Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Martin Scorsese
What can be said about Taxi Driver that has not been said in the nearly thirty-seven years since its original cinema release? It is seedy, it is threatening, it is murky but in 1994 it was also considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant enough by the United States Library of Congress to be preserved in that country’s National Film Registry.
Watching Taxi Driver had been on this author’s to-do list for some time. Two interlinked trains of thought finally spurred me on to watch it. Firstly, playing on my mind was the general suggestion that the recently-broadcast HBO drama Boardwalk Empire’s season three finale was a homage to the film in question. Secondly, if that is true, why does Taxi Driver purportedly deserve to be the subject of a homage? I have always just accepted it when people have said in general conversation that Taxi Driver “is a classic” and/or “is a must-see modern great” etc. etc., but yesterday thought it was high time for me to see if there was any substance to such intimations.
And boy, there is.
If Travis Bickle (our Manhattan-dwelling cabbie, played by Robert De Niro) had hs .44 Magnum to my head and demanded Taxi Driver summed up in a sentence, my babbling would resemble the words “a demonstration of the worst that will probably happen if you don’t get your insomnia sorted out”. This is what one would likely conclude from a quick look at the surface of Taxi Driver. For me, Taxi Driver is no more than the content of that sentence, yet simultaneously is a whole lot more. As it moved along, I found it as satisfying to read into things like particular camera angles or the idiosyncrasies that define Travis (whether intended by the film crew or not) as it was to take a step back and watch Taxi Driver’s plot unfold with a less pedantic mindset and still feel the punch of each scene. I think it is worth pointing out that I don’t remember too many films where this was so overtly possible.
There are plenty of little things strewn throughout Taxi Driver if you go looking for them. You might catch a glimpse of a movie theatre showing a film whose title begins “MASSACRE…” as Travis drives past. Such moments slowly and surely ramp up the sense of foreboding regarding the film’s climactic gun rampage (more on that soon) but perhaps that is what someone looking for direction in life who also happens to suffer from insomnia might latch on to and read into an unhealthy amount. Probably of more immediate concern for the viewer are both Travis’ genuine abhorrence of the rampant crime and sleaze on New York’s streets, and the attachment he forms to 12-year old prostitute Iris. Credit where credit is due to Jodie Foster; child prostitutes are one of those things that don’t really become less controversial as the decades pass and I really don’t think that any of the chutzpah that Foster brought to the role has been lost over the years.
Scorsese knows how to get his audience squirming in their seats; I know I was at numerous points throughout Taxi Driver. Probably peaking the Squirmify Scale was Iris’ repeatedly trying to unbuckle Travis’ trousers after he had “bought her for fifteen minutes” with the humble intention of using the time to talk to her about choosing a different path. Coming a close second was Travis’ foiled assassination attempt on the presidential candidate. I was not completely sold by this scene; forgive the cliché but it felt somewhat dreamlike since I did not really see such an act specifically coming, and Travis does not dwell on failing to achieve his objective.
Instead, the story of Taxi Driver comes to a head with the famed sleazy apartment gun rampage scene. After gruesomely shooting and stabbing three people (the pimp, his bouncer and a thug) dead as a means to basically free Iris from the chains of a prostitute’s life, Travis attempts to shoot himself in the head but is foiled by the fact that he used up all his bullets. I came to the conclusion that Travis’ punishment was to survive and to see life as he sees it in New York continue, for better or for worse. We are told that he is hailed a hero by the media for his actions in rescuing Iris. But this is the same man who unbeknownst to anyone but us, the audience of Taxi Driver, had just tried to shoot dead a presidential candidate.
Taxi Driver shows us that life is basically fickle. There you are one day minding whatever business is yours, and suddenly a man defined by his insomnia and his judgements of society shows up on your doorstep and draws the .44 Magnum that he had tucked into his jacket.