Aug 15, 2011
On DVD: Taxi Driver
I am taking a screenwriting class where we chose to read Paul Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver. It is a magnificent script that reads like a novel. I loved it even better than the movie because it is much more evocative, and although Scorsese created a great work of art with the material, the movie seems rushed and blunt in comparison.
When I first saw Taxi Driver I was in my mid-teens. I didn't like it. The music seemed horrifying, everything was terribly sordid and gruesomely violent and scary and dark and relentlessly ugly. I had seen movies about tough topics but I had never seen such an ugly, ugly film. Robert De Niro scared the shit out of me. The sight of Jodie Foster, who was about my age, as a prostitute, was too much for me to bear. I had a very visceral reaction to the film, as if I had been exposed to ugliness and moral squalor I did not expect nor welcome. I felt sullied by the film and I didn't understand why it was considered a great movie.
I saw the movie yesterday again for the first time in about 30 years. It's good to grow up.
For starters, I was shocked at how less shocking Taxi Driver seems today. Granted, this was the film that opened the door for very graphic and explicit violence in movies (more than Bonnie and Clyde which was cartoonish). It was the film that inspired generations of filmmakers to glorify the aesthetics of squalid violence and to let blood gush aplenty. Today Taxi Driver is not only a prescient film about crazy loner killers, (they really seemed to come out of the woodwork after it came out) but a thing of terrible beauty. The visual panache that became Scorsese's trademark is there. The cinematography by Michael Chapman is amazing. It really is devised to make you see what the immortal Travis Bickle sees and feels through his windshield. They actually shot inside the car and drove around, without a camera car. That is why it feels so real.
Robert De Niro's performance is so scary, so true, so quiet, that it may be one of the aspects of the movie that will still send shivers down your spine long after you find the violence almost quaint (it isn't, but it has become commonplace). All the parodies that were made of De Niro's channeling of Travis' crazy self-regard are monstrously exaggerated when compared to the seething calm De Niro exudes in the film. His violence is so deep into his body and his soul that he is scary without even yet lighting a fuse. It is not a show-off performance. He is stealthy, quiet, almost mousy, but you can feel the hatred and the confusion in him roil up inside his taut, rangy body. If you must know, the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene is not in the original script. It was De Niro's choice. He was so brutally handsome, sad pathetic, dangerous, and coiled within himself I cannot take it. He kills me.
Yesterday I understood Bernard Herrmann's crazy, adventurous score. One part of it is just brutal, nasty, scary, but then there is this weirdly jazzy sax melody that weaves in between and points to Travis' sick obession with porn, his loneliness and the side of him that is redeemable. It is really a very bold choice as musical scores go.
In the script, as in De Niro's performance, what I find most disturbing is the tender side of Travis Bickle. He is some sort of warped innocent, almost an autistic person, who barely understands the rules of social interaction, a loner truly trying to belong and connect.
The DVD includes a lengthy documentary interviewing everybody for the remastered version of of the film. De Niro, in his usually reticent mode, Harvey Keitel, who was supposed to play the Albert Brooks part, but asked Scorsese to play the pimp, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, Brooks, Schrader, Scorsese, and Chapman. Very cool stuff.