Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Taxi Driver – Isolation in the City

           I grew up in New York City in the 1970’s, so “Taxi Driver,” along with a few select Woody Allen films, really takes me back. Locations, fashions, even the grain structure of this film remind me of a simpler time in my life. A time, ironically, that was distinctly dark for America -- when the Vietnam War and Watergate were current events, not vague historical memories. Sentimentality aside, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is a stark reflection of the troubled era in which it was made. The general themes of interpersonal alienation and societal decay were obvious hallmarks of the 1970’s even to my child’s mind; they are the very core of “Taxi Driver.”
            Alfred Hitchcock once suggested that a film is little more than a collection of good scenes tied together by some kind of plot. If you’re looking for a cohesive plot in “Taxi Driver,” let me warn you now to not even try. This film is a two-hour long character sketch of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a discharged Marine and Vietnam vet, drifting from day to day, each blurring into the next, as he drives his taxi anonymously in New York City. It’s easier to isolate oneself in a crowded room than at a small table with three strangers, and Travis successfully isolates himself in the massively-populated city to the point of psychosis.
Narration from Travis is monotone, very matter-of-fact, yet holds disturbing undertones of seething at the filth and depravity of the world beyond his cab’s windows. Travis is an island unto himself, a loner in the big city who keeps even his few cabbie friends at arm’s length. Travis knows something is wrong with him; he gets headaches and worries about stomach cancer as he journals his thoughts. Travis pops unexplained pills while living his solitary existence in a tiny apartment, drinking beer, watching TV and practicing with his impressive assortment of handguns. At one point Travis practices drawing on potential enemies in front of a mirror and we are treated to the most memorable scenes of 70’s cinema as Travis delivers the now iconic line: “Are you talk’n to me?”
For a time Travis is taken with a lovely and equally lonely political campaign worker named Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), but this obsession only leads to the world’s worst first date. [Psst - Hey Travis, here’s a tip – save the X-Rated films for the third date, maybe forth.] Travis assembles his arsenal as he slowly descends into his new obsession, killing the Presidential candidate for whom Betsy works. Fortunately, Travis’s plans are foiled when he is recognized by secret service men at a rally and is forced to flee.
Finally, Travis focuses on an attempt to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12 year-old prostitute he has come to know. In a blood bath of bullets and knives, Travis goes to war against Iris’s pimp and Mafioso handlers, emerging the victor.
In a very real way, Travis Bickle is a textbook anti-hero. He’s not terribly likeable, and it goes without saying that he is not just flawed but certifiably insane – but in the end, we can’t help cheering on his liberation of Iris. Even Betsy reaches out to him again in the final scenes after reading of his exploits in the news. But Travis drives away from Betsy after comp’ing her taxi fare. With a manic look in his eyes, he sets off again under neon lights, past the cheap hotels and dive bars that infest the city floor.
According to the IMDb, apparently Paul Schrader’s script for “Taxi Driver” was an autobiographical reflection of a particularly lonely and dejected period of his life; a shame for him. But Schrader’s script was sharp, tight and above all, human, despite the insanity of his central character. Given Travis’s narration and the unadorned credibility of the other characters and their interactions, it’s no wonder Schrader was nominated for the 1976 WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen.
The visual style Scorsese exhibits in this film is simple and yet complex, like an intense Miles Davis jam. There are no terribly extreme camera angles, nor blatant cinematic symbolism, yet Scorsese’s images are thoughtful and I never got the feeling anything was shown by happenstance. Scenes in “Taxi Driver” are played out with a dramatic accompanying score by the late Bernhard Herrman, coupled with brilliant work from trumpet soloist Uan Rasey. The overall experience is one that evokes memories of the great film noir era of the 1930’s & 40’s.
All the actors who participated in this film deserve high praise from their naturally affecting performances. Robert De Niro made his name creating Travis Bickle, a man who could go from innocent charisma to disturbing in a hair’s breadth. Cybil Shepherd played Betsy with a bland charm but had me genuinely concerned for her going out with Travis. Peter Boyle realized Travis’s friend and fellow cabbie, Wizard, with a crude, salt-of-the-earth manner that shows why Mr. Boyle was one of the premier character actors of his generation. Harvey Keitel played Sport, Iris’s pimp, with a smarmy cool that seemed disturbingly natural to him. Albert Brooks performed Betsy’s co-worker on the campaign, Tom, a vanilla type of guy with humor and drab likeability. Last but not least was the 12 year old Jodie Foster as the pre-teen prostitute, Iris. What can I say? The kid garnered an Academy Award nomination for her performance. Foster made Iris both a vulnerable, abused soul and a street smart hooker, yet never lets us forget she was really just a kid. Impressive work for 6th grader! Even Scorsese himself turned in a strong performance as a unhinged husband in the back of Travis’s cab one night. However, Scorsese’s best performance was undoubtedly the one he gave behind the camera, where he shepherded an incredibly talented cast through Schrader’s phenomenal script to create such a visceral success.
 “Taxi Driver” is a film that can easily hold its ground today among the grittier works of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and even Danny Boyle (remember “Trainspotting”?) – All of whom, I’m sure, owe Mr. Scorsese a great debt for his influence on their styles. Still, this is by no means a film everyone will enjoy. It pulls no punches in its portrayal of Travis’s descent from isolation into madness and never compromises the integrity of its dark subject matter. Also, it sadly drags in places because of its meandering character study structure. Today, Times Square in Manhattan is akin to Disney World; a family friendly tourist spot along with Rockefeller Center, Broadway and Radio City Music Hall. If you want to see New York City in the 1970’s, when people were disenchanted, disheartened and groping for any kind of redemption, watch Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”... But try not to see it alone. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you!

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