Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Taxi Driver" (1976) - A Classic, A Cult.....A Dissection

The very membrane of the “Taxi Driver” which stood in itself during the first viewing for me is when Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle takes Betsy played by Cybill Shepherd to a porn film for their date. While porn as such depicts explicitness, the images Betsy and we see are quite explicit for that genre or Scorsese makes us feel so because we can then clearly see the shock Betsy goes through of this unexpected assault on her psychological comfort. And Bickle quite surprised by her shock while apologizing also is disappointed in the one he thought is different. Beyond that “Taxi Driver” in my memory resided as a good film, something stood out and appealed but I dusted it out without pursuing it. I remember this instance because I never verbally said or written about it until when a friend asked why would some one take their date for a porn film. That part existed out of reality in that per se was his argument or the point director tried to make which made no sense to him. At that instant I tried to express the purpose of it. It is similar to how I would suggest or like some one close to me witness something I enjoyed deeply and personally. Bickle expected the same to Betsy. Granted that his taste are beyond defined adhered normalcy and it does not seem usual but the plane of that sequence is to understand that nature in him, not to scrutinize his actions. And after couple of statements from each side, I forgot about it. Now after three to four years later, I found a special edition two disc DVD some days back. I bought it and it slept in the shelf for a while. Yesterday I saw the film. Obviously more impressed and tremendously wondered by it, today seeing all the special features and hearing the makers speak, I could not stop writing this piece.

What is the essence of “Taxi Driver”? Why are we bothered sharing the lonely surreal but very much real ride Travis Bickle goes through into this awful display of debauchery, corruption, violence and a much troubled frustration in the injustice and wrongness in the streets of New York? What gives the moral righteousness for Travis to carry out his missions? Do we like him or does the writer Paul Schrader with De Niro and Scorsese wants us to like him or may be not like him? This series of questions are not questions but an empathy arising watching the film. There is no justification in the reaction of Bickle nor does it resolve to a happy ending. It is a film of an emotion, a statement, an agony and more than the environment is the psychology of an young person trapped by his own loneliness. As said in the interviews, Scorsese wanted to make a film because he identified with Bickle and so did Schrader the creator of this man and so did De Niro who got absorbed into this film. They thought it was personal, unique and something they would be considered a freak or an outsider just as Bickle is thought to be. And many were touched because the pain is common, the frustration is universal and the terrible ordeal of the mind putting that through is uncanny in “Taxi Driver”.

The man enlists to drive the odd hour shift because he cannot sleep. We see him as a striking young man and he has come back from a war. Whether the reflection of his thoughts towards the society is something due to it is not mentioned but it should be a essential factor in moulding his opinions and perceptions and of course his sanity. He is disgusted by the roads he drives on. And I came to know through some real drives interview in the special features that the 70’s New York Streets were bad as the film says. Travis poses a calm face with a smile which charms, scares and worries us in various circumstances. He says he does not care about the customers he picks. It does not alter or weigh anything of a significance in his scale of balance towards right and wrong but deep within it does affect him. His bottled up anger only gets on worse day by day as the clock work gets to him. His treatment for insomnia has worsened his day life. He meanders inside his tiny apartment and works out in great detail in his journal of his encounters with his mind. He puts up plans for proving a point not to any one but himself. That in his laid down rules of morals, code and conduct, he is doing something. In that devilish stature he knows a little sense of reality around him but no one to look around for. And he desperately seeks out in a completely disconnected way to one of his colleague “Wizard” played by Peter Boyle. Wizard knows the unsettling feeling but without any clarity ball parks on tackling it for which Bickle response with sarcasm, defeat and disappointment. But Wizard does not take offense and as a defense and justification uses his limitations of being a cab driver and not knowing the worldly philosophies stopping him to correct and aid the distorting vision of him.

In this man’s life comes the angle of perfection, Betsy. She has arranged her hair wherein every string of the golden line is visible and moves in motion of dance step. And when the wind whirls through it, there is no definition and boundaries for that trance. Such is the beauty of a woman that our lead man sees a speciality in her. We see her as the lead woman for external appearances while Bickle uses that to judge her. We judge her with reservations. Yet Betsy is a lovely lady with an eye that can see and question you demanding the pristine nature of the inner self and also pose a charm and control over the opposite sex. Bickle mesmerizes her when he steps in to the campaign office she works and invites for a coffee and a pie. She asks Why? In other films wherein it would have been a formula of the most effective romantic liners, Scorsese chooses something else through this man. He translates himself towards her. The solitary aura that exists in him also exists in her as he says. She might not be that but gets interested and pulled in by this bold statement. She is mystified more than attracted.

While the film speaks unsound commentary on its audience, there is nothing to be concrete upon. This is not a film with a start and an end. Technically, yes it does have a beginning and an ending but the end is not really a way to finish off things or to close the coffin or leave the audience feel good. The ending is something for the limitation of the medium. The character’s one part of his enormous life is given for that period of time, that too in pieces with a care for visual and a great appreciation for art. With music and glows and shines and shadows, it becomes a cross section for that hundred minutes or so of a person’s life. What is the real experience is the post dissection and to hear the makers talk about it. Not that it explains a lot but we understand their stand to create this character as much as we identify our perception towards that in our kind of way. In that acknowledgment though in different perspectives and separate situations and opinions, it is good to be with company. Such is the pain and suffering that it can always use a friend or two to cope up. And this display of one’s solitude and vexation does not make us alone in the lonely journey. This unspoken conversation within ourself while reflected in hallucinations and multiple interpretations in many other films, puts a pin without any description and explanation in this film. While we cannot exactly say the experience, we know what ticked the writer, director and the actor. That is something unexpected for the makers and in a great way to its audience.

The whole film looked through the glasses of Bickle carries an honesty and truth in his perception. Not his opinions but on the veracity of his depiction as per the detail. He is constantly haunted and put in through the trauma of spending the days in his room alone while at nights go through the torment of witnessing the filth all over again. His desperation to seek out somebody is only partial attempt as he does not want to alter his view. His view towards this darkness and inconsolable condition of the city and his drive to do something. That drive he thinks might be stopped by reaching to some one. May be that is the reason he uses his loneliness as a shield on others. He wants to stay pure and continue his destiny and be in control of his actions and consequences.

His failure to continue with Betsy turns around to create some sort of angst towards the Senator she is campaigning for. Again the question of Why comes in. Why does he want to assassinate a man he does not know of? This is the part of his narration he does not talk about to the audience. May be he sees him as the corruptor of his relationship with Betsy or may be he thinks giving a jolt to the next man standing in line for presidency a state of the streets. Whatever it is he gathers so much ammunition which again forms a great scene with the arms dealer (Steven Prince). It could have been a simple gun transaction but how the dealer sells his stuff and while finishing off asks for other products he has to offer laying down the drugs no one heard of. Bickle is sickened by that too.

Like this he wants to save some one from some where and that next act becomes a runaway kid Iris (the young Jodie Foster) exploited as prostitute by a pimp named Sport played by Harvey Keitel. Sport and Iris of course have a strange relationship but luring a twelve year old who has left the family does not need big techniques. She has accepted this life and questions back what kind of righteousness does Bickle carries when he wants to save her. Bickle in the first scene tells in a sarcastic yet true note to his employer about his driving record, “as clean as my conscience”. A man with such a clarity on his state even if it is unstable gives it right back to Iris.

“Taxi Driver” has every scene having something to say. Either about its protagonist or about the strange passengers he takes on. The director Scorsese himself plays a spying husband finding out the affair his wife is having. His audience in that case is Travis but he converses for the most part because he is disappointed, angry and wants to keep him steady by talking. The film works on little suspense like how the character and their purpose is in the short while they come by.

This is that film which has everything complete, perfect and synchronous in all the departments. The music by Bernard Hermann, cinematography by Michael Chapman and editing by Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro are a wonderful piece of element in its places in the film. And the final shoot down carries a special mention to the special effects by Tony Parmelee. Which comes to that blood bath carrying so much intensity, gore and something of a performance this character needs playing it like a requiem. In its times, the colours of the blood were desaturated in order to pass the R-rating. That brought me a question on the violence, humiliation, torture and the extremities that goes through in showing in an art. Do we need such a revisit to the darkened places of humanity? Of course we do to either carry the energy of that situation or the gravity and fierce nature to that instant but more importantly for the emotion of the art to be in terms of its material. So how far one goes with it? The shots in “Taxi Driver” even to the current gorefest seems overboard yet powerful and needed. I guess it is up to the viewer to gauge it and there is a limit in which one can take it. The concern is for the crew especially the actors doing those. In the proceeds of depicting something inhuman to say how brutal it is, there is a severe possibility of the same happening to the people involved defeating its purpose. That line is not standard and can only goes with the self defined social or personal responsibility of the film maker. The art though is free and unrestricted. The viewers have the authority to view or not to view it.

This is a film which connects the solitary part of the system and in a person’s life or part of their life during this time frame of it. It definitely is not about taking sides or finding the path or offering solution. It is about the empathy it generates. The empathy on this man suffering from that and has developed a shunning mechanism to stay serene and truthful to himself. He continues that path of losing it and acts upon it. And the irony of his actions perceived by others like media in the end is a tragicomedy of its own. If he would have been caught in the attempt of assassinating the Senator, he would have been in the same headlines under different spectrum of title and the same thing followed as second mission earns him something else. He is still the same person with no solace and sleep. He still wanders around like a man on the edge. With the shoot outs and suicide bombers on various states and countries around the world in current times, my brother recently sent an article on CNN which seeing this film beckons to ask more on the futile question of “Why”. The existence of so many Bickle as such in characters are few but in the psychology of us are the same. The sanity to keep it in our control and move out of that phase to see something more beautiful and fulfilling in some form or other makes us reasonable human. In “Taxi Driver” we see that passed phase or a dangerous fantasy never carried out or to be rational and human about the consequence in this man. The only consolation in the story is not him named hero or his alive and well status in the end. The consolation is most of us do not act upon that and we feel a little sane and greatly relieved by it.

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