1990s, Auteurs, Drama

The Age of Innocence (1993)

AgeoOfInnocence01

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective In Words

By Roderick Heath

Martin Scorsese finally arrived as a Hollywood force with the multiple Oscar nominations of Goodfellas (1990) and the big box office of Cape Fear (1991). The latter film, a remake of a 1963 J. Lee Thompson thriller (from a novel by John D. MacDonald), stands as probably Scorsese’s worst movie; the original film’s poised, subversive evil was lost in an exercise in flashy style. Sold as being “more adult,” the remake actually diluted the charge by turning Robert Mitchum’s chilly, reptilian Max Cady into Robert De Niro’s ranting, hammy psycho; airbrushing the threatened pedophilic rape of the family’s daughter by making her a goofily rebellious teen; and throwing out believability around the time De Niro straps himself to the underside of an SUV.

AgeoOfInnocence02

Scorsese made the commercial Cape Fear for Universal as thanks for funding The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Goodfellas. After discharging this obligation, he set out to adapt a novel his friend, the writer and critic Jay Cocks, had given him to read in 1980, claiming it was bound to become his “romantic” piece. The novel was the 1920 Pulitzer Prize winner The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. In the tradition of tightly wrought symbolist studies shared by Henry James, the book is a tale of late 19th century social mores and their corrosive effects on personal happiness.

AgeoOfInnocence03

Scorsese and Cocks cowrote the screenplay, turning down an offer from Gore Vidal, who begged Scorsese to be allowed to write it to keep the adaptation from being screwed up. The early ’90s saw a glut of spit-shine literary adaptations, typified by Ismail Merchant/James Ivory films such as Howards End (1992), as a kind of boutique genre of fin de siècle nostalgia for upscale cinema goers. The Age of Innocence was lumped amongst them, suspect Oscar bait for Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, and possibly for Scorsese himself. I hadn’t even watched it in more than a decade. Returning to the film, it rises resplendent out of its period with a lucid, lustrous beauty.

AgeoOfInnocence04

At first glance, it seems as much of a departure for Scorsese as any possible—from wise guys and psycho taxi drivers to the genteel requirements of the period drama. But Scorsese the anthropologist, responsible for the deftly articulated social studies of his great films, was simply taking his fascination with the building blocks of American life about a half-century further back than he had gone before. Scorsese also may have been trying to channel some of the enthusiasm he had for the long-planned project Gangs of New York (2002), announced after New York, New York (1977) but perpetually backburnered. The Age of Innocence is about what goes on at the end of Manhattan Island furthest from Five Points. One can spy in its genes the spirit of films beloved by Scorsese, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Senso (1954), particularly in the opening sequence (Scorsese’s analysis of Senso in Mio Viaggio in Italia [1999] reveals just how much). All provide elegant examples of how to stage the intricate, restrained, fetishistic character of period passions.

AgeoOfInnocence05

Joanne Woodward narrates Wharton’s prose. The tough, ruggedly democratic, idealistic, rebellious mood of the Civil War era has been comfortably anesthetized; the Gilded Era is in full swing. Upscale New York comfortably replicates European social forms with a strict, uptight insistence that betrays its provincialism. It’s a more refined, studious, curiously more intense world than the one we live in; small changes and challenges generate enormous ripples. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), as his name implies, is a man of the New World—vigorous, talented, yearning, inquisitive, morally and intellectually progressive in private, largely conformist in public. We meet him, a young lawyer with impeccable status, at the opera in the company of Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowen) and Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant), two men who fancy themselves weather vanes for the minutiae of form and content in New York society. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland (Ryder), who is present at the performance in another box with her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and her cousin Ellen, the Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer).

AgeoOfInnocence06

Ellen has just returned to New York, a city she barely knows because her parents had been itinerant bohemians in Europe, where she eventually fell into a nightmarish marriage to a libertine Polish aristocrat. Her return, sans husband, sparks rumors that she had been scandalously shacked up in Switzerland for a time with his secretary. Immediately taken with her, Newland takes up her cause. After the performance comes one of the major social events of the year, the Opera Ball. Its hostess is another relative of the Wellands, Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt), who married the intransigent, rakish broker Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson) in a precarious balance of old name and new money. Ellen’s presence is bound to create a stir; Newland counteracts this by announcing his and May’s engagement. Ellen is welcomed happily by her family’s matriarch, the bedridden Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), but her attempts to present Ellen fail miserably. Newland successfully argues to the last court of appeal for cases like this—the Van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), mandarins of this scene. They invite Ellen to a dinner they give for a cousin of theirs who is a duke. “When the Van der Luydens chose, they knew how to give a lesson,” the narrator wryly notes. Newland argues with Jackson over the rights of a woman to be extended the same privileges as men. If Julius Beaufort can have his scattered mistresses without being bothered, why should Ellen be ostracized if the story of her and the secretary is true?

AgeoOfInnocence08

Newland soon finds himself entrusted with the sticky chore of advising Ellen on the risks of trying to obtain a divorce from her husband—virtual social suicide. Ellen is a fine, strong, but threatened woman, made nervously fluttery by her lack of sureness of the world around her; it’s to her absolute surprise that democratic America is more repressive than Old Europe. “Why did Columbus bother discovering a new world if he intended it should just be a version of the old?” she jokingly, but pertinently questions. This mixture of forthright character and wounded charm entirely intoxicates Newland. He finds himself doubly frustrated by the year-long engagement he’s faced with by May. On observing that Julius Beaufort is aggressively courting Ellen to be his mistress, Newland urgently urges Ellen to confide the truth of her life to him, fondly imaging her embracing him from behind, and becomes angered when Julius, like he has done, follows her to a country retreat on a Van der Luyden country property. When Newland finally confesses his torturous ardor, he finishes up kissing her feet as Ellen strokes his hair. But the narrow window where they might have done something about it closes when May tells him that she’s argued successfully for their marriage to be brought forward.

AgeoOfInnocence09

“The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth,” the narrator explains as Newland struggles against the chafing harness his lot puts him in and the burning promise of Ellen’s passion. His business and his private life demand attention to propriety. When Beaufort gets into trouble with his business, he and his wife are brutally dismissed by the society that noted and kept a ledger on his transgressions even as it trusted him with their money. Newland’s continued healthy existence in his rarefied sphere demands adherence to forms he despises. Day-Lewis was, at the time, the most electric actor in Hollywood, and he’s at the height of his art here in a performance that is marvelously contoured with fires of feeling that flare and smolder, particularly in a moment when he spitefully remarks to Jackson, “If everyone had rather she be Beaufort’s mistress rather than some decent man’s wife, you’ve all gone about it perfectly!”

AgeoOfInnocence10

May hardly seems his equal; Newland feels everything seems to conspire to match men and women of intelligence and energy with dullards and cowards to provide a kind of natural friction. Yet May is not dumb, or wrong, or anything less than a charming young woman; it’s just that there’s no doubt in her about the appropriate shape of the world. Unlike himself and Ellen, she is no misfit or rebel; on the contrary, her psyche fits exactly with her prescribed function. Half-consciously, she resists, corrects, manipulates, and controls. May possesses a covert, cunning nature that manifests itself in minute insinuations with an obeisant, girlish anguish, such as when she discourages Newland from inviting an interesting but “common” French acquaintance, Rivière (Jonathan Pryce) to dinner on their tour of the continent on their honeymoon. Newland recognizes that, far from being someone he can enable to become an expansive-minded soul like himself, May will slowly, dully process him to a fretful scion.

AgeoOfInnocence11

Newland is so intoxicated and sensitive in this straitened epoch that the smallest moments become laced with sensual possibilities, as when he thinks he’s found Ellen’s parasol, sniffing the handle for a trace of perfume (it proves to be another girl’s). Kissing her gloved hand is the most physical and powerful moment he has with her. The first time he sees her after returning from Europe, Ellen stands at the end of a dock, staring out to sea in a gold-bathed afternoon. Sent to fetch her, he instead vows only to go to her if she turns around by the time a sailboat passes a neighboring lighthouse; she doesn’t, and he leaves her, but later goes to her anyway, and discovers she was purposely avoiding him that day. The pair edge closer to a proper affair. Ellen admits cryptically that she knows what the far side of the invisible barrier they dance on looks like, that land of freedom and rebellion, a harsh, scary realm that is “no place for us.” Rivière turns up, casually recognizing Newland as he visits Ellen at a hotel, and later informs Newland he’s acting as an agent of the Count, her husband, who’s trying to arrange her return to Europe. But Rivière surprisingly implores Newland: “Don’t let her go back!”

AgeoOfInnocence12

Cocks understood Scorsese well in giving him the book. The Age of Innocence crystallizes one of the most consistent of Scorsese’s themes—doomed and impossible passions, and torturous male-female relationships afflict the protagonists of almost all of his films. Newland is a sensitive, romantic aesthete; he reads voraciously (having all the latest books shipped from London), and absorbs paintings, poetry, and books on Japan with a longing fervor for traces of life outside the commonplace—all of which Scorsese’s camera drinks in with the same enraptured poise. Scorsese’s films are always careful to counterpoint individual drama with social environment and cultural evocation, and Newland does this consciously as a character. He studies techniques in the first wave of Impressionist paintings and considers his own place in the ludicrous niceties of the New York upper crust with the same intelligence. Newland seeks something of the same passion, fulfillment, and sensual release he gets from art in his life, and he absorbs the pleasures of his love for Ellen in the same way—standing back and watching, meditating, critiquing, savoring, constantly driven beyond his good sense by the force of his yearning. Newland becomes one the most personal and aware of Scorsese’s heroes. His own ironic relation to his world resembles Scorsese’s reactions to his own background.

AgeoOfInnocence13

Newland and Ellen are finally driven apart irrevocably, as Newland tries to confess all to May, who slyly prevents him from doing so. When Mrs. Mingott suffers a stroke, she concludes her affairs by arranging for Ellen’s permanent independence from her husband, whereupon Ellen abruptly sets about returning to Europe. Newland and Ellen have been seen by Luffets and Jackson on the street, a fleeting glance. May arranges a farewell dinner for Ellen, attended by the scintillating members of society, up to and including the Van der Luydens, and, Newland realizes it’s a purposeful show of support for May in triumphing over her rival, his presumed mistress. Newland announces to May he intends to give up the law and travel—code for his intention to follow Ellen to Paris. But May gains her final victory; kneeling in the passive, entreating manner of a classic Victorian maid, she informs Newland she’s pregnant, and that it was her hinting this to Ellen that caused her to leave.

AgeoOfInnocence14

Some 30 years later, Newland is a widower with two grown children—his daughter married to one of Luffets’ sons, and his son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) to a daughter of the Beauforts. He is a good-natured, well-seasoned gentleman who has successfully shepherded the family fortune into the budding 20th century. He lets his son coax him on a voyage to see Paris. There, Ted reveals that on her deathbed, his mother told him that Newland “nearly threw everything over” for Ellen, who still resides in Paris. Ted now insists they visit her. But Newland won’t go into her flat, sitting outside, a sundog from her window making him recall watching her on the pier. “I’m only 57,” Newland murmurs, but strolls idly away in shot that echoes the ending of The Leopard, content with his memories and the new, comforting assurance that May had been “one person who felt his anguish and took pity on him.” The Age of Innocence moves as insistently as any Scorsese film. Michael Ballhaus’s camera swirls and soars with the precise grace of a waltz, and reproduces physical effects (as when Luffets surveys a crowd through binoculars, the editing reproduces the quick refocusing the human eye does at such a moment, rather than just panning) and enjoys the human spectacle.

AgeoOfInnocence15

The Beauforts’ ball is a tour-de-force sequence, beginning with a wondrous layering of time-progressing shots, as the room is prepared; then the camera strolls through the halls and rooms of the house, discovering meeting groups, and finally soars high overhead to observe the geometric patterns made by the dancing couples. Color is used carefully, painted with a flat, slightly pressed texture, delicately recreating the texturing of the paintings Newland loves, but without walloping the eye with sheer prettiness (except in the necessarily dazzling dock scene). Such is Scorsese’s control that the film fills with some supreme moments of emotion (and a word of special praise to Elmer Bernstein for his lush, symphonic score). Newland belongs to the people who owned and ran the world that Scorsese’s and so many others’ ancestors had to fight tooth and nail to penetrate, to win a share of respect and equality. The delicate pinpricks deployed at the top of the social heap manifest as sabers at the bottom; there are things at stake in this social organization Newland never begins to contemplate. The Age of Innocence is a dream-memory of an era beauteously decaying, just past the edge of recollection. In the end, Newland drifts away from confronting a past that never worked out, content to keep the pleasant, glorious impressions in mind. He might not have gained everything he wanted, but as all things become with passing time, even the things he wanted were just milestones on a journey.

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Drama

Taxi Driver (1976)

.

 

taxidriver01

 

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
– The Pilgrim; Chapter 33, by Kris Kristofferson

Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard were brought up in a strictly Calvinist household. Paul tells a story of how his mother once stabbed him with a needle to inform him what hell was like. Creative storytelling was one of the few household luxuries. At age 18, Schrader snuck off to see Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and instantly set himself on the path toward making movies; the deliciously sinful sensuality of cinema and the tradition of creativity lodged in Schrader were an inevitable siren call. Clearly talented in film school, Schrader made his name in publishing studies of the spiritual cinema of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson. He worked for a time as a film critic, encountering and later loudly breaking with Pauline Kael. In a period of personal crisis following a move to Los Angeles, he left his wife for another woman, saw both relationships crumble, and wallowed in debt, drink, and a gun fetish until being hospitalized. Schrader also read the published diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot Gov. George Wallace. Combining personal emotion and this weird character premise, Schrader furiously composed the first draft of an expression of pure psychological anguish—Taxi Driver.

 

taxidriver02

 

Schrader hit the big time by selling, with Leonard, a screenplay for The Yakuza, a remarkably grown-up thriller that flopped. Paul bounced back when Taxi Driver was taken on by maverick producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who first tried to interest Al Pacino in starring and Brian De Palma in directing, before deciding on Martin Scorsese, who brought Robert De Niro with him. It was to prove an epochal mesh of talents. Scorsese and Schrader were both religiously and intellectually minded, aggressively sensual, and awkwardly, angrily progressive, cinephiliac by default. Taxi Driver was a very new kind of movie, yet a large part of the film’s energy comes from being a terminus—the most fluent depiction of “Drop Dead!” fin de siècle New York, Columbia Studio’s last film to use to the old Torch Lady logo, the dying composition of the great Bernard Herrmann, and the last great American New Wave film, at the time when the affectations of the genre were being borrowed to make blockbusters and crowd pleasers (Jaws, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever).

 

taxidriver03

 

Taxi Driver shatters the sheen of outsider chic that drove films like Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Easy Rider by presenting an alienated “hero” whose secret life is the poisoned well of the mainstream, a manifestation of the sickest elements of the time. The sense that, say, Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea had a squall of rage in him finds its thematically final, ugliest consummation here, as does the fascination with assassination after the political violence of the ’60s, which formed part of the texture of Robert Altman’s celebratory Nashville from the previous year, and also to Network, whose famously ranting newsman has his mirror image here in a strung-out, raging black man on the street; they share a telegraph wire to the zeitgeist.

 

taxidriver04

 

Taxi Driver represents a vital intellectual and emotional severing point. Out of the volcano of this film formed the cool, ironic crystals of indie cinema, with its rejection of emotional conflation. A New York Times critic much more recently labeled the resultant film a work of “disco noir,” an evocative if reductive phrase describing the hedonist idiocy and decayed glamour of the cocaine-and-polyester scene; indeed, to many today, Taxi Driver is that scene. As a basic story, Taxi Driver follows the template of Dirty Harry and Death Wish as tales of lone white men engaged in a violent battle with a universe of moral entropy. The difference is that in the course of emptying out their own shit-caked psyches, Schrader and Scorsese analyse the mindset behind the popularity of those other film, with a judicious, but not judgmental, dissection of their racism, misogyny, and macho conflict in an age pushing feminism, racial equality, gay liberation, all that jazz.

 

taxidriver05

 

“All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” Travis Bickle muses, watching the brawling night life of New York, with its panoply of contemptible, obscene creatures dedicated to living a life of extroverted sensual expression Travis cannot take part in. Herrmann’s music swells as Travis’ vehicle fins through the night, liquid neon spewing across his windshield; Herrmann’s theme features whispers of romantic saxophone alternating with a stygian mass of woodwinds and brass, evoking a fine filament of humanity struggling through Hades and capturing the film’s driving dichotomy of Travis both as hero and devil.

 

taxidriver06

 

Travis Bickle’s desire is to transcend, to become be an angel of death and savior. We learn that Travis was a marine, honorably discharged, a Vietnam veteran, setting the mould for a future movie cliché. War trauma may be part of his trouble, but I also suspect Travis, as a returned warrior, expects himself to become a exemplar of democracy. Instead, he’s barely keeping his mind together as he roams the city, driven by insomnia, dogged with an inability to relate. His smirk for the man who hires him for the taxi company (Joe Spinell, a signal ’70s character actor) reflects his unhinged, amused contempt for the work-a-day world. He gobbles candy, a cinema staple since Psycho for suggesting the rot of arrested development. His desires—to find a woman, to accomplish fine and brave things—are mostly at odds with his impulses, which are basically to rage, kick, insult, defile, debase, and destroy.

taxidriver07

 

The tension between these two opposing states keeps him, for the first two acts of the film, in a muted, awkward, semi-normal stasis. As The Clash would succinctly describe it, Bickle is one of “those who see ghettology as an urban Vietnam.” Taxi Driver is the first true Vietnam film in that it deals with its social, intellectual, and emotional fall-out in the terms of the conflict’s experience. Travis is often described as a monster, a sick and twisted beast. But he’s an iconic monster not because he is a condensation of tropes that signify the Other, like the evil comfortably divorced from the everyday represented by Hannibal Lecter, but rather because he’s a condensation of every neurosis, embedded prejudice, latent source of rage, and antisocial impulse common to the average male in the ’70s. Travis becomes Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man remade as a savagely unsentimental anti-intellectual for the Nixon era.

 

taxidriver08

 

Although Travis quotes Kierkegaard when calls himself “God’s Lonely Man,” he utterly resists traveling down the route of philosophy (“morbid self attention” as he calls it) in an age as sentimental as it is anti-intellectual. Travis, like stations of Cross, passes through devolving forms of culture—office humor plates, Betsy’s (Cybill Shepherd) faux-intellectual quotation of Kris Kristofferson, the pseudo-advice of Wizard (Peter Boyle), through to bathing in the sublime idiocy of The Young and The Restless, soft rock on American Bandstand, and combating Iris’s (Jodie Foster) idea that her lifestyle is in some fashion “hip,” that is, self-liberating. No wonder his training regimen has an aspect of Buddhist self-abnegation. Travis wants to strip himself down to a concept of pure force, and remove himself from this realm of gibberish entirely.

 

taxidriver09

 

“Here, a man wants to die, he locks himself in a room and stabs himself in the belly,” says Richard Jordan in The Yakuza. “Back home he takes out a gun, shoots a lot of other people.” Schrader’s clearly referencing his own thinking, poured into the other screenplay on his mind, and he establishes a crucial divergence between Western and Eastern spirituality and social life. When Travis shaves his head to a mohawk, he is engaging in a primal ritual, one practiced for real by some soldiers in Vietnam when setting out on patrol. It is a timeless burial of the self into warrior guise, animal form (“Animal Mother,” Adam Baldwin’s baby-faced nutball in Full Metal Jacket, is named for a shamanistic idea of human rebirth into pure force via an animal totem. Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now all delve into the primeval devolution that fuelled the consciousness of Americans engaged on the ground level of the war). It is clear then that to be reborn, Travis needs to pass through this savage ritual and follow it to a conclusion, however apocalyptic.

 

taxidriver10

 

The taxi drivers all hang out at the Belmore Café. He listens to the make-believe sex life recounted by Wizard, who serves, by default, as a wise elder. When Travis goes to him for advice, Wizard eventually shoots back, “What the fuck do you expect from me? I drive a taxi!” Everything that surrounds Travis is possessed with some import, either sexual (like another driver who shows off a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub with its traces of legendary sexual escapades) or demonic (a menacing cohort of black pimps).

 

taxidriver11

 

Fittingly for a study of pagan impulse, Taxi Driver charts an Odyssean route, to the point where Travis journeys to Hades after meeting a goddess and a king. The goddess is personified by Betsy. Betsy works in the campaign of the would-be king, presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a populist WASP icon whose hollow rhetoric sounds uncannily like the tripe that would soon gain Ronald Reagan the White House. Betsy’s engaged in a go-nowhere romance with witty but so-not-butch co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Tom is everything Travis isn’t—easy, witty, safely asexual. In Schrader’s script, he was a standard, whitebread, pretty boy, a dully easy match for Betsy. By casting Brooks, Tom becomes the nebbishy kind of guy who makes a career out whining about not getting the girls, thus getting all the girls.

 

taxidriver12

 

Bickle encounters Palantine in his taxi. The politician’s unspecified appeal to the disgruntled finds its readymade fan in Travis, who appeals to Palantine to clean up the city with the fire of the righteous. Palantine, in a small, but telling touch, slightly curls his mouth as he exits Travis’ taxi, partly derisory, knowing he’s just met someone neither brilliant nor nice, but certainly uncommon. Betsy responds to Travis for similar reasons—his intensity and honesty, even in his clichés. Betsy’s radiant looks hide a shallow, vaguely narcissistic personality. She’s someone who’s already heard every line in the book, never expecting something as corny as “You have beautiful eyes” to be recited with such feeling. She is intrigued before being repelled. Betsy makes a perfect bitch goddess to idolize and trample, and Scorsese’s sympathetic heroines of earlier films essentially go out the window.

 

taxidriver13

 

Travis’ social ineptitude is made clear with bleak hilarity when he takes Betsy to a porn theatre, blowing the chance of romance for good—the apogee of the film’s blackly comic edge. Later, when Travis tries to call Betsy again, Scorsese moves the camera away from him to regard an empty hallway to avoid the embarrassing spectacle and to more forcefully illustrate the gaping maw at the center of Bickle’s future. To Scorsese, this was the most important shot in the film.

 

taxidriver14

 

Travis’ second phase begins. He blows up at Betsy’s workplace. The menacing score, suggesting a wakening leviathan, which first accompanied shots of Bickle’s cruising taxi, now lumbers beneath a slo-mo shot of Travis in the fab red-velvet jacket he wore with such flair to his and Betsy’s first meeting that is now a signpost of distress and a predictor of the blood that will coat him. Travis the avenging angel has broken from his shell.

 

taxidriver15

 

Travis has a grim vision of himself when one of his customers, a ranting, coked-up businessman (Scorsese, in his greatest personal performance) who spins a spell of perfect malignant energy: “You see that window with the light? The one closet to the edge of the building? You know who lives there? Of course you don’t know who lives there, but I’m saying ‘Do you know who lives there?’ A nigger lives there, and that isn’t my apartment. My wife is in there and… I’m gonna kill her…Have you ever seen what a .44 Magnum will do to a woman’s pussy? Now that you should see.” Destruction of female sex with Dirty Harry’s mighty weapon. Travis reacts to him like he’s scum, but Travis’ own warped condition registers this as a visitation by an evil demon, a harbinger, to be paid attention to.

 

taxidriver16

 

Travis arms himself to the teeth with guns brought from a cheerful get-you-anything salesman (Steven Prince, a real salesman and acquaintance of Scorsese’s) and sets about training himself for the coming war, rehearsing imagined confrontations and planning the tactics of street fighting. He kills a black kid sticking up a convenience store owner; the unpeeled loathing of the store owner, who begins beating the corpse with a baseball bat whilst promising to cover for Travis, is the most coldly brutal element in the film and one whose racism Scorsese originally wanted to back off from.

 

taxidriver17

 

Two missions appeal to Travis: assassinating Palantine and rescuing 12-year-old prostitute Ivy from her pimp, “Sport” Matthew (Harvey Keitel). Travis first met Iris when she tried to escape from Sport in Travis’ taxi. Sport bought his inaction with a crumpled bill made by some act of alchemy to resemble a soiled condom. Travis keeps it as a marker for some future rite of vengeance. Both scenarios offer electric transcendence, and the instant fame of the assassination trumps. But Palantine’s secret service goons spot him, so Travis instead goes off to kill Sport and the timekeeper (Murray Mosten) in their tenement block base.

 

taxidriver18

 

Scorsese and Schrader decided the way to play the story was to have Travis essentially become a Western hero, a brutally dissected yet still <curiously heroic example of the sort of sociopath who’s good to have on our side (Wyatt Earp). By mimicking the varmint-plugging structure of a John Wayne film, Taxi Driver retains its driving quality. De Niro, in his improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scenes, is quoting Shane, and Travis reminds us how much heroism can be divorced from moral sensibility, as he blows the concierge’s hand off, shoots Sport in the stomach without giving him a chance to arm himself, and riddles one of Iris’s johns with holes. Much like those Wild West titans, Travis is lauded for his actions by the popular press purely for being, for converting thought and impulse into action.

 

taxidriver19

 

Schrader had wanted the final impression to be surreal and garish; instead, Scorsese’s handling of the (scripted) tracking shot from out of the tenement coolly creates a voyeuristic context for the finale, as it finds corpses sprawled as they will appear in the newspaper photos, chalk outlines, with a crowd of flocking onlookers. We meet Travis again after a long cooling camera drift past his triumphantly collected newspaper clippings and the dryly caring sound of Iris’ father thanking him by letter. Travis is grinning and chatting easily with the other drivers outside the Belmore, and gets Betsy as a fare. Travis gives her a free ride, and leaves her behind, with a look through his rear-view mirror at….something, suggested by a swift sound effect quickly swallowed by Herrmann’s music and the city night. Travis will never be free of the demon singing from the back seat, but his song is sweeter now.

 

taxidriver20

 

As much as the work’s blood is Schrader’s, the muscle and flesh are Scorsese’s. Taxi Driver is a work of total style, despite the intense reek of realism. Almost every shot is skewed with a succession of editing, lighting, and camera effects (with cinematographer Michael Chapman working his butt off), bending perspective through the gravity of Travis’ perception, and only finding clear-eyed calm when Travis converses with Betsy and Iris in mirroring scenes. Taxi Driver reveals Scorsese’s potent capacity to charge objects with totemic, fetishist import; for example, when Travis cavorts with his guns and weapons, it is as chillingly clear as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey handling bones and realizing potential. Both scenes that have become iconic for masturbatory latent violence. Scorsese’s previous heroes are lost in maelstroms of ethical and physical confusion. Travis Bickle is the first to emerge from the other side.

Standard