Wednesday, 30 March 2011
Starring: Robert De Niro, Albert Brooks, Cybil Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel
By Alan Bacchus
Last year a fresh new 35mm print of Taxi Driver was shown around Toronto and the country enabling fans to see the film in its originally intended medium again, or for many of us, on the big screen for the first time. Now the Sony Blu-ray release comes along, just as pristine and beautiful on the small screen, even though it's thunder had been stolen somewhat. The BD has the same featurettes as in the previous 2-Disc DVD from 4 years ago, but the most intriguing addition is the Scorsese/Schrader audio commentary from the 1986 Criterion Collection laserdisc edition. This is significant because a) it was likely one of the first audio commentaries ever recorded and b) it’s from 25 years ago, when the filmmakers had a different perspective on the film than today. And remember, it had been only 10 years since the film was originally released. Yes, we hear some of the same anecdotes and descriptions of the film’s influences, but knowing that it’s recorded before Scorsese even had a chance to make Goodfellas or Casino or The Last Temptation of Christ is fascinating.
In terms of the film itself, what’s there to say that hasn’t been said already? Not much. So pretend you’ve never heard of the film before. Taxi Driver is one of a half-dozen pure masterpieces in Scorsese’s collection. It’s unlike any other film – it doesn’t fit into a genre, it’s difficult to summarize and it moves with an awkward pace. It’s part social commentary, part character study, part violent thriller, part comedy, partly personal filmmaking, part noir and on and on and on.
The film opens with shots of New York from various points of view from a taxi cab. It’s a hallucinogenic sequence intercut with a close-up of a pair of wandering eyes. The taxi is a character, the street is a character, and so is its driver – Travis Bickle, one of the most unique and analyzed characters in film. As Bickle describes to his employer during his job interview, he can’t sleep at night. He’s a glutton for punishment though and will work “anytime, anywhere.” He’s also a Vietnam vet – but more on that later. Bickle gets the job and drives the streets of New York encountering all sorts of people – high class, low class, politicians, prostitutes, pimps, maniacs, etc.
He’s a lonely person with no direction, just looking to fit in with society. Finding a girlfriend or some sort of companion seems like the right thing to do. His attempt to ask out the concession stand girl in a porno theatre fails. Then he tries to court one of the most beautiful people on the planet – Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a political campaign representative for a Presidential candidate. Needless to say, she’s way out of his league, but he actually has enough charm to get a date with her. He dresses the part, says all the right words, but makes one ghastly mistake. He takes her to a porno theatre. Oh Travis, no! As the audience, we’re rooting for Bickle to succeed, but the moment the camera reveals the X-rated marquee, our hearts collectively sink. It’s only the second act, but it’s downhill all the way from here.
Bickle tries to compensate by taking in a twelve-and-a-half-year-old street prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). They develop a unique friendship, but Bickle is still hurting from Betsy’s rejection of him. He abandons all hope of traditional social interaction and plots a violent course of action that will make him a martyr for society.
As mentioned, Taxi Driver is many things. It shows the chaotic world through Bickle’s eyes. Like Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom or any number of Hitchcock protags, Bickle is a voyeur, and Scorsese is careful to show Bickle’s reactions to the most mundane and irrelevant people, places and things. Watch the scene in the coffee shop when he asks the Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Bickle fixates on the foaming tablet in his water, Charlie T as he exits the store and the limping street hustler walking past him on the street. We can practically see the gears in his brain turning, taking in information, calculating an answer and reconciling the world.
Bickle is a stunted human being and likely mentally ill. We don’t know if it was Vietnam that caused his malfunction, but the fact that it’s hinted at only at the beginning of the film and never referenced again is an interesting decision for writer Paul Schrader. Since it was made in 1975 (and released in ‘76), Vietnam films had yet to be made, and the war had finished only a year before. I suspect Schrader and Scorsese didn’t want to provide a clear answer to Bickle’s actions because it would become an entirely different film.
By staying ambiguous and vague, the film remains personal for both filmmakers. Schrader put his heart and soul and some of his own experiences as a lonely writer into the screenplay, and Scorsese shows the ‘warts and all’ of his beloved city like only he can. It's also a time capsule of the state of the city at that time. Taxi Driver could never be made today because New York is a completely different city.
My favourite moment in Taxi Driver is a quintessential Scorsese scene. After Bickle shoots the corner store thief, the owner says he’ll take care of it. He grabs Bickle’s gun and proceeds to beat the man with an iron bar even though he’s 100% dead. Then the film cuts to a brilliantly ironic song, Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne. Bickle is sitting with a gun in hand watching American Bandstand. It’s another voyeur moment – Bickle watching on TV the life he so desperately wants to have, one that he will soon abandon and reject.
Taxi Driver is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.