Monday, June 30, 2008

American Brilliance- Taxi Driver (1976)

“You talkin’ to talkin’ to me?”

Of course by now these words are burned into our national consciousness and cinematic lexicon along with “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Go ahead...Make my day” but the portrait Scorsese painted of a lonely cabbie trapped in ’76 New York was considerably more user-UNfriendly. Violent, dirty, depraved and desperate his adults only streets teemed with roving gangs, aggressive hookers, abusive pimps, drug addicts, drunks, madmen and those not yet so as we witnessed this degenerate world through the eyes (quite literally) of our hero and everyman, Travis Bickle.

The film, indeed, opens on a tight shot of Travis compulsively scanning his wild, wicked and dangerous landscape. He is seeking employment and during the course of his job interview we learn almost all of what anyone needs to know about him. He is a loner, he has trouble sleeping, he is willing to take grave risks, he is painfully class conscious.

The last may go unnoticed but it is central to any understanding of Travis’ character. During his brief interview we can recognize all the components of the dysfunctional outsider- He’s somewhat smug and superior while simultaneously nervous and uneasy, he’s arrogant yet compliant as the situation demands, he desperately needs help but hates himself for having to ask.
And then he is questioned about his education and for the first time unconsciously displays his painful social isolation.

“ and there.”

He squirms as he reels in self-disgust. This isolation and self-hatred will become the driving forces of Travis’ urban daydreams/nightmares.

Scorsese’s camera work is simple, elegant and electric throughout and backed by the lushly romantic and foreboding Bernard Hermann score (the film could not be the same without it) shows us a vibrant tableau of his beloved NYC scanned through the lens of Travis’ mind as he trawls the streets in search of money, love, purpose and his everlasting soul. Alone in his room Travis writes letters to what must be parents and idly journals to himself and it is this running monologue, heard as a voice-over, that faithfully tracks the agonizing collapse of Travis’ character and eventually his mind as tumbles down his moral rabbit hole into a world more suitable to his fantasies and own self-image.

The inevitability of Travis’ journey is one of the films strongest points. Given the nature of his environment, the limits of his potential and the coiled trigger of his low tolerance there is little confusion for the viewer as regards the angry storms that swirl in Travis’ mind. He is surrounded by chaos, drowning in solitude, and struggles mightily to find meaning inside it all before finally succumbing and creating his own brand of order. This is truly a tale any stressed out urban dweller can identify with and easily understand.

It’s worth noting that Travis’ 1st contact with a women is in a porno theater and is a complete and humiliating disaster. We immediately begin to grasp his confusion and empathize with his inept advances into his frightening world, he is a loser, an outcast and has very little clue. He drinks, takes pills and subsists on coffee and a horrible diet of junk food.

Yet there is hope.

During his travels through the city he discovers the lovely Betsy, as played by a radiant Cybil Shepard in a deft bit of perfect casting, a bursting-with-Life All-American Blonde Goddess. He instantly conceives of her as his “Angel”, his Madonna, his salvation, the perfect vision of beauty and purity of which he seeks and just as instantly begins to track her every move. Betsy works in the campaign office of Senator Charles Palatine who is running for President and likely to win.
Almost miraculously Travis manages to ingratiate himself with Betsy and score a coffee date, she is intrigued by his directness, sincerity and honesty if somewhat wary of his intensity and out-of-sync methods. The time goes reasonably well and Travis asks her to the movies, she agrees. The plot is shifting in a direction we cannot imagine. Travis’ wishes seem to have a chance to come true, if only temporarily, and then the Big Date arrives. Betsy looks smashing, Travis has a thoughtful gift for her, all is going well until he decides on the movie.
Again demonstrating his complete lack of personal skill, he takes her to a sleazy porn theater. She is very unsure about it all but they press on, Travis assures her,

“No...No....I heard that a lot of couples go here.”

They grab their seats, surrounded by the all-male raincoat crowd, and Betsy is immediately repulsed and offended, she bolts and Travis chases after, there is a scene as Betsy rushes to grab a cab and escape from her now sordid misadventure. He has made an irrevocable error but of course is too emotionally stunted to properly comprehend his folly. Betsy is gone. His Sacred Madonna has abandoned him alone in the streets, clutching his now returned gift in confusion and sorrow.

His life, like many a lonely man before him, has taken a grim turn.

He begins stalking Betsy in a misguided attempt to win her over that is doomed from its start. Eventually he shows up at her workplace, the Palatine Campaign HQ, and his pent-up anger and frustration erupts for the first time causing some minor ugliness and a call to the police before Travis escapes through the crowded sidewalks, more bitter and alone than ever before.

Due to the nature of any great Big City (especially NYC) and the quirks of his profession Travis has numerous, disconnected encounters that nevertheless seem, to him, to be guiding him in some important direction.

Senator Palintine himself, dashing, handsome, intelligent, articulate and wildly popular (everything Travis is not) hops in his cab and engages him in a brief conversation before Travis once again reveals his inability to correctly gauge the moment or at least rein in his anti-social tendencies before his handlers rush the Senator safely away.

A very young hooker leaps into the back seat in a panic and before he can drive away her pimp viciously rips her out of the cab,
“Be cool, Bitch!”,
throws a crumpled $20 at Travis and advises him to,
“Forget about this.”

A deranged cuckold husband (played absolutely brilliantly by Scorsese himself) orders Travis to park at a curb and observe a certain apartment then proceeds to treat Travis to a bone chilling monologue on his plans to murder his whore wife.

Travis’ eyes hyperactively take it all in.

He accidently runs into (almost literally) the young hooker again and this time tracks her down. He purchases her “services” from her pimp, Sport/Matthew (be cool, Bitch), and they repair to the room. But Travis doesn’t want what he’s paid for and what she is so very willing to give him, instead he wants to talk, he wants answers, he wants to save her.
They agree to meet the next day for breakfast. Iris (street name, Easy) is also moved and somewhat curious about this straightforward, serious, sincere, man.

At breakfast she asks if he is a narc. He replies that he is indeed and later allows that he is,

“...doing some special work for the Government right now.”

We begin to understand the choices of this painfully insignificant figure in his uncaring and mystifying world. A lowly hack sarcastically referred to by one of his fellow cabbies as “Killer”, the whipping boy of Female indifference and the silent, non-entity whose job is to transport those more important than himself to their nightly destinies however sordid those destinies may be. Travis roams the streets, searching, searching, searching for the meaning in his existence.

“And then one day there is a turning point.”

Travis is forming his own design in his head and starting to see the connections, beginning to grasp his purpose, moving toward his own destiny needing only the agent for change and that agent is his purchase of handguns.
An arsenal.

The shift in his universe is manifest and absolutely total. Before the purchase of his weapons he was nothing, now he holds the power to change the World within his hands.

And change it he does.

The 60 minute drop down to the end of Scorsese’ epic ride will have your heart in your throat all the way to the final explosive collision of Travis’ worlds and his retribution against his hated enemies, real and imagined- The Father Figure who has symbolically stolen his woman and the “scum” who degrade his existence and insult his sense of righteousness. A finale that is still shattering to this day.

Movie violence has come a long way since ’76 (and many might say a wrong way) and given the Mack Truck-going downhill-out-of-control-with-no-brakes that is screenwriter Paul Schraders’ script it is all the more incredible that Scorsese manages to pack so much tension, paranoia, uncertainty, fear and horror into the last third of his film.

Great scenes- Sport’s initial sales spiel to Travis-
“Man.. this can cum in her face, fuck her in her mouth, fuck her in her this chick get you so hot she’ll make your dick EXPLODE!”

Travis’ gun purchase- Steven Prince as the very best salesman ever captured on film, ever!
“Now the magnum...they use that for killing elephants in Africa.”

The Bodega scene- “Hey...” BOOM!
“You get him?”

And too many more.

It is impossible to imagine this film being made today.
Indeed, it was difficult to believe it was made back then, and released into theaters Nationwide but it was and we were grateful for and properly stunned by its timely arrival. A small story written and filmed large about one man’s urban isolation, social disintegration, violent tendencies, descent into madness and eventually, in a final twist, his provident redemption.

And it’s got Albert there’s that too.

It’s safe to say that Scorsese broke the modern mold of cinematic Urban tales with this one and changed the direction of modern filmmaking.

A final note on the final shot.
I’ve heard numerous different theories as to its meaning and I won’t argue any of them but I prefer to take it very literally.

The World has absolutely changed, but some Men remain the same.

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