Monday, February 8, 2016

At 40 Years Old, "Taxi Driver" is Still a Fascinating Look into Loneliness and War

Robert De Niro
Nowadays, it's easy to think of director Martin Scorsese as a visionary whose every film and every lecture and interview are worthy of dissection. However, it's harder to remember a time when he wasn't the king of gritty New York dramas where faith and violence were battling themes. Even then, there was a time when it didn't even look like he would make it out of the 70's. With a drug addiction to his credit and a screenplay by an equally depressed writer named Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver is the ultimate homage to loneliness and delusion in a New York that has since been gussied up. The film is a time capsule of 70's cynicism as well as featuring one of the most breathtaking performances of Robert De Niro's career as Travis Bickle: a Vietnam War veteran who drives to escape his sleeping problems. The times may have changed, but the impact of Taxi Driver remains just as immediate as it did 40 years ago.

Most people would call the 70's the best period of American cinema. This was with good cause, especially if you appreciated the masculine ideals protesting against a government that disappointed its public. There was even a genre of films focusing on frustrated veterans, whose failure in Vietnam was met with vitriol back home, especially in an era when America was celebrating its bicentennial and waving the flags. While the crazy veteran has become a trope present in films like First Blood, Black Sunday, and even Born on the Fourth of July; few films seem to address it openly as Taxi Driver. Scorsese was a director who was very vocal about the war, even making a short film protesting it called The Big Shave. For a man who would later get flack for not deliberately punishing his protagonist in The Wolf of Wall Street, he has never been direct about his views - and Taxi Driver is only so once you understand the visual language.

First, there is Bickle: a war vet who cannot sleep and lives in an apartment. He buses around the scum of the Earth as his inner monologue comments on his desire to fix the city. With a romantic yet scuzzy Bernard Herrmann soundtrack (his last before dying), he drives around while developing a grudge against the world that he fought to protect. His hatred makes sense in the way that talking to actual war veterans does. They are rarely vocal, but you know their eyes have seen things that you cannot handle. You can see it in Bickle's eyes, which are so ragged that he spends his life in seedy theaters looking for a quick fix. When he gets rejected by a campaign staff member (Cybil Shepherd), he falls out of touch with society. This becomes most apparent in a scene where candidate Palantine (Leonard Harris) gives a rousing speech to a crowd as Bickle waits just out of sight, as if excluded from the conversation whose sole purpose is to help people like him.

The film is nihilistic to the core. It was claimed that Schrader was so depressed that he would put a gun in his mouth while writing the script. De Niro, by comparison, got the easy way out by only getting into shape and getting a taxi driver's license. But that can be ignored by how insistent his performance is, showing a fading sense of confidence and his need to arm himself, as if believing that New York is the new Vietnam. His mission is to be the violent savior that the town needs to shape up. Considering that Woody Allen was romanticizing the state around the same time with Annie Hall and Manhattan, it's important to note that nobody has chronicled the evolution of New York over the latter half of the 20th century quite like Scorsese, popping in later on with After Hours and The Gangs of New York to paint an almost complete picture. Still, Taxi Driver's a dirty picture and one that I'm sure even Scorsese or Schrader would be able to make nowadays. It takes a certain mindset to capture images so bleak.

The thing is that there have been a lot of crazy war vet movies. What separates Bickle from, say, John Rambo (specifically in First Blood)? To be honest, Rambo is likely the more aggressive member of Bickle's platoon with Bickle being the quiet wildcard whose strategy is too perverse and petty. A bigger difference is that despite Bickle's hostility, he does have a sense of purpose: to clean up the city that he loved. By clean up, he means to murder or put them in their place. For the sake of exhibition, he chooses a young prostitute (Jodie Foster), whom he tries to sympathize with and says that she should be at home instead of working for the devilish pimp Wizard (Harvey Keitel). She is an innocent soul mixed up in bad circles. It is why that despite the film's violent climax (which was so much so that they had to discolor the blood for an R rating), it is seen as some sort of delusional hero fantasy, possibly even commenting on the futility of the Vietnam War. True, Francis Ford Coppola would do that more directly with Apocalypse Now a few years on, but Taxi Driver feels like Scorsese's war movie. Speaking as he has never made a deliberate film in the genre, this is about as close as we'll ever get.

The film continues to resonate likely because of how meditative and immersive Bickle's life seems to be. He is an unnerving introvert who is frustrated with the world. While not as extreme, it is likely that some people feel that way. Sadly, there are those that took it the wrong way. The most notorious case was John Hinckley Jr., of whom attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, citing the film as a source (he also stalked Foster). While the film is morally questionable, most people have thankfully seen it more as the character study of a lonely man who wants to do better for the world, but won't entirely let us into his world. It helps that De Niro was on the cusp of his peak with Raging Bull a few years later, having this serve more as a warm-up for a more challenging role. Still, it's a film that reflects a bygone New York that is no longer as seedy or dangerous. It may at times be too bleak, but if The Big Shave was Scorsese's abstract nod to the war, then Taxi Driver was his most direct commentary. The issue is finding it, especially in an era where films were more directly addressing Vietnam by stating it repetitively (Bickle only mentions his rank and file once early on). It is likely why some may not quite see this as the great war movie it is.

Over 40 years later, Scorsese has yet to make a movie as impacting or insular as Taxi Driver. It likely could be that he is no longer the same man and thankfully came out of the 70's as a better, happier man. Even then, there's still some allure to the dark side of the human mind that is explored here, asking us to question while sympathizing with Bickle and forcing a perspective that remains uncommon to cinema. Even within the crazy war veterans movie trope, Bickle somehow seems to be among the better representations. He doesn't steal a blimp or bomb police officials. He simply wants to make the world a better place. Even if he doesn't do it in an appropriate way, he's still admirable figure who's as tragic as the lives he wants to save. Maybe that is why Taxi Driver continues to resonate. Maybe we'll  get to see the time that Bickle stops being a lost cause and becomes the hero he wants to be. Maybe.

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