Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Film # 75: Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice (last time about 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers.)

Lonely cab driver tries to maintain his sanity & humanity in the grunge of 1970s New York City.

Extended Summary (More detailed plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

In mid-1970s New York City, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is struggling. An honorably discharged Marine, Travis is now making a living as a cabbie in Gotham City, though the going isn’t easy. His insomnia and constant headaches lead him to add night shifts to his busy schedule. To take his mind off of his nagging unrest, he tells his dispatcher that he will go “Anywhere, anytime.”

As Travis works through his shifts, he sees some of the darkest aspects of humanity. Drug pushers and abusers, prostitutes and pimps, killers and victims. Travis sees it all pass both outside and inside of his cab. He feels a desire to do something about it, but he doesn’t know what or how, and he cannot articulate his feelings to anyone. Added to this is that he has no close friends. The only people he sees regularly are a handful of other cabbies, who are as jaded and he is becoming.

Travis one day sees a stunningly beautiful woman, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) walking along the street. He becomes transfixed and begins regularly driving past her place of work, the campaign headquarters for presidential hopeful Senator Charles Palantine. He eventually musters up the courage to walk in, awkwardly introduce himself and ask Betsy to coffee. Betsy, seemingly intrigued by Travis’s unusual energy and intensity, agrees. Over coffee, Travis professes his loneliness to Betsy, but also claims that he senses the same loneliness in her. Betsy continues to be intrigued, though in a somewhat reserved way.

Travis and Betsy get to know each other a bit. Betsy is intrigued by the "contradiction" of Travis, never suspecting the darkness with which he is struggling.

A few days later, Betsy agrees to see a movie with Travis. Much to her surprise and disgust, the socially inept Travis brings her to a graphic, X-rated film. Betsy gets up and walks out. Travis tries to stop her and apologize, but she hustles away. Travis tries to call and make amends over the next several days, but Betsy does not return his calls.

Travis begins to grow more hateful towards the world around him, his personal failure with Betsy now piled on top of the degradations that he sees nightly in his job. He soon becomes totally insulated. He buys several handguns from an illegal dealer, and stays in his cramped apartment, fantasizing and acting out confrontations with invisible enemies. He even studies himself in the mirror as he vocalizes his delusional conversations.

Travis begins to focus on Senator Palantine in a strange way, noting his campaign speeches and their locations. He also goes back to the campaign headquarters, where he loudly berates Betsy and condemns her, only to be escorted out of the building. A few nights after, Travis accidentally stumbles across a robbery in progress. He guns down the thief and flees the scene at the shop owner’s urging.

Travis later has a run-in with a painfully young prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), who tries to get into his cab. She is pulled forcefully out by a rough pimp named Matthew, or “Sport” (Harvey Keitel), who bribes Travis to stay quiet about the whole thing. Travis continues to dwell on this for several days, and he eventually finds Iris and talks to her. Travis learns that she is a runaway and is not even 13 years old. He tries in his clumsy if passionate way to convince her to leave her life in New York and return to her parents. Iris leaves, considering Travis’s urging. However, Sport smooth talks Iris into staying, with Travis watching through a window.

Travis, now gone completely off the deep end. He has taken on his "warrior" garb and prepares for his suicide mission to kill the Senator.

Now seemingly devastated, Travis goes home and loads for bear. He writes a farewell letter to Iris and puts it in an envelope with all of his remaining money. He then goes to Senator Palantine’s next public speech. Sporting a wild-looking mohawk and an oversized army jacket (hiding Travis’s veritable arsenal underneath), Travis makes towards the Senator and nearly has his chance to shoot him. He is spotted just before he pulls his gun, though, and flees the scene.

That same night, Travis goes into the lower East Side of Manhattan and confronts Sport. After a heated exchange, Travis shoots Sport, then continues to shoot his way past one of Sport’s lookouts, into Iris’s room. Travis also shoots the “john” that is with Iris, but not before being shot himself, once in the neck and once in the shoulder. Bleeding profusely, Travis sits on a couch while Iris crouches in horror next to it. The police arrive to find the bloodbath.

After a short time in a coma, Travis recovers his health. He wakes to find a letter from Iris’s parents, who explain that after the shooting, they came from their home in Pittsburgh and brought Iris home. Travis is also hailed as a sort of vigilante hero in the newspapers. Once recovered, he returns to his job driving a cab, and seems to be more well-balanced. One night, his fare happens to be Betsy. When she asks Travis about it, he denies that he was any kind of hero, and he quietly and calmly does not charge her for her fare.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research.)

I remember a classmate of mine back in college once telling me that he would watch Taxi Driver once every year. He explained that this was so he could keep a certain perspective on everything. In keeping with this, I understand and agree with what he meant. Taxi Driver is an incredible movie that, while difficult to stomach in several ways, should be required viewing for everyone, at least once in their lifetimes.

Watching the mental fracturing of Travis Bickle is as fascinating as it is uncomfortable. Currently, in the year 2012, we are far more familiar with the psychological profile of the classic “loner(s)-turned-madman”, as in the cases of the Columbine or Gabby Giffords shootings, just to name a few. I have to guess, though, that on Taxi Driver’s release in 1976, this was very new and frightening territory. New because it made a homicidal man the protagonist, and frightening because of just how real it all seemed. Even more, it still has the same power, 36 years later.

I was hardly a year old in 1976, but I wouldn’t time travel back there if you paid me. My general impression of that short era, based solely on films between 1976 and 1978, is that it was hell on earth. The movies are always grainy and shrouded in shadows, and the themes were often doom-saying prophecies spawned by decades of Cold War paradigms and hopelessness. Taxi Driver is, for me, the epitome of it all, boiled down and distilled into the form of Travis Bickle.

An early shot in the film. The washed-out browns, shadows, fluorescent lighting, and disheveled humans are what seemed to be part of every U.S. film made between 1976 and 1978.

Travis Bickle, however, cannot be written off as simply a maniac. Faced with depravity and degradation at nearly every turn, Travis has a powerful desire to see it made better, but he isn’t equipped to enact it. Any attempt he makes at a positive connection is stymied by his own lack of awareness or social graces. His frustration simply fuels his hatred for the things that he sees, rightly or wrongly, as cancerous elements. Eventually, it erupts into the final shooting spree and killings.

What I picked up far more on this recent viewing were not the iconic scenes of Travis doing his “You talkin’ to me?” monologue or the visceral final shootout. Instead, it was Travis’s attempts at real human connection with people. Not only with Betsy and Iris, but even with his fellow cabbie “Wizard” (played well by Peter Boyle) and Senator Palantine, Travis makes a real attempt to communicate to people his pain and frustration at watching the world die around him. The problem is that either he isn’t able to articulate it, or his listeners aren’t willing or able to really hear him. Taxi Driver is easily as much about human contact (or lack of) as it is about social ills and mental instability. Again, this is not an amusing topic, but one that this film explores in an entrancing way.

What can I say about De Niro’s performance that hasn’t been said before? Nothing, really. While he had already made his name in The Godfather Part II, his role in Taxi Driver put him in rarefied air for actors. The man’s range even within this one movie is incredible. Bickle is terrifying at times, but the real power of the movie comes from the more delicate moments when he’s trying to reach out, in his confused and reserved way. As he would show in another Scorsese film, The King of Comedy, several years later, De Niro was equally effective at conveying the vulnerability that the role demanded. As someone who has grown disappointed in Robert De Niro’s roles in the last 10 or so years (don’t get me started on the whole Meet the Parents atrocities), I was glad to go back and be reminded of exactly why he is a film acting legend.

De Niro is obviously the big draw in the movie, but even the lesser roles played by familiar faces are great. A disturbingly young Jodie Foster is perfect, and Harvey Keitel is as I can’t recall seeing him in any picture – a street-jiving pimp, complete with red velvet bellbottom pants and wide-brim hat. Even Peter Boyle in his very small role as Wizard adds to the film.

Yes, that is indeed Harvey Keitel as the long-haired pimp, Sport. Keitel's is one of several excellent minor performances in the movie.

Scorsese’s direction of this movie is rock solid. I need to research it, but I can’t imagine that he had a tremendous budget for this movie. Either way, the entire tone of it is just right for the story it tells. Granted, most of us would want to take a shower after watching it, so grungy and distasteful are the environments and behavior in it, but this is exactly the point. It is this filth that sends Travis Bickle down the road of madness, and we are riding shotgun the entire way, as much as we don’t want to.

At this point, I have seen most of Scorsese’s feature films, and he’s one of my favorites. Seeing Taxi Driver again reminds me of the man’s strengths. While he’s clearly a director of the highest order, no matter what kind of film he decides to do, his greatest seem to come from his home – New York City. Sure, nearly all of his movies set there involve crime, insanity, depravity, and any number of other deadly vices, but the stories he tells of them have always been incredibly gripping. Taxi Driver was one of his very first in this vein. I come away from this latest viewing about the same way I went in: I’m glad I watched it again, and I was able to glean several more things from it than before. I will now let five, seven, maybe ten years pass before I feel the need to watch it again. Watch it again, I will though.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research.)

This is another film that one doesn’t have to research much, in order to learn why it has been put on the “All TIME 100” and many other “best films” lists. The craftsmanship of the tale and the acting is superb, and critics early on proclaimed it an outstanding film. The public also appreciated it; while Taxi Driver was far from a smash hit, it did make a relatively nice profit, grossing just under $30 million. I would say that this is surprising for such a dismal tale of urban decay and insanity, but I suppose it struck a chord with people.

It’s interesting to learn how Taxi Driver was a sort of unintentional bridge between two high profile assassination attempts. To write the script, Paul Schrader researched the personal diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. (Travis Bickle’s journal entries are fairly prominent as insight into his mind in Taxi Driver.) Fast forward to 1981. In a delusional effort to impress Jodie Foster, John Hinckley Jr. dons a Bickle-inspired Mohawk and shoots then-president Ronald Reagan. Life imitating art, imitating life, I guess.

Initially deemed too bloody and given an X rating, Scorsese washed out the colors a bit, lessening the visceral nature of Bickle's final suicide assault to rescue Iris. Still, it's plenty disturbing.

In researching the film’s influences, it’s hard not to think of several more modern movies that use a rough Travis Bickle template. The John Doe character in Se7en and even Tyler Durden in Fight Club are clearly cut from the same cloth. Those were also films of malcontented loners who first internalized their disgust at the world around them, and then lashed out with the force of a natural disaster.

Back to Taxi Driver. The ending is certainly food for thought. After the final, bloody shootout and Travis’s recovery, the final scenes at first seem out of place to me. Travis is back out on the street, driving his cab, seemingly in far better mental condition. After picking up and dropping off Betsy, there is a very brief flash of Travis’s face in the rearview mirror, reacting with surprise and anger to some kind of blurred motion. Before you know it, though, the moment is gone. I was left to wonder if I had even really seen it.
Well, it turns out that I did see it, and it is an allusion to the fact that Travis is far from OK at the end of the movie. This was something that sparked debate and confusion upon Taxi Driver’s initial release. However, Martin Scorsese and script writer Paul Schrader confirmed that the scene is, indeed, meant to show that Travis is still thoroughly unstable, and that final, lightning-quick flash of his contorted face portends another violent outburst sometime in his future. This also banished a theory that the final few minutes of the film were a dream sequence and we were seeing inside Travis’s mind for a short while. Not so.

And here’s a final perplexing oddity. In surfing around, I discovered that there are plans out there to make a sequel to Taxi Driver. In both 2010 and 2011, both De Niro and Scorsese confirmed this, and director Lars von Trier is rumored to be involved. Don’t ask me exactly how they plan to do this, as the only information out there says that it would be about an older Travis Bickle. If it really comes off, I don’t know what to expect. Scorsese is an absolute master, no doubt, but it’s hard for me to imagine him capturing the feel of the original setting and character without diminishing it somehow. We shall see.

That’s a wrap. 75 shows down. 30 to go.

Coming Soon: Star Wars (1977):

Talk about a thematic shift. I go from a violent loner in a scum-encrusted New York to an intergalactic hick getting wrapped up in a space opera and learning how to fight with a glowing magic wand. It goes to show how movies truly can take you anywhere…

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.