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Essentials #7: TAXI DRIVER (1976)

1970s New York City. Scorsese. De Niro. Schrader. The ultimate character study. The role of media, young adults, pimps, prostitutes, and the cab driver who…would. Not. Take it anymore.

TAXI DRIVER was the first movie to show me that cinema is an art form. Like everyone else, I used to watch movies purely for the escapist notion that I could leave my boring world for two hours and vicariously do things I couldn’t do in my own life; I still do sometimes. However, this movie changed all that. I remember seeing this 17 times in high school and it made me quite the misanthrope; thankfully, I grew out of that phase; even more thankfully, it was the first movie that made me ask: “Who directed this?” Looked it up…

Martin Scorsese…I was 16 and my film education had begun.

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Scorsese proved to me that you can make films that are artistic, entertaining, and best of all, personal. I used to be happy with the idea that all movie characters are fantasies. Even though I wanted to be James Bond or Indiana Jones, I never deeply cared for them because I understood that they’re “movie characters” and that they’ll never die or lose in the end. However, that perspective changed with this movie. Travis Bickle is someone that could and has existed in the world. I never knew movies were even capable of portraying that sort of authenticity.

Great directors always have something to say in their work and know how to say it while bad directors do the opposite. Whether a movie is good or bad, you can blame the director 99% of the time. Film is, by nature, a director’s medium that encompasses all other art forms; with Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, I learned that movies, if done right, could go beyond escapism and exceed other art forms in aesthetics and emotional potency.

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Harvey Keitel plays a disturbingly comical pimp named, “Sport” (or “Matthew” as Iris would call him). Travis is not amused. Image: http://wallpho.com/130891-taxi-driver-id-70788.htm

You immediately know you’re watching a Scorsese film by the way he uses his camera. He does this patented dolly zoom that’s a staple in his work. In TAXI DRIVER, he’s a bit restrained considering the subject matter but nevertheless, he’s still creative with the lens. Notice the 360 pan in the taxi station where the camera doesn’t move until Travis does to establish that he’s our sole protagonist. Notice how confident the camera movement is when Travis walks up to Betsy and asks her for a date. Notice when Travis tries to call Betsy after the first date: we static track from left-to-right to an empty hallway to avoid his loneliness. Very subtle, but intentional.

There are so many cinematic nuances you take for granted when watching this movie but are, in fact, conscious decisions made in the filmmaking process. Scorsese is known to storyboard and this fact couldn’t be more on display because you can tell he is very cautious with his framing. Best of all, it is organic to the film. It isn’t just for show. These shots are a necessary function to the story and character.

Robert De Niro’s performance here is nothing short of breathtaking. He inhabits Travis Bickle with such magnetism, we cannot help but watch and sympathize with him even though he is a sociopathic killer. Apparently, Robert De Niro was working on Bertolucci’s film, 1900, in Italy and would fly back to New York on weekends to take cab shifts just to get a better understanding of the character. That’s incredible dedication and attention to detail!

What’s also amazing is that these three people — Scorsese, Schrader, De Niro — were just entering the height of their creative periods and all came together to make what is now considered a landmark in character studies. If you want to make a film that’s more character, less plot, you must watch TAXI DRIVER.

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These three lads would not only go on to make iconic movies but also one of the greatest character studies ever put on film. Image: http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/files/2011/11/taxi_driver_set.jpg

That being said, this is a dangerous movie. Not because of the content but given a mentally unstable person, this could easily turn into a sick revenge fantasy they could masturbate to. Just look at Hinckley. He shot Reagan because of this. We now live in an age of celebrity where everyone can be famous. Through widespread media, I suspect this is what ultimately drives spree killers to act: narcissism, or as Dale Carnegie would say, “the feeling of self-importance.” In 1976, Travis’s motivations are no different than they are today.

Through violence, he wanted to prove he was worth something to his parents, the woman he lusted after, and the city that disgusted him. Is the ending a statement on the absurdity of morality? Are the roles ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ just illusions purported by the media? Consider the irony: if Travis was able to draw his gun a second earlier on Senator Palantine, he would have been the most hated man in America; however, after murdering a few pimps and gangsters, he is now viewed as a “hero.”

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“A sociopathic taxi driver goes on a personal vendetta to ‘clean-up’ New York City and save a young prostitute.” Image: https://hitchhouse.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/taxi_driver.jpg

You see, the problem isn’t Grand Theft Auto, Marilyn Manson, or gangsta rap. The problem is that there are sick, malevolent people in the world who feel they need to lash out at the world to project their shortcomings. Unfortunately for us, these people make good television.

As another great De Niro character would say, “That’s entertainment.”

Other Highlights:

  • The Scorsese cameos: there are two. Can you find them?
  • Bernard Herrmann’s last contribution to the musical cinema world before his untimely death. It’s a sweeping all-brass score and the only Scorsese film, if I recall correctly, that doesn’t contain pre-recorded music. It’s not only one of my favorite Herrmann scores, but one of my all-time favorites.
  • I love the use of slow-motion here. Particularly the scene when Travis first sees Betsy. It’s beautiful, dream-like, and subjective to the character.
  • There’s also a nice CITIZEN KANE nod at the end of that scene.
  • Harvey Keitel is so entertaining as Iris’s pimp; his character is so despicable that even watching his mannerisms make you recoil in disgust, yet he’s just interesting to watch especially in a scene with De Niro
  • Jodie Foster as ‘Iris’ — she’s extremely young in this which is surprising given the subject matter, but you could already tell she had tons of talent even before she met Hannibal Lecter
  • Travis talks to himself in the mirror. Improvised. Immortalized. Brilliant. But what I particularly love the sequence right after when he’s narrating and the edit becomes all choppy. Travis is losing his mind and the editing makes clever use of jump-cuts to illustrate that deterioration
  • I love the last shot of the shoot-out: a bird’s eye view of Travis and the bloodbath he created. Every modern film and video game owes a nod to Scorsese!
  • Peter Boyle as the colorful and cheery Wiz and overall, I forgot how genuinely funny some of the scenes that don’t involve Travis are. I guess Schrader didn’t want the film to be a complete downer because the scenes with Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, and the other side character are almost sitcom-like in contrast to Travis’s downward spiral
  • The Scorsese/Assassin story: Quentin Tarantino actually talked about the story of Martin Scorsese nearly killing a studio executive for touching the ending of his movie. If it’s true, don’t fuck with Marty is the moral of the story. Look it up.
  • There’s a first-date scene where Travis takes a girl out to a movie. Normal dating protocol, right? Except…he takes her to a porno theatre! Go see this. You’ll probably never see movie characters the same way again.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

Written by

Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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