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Movie of the Day: Taxi Driver (1976)

“You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to? Oh yeah? OK.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie (moving picture) is worth a million words, which is why it has probably generated at least a million words.
What can one say… The obvious: that "Taxi Driver" is great, it is. That it is a masterpiece, it is. What sets this film apart from so many other films, including great films, is that it is an enigma. Every time I watch this film I see something else, I notice something else, I feel something else, I wonder something else. And I am, clearly, not the only one who reacts to the film this way that is why it lends itself to endless speculation and discussion.
Travis Bickle is the sort of person you wouldn't even see if you encountered him on the street - and if you did take note of him, you would make a point to ignore him. He is a non-entity. In his role as a cabbie, you would be aware of him only in the same way you would notice the color of the upholstery or be aware of a strange smell inside the cab.
On the rare occasion that Travis might make his presence felt, you would tolerate his existence - maybe even graciously acknowledge him with a smile or a noncommittal comment. You would only remember Travis if he said or did something particularly rude or offensive or bizarre; and then only as long as you might remember what you had for lunch or what your horoscope said.
There is no reason to remember, or to feel bad about not remembering, a Travis Bickle because he has no real effect on your life. He does a job, he fills a space; just like millions of other anonymous everyday workers. But the sad thing about Travis is that he has no real effect on anyone. Most people have a life - family, friends, interests, a purpose beyond being part of the machinery. Travis only has a job. You would not notice Travis, but Travis might notice you. And judge you: He might decide that you are part of what makes life worth tolerating, but more likely he might see you as part of what makes the world an unbearable hell.
It is the nature of film that when it casts an eye toward the "little guy," the attempt is to show that the ordinary man has something extraordinary about him that society is missing - even if that is just an everyday niceness. This being a Martin Scorsese film, written by Paul Schrader, filmmakers with a near-suicidal view of mankind, the point of Taxi Driver is just the opposite. If Travis Bickle is a remarkable person in any sense, it is in a negative way. Travis is not a good man; he is petty and mean-spirited and bigoted and self-absorbed and judgmental. He views the world with contempt; he has to, he has to have more hate for the world than he has for himself.
Taxi Driver is the story of a man living the proverbial life of quite desperation. In self-imposed isolation, Travis is mentally unstable, and probably was long before the film starts. Travis, like Norman Bates hides his insanity behind a facade of banality and nurses it with his loneliness. Insignificant men with a significant amount of pent up anger. The main difference - and it is a telling difference - is that we don't see Norman's rage until the end, it takes us by surprise; while we never doubt that Travis has inner demons. What Travis does is a foregone conclusion.
Paul Schrader's dark, oppressive script pointedly refers to Travis as a walking contradiction, often at the cost of the story's credibility. He's not particularly bright and at times almost shockingly slow, but his journal entries are surprisingly articulate. He declares a woman to be "an angel," but is dismayed that she is offended by being taken to a porno film. He claims to have an honorable discharge from the marines, yet he seems to have been born yesterday, not even knowing the meaning of a common phrase like "moonlighting." Schrader's superficial screenplay is long on obscenities and racial slurs, but short on simple logic.
The shortcomings of the script are offset to a great degree by solid performances and Scorsese's stylish direction. As Travis, Robert DeNiro is in virtually every scene and even though the screenplay falters at various times, DeNiro holds the film together with a consistency of tone and insight. Forgoing his usual bombastic method posturing (during most of the film), DeNiro plays Travis with a compassion that makes this otherwise horrid little man pitiable, if not sympathetic. He makes us care for Travis, even though the story offers us no real reason to. Jodie Foster, playing the child prostitute to whom Travis hopes to play savior, still has the youthful freshness and wise innocence that made her a treasure as a child actress.
Scorsese sees in Travis' New York City a teeming cesspool, but with cinematographer Michael Chapman, he makes it the most photogenic cesspool imaginable. He doesn't romanticize New York, but he does romanticize Travis' seething hatred of the city. However, he does wisely counterpoint Travis grubby view of the world with a sense of a real world, where friends and co-workers joke and talk and, well, exist. Unlike Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese films where psychotic characters exist in closed worlds where their lunatic behavior seems the norm, Taxi Driver underscores Travis' outsider status by giving us a realistic world that he is isolated from. As such, Taxi Driver has an honesty that his other violent epics lack.
But Scorsese provides us with at least two scenes that ring utterly false. His own gratuitous cameo as a passenger graphically boasting of his plans to murder his wife seems to be Scorsese's way of showing that there are people who are even crazier than Travis. Why? To suggest that Travis is justified in his paranoia? Also the final climatic bloodbath provided only a cheap shock at the time and now seems like a tiresome cliché of special effects gore. Such over the top mayhem doesn't underscore the brutality of the violence, it trivializes the rest of the film. Taxi Driver, like DeNiro's performances, is best in its still moments of quiet desperation.
The irony of the violence is that it eventually makes Travis famous, though it could have just as easily have made him infamous. The bullets that kill the pimp could have killed the politician. In Travis' mind they are pretty much the same. Unfortunately, I don't think some people get that. Travis, in the end, is not a hero, he is a murder. He is not purged of his demons; they are just temporarily placated. The famed "you talking' to me?" scene has reached iconic status, symbolic of tough-guy cool - not unlike Dirty Harry's "Make my day." But both Travis and Harry are dangerous icons; filmgoers delude themselves into accepting their insane displays of violence because the right make-believe characters get killed. They are protected by the fantasy of film; in the real world they would eventually be revealed to be the monsters. To his credit, Scorsese at least suggests that in the end Travis Bickle is still insane, and armed and dangerous.
Even so, the ending is uncomfortably ambiguous: I don't think that Scorsese is as afraid of Travis' insanity as he is in awe of it… 10/10


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