Friday, 4 January 2013

BFI Friday: Taxi Driver

The thing about Martin Scorsese's 1976 masterpiece is that despite the number of people that say it really is very good, it really is very good. So good, in fact, that almost every other scene has lodged itself in our collective cultural consciousness, not least of which is the infamous 'You talkin' to me?' monologue. But this iconography risks obscuring what is one of the rawest, and disturbingly beautiful films in American cinema, and alongside Raging Bull, is surely Scorsese's greatest work. At number 31 on the BFI's all time greatest films, it's Taxi Driver.

Written by Paul Schrader in a bout of severe depression, the film tells the story of Travis Bickle, a highly disturbed young man and resident of the notorious area of New York known as 'Hell's Kitchen', who is driven to react to his hellish surroundings with extreme violence, spurred on by his romantic obsession with a senator's electoral aide,  and his belief that he can rescue teenage prostitute Iris, played here by a never-better Jodie Foster. Harvey Keitel gives a brilliantly revolting performance as Iris' pimp, but the centrepiece of Taxi Driver is of course Robert De Niro, giving arguably the best performance of his career. Reuniting after 1973's Mean Streets De Niro and Scorsese are at the peak of their game, and with Schrader's script they create one of the most disturbing, yet violently seductive characters in cinema. Michael Chapman's cinematography depicts New York as a place of crime, misery, and profound corruption. Vice seems to seep through the brickwork of the buildings in this place, running down the street and into the gutter. Chapman's night-time photography in particular has the quality of being a dream (more precisely, a nightmare), soaked in neon and disorienting. That sense of disorientation is helped in no small part by Bernard Herrman's masterful, and final, score. A juxtaposition of bitterly ironic, romantically-tinged jazz, and harsh environmental sounds mixed with percussion, the latter of which gradually take over as Bickle descends further into insanity. Aside from perhaps John Schlesinger's 1969 Midnight Cowboy, New York has never more closely resembled Hell. At its centre is Travis Bickle.
Violence: An act of redemption, catharsis, or just plain psychosis?
The masterstroke in creating Bickle is that as we follow him on his journey, we ourselves are drawn into Bickle's psychosis, led down a path which culminates in mass slaughter. When the camera pans over the destruction in the final scene, fixing on Bickle as, mimicking a gun, he raises his fingers to his temple, we realise our own complicity in the film's violence. Roger Ebert interpreted the epilogue, where Bickle is hailed by the media as a hero for rescuing Iris, as a dream sequence, a fantasy playing out in Bickle's dying moments. This is an interesting reading, but what is important, regardless of whether Bickle really survives the shootout, is that his 'heroism' is predicated on violence and madness. The hero worship of Bickle, as has been pointed out, would have become vilification if he had gone through with assassinating Senator Palantine as he had originally planned. Taxi Driver forces us to look at the ways that we frame and react to violence, and reconsider our artificial constructions of heroism and villainy. 

1 comment:

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