17 April 2006

100 films: Taxi Driver

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starring: Robert DeNiro, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, and Jodie Foster
written by: Paul Schrader
directed by: Martin Scorsese
R, 113 min, 1976, USA

Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece in which we watch Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) spiral into madness, is a monument to the potential of American cinema and serves as a prime example of the possibilities when an actor, writer, and director operate in harmony. As the title suggests, Bickle gets a job driving taxis as a means to deal with his insomnia. While most drivers will only work certain areas, Bickle volunteers to drive "anytime, anywhere" for long hours, often twelve hours at a stretch, and spends his free time sitting in porno theatres or watching TV in his apartment. Bickle is a lonely, unremarkable soul who craves something else, be it human contact or notoriety or the simple goal of living a worthwhile existence, even if he has little idea how such things are achieved. He's a little unhinged, perhaps a result of his time in the service.

Despite his willingness to be among the people, he has a great dislike for the people who spend so much time in his cab, for the "the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit" that make up the city's seedy underbelly. Deep down he probably wonders if it was worth defending in battle. So when he spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) coming out of the masses in a virginal glow, perfect and pure, he sees her as a cure to his loneliness, something he can latch onto and devote his considerable energies toward. In short, he's found hope, purpose, destiny. He's found a reason to live. After staking out the campaign headquarters where she works for some time, Travis puts on his Sunday best and charges in to ask her out, smiling all the while. She relents, partly because he's so persistent, and they go out for pie and coffee, and on their second date Travis takes her to one of the porn theatres he frequents, reasoning that plenty of couples go there. It's not altogether clear if he has ulterior motives or is honestly at a loss for what normal people do on dates, but the effect is undeniable. Betsy cuts off all communication, leaving Travis alone and confused and emasculated, clueless as to how he should react.

Thus begins his descent into insanity. Needing a simple gun for protection, he buys several instead, dedicates himself to peak physical form, and confesses to fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) that he's got some bad ideas in his head. Chiefly Travis has, for reasons known only to the mentally unstable, pointed his attention at Betsy's boss: Presidential candidate Sen. Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a man he claims to support even as he plots his assassination. Or is he? With a person like Travis it's impossible to know for sure, but it certainly seems to be the case. The assassination appears to be, at the core, an act of revenge against Betsy for not returning his calls, a grand gesture she cannot ignore. It doesn't stem from any ill will toward Palantine himself, a man who once rode in Travis' cab. So why not just kill Betsy? He no longer thinks of her as a perfect being. Could it be that he wants her to suffer? Is it that he longs to be considered important? Or is he just too confused to deal with a broken heart in any rational manner? Probably a little bit of all three. Also, consider the hint of a Messianic complex he develops when deciding to embark on a side project of rescuing Iris (Jodie Foster), a young hooker, from a life on the streets. For her part, Iris is ambivalent toward the whole thing, but Travis has it in his head that she needs rescuing, so he devises a plan to free Iris of her responsibilities.

Part of the difficulty in putting into words a film like Taxi Driver is the inability to get a handle on the character of Travis Bickle, a man described by Betsy as the guy in that Kris Kristofferson song[1], "a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction." There's little doubt that Travis has some wires crossed in his brain, but it's not as easy to figure out which ones, or how that affects his actions. So perhaps the walking contradiction label is a perfect one. Take, for example, his willingness to drive all over the city. Why would a man with such a blatant hatred for the scum of the earth so readily volunteer to drive in their neighborhoods unless he had to? People with Travis' leanings toward bigotry do whatever they can to avoid mingling with those they hate. Bickle is modeled, in part, after John Wayne's character in The Searchers (1956), a racist cowboy with a strong hatred for the Comanche. Whenever given the smallest opportunity, he would kill as many Comanche as he could, but he wouldn't got out of his way to spend time around them. He'd have to be insane to do that. Which is, essentially, Travis Bickle's problem. He's that John Wayne character gone mad. But the one thing DeNiro does in creating the character, beyond the obvious psychopath stuff, is to give him a sense of childlike enthusiasm, from the handwriting in his journal to the fanciful tales he writes his parents to the way he plays in front of the mirror in the legendary "You talkin' to me?" scene to his conversation with the Secret Service Agent. In these scenes DeNiro plays him as a big kid who hasn't figured out how to be an adult. At times, it's nothing but a big game.

Along with Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver marks the beginning of the collaboration between Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese, a pairing that over the course of roughly 20 years and eight films[2] provided some of the most distinctly brilliant moments in all of cinema. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more productive pairing. But where Mean Streets was a film brimming with possibilities, Taxi Driver achieves greatness simply by fulfilling that early promise. Both are films about New York City that are largely dissimilar, but it would have been impossible for the latter to exist without Mean Streets and the other three films that precede it, as they serve as the foundation on which Taxi Driver rests. Contrary to popular opinion, Scorsese didn't burst on the scene as a fully-formed genius. It took him a few films to get his bearing before reeling off a string of masterpieces.

There's a multitude of things to discuss concerning Taxi Driver, from Harvey Keitel's turn as a pimp to the dramatic and violent final scenes, that would take more room to do justice than I have here, but one thing worth noting is the two different ways Scorsese films the city that mirrors, in a way, Travis' contradictory nature. As we follow Travis through the city at night, he takes care to let neon lights flood the lens, using mostly what little available light is at hand, and basically does what he can to film the city as Travis describes it--as a teeming gutter full of all manner of filth. No effort is made to make it look any better. In fact, there's a high probability that Scorsese took time to make the footage look even dirtier than necessary. Contrast that with the scenes during the day where the same city, for the most part, looks nearly spotless. We see different neighborhoods and we see them primarily through a camera that's tilted up ever so slightly, avoiding the trash and whatnot on the street. We're no longer looking through the windows of Travis' cab. Instead, we're given a more objective look at him as the world sees him and not the other way around. Thanks to Paul Schrader's script, we know how Travis views the city, but during the day Scorsese gives us a look at how the city actually is, which gives us the slightest hint that perhaps Travis' point of view isn't all that accurate.

[1] The song is "Pilgrim", which appears on the album Essential Kris Kristofferson. Supposedly the song was originally about Dennis Hopper and expanded to include Johnny Cash and a whole host of other people.

[2] They are: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995). There was also an American Express commercial.