Monday, April 20, 2009

The Great Movies: "Taxi Driver"

Taxi DriverMartin Scorsese, 1976.

Taxi Driver is a beautifully filmed and enormously evocative portrait of the decline and decay of one man in the midst of what seemed, from a certain point of view, to be the decline and decay of a city and maybe of all of civilization as well.

Despite an all-star cast, Taxi Driver is really a one-character movie. Travis drives a cab 72 hours a week because he can’t sleep at night. He professes to be shocked and revolted by the crime and squalor he sees in the slums of New York, but every choice he makes is to expose himself to more of the same. A marine veteran with enormous scars on his back, he is presumably suffering from some kind of PTSD. His inability to interact with others in a rational, coherent sort of way suggests he may also be mildly mentally retarded.

The view of life we get through Travis’ eyes and taxi windows is unremittingly grim. We never see him take a well-adjusted family to the airport or a young person across town for a date. What we see is sleazy passengers who make out with prostitutes along the ride, abusive nutjobs, and a man who describes in alarming detail his plan to murder his wife. Pretty much every street he drives down is thronged with thugs and hookers. Pretty much every manhole he drives over is belching ominous steam.

It’s a beautifully made movie, very moody and quite engrossing as it burrows deeper and deeper into the worst-case scenarios of urban life. It struck me while watching, though, that there’s something a little weird about seeking entertainment in extremes of grit. It feels powerful, and it feels real, but this is an illusion; this kind of tale has no more monopoly on reality than the giddiest of romances. Nor could Taxi Driver pass as an expose or as a sociological study (to its credit, it doesn’t try to). There was a time when I would think a movie like Taxi Driver as well on the read to greatness just for its elegant negativity. As I get older, though, I find myself wondering – not convinced, but wondering – whether it’s not generally wiser to dwell on hope, optimism, and celebration in our filmed entertainment.

Plot: Travis, the eponymous taxi driver, attempts to woo an ivy league political campaign worker in a series of encounters so bizarre as to stretch the bounds of realism. She rebuffs him, very gently considering the circumstances, but he develops a persecution complex and, apparently, a plan to assassinate the candidate whom she works for. In the meantime, he also becomes obsessed with a very young prostitute and, although she shows no particular interest in being saved from her lifestyle, he becomes obsessed with helping her escape. These obsessions give form to his otherwise shapeless life, but one wishes that he could join a bowling league or a book group or something, instead.

I don’t think it is giving away too much to warn you that after the sullen suspense that runs through the bulk of the movie, there eventually comes a spasm of brutal, gory, highly explicit violence. It’s entertaining, ‘cause it’s gritty.

Visuals: Gorgeously filmed squalor throughout. Very simple shots, like long passages where we see only blurred city lights passing by outside of a wet windshield, or Travis’ eyes following the movement of life of the streets – there’s no reason that these scenes should be magnificent, but somehow they are.

Dialog: Every line in the film is intentionally stilted. The central character is incapable of interacting meaningfully with others, but the secondary characters are no better at interacting with each other. Two awesomely empty soliloquies stand out, the first a sublime political speech that uses many words to say nothing at all, and the second a flowery profession of adoration used with gruesome skill by a pimp to keep one of his capital assets profitable.

Prognosis: It’s all about the alienation. Not recommended to those who are troubled by explicit violence, or who are trying to hang onto a good mood. Highly recommended to everybody else as a tour de force of filmmaking craftsmanship, for its importance in the modern history of film, and for its general impact on popular culture.


Elaine said...

That film reminded me of "Cinderella Liberty" in a sense: the protagonist could not imagine (or find) any places or people that were healthier or...cleaner? (Can't think of a word for this. Maybe decent would do.) Travis actually thinks the porn movie is a good choice for a date. The question is, how could he escape seeing the occasional green tree, comedy, blue sky, and so forth?

The Calico Cat said...

a flowery profession of adoration used with gruesome skill by a pimp to keep one of his capital assets profitable.

Nicely put...

DrSchnell said...

Don't forget also that this is the movie that inspired John Hinckley to shoot Ronald Reagan, because this would somehow impress Jodie Foster, who would then run away with him and live happily ever after. The logic here always seemed a bit tenuous to me. But I guess logic isn't the strong suit of the nutcase.