#43: Taxi Driver [1976]


The problem with watching a film termed a 'classic' is you probably know what's going to happen. But for some reason, the plot/style/critical reception of Taxi Driver had completely passed me by, so for once I was able to sit down and allow a movie with solid "canon" credentials to totally absorb me without having any idea of what was to come. Seeing as I watched the film with no background information, it seems apt to write about it in similar ignorance, having not even been on to the Wikipedia page. I'll come back afterwards and "engage" with the "critical conversation" surrounding the film, but for now, just my thoughts (on a film I watched two weeks ago).
Travis Bickle (?) is played by a young Robert de Niro and his narration runs through most of the film, inviting us to observe the scum of New York as he drives his taxi through its darkest corners. This scum is the general filth the daily life of the city washes up on the streets, a term which mainly covers washed up humans, including but not exclusively drug dealers, pimps and whores. Jodie Foster plays a shockingly young prostitute who stumbles across Travis' path - or, more accurately, into his taxi. Amongst all the depravity of the streets, she stands apart as redeemable, in need of protection. She is a cause that Travis can take up, unlike the hypocritical politician who also climbs into the backseat of his cab. 
Travis' role as voyeur, a vocation in which we're invited to join, seems already underway before he finds employment as a taxi driver. Suffering from insomnia, Travis works all hours of the day, contemplating the streets and their inhabitants. There's not a scene we see that he doesn't; even the scenes he's not directly involved in he is watching from outside, and he doesn't miss an opportunity to offer up his opinion. 
I think I'm right in saying that this was Martin Scorsese's first major directorial role, and he couldn't have made a more stylish entrance. We ride with Travis down the streets and avenues of New York City, looking out of his rain spattered windows and via his grimy wing mirrors - his chosen filters - though not from his perspective. We're asked to perceive his (male) gaze, but not to share its form. I wouldn't argue that at any point we're asked to agree with what he says, or even to sympathise with him all that much - he's too fully outside of society not to be a dangerous figure. Nevertheless, we are required to observe with him, and to listen to him.
Sickened by what he sees, Travis tries to find a way to express his disgust. He writes constantly, though if these are memoirs, a personal journal or letters I can't remember, though I feel their purpose is perhaps superfluous: he writes simply because he needs to express himself. He tries to talk to people, anyone in fact: politicians, women, co-workers, but again and again we see how incapable he is of actually connecting with another person, no matter how honest he is. (In fact, it's probably his frankness which repels those he tries to reach out to; it's not always seen as a virtue). Although, he does find a friend in Foster (who's character's name totally escapes me without the help of the internet), perhaps because she herself is so alienated from society (neither has finished high school), and yet not entirely irremediable. Her unwitting assistance doesn't fully emerge until near the close of the film, however. Before this point, the tone shifts noticeably when Travis decides to let his actions speak for him, and he spends much time preparing for a grand finale which can only be violent. It is in this phase we are gifted the famous mirror scene: 'You talking to me?'
I won't talk about the ending though, mainly because I don't want to be "that" person. Suffice it to say we're left with many questions as to what his purpose truly was and whether his actions were justifiable in the circumstances. Instead, I think I'll draw to a close myself, and suggest that you watch this film, not just because it's on the list, but because it's bloody good. Prepare to have the soundtrack in your head for the next few days though.



*The above poster is the work of Martin Ansin - see here: http://cf.drafthouse.com/mondo_presents_taxi_driver4

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