Sunday, March 05, 2006

Taxi Driver (1976)

"What's your favorite movie?"

It's a question that often gets asked, and for some reason is kind of hard to answer. Like asking what your favorite song is, most people end up giving a list of their top ten at the moment. Being saturated with media all the time, it's hard to fixate on *just* one as your all-time favorite. Our tastes fluxuate with time, and what we once loved maybe so familiar that we meet it with a "meh" now.

For me though, the question of "What's your favorite movie?" is easy. It's Taxi Driver.

Why? I can trace numerous ways this movie has influenced my life. It turned me into a rabid Scorcese fan for a time; it encouraged me to learn about film theory; it got me interested in the Seventies era of film and begin to look into our cinematic history with more depth etc. etc.

But deep down, I was probably attracted to Taxi Driver because I thought I was psychopath...

That was, of course, during my adolescent years, when many teenage boys pumped full of raging hormones and trying to figure out the social mileu entertain some very dark thoughts. I constantly wore a combat jacket like Travis Bickle's with a copies of The Catcher in Rye (kind of because like many I fancied myself a modern day Holden Caulfield, but mostly because it is allegedly what got Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon) and Crime and Punishment that had been filched from the school library permenantly installed in my pockets. Yes, a movie like Taxi Driver was the only thing that understood me, the sullen little too-smart prick who jocks picked on and girls didn't talk to.

Of course, I'm not the only person who had such a viceral reaction to the movie. When I saw the twenty-year anniversary rerelease at the Mayan Theater in Denver, Colorado, I watched Taxi Driver in the same auditorium that John Hinckley Jr. did decades earlier, working his obsession with young Jodie Foster up into a bloodlust that culminated in an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. This only added to the dark appeal the movie had for me, and I wasn't alone. In the excellent documentary on the Taxi Driver: Special Edition disc, screenwriter Paul Schrader describes many disturbing encounters with people who felt the movie described their lives in almost too closely, to which he would respond "...your pain is not unique."

If you had to narrow down what the appeal of Taxi Driver was to so many people, it could be distilled into two things: its powerful sense of loneliness and our contradictory nature; the drive to be accepted by society while wanting to lash out at it. Alienation fills every frame of this movie, and our guide to it is the insane Travis Bickle, in a role that Robert DeNiro absolutely owns. Watch this, Raging Bull, and The Godfather Part II and it is easy to forgive every shit movie and American Express commercial he's made in the past ten years.

To rave about this movie is kind of preaching to the choir. It is pretty universally recognized as one of the greatest movies ever made (it is ranked at 47 on the American Film Institutes top 100 list.) While most classic films have a timeless quality about them, Taxi Driver is firmly rooted in it's era of the mid-seventies. It finds existential crisis in Kris Kristofferson lyrics; listening to Jackson Browne while watching Soul Train is used to illuminate Travis's decaying sanity. It's a world of platform shoe wearing hookers and fedora wearing pimps that could easily be extras from Superfly. To be sure, Taxi Driver must be wrapped in the zeitgeist of its era since the dark and gritty New York it portrays doesn't exist anymore. The very seventies flavor of the movie is only mildly distracting if you think about it.

Despite the movie's dark theme, it has some hilariously funny moments. Everybody knows the "You talkin' to me?" speech, but I always crack up when he has to do a double take on his "Listen up you fuckers, you screwheads..." speech. While the humor of Travis taking his WASPish date (Cybill Shepard) to a porno movie is apparent, did anybody notice how fucking bizarre the movie was with microscopic slides of sperm and ovum being intercut with an interracial orgy? Shows how much porn has changed over the years. Watching Travis fuck with the Secret Service agent always brings a smile to my face as well.

Travis Bickle is a direct descendant of characters like Raskolnikov or the narrator of Notes From the Underground. When it comes to his relationships with women though, the movie is milks Freudian Madonna/Whore Complexes for all their worth. While the first half of that dicotohmy (seen through his brief dating of Betsy) isn't so compelling because, let's face it, she's kind of a stuck up bitch, his relationship with the twelve-year old hooker Iris is touching and tragic, because it is so noble in Travis's twisted mind and so doomed to failure. While we hope that he will be able to "save" her, she does eventually reject Travis in favor of her Puerto Rican pimp (played by respected Puerto Rican actor Harvey Kietel.)

Through its monologues (particularly Martin Scorcese's cameo where he talks at length about what a .44 Magnum would do to a woman's pussy) and its gun fetishism, Taxi Driver always feels violent even though it shows very little until the end, where the infamous brothel massacre pulls out all the stops. The original film elements had the color desaturated to make the blood less apparent in order to secure an R-rating (sadly, the original negatives had decayed or were lost so we will never see it in all of it's glory.) That doesn't stop it from being pure splattercore with hands being blown off, faces being shot apart, and the screaming Pimp-That-Will-Not-Die despite being both shot and stabbed numerous times.

Taxi Driver could have ended with Travis sitting on the couch all shot up in a room full of bodies and a weeping Jodie Foster (in fact, in the original script Travis dies in that scene) but instead the film's coda shows that he has raised to the status of hero with Iris being safely returned to her family (though one has to wonder if that's necessarily a good thing, even though we never get an idea of why she ran away in the first place.) The ending of Taxi Driver is either a masterstroke or completely unnecessary. That it implicates society as being just as schizophrenic as Bickle is in the end is nice touch. That Travis came out of this encounter a balanced person and that Cybil Shepard would want to come back to him is not so convincing. While the sting on the soundtrack with Travis looking in his rearview mirror is supposed to suggest he is still psychotic, the ending doesn't completely convince me.

Speaking of soundtracks, Bernard Herrmann's final score for the film is brilliant. The score's contrast between the slow rumbling crescendo of a march with a forlorn jazz riff mirrors the sensibilities of the movie perfectly.

So while there are other movies that come into my favor quite often, I think I will almost always say that Taxi Driver is my favorite. While thirty years from it's release it is looking especially dated, I think it will always have a following amongst the lonely, the angry, and the alienated. Our pain is not unique.


Blogger JamesCampbell said...

Just a comment on the ending of Taxi Driver. It's also one of my favourite films, and Scorcese's best in my opinion.

The first time I watched Taxi Driver, I took the ending to be a literal narrative. Ie, Travis becomes a hero. On second viewing, I realised this interpretation was probably wrong.

You've got to remember that Travis is a psychopath. There are certain elements of the film that are entirely in Travis' head.

The ending is often seen as his 'dying wish', and I agree with this interpretation. Travis died immediately after the finger-to-the-head sequence, and the letter he recieves from Iris' parents, the newspaper headlines, and most significantly his final encounter with Betsy (in which she grants him an admiring smile, and he drops her off), are all his dying thoughts. These are all the things he wanted to achieve - to rescue Iris, to become a hero and to get the girl. This is unrealistic, as you mentioned, as society would never allow Travis to escape several pre-mediated murders.

It's an incredibly depressing ending, but that's the film for you.

Excellent soundtrack. You forgot to mention The Deerhunter for De Niro's list. If you haven't seen that you haven't seen De Niro.

2:53 PM  

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