What can be newly said about this savage, many-headed dragon of the American new wave, a luridly realistic movie about a quiet New York psychopath that became one of the most revered movies of the entire pre-Skywalker century? You either love it or you love it; in any case, Martin Scorsese’s history-making scald is truly a phenomenon from another day and age. Which is to say, imagine a like-minded film of this decade killing at the box office and getting nommed for Best Picture.
A retrospective touchstone of the 1970s “cinema of loneliness” enjoying an impromptu re-release (Raging Bull‘s 25th anniversary fete having been scotched at Film Forum due to the impending DVD reissue), Taxi Driver is a study in contrasts: new wave grit versus Bernard Herrmann-scored melodramatic ambience, submergent ur-Method acting entwined within Corman-style plot elements, blood-freezing outsider portraiture mated with an ironically heroic denouement. The resulting fugue had an unmistakably apocalyptic ring to it, even in 1976. Scorsese’s infernal visuals were infinitely more articulate about New York than Travis Bickle could ever be, but Robert De Niro’s Bickle (by way of screenwriting novice Paul Schrader) is no stranger to us—it may be the movie’s secret triumph that our intimacy with its underground man was achieved between the lines, with silences and dead stares and abrupt seizures of impulsive destruction.
Or, it was Scorsese’s post-Peckinpah insistence on saying, no, real non-movie violence doesn’t ker-blam tastefully and in slow motion, it thwacks, punctures, and bleeds like this. Can any of the decade’s many social stripteases compare to this lean machine, evoking as it does post-Nixon jaundice in its campaign year distrust and havoc, a post-Vietnam disaffection on an unimaginable scale, and a post-’60s sense of runaway urban pestilence and knotted moral outrage? (In certain ways, The Assassination of Richard Nixon seems like a docudrama remake, just as Bickle seems to echo the real Sam Byck in name and pathology—except that Schrader claims to have written the screenplay two years before Byck’s rendezvous with history.) Bickle remains an authentic everyman, a walking dumb-as-shit smashup of conservative responses, but also a disenfranchised victim of the corporate-imperial combine, an ex-soldier used to meaningless death, lost in the streets of his own empty freedom. There may not be a more essentially American figure haunting the national cinema.