Wednesday, September 29, 2010

TAXI DRIVER


I first saw the film TAXI DRIVER when it came out in 1976. I walked out of the theater in a daze. At the time it was shocking for its graphic depiction of violence and its up close look at prostitution and a world most of us never experience. I was 20 years old, and until that time, I basically looked at movies as entertainment, but TAXI DRIVER made me see cinema as a medium that could be artistic and reflect and make strong statements about our culture.

TAXI DRIVER was directed by Martin Scorsese who was from New York and had already captured the city's texture in his film Mean Streets. The film opens with a shot of and old checker cab emerging through smoke to the ominous soundtrack of Bernard Herrmann. The night cinematography by Michael Chapman uses the cab's window and rear view mirror as a frame for the ever shifting city. In the opening few minutes, the film renders the streets of New York in a dark and beautiful way. There are shots from the point of view of the cab moving through the city. The crowds move at different speeds and the colors and forms are constantly moving in and out of focus. I was studying painting at the time, and the shots in the film seemed like moving paintings. There are intense and vibrant documentary shots of the streets inserted into the narrative. There is one scene where an angry man is walking down the street venting his frustrations, screaming that he is going to kill someone. These scenes create a frightening and threatening atmosphere of the city as the cab moves through the streets.

TAXI DRIVER was written by Paul Schrader and is about loneliness and alienation and how feeling totally apart from society can lead to psychosis. Schrader was in a dark period in his own life when he wrote the script. He saw the man in the taxi as a metaphor - the isolated man floating through the world he cannot connect with. Robert DeNiro does an incredible acting job portraying the downward spiral of Travis Bickle. DeNiro drove a cab at night in the city to get into the character. Told in a first person narration inspired by Dostoevsky's Notes From The Underground, Travis views the city as a sewer, and the more he drives and the less he sleeps, his vision is reinforced. A former Marine and Vietnam Veteran, he keeps a journal and writes letters to his folks telling them that he is working for the government. He is full of contradictions. He has this strange moral code. He hates pimps and pushers yet he hangs out in porno theaters. He starts a transformation with exercise, yet he eats crap and pops pills to get through his 12 hour shifts. While we can identify with some of his disgust for the negatives of the world, he is part of that same world himself. He is a racist and has many menacing glances with black characters, yet he will work any part of the city. He hangs out with the other cab drivers at times, but still seems apart from them. At one point he seeks advice from Wizard, another cabby played by Peter Boyle that is funny but awkward, and doesn't help Travis deal with his demons. There are shots that are held for longer than usual, such as the camera moving into the glass of alka seltzer that seems like a metaphor for his simmering mindset - a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.

The sequence where he meets and dates Cybill Shepherd represents his fantasy of hope. He sees her as an angel, but quickly he kills all hopes for a relationship with her by taking her to a porn film. This reinforces his belief in his own doomed condition. Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks represent the "normal" society and they work for the presidential candidate Charles Palantine.

After this rejection, Travis descends into total psychosis. He starts to stalk Palantine, and through a series of improvised scenes we see Travis go through a dark transition both mentally and physically. We see him buy guns and create ways of concealing them, leading to the famous scene in the mirror where he talks to himself "You talkin' to me?, I don't see anyone else standing here." He watches soap operas and American Bandstand showing people dancing to Late For The Sky by Jackson Browne. These scenes reinforce Travis' alienation from the world.



While he is an abhorrent character in many ways, we identify with him when he moves to help Iris the12 year old hooker played by Jodie Foster. There is another improvised scene with Travis and Iris at breakfast that is amazing and could never be totally scripted. Her pimp is played by Harvey Keitel and Travis sees him as the scum of the earth and becomes committed to freeing Iris from him. 






The film builds to an explosion of violence. After Travis aborts his attempt to assassinate Palantine, he heads to the lower east side where Iris lives to complete his desire to rescue her from the life of prostitution. This leads to one of cinema's landmark scenes of violence - a slow methodical stylized bloodbath with Travis in his mohawk, complete with a full overhead tracking shot going back over the carnage.

The film ends with A letter being read by Iris’ father thanking Travis for saving their little girl. Since he ended up killing a pimp he was made into a hero, but if he had killed the politician as he planned, he would have been viewed as a crazed killer. At the end of the film it seems as if he has cleansed himself and is now back to “normal”. He picks up the Cybil Shepard character and her face is like a floating angel in the rearview mirror surrounded by the swirling colorful images of the street. The soundtrack is now smooth and mellow, but after he drops her off , the moving paintings return and we catch glimpses of Travis’ eyes in the rearview mirror. As the credits roll the Bernard Hermann soundtrack swells into ominous tones as Travis plunges back into the traffic and flows down the avenue into a sea of headlights.

In 1985, I became a New York City cab driver and still do it part-time today. It is a stressful and crazy job and I have seen some amazing things. I once saw a driver fire a gun at another car in the middle of a road rage incident, but overall nothing quite as extreme and psychotic as TAXI DRIVER.

There is one scene that captures what driving a cab is like. When Travis tells the politician how the city should be flushed down the toilet, he pauses and his mindset changes for only a moment to honk at another driver who has cut him off. One moment your just cruising along feeling fine, and the next moment somebody cuts you off, and the anger explodes out of you without control. This happens to me all night long.

TAXI DRIVER is a powerful cinematic experience that expresses the problem of the individual trying to find his place in society, and how alienation and loneliness can lead us into dark places. It may not be Scorsese's best film as Raging Bull and Goodfellas are accepted masterpieces, but because of the time I saw it in my life it made a huge and lasting impression that I will never forget.

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