Thursday, 21 April 2016

Film Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

© Columbia TriStar | Source: Cinema Jam

USA; 113 min.; drama, crime
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writing: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, Leonard Harris

“I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin' toilet.” – Travis Bickle

It’s time for the Tribeca Film Festival, y’all, and quite a few exciting new films and TV projects have been shown over the last days. Katie Holmes premiered her feature film debut All We Had last Friday, upcoming Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi showcased his New Zealand indie flick Hunt for the Wilderpeople yesterday, and Tom Hiddleston is there to talk both his work on the dystopian thriller High Rise and the BBC series The Night Manager. There are many more topical things going on at the New-York-based festival, of course. However, this post is all about nostalgia.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s cult classic Taxi Driver. Its star, Robert De Niro – one of the two founding members of the Tribeca Film Festival –, decided to hold a special screening of the film tonight. Afterwards, Scorsese, producer Michael Phillips, writer Paul Schrader, De Niro and his co-stars Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd will join in to discuss the film and pay tribute to its significant role in movie history.

Since, sadly, the BSP team cannot be in the Big Apple to witness this memorable occasion live and in colour, I still don’t want to miss out on letting you in on my own personal experiences with Taxi Driver: to be completely honest, until yesterday, I really didn’t have any. While I wait for you cinephiles out there to leave your state of shock, let me tell you that I actually took the movie’s anniversary celebration as an opportunity to close the glaring hole in my cinematic knowledge. After all these years of ignorance, I was finally ready to be blown away by a film that, in 1994, the Library of Congress selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. A film that won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and is among the one hundred best films of all time chosen by Time.

Suffice it to say that Taxi Driver is critically acclaimed, highly regarded, universally admired and, basically, the wet dream of anybody in love with moving pictures. Anything other than a full five-star rating is considered blasphemy, and every person who is brave enough to actually voice their criticism of the film simultaneously feels the need to apologise for doing so. Taxi Driver is one of those movies that has people believe that film criticism is utterly objective and that you either ‘get it’, thus demonstrating that you are a true and dignified film connoisseur of the highest order, or that you don’t ‘get it’, which has you end up with the reputation of a lowbrow simpleton with a thorough love for Michael Bay flicks. I, however, do not intend to apologise for saying that Taxi Driver left me underwhelmed in some respects.

Following the psychological breakdown of Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Scorsese’s fifth feature film ambitiously tries to portray the deterioration of New York city life, interpersonal connections and, well, society as a whole. Trapped in a world that doesn’t understand and value him, Travis is looking to leave his mark. He wants to be acknowledged, respected and loved, but instead is judged, ignored and belittled – until his diseased mind and paranoia have him take drastic measures.

The premise is fascinating and, after 40 years, still resonates with our own reality in a frightening way and manner. Travis is a man without the ability to connect with others. He becomes emotionally numb and selfish, and is on the brink of vigilante violence. He finds empowerment in weapons and in the fear he induces in others. The fact that, in all his insanity, he seems to follow a certain moral code, a plan with which he intends to rid the city of its seedy underworld elements, gives him an endearing complexity. Back then, a society shaken by the effects of the Vietnam War could probably relate to his lack of empathy, his numbness in the face of brutality, his longing for heroic action. Today, in the world of Columbine, Norway, Aurora, Afghanistan, Paris or Brussels, we find ourselves confronted with self-righteous vigilance every day. 

Taxi Driver is solely about Travis’ mind. There is no conventional storyline to follow. The film much more explores his psyche and how he perceives his surroundings. Michael Chapman’s masterful cinematography captures a gritty, sinister picture of New York, with dark allies populated by prostitutes, pimps, punters and porn cinemas. Here, New York is a place of crime and exploitation, a place in which whoremongers such as Sport (Harvey Keitel) lure in young women such as Iris (Jodie Foster) to sell their every orifice for a few bucks. Hope seems to be long gone, and even the city’s presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) appears to be more showmanship than substance. There’s a constant atmosphere of unease as well as a very postmodern juxtaposition of beautifully arranged cinematographic images and the rotten things they actually portray. Furthermore, the on-point editing and sound editing help to establish Travis’ incoherent mind.

De Niro – long before he agreed to do Dirty Grandpa and Meet the Fockers – shows why he is considered one of the greatest actors of all time. His Travis is upsetting, unsettling and utterly unlikeable. He is filled with self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies. He’s mad as hell and yet passes for an inconspicuous everyday person. It is this Average Joe quality, which De Niro brings to the role, that makes Travis truly creepy, reminding me of Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho. It is under the surface where a person’s soul plunges into the darkest abysses.  

For a film, however, that is crafted so beautifully and acted so dedicatedly by its main actor, I can’t help but wonder why Taxi Driver left me so cold. Travis certainly is an intriguing psychological case study – but I guess there’s something about Scorsese’s approach that is just too clinical, too sterile for me to truly become invested. There are no relatable or likeable characters, everything and everybody is filtered through Travis’ unhinged mind. His crush Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) is first an angel and then a stuck-up bitch in his eyes. Palantine is first an ally and then a disappointment. Iris is a woman in need of salvation and remains so till the very end. All characters besides Travis are pretty dull and flat. Instead of enjoying this lack of an emotional, relatable anchor as a device to demonstrate Travis’ one-sided world view, I find it rather tedious after a while. In the end, Travis’ deterioration is well thought through in theory but, as an actual cinematic experience, doesn’t manage to hit me in the stomach and make me feel the frightening consequences of his fall into emotional coarseness.

Anyway, Taxi Driver has undoubtedly influenced cinema. It still serves as a shining example of films that feature antagonists in the lead, that use the contradiction of aesthetic pictures vs. ugly subject matter, that rely on depicting psychological mechanisms through imagery rather than on telling a conventional, straightforward story. I applaud Taxi Driver for the mark it has left in movie history and I congratulate it wholeheartedly to its 40th anniversary today. However, I won’t shy away from saying that there is a subjective component to every movie experience. Whatever makes your emotions, your enthusiasm overflow can fail to move somebody else. Taxi Driver doesn’t move me. I find it wanting. I have no shame. You want to question me? Oh yeah? You talkin' to me?


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