Some motion pictures produce the uncanny sensation of returning the spectator’s gaze. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—a movie in which the most celebrated line asks the audience, “Are you talkin’ to me?”—is one such film. It came, it saw, it zapped the body politic right between the eyes.
Celebrating its 35th anniversary with a newly restored print and a two-week Film Forum run, Taxi Driver was a powerfully summarizing work. It synthesized noir, neorealist, and New Wave stylistics; it assimilated Hollywood’s recent vigilante cycle, drafting then-déclassé blaxploitation in the service of a presumed tell-it-like-it-is naturalism that, predicated on a frank, unrelenting representation of racism, violence, and misogyny, was even more racist, violent, and misogynist than it allowed.
The 12th top-grossing movie of 1976, Taxi Driver was not just a hit but, like Psycho or Bonnie and Clyde, an event in American popular culture—perhaps even an intervention. Inspired by one failed political assassination (the 1972 shooting of presidential hopeful George Wallace), it inadvertently motivated another (the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan). The movie further established its 33-year-old director as both Hollywood’s designated artist and, after Taxi Driver was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, an international sensation—the decisive influence on neo–New Wave filmmakers as varied as Spike Lee, Wong Kar-wai, and Quentin Tarantino.
Scorsese didn’t direct Taxi Driver so much as orchestrate its elements. Lasting nearly 20 minutes and fueled by Bernard Herrmann’s rhapsodic score, the de facto overture is a densely edited salmagundi of effects—slow motion, fragmenting close-ups, voluptuous camera moves, and trick camera placement—that may be the showiest pure filmmaking in any Hollywood movie since Touch of Evil. Certainly no American since Welles had so confidently presented himself as a star director. And yet Taxi Driver was essentially collaborative. It was the most cinephilic movie ever made in Hollywood, openly acknowledging Bresson, Hitchcock, Godard, avant-gardists Michael Snow and Kenneth Anger, and the John Ford of The Searchers. Moreover, the movie’s antihero, Travis Bickle—a homicidal combination of Dirty Harry and Norman Bates who describes himself as God’s Lonely Man—sprang from the brain of former film critic Paul Schrader and, as embodied for all eternity by the young Robert De Niro, all but instantly became a classic character in the American narrative alongside Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.
Citizen of a sodden Sodom where the steamy streets are always wet with tears, among other bodily fluids, Bickle embarks each evening on a glistening sea of sleaze. Seen through his rain-smeared windshield, Manhattan becomes a movie—call it “Malignopolis”—in which, as noted by Amy Taubin in her terrific Taxi Driver monograph, “the entire cast of Superfly seems to have been assembled in Times Square” to feed Travis’s fantasies. The cab driver lives by night in a world of myth, populated by a host of supporting archetypes: the astonishing Jodie Foster as Iris, the 12-year-old hooker living the life in the rat’s-ass end of the ’60s, yet dreaming of a commune in Vermont; Harvey Keitel as her affably nauseating pimp; Peter Boyle’s witless cabbie sage; and Cybill Shepherd’s bratty golden girl, a suitably petit-bourgeois Daisy Buchanan to Travis’s lumpen Gatsby.
Brilliant and yet repellent, at times even hateful, Taxi Driver inspired understandable ambivalence. (At Cannes, the announcement that it had won the Palme d’Or was greeted with boos.) How could reviewers not be wary? Taxi Driver is nakedly opposed even to itself, as well as the culture that produced it. For Travis, all movies are essentially pornographic; had he met his creators, he would surely, as observed by Marshall Berman in his history of Times Square, consider them purveyors of “scum and filth.” It’s the slow deliberation with which this lunatic kicks over his TV and terminates his connection to social reality that signals his madness—and the filmmaker’s.
Like Werner Herzog’s Aguirre or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver is auteurist psychodrama. Not for nothing did Scorsese give himself a cameo playing a character even wiggier than Travis. Who can possibly imagine the internal fortitude or psychic cost this movie required or exacted? Certainly no one connected with Taxi Driver ever again reached such heights (or plumbed such depths), although Albert Brooks became a significant filmmaker in his own right, while Scorsese and De Niro would come close with Raging Bull and The King of Comedy—two movies that equal or surpass Taxi Driver in every way except as the embodiment of the historical spirit.
Recalling his youth, Baudelaire wrote of simultaneously experiencing the horror and the ecstasy of existence. So it is with Taxi Driver . The pagan debauchery the child Scorsese saw in Quo Vadis is played out in the Manhattan of 1975 A.D. Hysterical yet sublime, the movie crystallizes one of the worst moments in New York’s history—the city as America’s pariah, a crime-ridden, fiscally profligate, graffiti-festooned moral cesspool. Scorsese ups the ante by returning endlessly to his boyhood movie realm of 42nd Street, which, in the mid-’70s, was a lurid land of triple-X-rated cinema, skeevy massage parlors, cruising pimp mobiles, sidewalks crammed with hot-pants hookers, and the customers who on any given weekday evening, according to NYPD stats, were patronizing porn-shops at the rate of 8,000 per hour.
It was while Taxi Driver was in post-production that the Daily News ran the headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” The movie is Scorsese’s hometown farewell (a love letter quite different from Woody Allen’s). Like Nero, he torches the joint and picks up his lyre. Taxi Driver is a vision of a world that already knows it is lost. A third of a century later, the Checker cabs are gone, as are the taxi garages at the end of 57th Street and the all-night Belmore cafeteria. Times Square has been sanitized, the pestilent combat zone at Third Avenue and 13th Street where Iris peddles her underage charms has long since been gentrified. New York is no longer the planet’s designated Hell on Earth. (Six years after Taxi Driver , Blade Runner would dramatize a new urban space.)
No nostalgia, though: In other aspects, the world of Taxi Driver is recognizably ours. Libidinal politics, celebrity worship, sexual exploitation, the fetishization of guns and violence, racial stereotyping, the fear of foreigners—not to mention the promise of apocalyptic religion—all remain. Taxi Driver lives. See it again. And try to have a nice day.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 16, 2011