Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Canon #9: Taxi Driver (1976)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

The first time I watched Martin Scorsese's 70s classic, Taxi Driver, was when I was 16 or 17.  Once a year, usually during the summer, DirectTV would have a special deal where they gave customers a free weekend of all the premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax.  I always used these opportunities to catch up on as many films as possible, taking full advantage of the variety that this deal provided.  On the particular night that I watched Taxi Driver, I had already watched about 3 or 4 movies that day, so I was very tired when it started airing at 11:30 PM.  So naturally, I watched most of the film in only a half conscious state, letting it wash over me instead of fully engaging with it.

Usually, being half asleep is a far from ideal state to be watching a movie, but under this circumstance, it was actually fitting, given the film's dreamy/nightmarish qualities.  From the rain-smeared windshield of Travis Bickle's cab, to the rapid succession of stoplight after stoplight, to the way that red lights echo far past their source to bleed all over the screen; Scorsese is able to capture that rarely depicted mixture of the vivid sensory feelings and foggy interpretations that come with a dreamlike haze.  Neon lights reflect the garbage filled streets.  Nights are a breeding ground for the seediest of crooks and deviants.  Days are claustrophobic with the bustle of the city.  They bleed together like a Mobius strip, on and on and on.  Bernard Herrmann's score repeats its motifs, nagging away, gnawing at your soul.  This is New York for Travis Bickle, a disorienting purgatory he's found himself in after serving in the Vietnam War.

The second time I watched Taxi Driver was just last week in my Cinema Survey class.  It's my last semester of college, and it's a surprisingly lonely time in my life.  I'm graduating soon without ever having left much of a mark on this place.  I don't have much of a social life, didn't make many friends here, and the few I did make in the early stages have long since moved on with their lives.  I'm a Computer Science major, but I'm basically done with the requirements for my degree, and the majority of the classes I'm taking this semester are to finish out my Cinema Studies minor.  So I don't even have the few people in my major with whom I've had many classes over the years around to provide a sense of familiarity.  It's even worse that this Cinema Survey class is a general education class, usually for freshman to take to get their cultural credit out of the way, so it's filled with large groups of friends who sit together while I'm all by my lonesome.  Sometimes I find myself wondering how I can be in such a densely populated place yet feel so isolated.

As much as this makes my life miserable, it's the perfect condition to watch Taxi Driver in, because it's perhaps the ultimate film about loneliness.  We're introduced to Travis Bickle through his plaintive narration, where he describes his job in not so chipper terms: "Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat.  Some nights, I clean off the blood."  New York may be teeming with life, but it's a barren wasteland to Travis, who finds companionship only in his increasingly deranged thoughts.  The most famous bit of narration sums his fatalistic views up perfectly:

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere.  In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere.  There's no escape.  I'm God's lonely man.

The one scene that really gets to me occurs in the middle of the film, just as Bickle's loneliness really starts to eat away at him.  He confides in Wizard (Peter Boyle) about how he's been "feeling down" -- the street outside bathed in red light, as most of the important scenes in the film are -- but he doesn't quite know how to articulate it.  The advice he gets from Wizard, to just take it easy and find a girl to sleep with, doesn't do much to assuage his feelings.  It's a scene that's interesting enough due to the striking visuals and De Niro's raw, vulnerable performance, but for anybody who's ever been in a bad place and has tried to reach out to someone, only to get a response that doesn't help much, it's a moment that takes on much more power.

Most of all, Taxi Driver captures just how angry being lonely can make you.  Travis has a distinct sense of justice, however misplaced, and his need to "do something" about the depravity around him leads him to buy guns and start an intense physical regimen.  The infamous "you talkin' to me?" scene is a perfect distillation of the rage he feels, directed at nobody and everybody all at once.  Part of the reason why the movie is so troubling is because it feels so real.  I've never been driven to violence, but lots of his insanity is understandable because it's not so far removed from the frustrations that any isolated person develops.  The combination of desperately longing for human connection while also being repulsed by the actual process of forming those bonds is certainly something I've felt before.

New York has been a frequent subject of study in Martin Scorsese's work, and Taxi Driver's representation, warped though it may be, might be the ultimate depiction.  It's almost an extension of Travis Bickle's mind -- just look at the way somebody is always getting rough up at the edge of the frame, or how crooks and prostitutes fill the background of many scenes.  Travis is obviously a mentally disturbed person, possibly because of his time in Vietnam, but it's clear that the city is a catalyst for his psychotic break.  In a way, Taxi Driver makes you realize that New York must be filled with these kinds of damaged, broken people we'll never know about.  Travis Bickle is only one of them.

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