Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Taxi Driver" (1976)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

For most of my "Hit Me..." contributions, I like to real dig deep into analyzing the selected film each week. How could I not, when the whole premise of the series is essentially shot analysis, picking out one image and explaining why it works in the context of the film. And I'm going to do it again this week, because Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver - arguably his best film - is really easy to get academic about. In fact, I did just that about seven months ago in my "Sight & Sound Sunday" series.

All of this is to say that what I really want to do is post a bunch of shots, because Scorsese proves his ability as a dynamic director early on with this, his fifth narrative feature. He displays total command of every element of the mise en scene, which helps bring the film's violent parable of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) to life.

Make no mistake, Taxi Driver is, at heart, a parable, the story of "God's Lonely Man" taking it upon himself to cleanse the "filth" off the streets of New York. Bickle is a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran, and takes up driving a cab because he can't sleep at night. He drives around the city brooding about the way things are, and is attracted to Betsy (Cybill Shepard), a campaign worker for presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). She rejects him after a disastrous date, sending him further over the edge. He turns his attention on two, mostly unrelated tasks: attacking the senator and rescuing a twelve-year-old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). Though screenwriter Paul Schrader has stated that he drew inspiration from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella Notes from the Underground, but Bickle plays more like a PTSD-afflicted wannabe messiah, a would-be Jesus washing away sins with a .44 Magnum. 

More after the jump.

There's plenty of hell imagery in this film, which lines up well both with the film's perverted religiosity and it's view of New York as an open sewer. From the red glow on Travis' face in the opening scene:

To the cavernous voids and demonic-looking interiors of the building that Iris uses to service her clients:

To a moment when the camera zooms in on the glass of water that Travis has just dropped Alka-Seltzer into, making it look like it's boiling:

The film never relents on its sinister undertones. There's no doubt that Travis is living in hell-on-earth, and Scorsese shoots it all with sacred fire.

But one of the things that I've always admired about this film is the omnipresence of the political campaign in the background. There's some sort of campaign ad in seemingly every scene, with Charles Palantine (and occasionally his unseen opponent, Goodwin) looming over everything.

The most impressive part of this is Scorsese's sly implication here. This isn't a commentary about the dominance of American politics, or a suggestion that America post-Vietnam is some sort of totalitarian regime. Instead, Scorsese's highlighting the irony of the situation: these two men are fighting for votes, arguing that they are the ones who can make a difference in this country, while Travis - who gives Palantine a ride in his cab earlier in the film - is the one who takes (violent) action.  While Palantine is all talk, Travis is a man of action, regardless of how misguided that action is.

In fact, my choice for best shot is a terrific play on this idea. It's a relatively small moment, lasting less than a minute, as Travis is parked on the side of the street near a Palantine speaking event. The camera first views Travis, then pulls into the car to reveal this:

*Best Shot*

Palantine is deep in the background, framed by both the side of the windshield of Travis's taxi and both the door and window of the building across the street. But look closely enough, and you'll see that the overhang on the outside of the building is obscuring his head, so that only his body and the microphone he's speaking into are visible. His speech plays over the soundtrack, but there's no mouth to associate it with. It's just empty words being tossed out anonymously into the ether, a feeling that Travis no doubt relates to here. It's a wry moment that perfectly captures the tone of the film, the mindset of Travis, the stealthy political commentary, and Scorsese's mastery of visual framing.



interesting choice. i did notice this time through how oprressive that campaign feels. It's a little like -- though not at all like ;) -- Nashville in that respect

Fisti said...

The way you broke this down is brilliant! I love your take on this, and your shot choice, after you explain, is so powerful. Great work here.