I didn’t think I was a fan of Martin Scorsese movies. In fact, if you had asked me yesterday if I liked him as a director, I would have paused, thought of “Cape Fear” (1991) and “The Color of Money” (1986), and answered “naw, he’s prone to over-dramatization and inserting himself needlessly into the movie through his camera shots and angles that remind me that I am watching a movie.” But then, today, I looked at a list of his directorial achievements, and I realized that I actually am a huge fan when I think of “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Age of Innocence” (1993) (beautiful cinematography and accoutrements representing the Gilded Age), “Casino” (1995), “Gangs of New York” (2002), “The Aviator” (2004), and “The Departed” (2006) (although the latter movie is a bit too violent for me).
Robert Redford liked Scorsese so much that he cast him in a small role as a petty politician in “Quiz Show” (1984), so I guess I am in good company.
And then there’s “Taxi Driver.” (1976) and its protagonist, Travis Bickel (played by Robert DeNiro). Bickel’s an ex-Marine who was “honorably discharged” in 1973, leaving us the inference that he was a Vietnam vet. He thinks of himself as a man of integrity, above the fray and the everyday grit and dirt of the urban street, who wants to keep the streets clean. In his mind, he is a stand-up kinda guy. He keeps a journal, as all sensitive writers do, and doesn’t do psychedelic drugs.
His drug: he has a “savior” complex with a dark twist.
He likes to talk to himself while executing gun-draw moves in the mirror. Deniro, as Bickel, forever changed the meaning of the question, “You talking to me?”
Bickel drives a taxi, often daily and for long hours, so that he doesn’t have to think. He suffers from insomnia (which would possibly today be recognized and treated as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and although considers himself better than the average “whore” or “pimp,” he hangs out at porno movies. To him, the city if full of “filth” and “scum” and “animals,” although he does not consider himself included in this company. When a political candidate enters his cab, he articulates he wishes the President would just clean up the city by flushing it down the toilet. I think I’ll write Obama today with this suggestion.
Clearly, Bickel is projecting all of his inner-urban angst and disaffected-outsider-anti-social energy onto others.
One day, while driving his taxi, he spies Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd). She is wearing a white dress (like a bride or a virgin?) but with a wide black belt cinched at her waist (symbolizing a sexual dark side?). He crushes on her and semi-stalks her – he is bold enough to meet her at the campaign headquarters where she works for a senatorial candidate, Palantine. Albert Brooks has a small role as Betsy’s co-worker, Tom, who has an attraction for her and a desire to protect her from Bickel.
Over Tom’s objections, Bickel talks Betsy into having a bite of lunch with him, then parlays that brief encounter into a date night at the movies. But he’s no Wally Cleaver or Ricky Nelson – Bickell’s so socially inept that he takes Betsy to a porno, and she, of course, leaves in anger. Major screw up, as thereafter she won’t return his calls or acknowledge his flowers. He’s on permanent hiatus from her life. Now, in his mind, she’s cold and distant and going to hell – typical rejection reaction. He needs someone else to save.
Enter Iris (played by Jodi Foster). She’s a baby hooker barely in her teens who lands in the back seat of Bickel’s taxi one night, then just as quickly is pulled out by her pimp. She needs to be saved, and Bickel needs someone to save, so they are the perfect match in this way. Another night, Bickel almost runs her over. It’s then that they connect, but only through seeing each other. No words are exchanged . . . yet. Later, he meets up with Iris – she thinks he wants to be a trick, but he really wants to save her from her pimp played by Harvey Keitel.
Scorsese, like Hitchcock before him, does a small cameo in his own movie, as a disgruntled husband in the back seat of Bickel’s taxi as he scopes out his wife having an affair with a man of a different race. He declares that he’s gonna kill his wife with a .44 magnum. The scene ends unsatisfyingly – an interjection of some nuisance violence (although it sets the scene for Bickel’s subsequent purchase of a .44 magnum).
It’s at a Palantine rally that Bickel nearly goes full-blown psycho – he’s cut his hair in a mini-mohawk and is wearing a large campaign button (that the Occupy Wall Street people would love) which states, “We Are The People.” He doesn’t execute his intention at the rally. Instead, he’s gonna take all that loner-outsider energy and save Iris, and the ending is both ironic and disheartening violence at the same time.
The music, foreboding and sometimes strangely-sentimentally-sinister, adds an essential element of character to the movie. This movie is particularly disturbing in the aftermath of Columbine and its hybrid murders and violent definition of “males gone wild” in a country without gun control.
I can recommend this movie. It explores the gritty, seedy underworld of New York City. But after watching, I recommend either taking a bubble bath or walking in nature or watching an episode of “Mr Rogers.”
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