Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)


The Internet is a long tail, flat, critical carnival where anyone can say anything about anything. That’s its glory and its curse.

One effect of the breadth and bulk of Internet commentary is the proliferation of sacred cow tipping as a genre unto itself. Possibly the quickest shortcut to getting attention–particularly if one doesn’t care whether that attention is good or bad–is to challenge prevailing wisdom. When such minority reports are presented by experienced, respected professionals, they are nevertheless hard to bear. Think Pauline Kael comparing Eric Rohmer’s films to watching paint dry or Roger Ebert suggesting Tarkovsky’s work “could have benefited from trimming.” (In Ebert’s defense, he was at least polite enough to hedge that claim with “it may be.”) When done by some guy with a blog and more moxie than common sense, they are downright insufferable.

Given that admission, there’s no real upside to admitting that Taxi Driver doesn’t float my boat. Richard Schickel of Time said that Scorsese does better when he has a script that doesn’t lend itself so easily to apparent misanthropic tendencies–and got over a hundred comments questioning his manhood, and at least one suggesting he should be shot. Jonathan Rosenbaum offers a simultaneously friendlier assessment and more damning analysis, rightly (in my opinion) calling Paul Schrader’s script “grim and confused.” (I was particularly relieved when he pointed to Travis Bickle’s diary as a Bressonian influence that didn’t fit the character, since I thought the same thing but was too afraid of sounding pretentious to say it.) His twentieth anniversary comments on the film are carefully considered and persuasively argued, and anyone wanting to chip away at Taxi Driver‘s reputation could do a lot worse than simply pointing to them, adding “what he said,” and then shutting up.

Still, fools rush in…

What surprises me about Rosenbaum’s assessment is not how cogently he lays bare some of the film’s weaknesses, but how how hard he bends over backwards to insist that these weaknesses are overcome, primarily by De Niro’s ability as a star to embody contradictions rather than be derailed by them. I concede that I find the performances (Shepherd’s and Foster’s as well as De Niro’s) to be the best thing about the film. I was surprised by how muted Travis was as a psychopath in comparison to later iterations of this stereotype by other actors. At first I wondered if this, too, was a New Wave influence on the film, but upon reflection, I doubt it. I think Scorsese simply has an eye for talent (heck, maybe it’s a John Ford/John Wayne influence), and I tend to like (or at least find more tolerable) his films (or those parts of them) where the actors are more subdued, more understated. Just about everyone who parrots Travis’s “you talking to me?” speech remembers it as more emotionally expressive than De Niro delivers it.

Scorsese does tend to get great performances, but ones that exist in our minds in isolation, in sound bites or promo reals, ones that are remembered self-consciously as performances. This is quite different from creating great characters. Travis Bickle is pretty forgettable outside of Robert De Niro, is more or less remembered as Robert De Niro. And then if the actors keep going with Scorsese, they tend to become more exaggerated in each role. De Niro in Taxi Driver becomes De Niro in Cape Fear; Day-Lewis in Age of Innocence becomes Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; DiCaprio the straight man for Bill’s craziness in that film gets juicier but more superficial roles in The Aviator and The Departed. One half expects Asa Butterfield (so nice and subdued next to Kingsley’s cranky old man in Hugo) to get cast as a wisecracking serial killer in Scorsese’s next film.

The performances do provide some breathtaking moments in Taxi Driver. They are, unfortunately, front-loaded. The interactions between Travis and Betsy are so fresh, the actors’ deliveries so unexpected, that we are filled momentarily with a sense of anticipation. Because anything might happen, we are anxious to see what will happen. By contrast the end of the film plays as both inevitable and implausible. If too many people (apparently against Schrader’s intentions) interpret the end of the film as a dream, I would argue it may be because the embracing of Travis as a vigilante hero seems to shift the scales between realism and cynical satire a little too abruptly. I find it hard to believe that Travis would get his fifteen minutes of fame and then be released back on the street.

Then again, wasn’t George Zimmerman recently pulled over for speeding with a gun in his car? Maybe the real enduring insight of Taxi Driver has nothing to do with how crazy Travis Bickle is but how crazy we all are for loving him so much.

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