Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part VII: Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (1976) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Paul Schrader.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Albert Brooks (Tom), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Diahnne Abbott (Concession Girl), Harry Northup (Doughboy), Martin Scorsese (Passenger watching silhouette).

Had Martin Scorsese only directed three movies – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas – he would still have a reputation as one of the greatest directors in history. No matter how good all his other films are none can compare with these three films. Most of the highbrow critics will say that Raging Bull is his best, the younger (read my) generation would probably support GoodFellas, but for me Taxi Driver is Scorsese’s best film. At the risk of making myself sound like a psychopath, I think the reason why I like Taxi Driver more than any of his other films is because of all his characters, I relate most to Travis Bickle. I will explain more later.

Taxi Driver is Bickle’s story. Played by Robert DeNiro, in what I feel is perhaps the greatest screen performance in history, we rarely leave Travis’ side for the entire running time of the movie. We are sucked into his world from the outset, and get inside his mind. His is a story of loneliness that turns to a rage so pure he can no longer contain it.

Bickle seems to arrive out of nowhere. We get little of his back story in the opening scene in the movie. He was a Marine who served in Vietnam, has little education and is most likely from somewhere in the Midwest. He now lives in New York, and because he cannot sleep nights, he takes a job driving a Taxi in Manhattan. He works long nights, and goes to the worse neighborhoods, and sees the worst of what New York has to offer. His clients are pimps, prostitutes and other degenerates that fill him with rage and disgust. He could go to other areas of the city, ones that aren’t as crime ridden, but then at what would he direct all his rage? He needs these degenerates, because without them, he would have to admit how alone he is, and he would have to direct his rage inwards.

One day, Bickle sees Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) working in a campaign office for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) who is running for President. Bickle has no real interest in politics, but he is interested in her. He eventually works up the nerve to go and talk to her. He intrigues her. He is different from the guys she sees all the time, including Tom (Albert Brooks), her boss on the campaign. They go for coffee, and he intrigues her more. She agrees to go to a movie with him. Bickle, clueless as to what to do on a date, takes her to a porn movie. She walks away in disgust. Later he calls her and tries to apologize. In the movies most painful scene, we see him on the phone being rejected by her, and the camera slowly pans and looks down an empty hallway. The pain of the scene is too much for Scorsese’s camera to handle.

Having been rejected by Betsy, Bickle then turns his attention to a child prostitute who once got into his cab and asked to be taken away, before her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) dragged her out. This is Iris (Jodie Foster), who Bickle goes back and sees, first in the guise of a client, then as a friend. Like Betsy, Iris is intrigued by Bickle. Most guys treat her merely as a sex object, but when Bickle refuses to sleep with her, she thinks it’s strange, but also has a strange appreciation for him. He treats her like a human being, and that’s rare.

Or is it? In the one scene in the movie that isn’t told from Travis’ point of view, we see Iris and Sport by themselves. We have a view of pimps as mean and nasty people, who abuse the women under their employ. But Sport is kind to Iris. Sure, part of it is Sport simply telling Iris what she needs to hear in under to keep her working, but there does seem to be a genuine affection between them. Bickle, who wants so badly to save Iris, never really realizes that perhaps she does not want to be saved.

One of the key movies that influenced Scorsese’s career (not to mention Paul Schrader’s, who wrote the screenplay for the movie), was John Ford’s The Searchers, where John Wayne sets out to rescue his niece who has been kidnapped by Indians. As the months stretch into years, Wayne determines that perhaps it’s too late to save his niece, so he turns from rescuer to executioner. Like Bickle in Taxi Driver, Wayne in The Searchers is a man determined to save a young girl who doesn’t want to be saved. This is a theme that would be repeated throughout Schrader’s career, most notably in his underrated Hardcore (1979), where George C. Scott plays a religious father trying to save his daughter from the porn industry. The men in these movies see themselves as heroes and rescuers, but notably, we never really see how the girls they rescue feel. We certainly don’t see how Iris feels about it in Taxi Driver.

The movie climaxes with one of the most famous, and bloody, gun battles in cinema history. Bickle, who attempt to assassinate Palantine is thwarted, decides to let out his rage in another way, going back to see Sport and shooting his way through to Iris in his attempt to rescue her. In an ironic twist, it is Travis’ most anti-social act that brings him the attention he craves. He becomes somewhat of a media hero for his actions. Had he succeeded in killing Palantine, he would have been branded a villain, but because instead of killing a politician, he kills pimps and Johns, he is a hero. Strange how society views these things.

I could go for hours about Taxi Driver. It is one of the movies I have watched more than any other, and I pretty much know it by heart. I haven’t even mentioned Wizard (Peter Boyle), another Taxi Driver who tries hard to give Travis advice, even though he is so far gone by that point that it’s pointless. Or the almost religious way the gun dealer lays out his merchandise, like a priest preparing for mass. Or Scorsese’s disturbing cameo role as a man who watches his wife’s silhouette in another man’s apartment, and talks about what he’s going to do her. Or the strong influence of Hitchcock, not least because Scorsese uses Hitchcock’s favorite composer Bernhard Herman, who with his last score, created one of his best. The influence of Hitchcock can also been seen in the presentation of the two women Travis becomes obsessed with. Both blonde, both beautiful, both introduced via slow motion shots that emphasis their beauty above all else. They are seen through Travis’ eyes, so if you want to complain that they are objectified in the movie, then go ahead, but they are portrayed that way because that’s how Travis sees them. Or the repeated scenes of Travis alone in his apartment watching television, including one scene where he watches the happy couples dancing on American Bandstand, and in the next sequence, slowly rocks his TV stand, before letting it fall and smashing the TV, where you know the movie is about to take itself to the next level. I haven’t even mentioned the most famous scene in the movie, where Bickle alone in his apartment talks to himself in the mirror, envisioning some sort of gun battle with an unknown enemy and states “Are you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck are you talking to?” Bickle is right about one thing – he is always the only one there.

But I want to get back to why I relate to Bickle more than any other Scorsese character. We have all been alone like Bickle at times in our lives, even if most of us are better equipped to deal with it than Bickle is. But essentially, what Taxi Driver is about is Bickle’s constant struggle to connect with someone, anyone, and constantly being rejected. He tries to strike up a conversation with the girl at the concession stand at the porn theater (Dianne Abbout), who is weary of being harassed by perverts, and threatens to call the manager. He tries to connect with Betsy, and fails miserably. Bickle reaches out time and time in the movie, and is met only with rejection. Had he been able to connect with someone, the chances are he would not have snapped the way he does in the movie. Because he was not able to, Bickle becomes a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode. At the end of the movie, Bickle seems happy and secure with himself, but we know it will only be temporary. Soon, the media will move onto to someone else, and Bickle will be left by himself again, and the cycle will begin again. I feel sorry the next blonde Bickle meets. So, even if you cannot relate to Bickle’s rage, and have never been tempted to go on a killing spree, we can all relate to his loneliness and his feeling of isolation. One of the most ingenious things about the movie is that we don’t know too much about Bickle and what he went through before. Did Vietnam warp him, or was he already warped? What was his relationship with his parents like? He lies to them in a letter, but other than that we get no information about them. Most movies feel the need to explain everything about a character and their motivations, so that we can identify what’s wrong with them. The story is about their problems, not ours. Because we only know a little about Bickle’s back story, it’s easy to see ourselves in him. It’s a scary thought, but it’s what makes Taxi Driver Scorsese’s best film – and one of the very best films ever made.

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