This week, there were various films that I could have gone to see, but one by one I decided against all of them for various reasons. At first I thought about the new French thriller “Point Blank,” but apparently it’s a casual re-tread of the same director’s “Pour Elle” which I wasn’t especially hot on. So that was out. Next I thought about “Kaboom” which has been getting some decent buzz around it. But it’s directed by Greg Arraki, and as such will probably involve some sexy young people shagging gratuitously. And I can get that from “Jersey Shore.” Next up was “Mammuth” which Sight and Sound seemed to like well enough, but I’m planning to watch Ozon’s “Potiche” next week, and that should about fulfil my quota of French whimsy for at least a few months. So that was out. Then I looked towards some light relief and the current crop of blockbusters, but I found myself similarly out of luck. I thought about “X-Men: First Class,” since I like the Vaughan-Goldman writer/director team and all the actors in it: but of course after the stance I took in this column about comic book adaptations this idea was immediately buried. I thought about “The Hangover Part Two,” but not for very long: I haven’t seen the first one, and apparently this one’s rubbish. And I can’t go and see “Pirates of the Caribbean”…I mean, come on!
In short, I opted to go and see a film that I knew I’d enjoy. A film which has an assured place amongst my all-time top films. A film which is as bold, daring, prescient, disturbing and ambiguous now as it was thirty five years ago. This week, I went to see “Taxi Driver.”
In praising this piece, I risk going back over very familiar territory, both in critical terms and how the feelings and themes associated with the film have permeated popular culture: but for the benefit of the ignorant, I’ll offer a whistle-stop tour of the journey so far (and then I’ll leave the metre running and drive a little further.)
Much has been discussed about the supposed diabolical trinity of uncompromising and raw cinematic talents whose combined relentlessness made this work as bleak and powerful as it is: writer Paul Schrader, director Martin Scorsese, and actor Robert De Niro. What’s interesting about this three-way partnership is how the film seems to embody the concerns of each man so viscerally at this early stage in their artistic careers. Schrader has talked about the script and the character of Travis Bickle emanating from his own prolonged period of complete isolation and loneliness, fuelled by alcohol and psychological abuse: the writer often regurgitates the anecdote of telling the nurse at the clinic he eventually checked himself into that she was the first person he’d spoken to in weeks. Alienation permeates every frame of the film from the opening shot, in which the yellow cab emerges from a cloud of smoke as if spewed from some unspeakable inferno, yet after this introduction its yellow gloss is lost against the artificial, searching neon lights of New York after dark. Schrader understands the paradox of loneliness becoming all the more palpable when one is surrounded by activity and other people. Bickle is never truly alone in the film save for the sporadic scenes in his flat: he is a lone man walking in a crowd, or sat in the front of a taxi flanked by passengers, yet his alienation derives from the fact that even amongst so many people he cannot successfully relate to any of them. This is something he proves most vividly and startlingly in his cinema date with Betsy to the porn film.
Scorsese was hot off “Mean Streets” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” when he came to make “Taxi Driver,” and the raw, fresh visual aesthetic he began to master in these earlier films reaches a kind of fever pitch in his seminal Palme D’Or winner. His directorial style is a veritable arsenal of jump cuts, rapid tracking shots, slow motion shots, and uncomfortably long static images: most famously when he just points the camera at the mirror and allows De Niro to play out the film’s iconic scene. Yet it’s the simultaneity of this vibrant and volatile visual palette with a genuine grasp of gritty naturalism that renders the film so effective. Scorsese inhabits the grungy and seedy night-time underworld as effortlessly as he does the stark and bare internal world of Bickle’s ghostly haunts. Every jump cut hints at the fragile state of the ticking time-bomb that is Bickle’s barely suppressed primal violent urges. Every tracking shot equates the continual movement of the eponymous taxi with the roving, judgemental and fearful eyes of its driver. Every slow motion shot dwells upon the grizzly, grotesque beauty of the violent ugliness Bickle encounters (yep, the film really is that layered!). Every static shot simply lets the action unfold: unvarnished, uncompromised, and scarily real.
De Niro’s performance similarly needs no further praise, but I just can’t stop myself. Again, what’s most interesting about it is how obsession comes to define both the character and the actor playing him. He’d already won the Oscar playing the young Vito Corleone, and his performances in “Mean Streets” and “1900” made him a seriously energetic, intense and exhilarating performer, but the control, malevolence, ambiguity and chameleonic versatility De Niro exhibited specifically in this role is what truly marked him out as his generation’s greatest actor at that time. His determination to delve as deeply into the dark psyche of Bickle, to achieve a complete symbiosis and apparent merger with the character, in many ways matches Bickle’s growing obsession with vigilantism. The more he drives the cab, the more he sees, the more the darkness in his heart is fuelled to the point where it consumes him, just as De Niro vanishes into the character the more he studied his subject. Think only of the famous mirror scene, or the voice-over which follows it when Bickle quite literally edits his wrath-of-god rhetoric. He’s an actor rehearsing a role, in this case the role of an infernal, self-appointed avenger. His obsessive, persistent rehearsal is surely an ominous on-screen manifestation of the preparation De Niro undertook to make Travis as terrifying a creation as he is.
The film is far more than the sum of its parts, even if the parts are as good as they are here. I haven’t even talked about the talents beyond this central threesome who are fully deserving of credit for what the film achieves. De Niro’s phenomenal, and so is Jodie Foster, but so is Harvey Keitel in a minuscule role in which he alone saw the potential for greater depth and menace. His behaviour is even more subtle and convincingly in character than that of De Niro, and far creepier than when Jodie Foster offers to go down on De Niro is the scene in which she slow dances with Keitel: in spite of everything he treats her with such sensual tenderness that we are far more shocked and appalled by their relationship than if he’d violently mistreated her. Bernard Herrmann’s score was the last he’d ever write for a film: he died the day after recording it. But it’s a mesmerising, sombre and scintillating Sax score which offers only the subtlest of keen edges to signify the dark concerns of the film, far more pre-occupied as it is with evoking a night-time atmosphere of whispering secrecy and perverse desire spilling out onto the tough streets. Michael Chapman’s cinematography is fantastic, as breathtakingly lurid as it is grimy and shadowy.
Anyway, what I was going to say, before I was rudely interrupted by my own diatribe, is that what I find most startling and disturbing about the film is the place it occupies in the history of both American cinema and American culture. The film was released in 1976. That’s one year after “Jaws” and one year before “Star Wars.” This is important. I’ve nothing against either of these films, in fact I like them both an awful lot, but one has to be sensitive of the fact that these two films, and especially their directors, altered the course American cinema had been taking that decade. The breakdown of the studio system and the incoming wave of independent filmmakers to Hollywood, who had something to say about contemporary US culture in crisis, lead to the emergence of some of the twentieth century’s most important directors and the release of some of its most radical and challenging films. Think first of Coppola, De Palma, Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Cimino and Altman, and then think of “Chinatown,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” This movement of drifters, outsiders and counter-cultural rebels jaded by the faded promise of the damaged American dream was ended by the resurgence of fantasy filmmaking, and although Scorsese and De Niro would be associated with the last films of this Silver Age of Hollywood “Taxi Driver” almost pinpoints the moment when the dominance of that type of cinema in American was confined to the same oblivion as Bickle himself.
Think also about why cinema in this period became as anti-heroic and angrily demanding as it did: Watergate and Vietnam. The failed, perhaps spurious promise of the American dream in the fifties saw the adults of that generation vent their selfish frustrations upon their children, who they sacrificed to the Vietnam War. Just as this happened, the highest echelons of the trusted government system, one still clutching to the superficial integrity of the Kennedy administration, finally imploded and collapsed under the weight of “Tricky Dicky.” Bickle is a victim of these American atrocities too: never forget that he is a Vietnam veteran, and it is an oily politician who becomes the first target in his one-man war to clean up the streets. America fought a war thousands of miles away to combat the malaise and corruption that in fact dwelt all too close to home, and its politicians were unable to remedy the doomed status quo because they were feeding more profoundly into the problems with America’s special adoption of western philosophy than anyone else. The ending of the film isn’t just horrifyingly ambivalent in the way this disjointed, psychotic man is celebrated by the press for his killing spree: it’s equally ambivalent in the way Bickle rejects the war abroad for the war at home, and takes action against the seething criminal underbelly with a level of effectiveness America’s politicians cannot replicate. In “Taxi Driver,” violence is the answer.
I’ll leave you with an urban legend about the film I heard in an interview with Quentin Tarantino. Apparently, when Scorsese turned in his final cut of the film, a studio executive told the director that the “X” certificate would be slapped onto the picture for its release unless substantial cuts were made to the final gruesome bloodbath sequence. Distraught at the prospect of compromising his artistry or exposing the film to the lurid and seedy reputation the “X” certificate brings with it, Scorsese had a long dark night of the soul, in which he sat with a bottle of booze and a handgun and contemplated murdering the studio exec. In the end, he instead opted to de-saturate the colour of the blood in the film’s ultra-violent catharsis. The film hence avoided the “X” certificate.
I don’t believe this story to be true. But if it was, it would only add to the legacy of this brutal and brilliant masterpiece.