Taxi Driver remains one of the best (and most troubling) of Palme winners

Taxi Driver remains one of the best (and most troubling) of Palme winners

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Over the last month, and frequently on Twitter, cinephiles have been engaged in a heated debate about the new film from Martin Scorsese, the uproarious financial-sector opus The Wolf Of Wall Street. The point of contention is whether Wolf, with its endless and exhausting parade of debauchery, is glorifying its filthy-rich, swindling protagonists or condemning them. Setting aside how exciting it is to see a 71-year-old filmmaker provoke such outrage and fevered disagreement, isn’t there something amusingly redundant about this argument? Hasn’t Marty been accused of condoning immorality for most of his career, for having a little too much fun with the brutes and sickos he so often takes as his subjects? The controversy surrounding Scorsese’s approach to reprehensible men can be traced all the way back to at least 1976, when the 33-year-old director trained his lens on a disgruntled driver whose agitation—a soul-rotting contempt for nearly everyone around him—eventually erupts into horrific bloodshed.

Taxi Driver upset people, and for good reason: Four decades later, its vision of murderous rage as cathartic release is still disturbing. One person bothered by the film’s climactic reckoning was the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, who served as head of the Cannes jury in ’76. “Watching violence on the screen is a brutalizing experience for the spectator,” Williams remarked to reporters. “Films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and in lingering on terrible cruelties as though one were at a Roman circus.” Perhaps the writer was responding, on some level, to the heightened anxiety surrounding the festival, one year after bomb threats nearly brought the whole event to a standstill. Either way, festivalgoers seemed to share his sentiments, heckling Taxi Driver at its premiere. The booing continued when Williams announced, despite his reservations, that the jury had selected the movie for the Palme D’Or. Maybe Williams, like Scorsese himself, was powerless to deny a certain attraction to Travis Bickle, the crazed nocturnal avenger of the film’s title.

If Mean Streets was Marty’s breakthrough, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore turned him into a Hollywood player, Taxi Driver was the movie that announced his true arrival—his induction into the hall of New American Masters. (Cannes gave him an award 30 years before the Academy did, which is a pretty good demonstration of how the two annual competitions differ in relevance.) Beginning with a shot of Bickle’s cab emerging from a billowing cloud of sewer smoke, as if ascending from hell itself, this grimy NYC death trip remains one of the best films ever made about madness, alienation, and feeling alone in a city of millions. Today, its reputation as a classic is basically secure: After scoring four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Taxi Driver has spent the last 40 years crawling its way toward the top of cinephile best-of lists. Last year, it clocked in at No. 31 in the decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made. And in 2009, Film Comment contributors voted it the single greatest Palme D’Or winner ever—a vindication, given how it was first greeted at Cannes. (At this point, getting booed at the Palais puts a film in pretty good company.)

Yet for all the accolades Taxi Driver has accrued over the years, it remains a divisive movie—not in spite of, but because of its enduring popularity. Simply put, this is one of those films that people find difficult to separate from its fan base. After all, one of its most famous devotees was a would-be political assassin: John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981, harbored an obsession with Jodie Foster—the actress who played the teenage prostitute in Taxi Driver—and claims to have devised his plot as an attempt to impress her, perhaps hoping to become a Bickle-like media celebrity. (Scorsese was supposedly informed of Hinckley’s fandom at the 1981 Oscars, moments after he lost Best Director to Robert Redford, and was so disturbed by the knowledge that he briefly considered quitting filmmaking.)

Of course, artists should rarely (if ever) be held responsible for how madmen interpret their work. But there’s no denying that Travis Bickle, so ferociously embodied by Robert De Niro, has become something of a pop-culture icon—an outlaw anti-hero, immortalized on dorm-room posters and through the transformation of his psychotic bedroom soliloquies (“You talkin’ to me?”) into oft-quoted catchphrases. If the legacy of Taxi Driver is the lionization of a murderous bigot, then maybe Williams was right to be reluctant about handing it an award. The million-dollar question, to which there may not be a satisfactory answer, is whether the movie is accidentally fascist or just widely misunderstood. Is Bickle’s nihilism so persuasively conveyed that it ends up sounding like a kind of gospel, not the ravings of a lunatic?

Transmitting universal loathing through a car windshield, his thousand-yard-stare locked on the inhabitants of the “cesspool” he traverses, De Niro’s insomniac cabbie is the spawn of no less than three collaborating minds. For Scorsese, he’s one of the first in a long line of magnetic monsters—of bad men with bad habits, of sinners reborn but not through redemption. (Like Henry Hill and Rupert Pupkin and Jordan Belfort, Bickle experiences a final life transformation without undergoing any kind of personal growth.) In truth, though, there may be less of Scorsese and more of screenwriter Paul Schrader in the infamous character. A former film critic who wrote expertly on noir, Schrader modeled Bickle at least partially on the hard-bitten rogues of the genre he loved. But by his own admission, he also poured a lot of himself into the budding vigilante, exorcising personal demons through a hallucinatory revenge fantasy. Schrader, an angry urbanite himself, set his original script in Los Angeles; though the locale was switched to New York, resulting in what may be the quintessential NYC movie, there’s still a sense that Taxi Driver could be about sleepless nights in any city that never sleeps. For those who live in the shadow of glass and steel, surrounded everyday by strangers, the film may strike a raw nerve. Empathizing with Bickle’s specific prejudices isn’t necessary to relate to his general unease and fury.

It helps—or hurts, depending on how you come at it—that this amateur assassin is played by De Niro, young and mesmerizing in his Method conviction. He’s charismatic in the part, because he has to be; in order to believe that a “normal” person like Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) would give this clearly unbalanced stalker the time of day, we have to understand what she might initially see in him. “You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever meant,” she tells her suitor on their first date, though she doesn’t know the half of it. Before going full-on crazypants, De Niro makes Bickle an almost guileless curiosity—a man who speaks his mind, without shame or hesitation, and whose cluelessness about social norms has a certain alien charm. There’s something weirdly funny about the scene in which Bickle takes Betsy on a date to the porno theater. He’s not being a creep or a pervert, at least not intentionally; he just genuinely believes this is what it means to “take a girl to the movies.” You almost feel sorry for the guy, at least until his obsessive behavior intensifies.

Taxi Driver is rarely as much fun as Goodfellas or Mean Streets or The Wolf Of Wall Street is. There are no iconic classic-rock montages, no Rolling Stones boogies. The ugly characters tend to be really ugly, not hilariously so. (Marty himself appears in a very unflattering cameo, oozing violent misogyny and racism from the backseat of Bickle’s cab.) Where many of Scorsese’s most popular movies unfold as a breathless series of great set pieces, Taxi Driver has a more cumulative brilliance; it’s a downward spiral into madness from the first frame onward. But the film is also alive with the sights and sounds of a lost city. Post-“Giuliani cleanup,” there’s a time-capsule fascination to Scorsese’s vision of a grimy, chaotic New York, perversely exciting in its bustle and danger.

Furthermore, the director packs the margins of the movie with flavorful supporting players: Bickle’s trash-talking colleagues (including a scene-stealing Peter Boyle); Albert Brooks, doing a dry run to the witty neurotic he’d play in his own films; and the rotten romantic coupling of Foster (then 13, playing a slightly younger girl) and Harvey Keitel’s vile pimp. The scene in which the latter two share a slow dance is perhaps the movie’s ickiest and most tender moment, rolled into one.

By painting Bickle as a kind of urban samurai, devoted to cleansing himself of imperfection and intent on committing the gun-nut equivalent of Seppuku, Schrader flirts with bestowing a genre-movie coolness on the character. So too does the great composer Bernard Herrmann, whose melancholy score—his final work, before dying in his sleep in December 1975—provides a romantic dimension to Bickle’s alienation. (Whenever that lonely saxophone is blaring, he seems a tragic figure, not a pathetic and deplorable one.) On the other hand, perhaps Herrmann is simply supplying the soundtrack of Bickle’s brain, where he is a tragic figure and an urban samurai. However they’ve been misread, there’s nothing “cool” about the scenes in De Niro’s tiny, sweltering apartment, where he vamps as a desperado. Scorsese deflates the character’s delusions of grandeur by including a take of De Niro (intentionally?) flubbing his internal monologue, so that he has to start it all over again. Shrewdly, this stylistic hiccup suggests that Bickle’s righteous indignation is a performance—a deluded macho display, more of a pep talk to himself than a coherent statement of philosophy. It’s next to impossible to watch the following clip, which features the movie’s most famous line, and not ponder how somehow could find the character’s routine cool and not just sad.

Much has been made about Taxi Driver as a political film, and there’s little doubt that Bickle is intended as an embodiment of American disillusionment—the angry voice of an angry nation, post-Vietnam and Watergate. But Bickle’s fury is not constructive, it’s misdirected: “I don’t know much about politics,” he tells Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris), the presidential candidate he’ll later plot to assassinate. And indeed, the politician becomes his target not because of any specific agenda he promotes, but because Betsy—the girl who snubbed Bickle earlier in the film—is working on the man’s campaign. Mostly, Bickle just lumps all of his imaginary rivals into one category, blaming “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies” for ruining his city. There’s also a racial angle to his animosity, with Bickle sharing several long, cold stares with the black men he encounters during his nightly odysseys. To see this misfit as a hero—any kind of hero—one basically has to share his prejudices. He’s the antithesis of counterculture, acting on behalf of only himself and his own hang-ups.

Inevitably and fatalistically, Taxi Driver builds to a final showdown, and it’s as horrific as it should be. Here, in this bloody climax, is the violence that so agitated Williams and other viewers at Cannes. (Though Scorsese de-saturated the images in post-production, toning down the vibrancy of his blood-red imagery to receive an R rating, the carnage is still extreme.) Then comes the surreal final minutes, interpreted by some as a dream, fantasy, or dying hallucination. Others have taken this ostensible “happy ending” as proof that Scorsese means for the audience to celebrate Bickle, too. (The character finally channeled his rage at those who “deserved it,” as the argument goes.) But such a reading ignores the bitter irony in which Scorsese and Schrader have drenched this coda. The filmmakers’ real point seems to be that there are socially acceptable forms of murder and non-socially accepted forms. Were Travis to kill a politician, he’d be condemned as a villain. But because [SPOILERS] he kills a pimp, a slumlord, and a pedophiliac john, he becomes a public hero.

In a way, that message is actually underlined by the misguided admiration Travis Bickle has earned from some of the film’s fans. When someone consumes Taxi Driver as a badass vision of vigilante justice, as opposed to a condemnation of same, aren’t they responding to the story the same way the reporters do in the movie? That’s the ultimate irony here: We’re basically living in the film’s fictional aftermath, where a porno-loving, gun-toting sociopath can be championed as a hero. It’s a masterful film, but maybe Tennessee Williams was onto something.

Did it deserve to win? Sadly, I’ve only seen a small handful of titles from the 1976 competition slate. But it has to be Taxi Driver, doesn’t it? Problematic or not, Scorsese’s film has a power—a combined force of performance, atmosphere, and directorial verve—that’s can’t be ignored. It’s an unforgettable movie. Less worthy, perhaps, but still very worthwhile: Roman Polanski’s creepy-funny apartment thriller, The Tenant, a great companion piece to his Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby; and Wim Wenders’ Kings Of The Road, another of the German director’s loose, poetic travelogues and a fine tribute to ancient movie houses. I’d have to see the majority of the other contenders to know for sure, but Taxi Driver seems in retrospect like a no-brainer.

Next up: Two films, Farewell My Concubine and The Piano, shared the prize in 1993.

Filed Under: Film

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