not noticed , no reason to be
    noticed, Travis is one with his surroundings. He wears rider jeans,
    cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige Army jacket with a
    patch reading, “King Kong Company 1968-70”.
    He has the smell of sex about him: Sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex,
    but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward
    what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the evitable. The
    clock sprig cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves
    toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.

    • Steven Pressfield on October 28, 2020 at 11:14 am

      This is fascinating, John. Thanks for sending. I may steal this for another thing I’m working on. Thanks!

    • Joe on November 3, 2020 at 6:03 pm

      John, I follow the YT channel “Behind the Curtain” —looking under the hood of film scripts. They just featured Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader, and Scorsese:

      https://youtu.be/ErfH5djFS7E

  8. Mike Esser on October 28, 2020 at 8:32 am

    The most interesting part of Doctor Zhivago, however, is not necessarily the book itself, but the story of how it came to be published in the first place. Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, having learned of the existence of Doctor Zhivago, felt a responsibility to see it published. He published an Italian translation of the book in November, 1957, despite attempts from the KGB to halt publication. Eleven months later, over 1,000 copies were secretly published in the United States in the original Russian. The publication occurred as part of a CIA plot to undermine the USSR. and the CIA distributed copies among Soviet visitors to Expo ’58, the Brussels World’s Fair. The rationale was that the novel’s content would cause outrage among Soviet citizens, and doubt would be planted when it came to light that the government had refused to allow publication of a novel by Russia’s most respected and celebrated writer. Ironically, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli went, if you want, in the opposite direction of the character Doctor Zhivago: While Zhivago defended individualism and with it the model of western democracy in a way, publisher Feltrinelli in his later years became affiliated with the left wing terrorist group Brigate Rosse and died, apparently killed by his own explosives while trying to sabotage a high voltage power line near Milan.

    • Steven Pressfield on October 28, 2020 at 11:13 am

      Wow, what a story, Mike! Glad our CIA was on the case, taking up the side of poetry and art.

  9. Renita on October 28, 2020 at 11:27 am

    It broke my heart that last scene when Zhivago sees Laura and she doesn’t see him. Everything surrounded by concrete. Like a large tomb. “Only connect” is the opposite of this idea. The tension of disconnected parallel lives is either resolved or continued. It sets the tone of the story.

  10. Charlie FitzGerald on October 28, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that the millions of Russian citizens who were murdered by Marx, Lenin and Stalin would have preferred to have not been “awakened” by the “justifiable” revolution to bring the Soviet Union into the modern world. Living with oil lamps and having to hand pump water from the ground is most likely preferable to a Soviet made bullet placed in the back of the head without one’s permission. Dictators don’t consider the masses as they seize power. They only consider power

    • renita on October 28, 2020 at 8:28 pm

      Charlie,
      The phrase “Can of worms” comes to mind. This opens up a huge discussion that cannot be done justice here, but … good point.
      Renita

    • DAVID MCGRUER on October 29, 2020 at 9:07 am

      Zhivago’s fate was as suitable for the Soviet setting as was the death of the protagonists and all hope of escape in Ayn Rand’s novel We The Living.

  11. Kyle J Baker on October 29, 2020 at 1:43 am

    On your recommendation, I just watched First Reformed, and it’s fantastic!

  12. Dailey Warren on October 29, 2020 at 6:19 pm

    What a movie! I loved the part at the end where Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star and then kisses his sister.
    Or, wait….was that “Star Trek V: the Final Frontier”?
    Anyhoo: “The walls of his heart were like paper.” Now there’s a fine bit of penmanship.

  13. Colleen on November 7, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Great post. I was always mesmerized by Zhivago.

  14. puzzle jisaw on November 21, 2020 at 12:23 am

    Very good filmmaking idea. This makes followers curious about who the main character behind the mask is and want to follow through to the end to solve searching for that answer. puzzle jigsaw

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