October 25, 2010

#52: Taxi Driver

1976 was a banner year for American cinema. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is the fourth (count 'em, four!) film on the list from that year, all of which were nominated for Best Picture (All the President's Men at #77, Network at #64, and Rocky at #57), and each of them is totally distinctive from the others. When I look back 35 years from now I wonder if there will have been a year with so many classics in it in my lifetime. Could very well be, but without distance you can't know what they are. Yet.

Company: alone again, like Mr. Bickle.

Cuisine: crackers with red pepper and feta hummus. Yum.

"Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man."

I would classify Taxi Driver (which I originally typed as Taxi Drivel -- ha!) as a mood piece. Although its story is compelling and its performances are exciting, it's truly a director's piece, dripping with style. I first saw it in college and I remember that sexy Bernard Herrmann theme so well -- this was the last score he did before his death, but you can hear his voice so clearly, connecting you to his chilling work in countless Hitchcock films. We hear the theme first during the first shot of the taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke, perhaps as a metaphor for Travis Bickle (Oscar nominee Robert DeNiro), appearing through the cloud of "filth and scum" he sees polluting his city.

Bickle is a Vietnam vet, unable to sleep and looking for work, finally landing a job with long hours as a taxi driver (hey title). I couldn't help but wonder if Bickle is an extension of DeNiro's character from The Deer Hunter -- perhaps this is a continuation of that story. Nevertheless, he wanders through New York, quietly intersecting lives. "All the animals come out at night," but he feels powerless to do anything about it. He's back from a meaningless war only to continue his existential struggle with his futility. That is, until...

... he spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a young woman working for an up-and-coming presidential candidate. Maybe, just maybe, he can make a connection, find a mate, a partner. Or maybe she's just va-va-voom.

In a bizarre seduction, he accuses her of being lonely and suggests that they go somewhere. I wonder what makes her tick, what makes her say yes, but the 'why' is not really important. What's important is that she gives it a chance and he blows it. Of course, we're not really surprised -- that guy? no -- but it fuels his fire, cements his theory that the city is overrun with self-loathing and corruption, that she's cold and distant, "just like the others."

What do people who are powerless do? Well, they do something drastic -- and why? Any number of reasons, but a huge one is the need to feel alive, the need to have accomplished something. Bickle gets in shape, buys and attaches to his body various weaponry, and hatches a plan.

"Here is someone who would stand up against the shit."

I've always liked Robert DeNiro but why I like him never occurred to me until this film. I recently read that a great actor can paint several different shades on a character, that a great performance evokes several simultaneous emotions at once. DeNiro plays Bickle as a loser who finally stands up, but does he ever ask us to be sorry for him, or to even like him? We're enticed by Travis' charisma and his integrity, yes, but do we ever really like him?

Maybe not until he encounters the heart of the film, a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (14-year-old Oscar nominee Jodie Foster). It's clear to Travis: here's someone who needs saving, who needs my help. He can't change the world but he can right this one wrong, can't he? Contrary to his first thoughts about her, she doesn't really want or need saving. Twelve years old and she's already accepted her fate in this miserable world, with no hope of climbing to something better. Travis can't take it anymore, and acts out.

"My whole life has pointed in one direction."

His assassination attempt on the presidential candidate for whom Betsy works was apparently the instigator for John Hinckley, Jr., in a similar attempt on Reagan, which Hinckley deliriously hoped would win him the love of the teenaged Foster. It's hard to watch the film now without registering that dementia that came along with it, but that happened four years after the film's release. The context at the time was similar attempts on President Ford's life in September 1975. It's a chilling look into what possesses someone to go that far, but I think the question Scorsese is proposing is: how far from reality (and from us) is Travis Bickle? Can we blame his upbringing? His post-traumatic stress disorder? His insomnia? Is it mental illness, or is he merely a product of his environment?

"The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people."

For all the horror that follows, especially the last twenty minutes of the film, it's important to remember that his intentions really are good. He's only trying to save a little girl. Can we demonize him for that, even if his methods are brutal? Perhaps Scorsese is drawing parallels between Bickle's failed attempt to kill Palantine (the nominee) and the murders of the men in the brothel: both were, in his mind, for the greater good. A morality tale for dark, unsettling times in America. This kind of film is not rewarded by the Academy anymore, but I'm glad to see the AFI took note.

And then there is the beautiful, nearly poetic epilogue, which I won't spoil here... but it provides a great opportunity for interpretation. If Scorsese is making a point about morality here, I think he leaves it open-ended enough that we can't blame him for judging Travis Bickle. The film doesn't justify violence, it tries to explain it. And aren't we all just trying to understand why these sort of things happen?

Not really a film to enjoy, but one to admire -- although I think Scorsese went onto create some truly enjoyable and admirable cinema (Goodfellas and Raging Bull are on the list, but I'd count The Departed as another).

One more to go and then I'm halfway done with the list! Woohoo! And it's a beautiful one, although my memories of it are not great so we'll see how this viewing of it changes my mind. A musical to perk me up: West Side Story is the halfway marker, folks.

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