Sunday, August 28, 2011

35th Anniversary Appreciation: Taxi Driver

(Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver/1976)
      Taxi Driver is the only “movie’s” movie that actually works. As exaggerated as that may sound, all I really mean is: Taxi Driver works on levels greater than the level of being about movies. It is on one hand one of the sickest westerns ever made; it is, on another hand, a film about the destruction of the modern psyche. It is both a tragic drama and a drugged-out, self-consciously outrageous pop spectacle. But before we call it art, let’s face the fact that this is a film with a protagonist who no longer believes in anything like art. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), the troubled taxi driver in question, appears to believe in gratifying impulses, routine self-destruction, and violent self-fulfillment. Stuff that people, when they go to the movies, believe in, too.
            It could have all collapsed. Paul Schrader’s script incorporates, logically, too many elements at once; politics, women’s independence, mental illness, urban drudgery, the unease of the mid-70’s. The list could go on, but at no point does this story of the lonely cab driver who slides in to psychosis become overstuffed, cheeky, exploitive, or even too cynical. This is largely due to Robert DeNiro’s performance, certainly the best of his career. From the start, he’s a guy—framed against the grey streets of New York, hands in pockets, head down, an outsider in a corrupt city—who is unstable but whom we can’t not side with. He signs up to be a cab driver, the simplest act he does in the entire film. He gets to work, driving anybody anywhere at anytime. He meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a girl working for the presidential campaign of Charles Palantine. He takes her out for coffee, buys her a Kris Krisofferson record—and brings her to a porno. This last bit doesn’t go over too well. Travis becomes depressed, paranoid and more reclusive as he sinks—this is the only way to describe the effect—further in to his apartment and his cab. 
(Robert DeNiro, Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver/1976)

            The story at this point, is mostly a tale of heartbreak and unfulfilled desire. And, as doomed as he is, with the pills he pops and pornos he stares at, the scenes involving Betsy’s rejection of Travis should affect anybody who has been the victim of dismissal and embarrassment. But this is exactly how Schrader got his story to work. Travis’s rejection comes against the backdrop of a city that looks like some dystopian future. (A dystopian film is what this might be, if it weren’t so emphatically set in the 70’s). This is a city he despises, but the place where he is stuck. During one encounter with Charles Palantine himself in Travis’s cab, he asks the candidate to “flush it down the fucking toilet.” But Palantine wants to raise the city out of its doldrums with his optimism. Travis, now stocking up on guns and obsessively working out, wants to annihilate the city. And it soon becomes apparent—especially when Betsy chooses Palantine over Travis—that the senator is too much competition. As the corny saying of the old west goes; the town ain’t big enough for the both of them.
            This is how Taxi Driver takes an unusual turn in to John Ford territory, with a demented, nihilistic spin. Travis nudges his way in to the life of Iris, a child prostitute played by Jodie Foster, whose pimp (Harvey Keitel), is a narcissistic, drug-addled hippie. Travis’s intention is to kill Palantine, rescue Iris from her horrible life, and kill the baddies who whore her out. Once again, this now-western feels like its about to go off the rails, and the last forty or so minutes does contain the film’s one failed scene, in which Travis and Iris sit in a café and Travis tries to make her see how she is being degraded. The scene is an obvious mirror of the initial café conversation with Betsy, but it feels too strategically placed, too screenwriting-workshop-ish. It also raises the question, though, of just how nuts and morally inept Travis is. Does he truly feel bad for this little girl, or is he trying to manipulate her out of her situation because it will make him and him alone feel vindication? Does he fail to kill Palantine out of some moral hesitation, or because he knows he’ll be caught? The craft of the film remains strong enough so that we don’t really contemplate these questions until the credits have rolled. Up to and including the final massacre, the film stays in the mode of an urban revision of The Searchers. Iris is the girl captured by savages; Travis is Ethan Allen, furiously riding in to the sunset.
(Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver/1976)
            When you get down to it, the actual direction of Taxi Driver is saturated in other movies. This is what makes it a movie’s movie. Martin Scorsese knows the streets of New York quite well, but he knows the rhythms of movies even better—and even by the time of Taxi Driver, he had seen a few too many. The ongoing punches of film language thrown at the viewer—dollies, overhead pans, slow-motion, de-saturated film—would be excessive if they did not somehow look like the expressions of a sick, pop-saturated culture, one that will at some point produce a sick man who will lash out. They still look that way, and if Scorsese’s indulgences really do create such an atmosphere, then they aren’t indulgent at all. The same cannot be said for the films he began to make in the early 90’s, starting with Goodfellas. It cannot be said, either, for any of Quentin Tarantino’s style-fests, which took Taxi Driver’s profane commentary and turned it in to something deliberately insincere and purely gestural. In the 70’s, this culmination of all movies-cum-urban-western was a dawn of a new kind of film, a uniquely American film. Nowadays it’s just barely a masterpiece, reminding us that onscreen sordidness only begats further sordidness, but that superb craft transcends all.