Thursday, August 29, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.4: Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 99/A

The term “nightmarish” applies to plenty of films, but few more so than Taxi Driver. That’s in part because it captures the living nightmare state that screenwriter Paul Schrader was in when he wrote it- Schrader admitted that he had barely talked to anyone for three weeks at the time he wrote it. But it’s also because of Robert De Niro’s paranoid, quietly intense performance, and because of the portrait of 1970s New York as an urban hell. Most of all, it’s because of Martin Scorsese, who combined the language of horror cinema with the depth of feeling of European art cinema. The result is not only one of Scorsese’s greatest films, but perhaps the most frightening, viscerally upsetting film ever made.

Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a time bomb. A Vietnam veteran working as a taxi driver in New York, Travis resents the city around him, the “whores…queens…junkies” and others, but he can’t deny his intense loneliness. Travis connects with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty political campaign worker for presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), but when he takes her to a porno movie on their first date, she rejects him. Dejected and alienated, Travis spirals further down into paranoid madness and plans to assassinate Palantine. Meanwhile, he meets Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute working for “Sport” (Harvey Keitel), and plans to get her out of the profession, one way or another.

Taxi Driver builds an atmosphere of dread from its first shot, as a taxi emerges from a dense cloud of smoke, looking like it’s coming out of hell. We then see the weary eyes of Travis, the eyes a window to a dead soul, and the impressionistic blends of color, rain, and light. We soon learn that Travis is an insomniac, and the opening shots make more sense. He’s in an isolated waking nightmare, and everything around him is “sick, venal”.

Schrader took influence from the works of Robert Bresson, among others, and both he and Scorsese use the framework of Bresson’s Pickpocket as a guideline for Travis’ alienation (he even uses journals as narration like Bresson’s protagonist), while Scorsese also envisioned Travis as a modern day version of John Wayne’s character from The Searchers- a pitiable man without a place, but also a virulent, dangerous racist. Scorsese also borrows from 60s art films of Stanley Kubrick (use of ultra-precise compositions) and Jean-Luc Godard in a handful of the more experimental touches- most notably a shot of Travis seeing his problems reflected in the bubbles of seltzer water, taken from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which was itself influenced by Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.

But the most notable influences on Taxi Driver’s form are the classic horror films Scorsese grew up with- the creeping dread of Jacques Tourneur and the floridness of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (not to mention the sense of voyeurism the viewer gets from peeking directly into the killer’s psychology). Scorsese also borrows extensively from Hitchcock, both visually and sonically. In terms of look and feel, Scorsese was particularly influenced by free-floating paranoia of The Wrong Man.

But of course, the most notable Hitchcock nod comes from the score of regular Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann (his final score, recorded hours before his death). Herrmann’s score is typically foreboding, as if the brass and drums capture the psychology of a man who’s slowly going man. But the sultry saxophone line of the main theme suggests that much of what disgusts and horrifies Travis is also something that fascinates him.

Scorsese brings in some of his more realistic influences- Kazan, Cassavetes- with the improvisations and the on-location shooting, and they help give a beating, recognizable heart to what’s otherwise his most overtly formalistic film yet. Every location feels real and lived-in, not to mention a time capsule of a much more overtly frightening New York. Some of Scorsese’s more dynamic shots serve to give a sense of the realistic environment, such as a dolly shot that loses De Niro, surveys the taxi parking garage, and reconnects with him.

It helps that Scorsese assembles a once-in-a-lifetime cast where even the smallest role is memorable: tiny parts from a weary porno theater concession girl (Diahnne Abbott), a personnel officer (Joe Spinell) underline Travis’ loneliness or, in the case of guns/drug dealer Easy Andy (Steven Prince) and a creepy passenger (Scorsese himself), the depravity of the city. There’s also Albert Brooks (in his film debut) as the hilariously ineffectual campaign worker Tom, Harris as the snobby blueblood Senator Palantine, and, in my favorite minor role, Peter Boyle as Travis’ mentor “Wizard”, a well-meaning cab driver gives friendly advice to a man who’s beyond help.

The three largest supporting roles are all perfect as well. Shepherd’s early scenes with De Niro show someone who’s both charmed and fascinated by this strange but sincere man, a perfect counterpoint to her shock at his more erratic behavior later on. Keitel is even better as Sport, in that he manages to be both creepy (he is a pimp for child prostitutes) and strangely charming at the same time. It’s a role that could easily be a cartoon with a lesser actor, but Keitel gives a richly human performance that gives a visceral jolt to his ultimate fate. Best of all the supporting roles is Foster in one of the most natural child performances ever put on film. Foster nails Iris’ precocious, adult-like tone while still seeming very much like a kid. She’s someone who’s somehow both aware and unaware of how she’s being exploited, in that she knows the trouble she’s in but also considers Sport to be the only real family she has.

The real draw, of course, is De Niro, giving the best performance of the 1970s (and somehow only the second-best performance of his career) as the lonely, alienated Travis Bickle. What’s great about Travis is how hard it is to get a hold on him in the opening thirty minutes- he’s deeply strange, paranoid, and even early on shows signs of racism, but it’s easy to relate to his loneliness. What’s more, he can be charming, as he is in his early scenes with Shepherd, and his ill-considered date with Betsy isn’t necessarily a sign of malice. The scene in which Travis calls Betsy is best known for Scorsese’s brilliant camera movement to the empty hallway- a sign of his loneliness and a move that indicates that this is too painful to watch- but it’s also memorable for how defeated De Niro sounds as we hear his end of the call and imagine Betsy’s dismissiveness.

And then he starts to unravel- the scene where he storms into Palantine headquarters and rants at Betsy is the first sign that this guy is truly capable of anything, and the pronounced (but measured) anger in his proclamation that “You’re gonna die in a hell like the rest of them” colors every frame afterwards. Suddenly, his dead-eyed stares look less like that of an insomniac and more the sign of a man who’s about to explode. De Niro’s performance is terrifying in that it lets the audience in on his self-destruction while credibly hiding the depths of his madness from most of the rest of the cast.

More than any Scorsese movie before it, Taxi Driver’s form matches its central concept- that of intense loneliness and alienation leading to madness. Virtually every shot in the first half of the film serves Travis’ isolation- a jump-cut/dissolve showing his restlessness as he walks down the streets, Travis marginalized in a corner of the frame (this is how you do it, Tom Hooper), takes of the other cabbies chatting framed to emphasize Travis’ distance, and Travis walking in slow-motion, the only one in focus in a sea of out-of-focus people. The repetition here is key, as it makes Travis’ temporary connection with Betsy (photographed initially in a way that emphasizes their closeness) more powerful. And then Scorsese separates them whenever Travis fails to connect, whether he doesn’t understand her reference to a Kris Kristofferson song or she’s trying to stay far, far away from him after their disastrous date.

The repetition also serves to emphasize Travis’ racism, which is clear through the script but hits hardest with Scorsese’s frequent cuts to Travis staring at black people with fear or disgust. It’s a tricky balancing act- handled wrong, the film itself could come off as racist itself, considering the way Scorsese uses horror-movie style tracking shots to imply Travis’ eyeline. But Scorsese’s juxtaposes these shots with Travis’ isolation, which helps further the idea of Travis as a figure of intense alienation and madness.

The claustrophobia of Travis’ apartment (another throwback to Pickpocket) only helps to serve the more intense isolation later on. Now, Scorsese combines alienation with routine- a man building up his body, messing around with guns like a mad John Wayne, fashioning new ways to hide his weapons, and hammering a cross into a bullet, as if he’s an angel of death. The editing grows jagged and disorienting- scenes of Travis in his apartment with long hair are mixed up with later scenes of a short-haired Travis talking with Iris or a secret service agent. There’s also two key moments with Travis at a television- the first watching couples dance to Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” (one of the best moments in the film), the second watching a soap opera as he accidentally kicks over and breaks his television. Both emphasize his profound disconnection with the people on the screen (not to mention the isolating effect TV has in the first place), while his destruction of the television severs one of his final links to humanity.

That destruction is a key point- as told by Schrader and Scorsese, Taxi Driver is as much a tale of self-made loneliness as it is about natural loneliness. Travis often puts himself into the situations he so hates- he rants about degradation in the city while offering to drive “anytime, anywhere”. He calls himself “God’s Lonely Man” and claims that he wants to join society, but he also pushes himself away. He fears Scorsese’s mad passenger, who rants about killing his cheating wife, but he takes the man’s idea as a jumping-off point for his own mad mission.

Travis idolizes Betsy (like many Scorsese protagonists, he doesn’t understand women) and views her as an angel, but he brings her to a porno theater, as if he’s trying to turn the Madonna of his Madonna/whore complex into a whore. Later, he puts himself into a hell with Iris, arguing that he needs to be there to save her, as if he’s trying to undo his mistake by turning a literal whore into a Madonna. What’s striking here is that Iris offers Travis a way out, asking him to come with her to a commune in the country. It’s a way out of hell, and yet Travis turns it down, saying that he doesn’t “get along with people like that.” At this point, he’s committed to being lonely.

The film’s most quoted scene, in which De Niro talks to himself in the mirror (“You talkin’ to me?”) is fascinating for how often it’s quoted in other films or by other people as a way to look like a tough guy rather than a lunatic. At this point in the film, Travis no longer seeks connection with people. Any connection, any “move” someone makes, is the sign of an enemy for this paranoia case. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore”, intones Travis, as he claims to stand up to “the scum, the cunts, the filth, the dogs, the shit.” But Travis isn’t standing up to society’s degradation so much as he’s standing up to a world that’s rejected him (there’s a striking overhead shot of him curling up on his bed, alone). At this point, he’s not the guy who’s going to shoot a bunch of creepy pedophiles, but the guy who wants to kill a presidential candidate because he symbolizes the higher society that rejected him.

When that plot goes wrong, Travis’ next actions are as much about assuaging his rage as they are about saving Iris and redeeming himself (in his own eyes, so to speak). At this point, he’s committed to his isolation, and Scorsese kicks off one of the most harrowing set-pieces ever put on film. It starts as a natural, Rossellini-like portrait of Keitel’s shooting, as if it were observed from across the street (De Niro’s fumble as he tries to pull his gun out is an especially nice touch). De Niro sits down on the stoop, as if to collect himself. This is it. There’s no going back.

Here, Michael Chapman’s extraordinary camerawork and Marcia Lucas’ editing hit their peak- there’s a montage of faces (including a terrified Iris) as Travis shoots the doorman’s hand off, a super-fast dolly backwards as an injured Sport shoots and grazes Travis’ neck. The film starts to go in slow motion, as if Scorsese is prolonging a train-wreck that can’t be stopped, until the editing suddenly becomes rapid-pace as Travis kills a pedophilic Mafioso. The camerawork becomes unsteady as Travis behavior becomes more zombielike, as if he’s closed off all of his humanity, and, to Iris’ pronounced horror, Travis blows another man’s brains out.

Chapman initially photographed the scene to look like a slaughterhouse, but the colors were desaturated to avoid an X-rating. While it would have been great to see Scorsese and Chapman’s intended product (the negative is too deteriorated for them to change it back), the desaturation gives the blood an unreal, drained tone that’s still rather disturbing. And as Travis falls to the couch and the police enter, Chapman cuts to an iconic close-up of De Niro’s mohawked head and bloody hand, a mad, avenging angel ready to die after this explosion of violence. As the camera takes a god’s eye view and we see exactly what carnage Travis has left in his wake, Herrmann’s score hits its nightmarish heights. We’ve been through hell, and if the film were to end here, it would already have ended on a chilling note.

Notably, the film goes on for another beat, as we learn Iris has been returned to her parents’ hands and Travis has been hailed as a hero. Many have interpreted this as Travis’ dying fantasy, but I find Scorsese and Schrader’s view far more fascinating. It’s a sign that, as Pauline Kael wrote in her review, “the city’s crazier than he is”. Possibly. Travis might have been embraced by Iris’ family, the city, and the cabbies, and even Betsy has a semi-reconciliation with Travis after he accepts her as a fare and drops her off, free of charge. But there’s still an uneasy tension in the air as he drives her, and especially as he pulls away. A strange sound on the soundtrack (a bell played in reverse) and a shot of Travis looking frantically in the rearview mirror starts of the cycle anew. Make no mistake- he will kill again. It’s only a matter of time.

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1 comment:

  1. This is one of my husband's favorite movies. I've never seen it myself, but he's talked about it so many times that much of it is familiar. Your articles gives me motivation to watch it, because of all the symbolism you point out; though I generally avoid violent movies