Such are the book's riches, I'm sure I could spin ten or twelve posts out of it. But let me focus on just one of the hubristic heroes, Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver. Schrader was a writer driven by demons, turning out script after script in his office at Warner Bros. As Biskind puts it:
He was writing like a machine, and although he didn't know it then, he was writing himself out.This was a theme that really spoke to me, that chilled me to the core - the idea that everyone has a finite amount of words and themes inside them, that you can only write so much before you start to repeat yourself. Schrader's career certainly burned bright for a few years and then fizzled thereafter, his films descending to the level of interesting but inessential.
I'm sure most of us don't know why we write. A lot of us don't want to know, don't want to get too close to the magical process in case it all stops working. So we write or don't write and hope that the words and ideas will keep flowing. Yet after a while we start to butt against our own limitations, start to wonder whether we've used a phrase before, if we've begun to rip off our own ideas. For instance, I wrote a scene yesterday and realised that the beginning was almost exactly the same as the opening to my previous book! I was chastened by that and I have to admit a little scared too. Surely I can't be repeating myself already?
At least I can see that there's a problem and can address it, which is not something that all creative people seem willing or able to do. I think there's a lot to be said for keeping moving and continually challenging yourself - several of the New Hollywood moguls in Biskind's book surround themselves with yes men and creative inertia ensues. But not everyone can skip madly between genres and maintain a coherent output - many people work better by pushing at the edges of their comfort zone while staying inside it.
I might not know exactly why I write, but Paul Schrader is an easier study. Back in the 70s, he was approximately 10% genius and 90% darkness, a guy driven half mad by a repressive, aggressive Christian upbringing and constant fantasies of suicide. He wrote what he knew and what he knew was himself (Robert De Niro borrowed many of his clothes and mannerisms for the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). Biskind quotes another writer's conclusion that Schrader's creative decline was because "the beasts that drove him were quieted." So should he have quit the writing and directing game when he was ahead?
I have a lot of respect for the recently departed Tony Curtis and Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) who both more or less shunned their day jobs and took up painting in later life. They realised that their best days in one art form were over and switched to another, securing their legacy and their creative pride. Imagine how we would feel about De Niro if he had quit acting after Heat? Instead he keeps churning out desultory movies for large paycheques.
Little Fockers anyone? Thought not.