Thursday, July 23, 2009

Taxi Driver

Though I've traveled abroad several times, I've only ever been to New York City once, and only for a three day high school band trip at that. Before I went, I made the mistake of re-watching Taxi Driver, one of my all-time favorite films. Why a mistake? For someone who had no idea what the Guiliani administration meant beyond September 11, my only knowledge of the city came from Scorsese's oeuvre, of mean streets and the good fellas who roamed them. Watching Travis Bickle's descent into madness amidst a dank, dripping den of fetid urban decay terrified me as deeply as it did the first time, though I still did not fully understand it at the time. Of course, now New York has been literally Disney-fied, the homeless swept out of sight and the streets so clean and vibrant that the whole damn place feels like an arty theme park.

It's such a stunning transformation that Taxi Driver now plays as a period piece, one not of nostalgia or revisionism but of paranoid horror. The streets, always wet to better reflect the lighting, look perversely filthier in the presence of water. That water does not cleanse but rests on top of the roads and sidewalks, as if the entire city were made of oil. As shocking and alienating as the film is, this style will make you believe that the city is indeed little more than a repository for scum, as Bickle says.

An honorably discharged Marine who served in Vietnam, Bickle applies his titular job because his insomnia keeps him up at nights riding buses and cabs to calm him, so why not get paid for it? Initially awkward but endearingly goofy, Travis' narrations betray a conflicted soul, one who sees the hopelessness of this city's downfall, one customer at a time. He gets along well enough with his fellow cabbies (look for the late, great Peter Boyle as the sage driver "Wizard"), his demeanor changes in the presence of black people. With unsettling slow-motion tracking shots, we see Travis shift from a grinning buddy to a visibly enraged racist, and his internal rants on the "scum" of the streets turns from a catch-all condemnation to a byword for blacks.

One person in the city catches his eye, however, a white-clad woman who strides through this town untainted by its influence. Without ever getting within a five-foot distance, Travis falls in love. Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) volunteers for the presidential campaign of Senator Charles Palantine (Lenoard Harris), and she notices Bickle spying on her. He finally musters up the courage to ask her out, and she finds his creepiness odd but intriguing, so she agrees, only for the socially inept Travis to take her to a porno film.

Understandably off-put, Betsy leaves, and a dejected Travis, who'd pinned all his optimism for the city's future on her, sinks into a full schizophrenic rage. He purchases a number of firearms and begins training himself for... something. Without a reason to acclimate into society, it's only a matter of time until Travis fully goes off the deep end. He finds his catalyst in Iris (Jodie Foster), a pre-teen prostitute bossed around by her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel).

Both Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader cop to Taxi Driver being an urban remake of the John Ford masterpiece The Searchers, and twisted parallels to Westerns are numerous. The hero of the Western is always an outsider, someone who enters into society only long enough to cleanse it of its corruption or to defend it from attackers. Travis, a Vietnam veteran moves to New York to readjust to society, yet he soon finds he cannot. His idea of cleaning the streets reflects the Western philosophy of the gun, which dictates that the only degrees of justice are the caliber of your bullets. Scorsese and Schrader see through the fabricated nobility of these men and paint Bickle as a sociopath, one who perhaps has the right idea when he sees New York as an amoral wasteland, a modern Sodom, but his decision to take a gun into the streets to right the wrongs are insane. Alan Moore took a cue from the film when he applied the same revisionism to the comic book genre with Watchmen, in which the heroes are all uniformly unbalanced.

Later, he sports that infamous mohawk, a sign of his descent by way of a Native American haircut. Sport wears an Indian headband, so he becomes the Injun chief, and Travis must become savage like the tribe (in movie terms, obviously, not reality) to break into to save Iris. Iris recalls Ethan's kidnapped niece in The Searchers, though, unlike Ethan, Travis never expresses a desire to kill her for being "tainted."

Travis' third and final fixation is the politician, Palantine. By random chance, the senator winds up in Travis' cab near the beginning, and Bickle talks to him about cleaning the streets. Palantine tosses off glib bits of assertion while looking thoroughly uncomfortable in the cab of someone who even claims to be a supporter. Bickle notes this, and when he snaps after Betsy's rejection, he comes to view Palantine as the enabler who allows the city, the country, to decay. His plot to assassinate the politician, however, is the one hurdle of the film; as the film occurs from Travis' demented POV, it's hard to tell what motivates him to equate killing Palantine with saving Iris, or why he would shave his head and make him more noticeable. Occam's razor would say to just accept that he's crazy and move on, and that may be best. What I decided on this viewing was that because Travis saw the senator as the force that allowed the scum to thrive, killing him might wake up the populace to the stench around them.

I also believe that he would have tried to go after Sport and save Iris himself even if he had managed to kill Palantine. Obviously he would have been stopped there and then, but going after the senator first gave him a chance to fix the overwhelming problems which could trickle down and free Iris, while the Plan B attack on the pimps at least ensures that he can free one person. The final shootout is a thing of savage beauty, shot to perfection by Scorsese and edited with just the right frantic rhythm by Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro. Scorsese desaturated the color timing to pass the film with an R rating, but that, funnily enough, makes it all more disturbing as it lacks the softness of '70s color stock. It culminates with a remarkable overhead shot that tracks the aftermath of Bickle's rampage through the seedy hotel, which some have interpreted as Bickle's soul leaving his body.

I do not believe the epilogue, though, is his dying fever vision. Bickle recovers from the attack and is propped up by the media as a hero. Even Palantine hoists him up as an example of the people taking charge and blah blah blah. I think this redemptive coda gives the film an ironic twist as well as a point; if this is merely Travis' last thought, then the movie is nothing more than the profile of a psycho. If it is real, then it reveals America's return to conservatism that built to a head with Reagan's election. For the media to set up a psychotic as a folk hero for slaying a -- to be honest -- relatively nonviolent pimp and a corrupt cop demonstrates a need for Americans to find concrete heroes and villains in the post-Vietnam world.

I also believe that the coda is real because of its last shot, which I finally understood with this viewing. When Travis gets back to his job, Betsy rides in his cab one night. Maybe caught up in the notion that Travis is noble, maybe just wanting to hook up with a celebrity, she attempts to re-open their relationship, but Bickle simply drops her off and doesn't make her pay. As he looks at her in the rear view mirror, suddenly he notices something and tilts the mirror, which only reflects him, not the object in question. The camera suddenly cuts with a jarring noise to capture Bickle and his reflection dominating the screen. What I see now (and don't know how I didn't see it before) is Bickle's total rejection of society. Where Betsy/the good of society rejected him before, now he can drive away from it. When he tilts the mirror to look for the unseen object, we see only him: Travis has descended into a fully insular world of paranoia now, and it's only a matter of time before he does something no one could mistake for heroic.

To call Taxi Driver a masterpiece is a waste of words. It was hailed as one upon its release, and even though it launched the career of the most impressive filmmaker working today, perhaps the most talented American director since Howard Hawks, it remains Scorsese's best film. I've not even mentioned De Niro's performance yet because I find it so unnecessary. To watch him in this film is to see pure madness, but not the moustache-twirling kind of more facile works. No, Bickle may be a genuinely decent fellow, but his mental instability turns him from an awkward, almost Office-like character into a terrifying construct. That endlessly parodied scene of him in front of the mirror asking, "You talking to me?" not only recalls yet more Western tropes (it's a straight lift from Shane) but reveals his schizophrenia and insanity.

Just recently I finally watched the last few Scorsese films I had yet to see. I came to the conclusion that, of his 20 narrative films, a good 10 were classics (about five or six are masterpieces), another five were highly watchable and the rest were merely good. It may be errant fanboyism, but I never disliked a single one of his films even when I failed to see the point of, say, the totally unnecessary The Color of Money (other than raising money for his most personal work, The Last Temptation of Christ, so it was kind of worth it). His ability to use his mastery of technique to get inside his protagonists' heads and flesh out his worlds, fusing style and substance seamlessly, makes his projects always worth seeing, and his restlessness and willingness to step far outside his comfort zone and fall on his face even today (I liked Kundun, so you can all shut it) is only outclassed in audacity by Jean-Luc Godard's irascibility. With Taxi Driver, he placed his camera in the mind of a madman and became trapped, and the result was one of the most thrilling pictures ever made.

1 comment:

  1. AMEN! A fantastic movie...and I'm totally with you on the epilogue, I actually never thought it was a fever dream on his deathbed, I've always thought it was real. Honestly the very last scene, where they show that at any moment Travis Bickle could be unhinged again wouldn't make sense if it was just a fever dream.

    Great review, and great film.