Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Taxi Driver (#14)

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Favorites - Taxi Driver (#14)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Taxi Driver (1976/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #14 on my original list.

What it is • It is the mid-seventies. That's important, although the film has never ceased to be relevant; if anything, it may be even more pertinent today as the protagonist's profile fits a number of young, lone wolf killers in recent years. Nonethless, Taxi Driver arises from a specific era, in which New York was rough, dirty, and dangerous in the eyes of outsiders and residents alike. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is also a Vietnam veteran, a fact barely referenced in the film - he mentions serving in the Marines during a job interview, and later we see a NLF flag hanging on his wall - yet always hovering on the brink of its consciousness. Post-Watergate cynicism (perhaps also not so out-of-date in 2016) saturates the film's view of politicians and the society they run - it goes without saying that Travis' first target, a Presidential candidate, speaks only in superficial platitudes. The role of the women in the film is also informed by this particular moment, when feminism both rose out of and challenged the counterculture: both Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and Iris (Jodie Foster) seem independent and sexually liberated on the surface, but they are constricted by the aggressive men around them, for whom liberation means entitlement. Iris in particular provides a sensitive portrait of how exploitation and abuse could hover under the guise of freedom: only thirteen, she is pimped by the long-haired, sweet-talking hustler Scout (Harvey Keitel), whom she met at a commune. The movie also exists at the uneasy intersection of sixties rebellion and eighties conformity: Travis is an outcast who, despising other outcasts, desperately wants to "cleanse" his city of its "filth." His phobias are explicitly racially coded, in one of the film's boldest, most pertinent moves - this is an expert portrait of a very particular form of alienation and anxiety, in which an outsider clings desperately to one of the few qualities that makes him an insider: his whiteness (not for nothing was this film modeled after The Searchers). And of course this is a film that could only really thrive in its specific era, a bleak, alienating movie funded by a major studio and turning quite a profit at the box office (albeit small potatoes when compared to the blockbusters that started rolling out a year later). It's funny - working through the qualities that make Taxi Driver such a seventies film, I'm only reminded why it still resonates. Just as Travis' violent purge calms things down until they - inevitably - will simmer to the surface once again, so the topical qualities of Taxi Driver "disappeared" under the glossy superficialities of the eighties, nineties, and zeroes but never really disappeared at all...and now they stare back at us from the mirror with the added charge of forty repressed years.

Why I like it •
Of course I did first see the film during an era I'm retroactively labelling "repressed" - around 1999. This was part of its power for me - it spoke to a simmering rage and alienation that I recognized but didn't find vocalized with any real frequency in the pulp culture (particularly after the angst of grunge, which predated my own adolescence, petered out in the early nineties). I've spoken mostly about Paul Schrader's story, but Taxi Driver's ethos is most palpably evoked in Scorsese's direction and Bernard Herrmann's score (quite possibly his best...and this from maybe the most iconic composer in movie history, who scored Citizen Kane and Hitchcocks like Vertigo and Psycho!). The tightly-coiled editing and cinematography are unafraid to announce themselves loudly, but never feel like excess or showing off. These gestures imbue a gritty milieu with a Romantic texture, passionately exhibiting the emotions that Travis himself keeps locked down. The movie is saturated in slow motion, woozy cross-dissolves, telephoto compression, jagged cuts and repetitions (that moment when Travis begins a monologue, messes up, and starts over, as the shot of him rolling over in bed restarts like a skipping record...just remembering it gives me shivers). But if I had to highlight any one aspect of Taxi Driver, for all its flashy formal techniques, I would probably gravitate toward the performances. There is a loose naturalism to the interactions that makes every sequence a model for an actors' workshop. Foster has fantastic scene after fantastic scene, two of them literally back to back as she clowns around with Travis in the restaurant, a wiseass know-it-all kid, and then shows how vulnerable and naive she is by dancing with the charismatic but creepy-as-all-hell Keitel (who is amazingly good in one of his last roles for Scorsese; essentially replaced by De Niro from this point forward, he had appeared in three of the director's films before this but would only show up in one more: The Last Temptation of Christ, as - paradoxically - Judas). Albert Brooks delivers a series of comedic improvisations (or apparent improvisations) which come out of nowhere yet work to flesh out the world Travis isn't a part of; Peter Boyle's monologue is a hilariously profound-sounding yet fundamentally vapid dead end; and Shepherd is able to suggest a bemused, confused individual beneath the idealized veneer Travis smothers her with. Scorsese shows up for one memorable sequence, viciously displaying, and owning, the misogyny obscured by Travis' front of chivalry. And of course De Niro is phenomenal in every scene, many of them on his own, acting in a seeming vacuum. One of my favorite moments is small: he rocks the television back and forth with his boot, toying with the idea of smashing the screen - which displays a poignant American Bandstand dance number - but shocked with himself when he tips it over and shatters the distant, melancholy image. In a film filled with vicious, cathartic violence, that shot functions an ominous yet vaguely thrilling indication of what's to come.

More from me • The earliest review on this site wasn't published until 2011 although it was written a dozen years earlier: a 1999 journal entry on Taxi Driver composed when I was fifteen and shared as part of my "Big Ones" series.

How you can see it • Taxi Driver is available for blu-ray/DVD rental on Netflix and digital rental/purchase on Google Play and these sites (though some of the links are mislabelled/incorrect).

What do you think? • Roger Ebert has his own theory about the ending - I think it makes the movie even better to look at it this way, but what do you think? Do you find Travis completely alienating or, at least in parts, a compelling antihero? How do you see the themes of Taxi Driver play out not just in Scorsese's work, but in Schrader's, where the connections seem even more explicit?

• • •

Tomorrow: The Mirror (#13)

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