July 10, 2011

Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro as a cabbie who's so disgusted with New York City he develops an inflated sense of his own moral superiority to the grimy, sleazy underbelly of the Big Apple. Taxi Driver (1976) is director Martin Scorcese's paean to violence, or something like that. If you trace the radical change in movies that began around the time of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), you can pretty much tell that Taxi Driver is the ne plus ultra of that evolution, sort of a domestic Apocalypse Now (1979), but less inflated.

However, Taxi Driver never tries to be anything it isn't. It's about a man with a deluded one-track mind. He wants to find his niche in the world, but can't. He's got a charming arrogance that only temporarily hides his social ineptitude. When he introduces himself to a political campaign organizer (Cybill Shepard), he's remarkably sure of himself. But then he blows it by taking her to a porno movie, and acts completely shocked, dumbfounded even, when she's appalled and wants to break the date. And you believe that he generally didn't think it through that a dirty movie isn't her idea of a good time. Somehow De Niro makes you believe that.

As garishly unappealing as Taxi Driver can be, it also has a luridly intoxicating flow to it. You feel as if you're floating through the movie right alongside De Niro. His cab is a "vehicle" by which we experience his disgust with a capital D. He can't seem to get his life in order, and the sleaze he sees, which he deliberately ensconces himself in, helps him distance himself from his own problems. Like most serial killers, he would rather blame the world for his shit than get his shit together.

The 1970s ushered in a lot of violent movies, and thus a lot of talk from filmmakers, studio executives, critics, the media, and audience members, about the impact of violence on viewers. The violent scenes in Taxi Driver, as unpleasant as they are, transform the main character into a local hero who rescues the kid prostitute from her swarthy pimp. Is heroic violence that glorifies violence still bad? Is violence bad? It's certainly a reality in the world in which we live.

The script is by Paul Schrader, who showed an even deeper proclivity for sleaze in the George C. Scott drama Hardcore (1979). Jodie Foster co-stars as a very young hooker. Harvey Kietel plays her vile pimp, who shows a true virtuosity at being a complete sleazebag. Albert Brooks plays the nerdy political aide who's hot for Cybill Shepard but unwilling to break the professional veil of xerox machines and political rallies and business meetings.

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