The title of the 1976 movie Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro, wants to rid New York of evil. The rigorous, almost journalistic aesthetics of director Martin Scorsese’s film allow us to see the wrong side of the American city.
Travis Bickle dreamed of cleaning up New York of dirt and scum, removing dirt from the city, and ending moral corruption. From behind the windows of a yellow taxi, the character of Robert De Niro watched a city full of movie theaters for adults and sex workers. As he himself said, every day after work he had to wash off traces of semen from the back seats, and sometimes blood. The madness of the big city plunged its passengers, like a jealous husband who planned to shoot his cheating wife with a .44 pistol (played by the film’s director, Martin Scorsese). Over time, Travis began to muster weapons himself to take part in a private crusade against injustice.
necklace without luster
In 1976, “Taxi Driver” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes as another American film of the decade (before, among others, Robert Altman’s “Mash” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Conversation”). A handful of prestigious European awards for films made in the 1970s in the United States are a testament to the power of cinema at the time. After that, the most talented filmmakers broke away from the charms of Hollywood and took to the streets where America’s biggest problems were concentrated.
“Taxi Driver” is depicted from the perspective of a person who wanders through neighborhoods in fear of what he sees. Cinema glorifying New York, shot in studios, gave way to a pessimistic vision of a giant city, filtered by the uneasy mind of the protagonist. The film’s low budget only helped accentuate the semi-reporter’s quality: Scorsese’s work is neon-soaked Expressionism, built on a solid documentary foundation.
The film’s robust design hides inspiration from entirely different orders. On the one hand, the film reflects the obsession of screenwriter Paul Schrader, who grew up among Calvinists in Michigan, researching what he called “transcendental style” in the film’s book published before “Taxi Driver.” It reveals spirituality through austere formalities, such as long shots and a meditative rhythm.
Travis Bickle’s idea to keep a diary was inspired by the writings of the real killer, Arthur Bremer, but the behind-the-scenes narration spoken by the main character brings “Taxi Driver” closer to the black and white “diary of a village parish priest” by Robert Bryson, one of Schrader’s professors.
On the other hand, the film’s authors were drawn to classic Westerns, such as John Ford’s The Searchers, a 1950s masterpiece in which the gritty character played by John Wayne gradually appears as a racist with hatred toward Native Americans. Can today’s ‘taxi driver’ be viewed as a Western in whom race issues play – somewhat unexpectedly – an important role?
Watch how it looks
From Travis Bickle’s perspective, his solo crusade was a success, but can even the barren soil of New York be cleaned?
Scorsese wanted “Taxi Driver” to put us in a dilemma between getting up and going to sleep. Just as Travis suffers from insomnia all the time, the motions of the camera, the rhythm of Bernard Hermann, and the saxophone music put us on a frantic drift. The night rides of the taxi driver permanently entrap spectators and spectators at four in the morning: in the ghostly hour between night and sunrise. We see most of the action through this reality-distorting filter, and some – as if through the eyes of Travis himself.
“Be careful when you look at others,” one might want to look at De Niro, staring sharply and suspiciously at the black New Yorkers. Taxi Driver was one of the first high-profile films to take an anti-hero view. Seeing the world through Travis’ eyes is exciting, although – like the Good House Woman played by Cybill Shepherd – it doesn’t take us long to realize we’re dealing with a mentally paralyzed man. The horrific undertones he strikes in his diary are almost devoid of direct references to racial issues, but this part of Scorsese’s hero’s inner world is captured on camera. The shots of African-American customers at the bar where taxi drivers meet are among the film’s most stylized shots. Bickle looks at them as if they were residents of another world, and they look at him with pride. “Taxi Driver” is full of brief moments when De Niro stares at African Americans as if they are his greatest potential threat.
Perhaps this is where the analogy with “researchers” seems most appropriate. Both films tell the story of a hero who rescues a “woman” from the hands of “savages”. Each of the main characters’ fear of difference makes them paranoid. However, while touring New York today, it’s hard to doubt: The city has been “purged”, albeit not in the way Travis thought. After the crisis of the 1970s, it began to recover and improve – subsequent mayors focused on corporate and business development. Half a century ago, the color of the crumbling Times Square evoked a vague nostalgia in some New Yorkers. But who knows, maybe Travis Bickle’s modern counterpart will find cause for holy resentment in Manhattan’s most commercial plaza, which is now lined with screens?