Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Taxi Driver (1976)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #31 (tied with The Godfather Part II)
"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."
-Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) 

The concept of masculinity - particularly what it means to be a man in America - is one of the most prevalent themes in American cinema. In fact, it may be more prevalent than ever today, given the numerous television shows and movies with "anti-heroes" at their center, almost all of them white men with varying degrees of questionable morality. But masculinity has been a foundation of film since its inception, and it's no coincidence that some of the most celebrated films of all time have very clear gender distinctions, often aligned with the male perspective. From the gangster films of the 1930s through the action films of the 1990s, "manliness" has been a key factor of many films.

Yet no filmmaker has made masculinity the thesis of their cinematic project quite the way that Martin Scorsese has. Scorsese's films are almost uniformly examinations of what happens when the protagonists' (hyper-)masculinity reaches a breaking point and the wake of destruction they subsequently leave behind. This isn't to say that all of Scorsese's films fit into this description; Kundun (1997) and Hugo (2011) are very different films with different concerns, the former telling the story of the Dalai Lama and the latter a family film set around the birth of cinema. But by and large, the majority of Scorsese's films concern ideas and expressions of masculinity, and the consequences of unchecked machismo.

There is perhaps no better introduction to Scorsese's project than Taxi Driver.

More after the jump.

The film follows Travis Bickle (De Niro), an aimless, alienated Vietnam veteran who takes a job as a taxi driver in New York City. He finds himself attracted to Betsy (Cybill Shepard), who works for the presidential campaign of Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Travis is disgusted by what he sees as the "filth" of the city, and dreams of cleaning it up. After Betsy stands him up, he decides its time he took matters into his own hands.

The most important question to ask in order to understand the film is: how much of what's happening onscreen is taking place in Travis' head? There are several instances throughout the film that seem too surreal to actually be real, namely in the way that strangers on the street (always black, it should be noted) seem to be giving Travis threatening glares. These brief moments play more like manifestations of Travis' racism than actual occurrences; this is how Travis sees these individuals, menacing and dangerous. Even the very opening shot, of a taxi rolling through a cloud of steam, indicates that the New York depicted in the film is an allegorical hellscape rather than a real place. Again, the film seems to be putting the audience in Travis' frame of mind here. These surrealist touches aren't glaringly obvious the way they are in, say, the films of David Lynch, but they're just disorienting enough to fit within the tone Scorsese is aiming for.

But there are two key scenes in the film that appear to be Travis' imagination, each with a connection to Scorsese's theme of masculinity. The first comes around the film's halfway mark, as Travis sits outside an apartment complex with a man in the backseat. The man - unnamed, and played by Scorsese himself - tells Travis that the silhouette in the window is his wife, but that it's not his apartment. The man then proceeds to go on a rant that's in equal measure racist, misogynistic, and violent, instructing Travis on the power that a .44 Magnum will inflict on a woman's genitals. Travis listens quietly to man's rapid-fire stream-of-conscious with a look of barely-concealed curiosity.

The scene is the turning point in the film, with the man essentially giving Travis the motivation to become the vigilante that he aspires to be. But the way Scorsese films this scene, it seems more like the man is a manifestation of Travis' inner monologue than an actual passenger. Tellingly, the audience never sees the man enter or leave the cab, nor is he given a name. The woman in the window is alone, despite the man's insistence that another man is there; the audience is told one thing, but shown another. The implication here is that the man isn't convincing Travis to take violent action, but rather that Travis is convincing himself. Travis' mind is finally breaking, and he's made the decision to cast himself as the city's "avenging angel."

(It also has the extratextual element of the film's director - Scorsese - playing the character who gives Travis the final little push he needs. The passenger is essentially playing the role of director.)

The second is the film's final sequence, coming after the bloodbath in which Travis attempts to save teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from the sex trade. After a god's-eye-view of the crime scene, the film cuts to newspaper clippings hailing Travis a hero for saving the girl, the voiceover reading a letter from Iris' parents thanking him for his "good deed." The film then cuts to Travis driving his cab and picking up Betsy, who now seems to admire Travis instead of being repulsed by him (as she was earlier in the film). The ending plays as a hero's triumph: Travis stood up for himself, for his oppressed maleness, and is now justly celebrated for it.

Once again, though, there's a question of whether these events are actually occurring or rather Travis' dying thoughts. Screenwriter Paul Schrader has stated that the ending is not a dream sequence, yet Scorsese has stated the opposite. The way that Scorsese films this sequence, it certainly seems more like a dream than reality. It stands in stark contrast to the previous scene, where a bloodied Travis mimics shooting himself in the head with his finger and thumb in close-up before cutting to the aforementioned glimpse of the massacre. Scorsese seems to have indicated that Travis is only a hero in his own mind; in reality, he's at best a blurb buried deep in tomorrow's paper or at worst a villain just like the pimps he murdered. Travis chose violence, and in doing so doomed himself.

Today, Taxi Driver is celebrated as a masterpiece of the 1970s "Golden Age" of Hollywood cinema, a violent tale of a man standing up against evil. Travis, with his mohawk, dark sunglasses, and bomber jacket, now adorns college dorm rooms all over the country. Travis' famous "you talkin' to me?" has been parodied to the point of seeming like it was always meant to be a joke. Yet the film isn't a celebration of Travis' actions, but rather a condemnation of them. Or, at the very least, it turns a cynical eye to what he does.

These two scenes are evidence of what Scorsese is trying to do with the film. In each one, the audience is placed in Travis' toxic headspace, observing his malevolent thoughts and the perceived affronts to his white maleness. Travis sees himself as a man who "wouldn't take it anymore" and "stood up," as he intones in his practiced monologue leading up to his aborted assassination of Palantine. He sees himself as being a hero of tortured masculinity, channelling his manliness through the barrel of his sleeve gun. He asserts himself with violence, which in turn leads only to his own destruction.

The power that Taxi Driver exerted upon its release stems from the post-Vietnam malaise that plagued America in 1976. The country had been humiliated in that war, embroiled in a quagmire where withdrawal was the only feasible resolution. Travis stood for the country's bruised masculine ego, bitter and bruised. Today, the film feels like a warning: violence will beget violence, seething hatred will cripple and destroy. Scorsese's film presents this unchecked masculinity not as a heroic quality, but as a festering infection. Travis' city had scum and filth; he was just looking in the wrong direction.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Tokyo Story (1953)

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