Tribeca 2016: TAXI DRIVER At 40 - The Final Noir

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
Tribeca 2016: TAXI DRIVER At 40 - The Final Noir

Don't look now, but 2016 marks 40 years since the release of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver ... and the end of film noir as audiences had come to know it.

"There's No Escape"

If you know Taxi Driver, you probably remember the moment. It's that understated bit of voice-over near the start of the third act that feels like it's summing up the movie's grim and grimy soul: "Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores. Everywhere. There's no escape."

We hear these words, delivered with a sigh poised on the brink of heartbreak, as the camera glides slowly past crowds and couples that are close enough to touch and yet remain impossibly remote. Briefly the sadness of urban life itself seems to crystallize, capturing that core loneliness that can lead to acts desperate, redemptive, or both. After this point, it's hard not to sense that, in addition to being both daring and accomplished in ways that are beyond spectacular, Martin Scorsese's 1976 film represents a deeply felt extension of the enduring poetry of film noir.

What might be harder to notice at first blush is that it's also a sorry-to-break-it-to-you rebuttal of the genre's most cherished truths.

To contend, though, that Taxi Driver marks an important if informal "end" to noir as it had been practiced over the previous decades is not to speak in historical terms. After all, classic noir had started to peter out by the early '60s, and certainly the years since '76 have seen many notable neo-noirs and retro-noirs.

Yet with the appearance of Taxi Driver, the heart of noir would never quite be the same, and thus it signals a closing chapter of sorts. More of a farewell to the tradition than an attack on it, the film is a break-up letter penned with sorrow but not bitterness. It's not that there haven't been good times, it seems to say. It's just that by the mid-'70s life amidst the bright lights and skyscrapers has changed such that the same shadows shot in the same seductive ways don't cut it anymore. By consistently inverting the genre's tropes, or by taking them to unnerving extremes, Scorsese and company both showed affection for the classics of an earlier era and demonstrated that their bleak yet oddly romantic view of the big city was no longer adequate to reflect post-Vietnam realities.

Indeed, in both conception and construction, Taxi Driver implicitly challenges the ideological, psychological, and narrative strategies upon which noir had built an international rep. Yet that doesn't mean the film necessarily refutes noir's assumptions about the world; more accurately, it questions previous artistic responses to those assumptions. For example, this story of a homicidal cabbie certainly posits that cities are dangerous and predatory, but also that the resultant violence is more likely to manifest as vivid gore -- fingers blown clean off and highlighted by a quick cut-in -- than as monochromatic blood splatters presented in ornate chiaroscuro. For film noir to be emotionally, and yes, spiritually honest, Taxi Driver maintains that it must show ugliness for what it is -- that is, not transfigure it into stylized menace, but present it as truly filthy and nihilistic.

Similarly, Taxi Driver confronts the femme fatale archetype head-on by, quite startlingly, deciding not to include one. The title character's disastrous courting of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the pedestal-placed campaign worker, leads to the typical lone wolf renunciation of all mushy feelings, and in this case triggers a downward mental spiral more generally. She is pronounced "cold and distant," and, more tellingly, "like all the others." The problem is that we know Betsy to be the opposite, surprisingly warm and receptive to the protagonist's advances even to the point where she follows him into a porno theater, a venue he views as a dating option as legit as a neighborhood multiplex. Yes, Paul Schrader's script argues, men who fail with women often redirect sexual frustration into violence -- but not because such women themselves are devious temptresses.

In short, Taxi Driver tells noir to grow up: sure, you can keep your fearless, single-minded, crusading figure -- your Glenn Ford out of The Big Heat -- but let's not pretend that he isn't tainted by the same society, with its toxic desires and misogyny, that he's also ostensibly fighting.

CHINATOWN, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and Errol Flynn's Bathtub

Yet for all its tweaks of traditional noir, Taxi Driver is rife with formal and thematic elements that indicate its abiding respect for the genre. The sax line from Bernard Herrmann's gorgeously mournful -- and hauntingly anachronistic -- main theme comes to mind. So too the film's hardboiled dialogue, war veteran protagonist, first-person narration, endless asphalt, and highly evocative location shooting.

These kinds of scrupulous quotes of the older tradition recall the more overtly noirish Chinatown, which had won an Oscar the previous year. However, while Polanksi and Towne proved how all the wisecracks and resourcefulness a private eye can muster are ultimately ineffectual in the face of profoundly corruptive evil, the message here is quite different. As Chinatown's final line despairingly suggests, attempts to do the right thing are usually better not made: redemption is a lot more difficult than the movies make it seem. Taxi Driver, by contrast, actually does provide that redemption... but also presents it as arbitrary, possibly meaningless, and almost certainly psychotic.

We don't know much about our would-be hero, Travis Bickle. In his brilliant novel Suspects, which imagines the secret histories of noir characters, David Thomson depicts him as one of George Bailey's kids from It's a Wonderful Life. As Robert De Niro plays him, with his vestigial hint of Middle American good manners and apparently innate disdain of New York, there's nothing to suggest that this couldn't be true. So how does the nocturnal yet unassuming Travis morph into an aspiring assassin who's armed to the teeth and then some?

Geography, as it turns out, may be the least of the contributing factors. History is probably a better place to look. By the time the 1970's roll around, it's pretty clear we're all small-time hustlers. Want a chunk of Errol Flynn's bathtub to sell on commission? Well, one of your cabbie buddies can help you out there. Want any of your outré personal desires fulfilled? Just say the word.

Significantly, both Jodie Foster's tween prostitute and Taxi Driver's gun-and drug-pushing "traveling salesman" go by the pseudonym "Easy." That's how simple it is to head down the path of depravity and murder. And who's to stop you? As Travis points out, the cops clearly aren't enforcers of morality. Then how about your well-meaning but basically clueless buddies, as exemplified by Peter Boyle's character? They're great for non-sequitur-filled pep talks but not much else.

Of course religion might be a solid go-to in terms of moral guidance, except that in Mean Streets Scorsese already showed that piety is at best a salve, not a real antidote, to the hells that modern cities create through both through alienation and its natural counterweight--the need to belong at any cost. Or, to connect the two film's more precisely: the need to be faithful to those who appear to be even more lost than you are; in Mean Streets, this would be De Niro's Johnny Boy while in Taxi Driver it's Jodie Foster's Iris.

Redemption Through Assassination

What of politics and political leaders, then -- can they lead us out of this grand neon inferno? The trouble here is that the film's would-be savior of the common man, presidential candidate Charles Pallantine, is portrayed as no more than a smooth talker -- a seducer with words not too different than Harvey Keitel's pimp character. The "slimy pol" is hardly a new invention, but never before had killing one seemed like a viable option for what is ostensibly a sympathetic character.

What had changed in American culture to make this possible? Well, maybe we should recall that just a couple of years prior to Taxi Driver's release, a sitting president had resigned in the aftermath of a clumsy B&E. (And that the hugely-acclaimed All the President's Men was released in theaters just two months after Taxi Driver's bow.)

Pallantine's crime, though, is nothing so blatant as a burglary and its cover-up. Rather, he manipulatively leverages contemporary anxieties for personal gain -- a theme that of course resonates now, forty years later, more than ever. Witness his glibly populist talking points: "We the people suffered in Vietnam. We the people still suffer from unemployment, inflation, crime, and corruption." Thus Schrader pretty much itemizes '70s malaise, handily outlining the historical moment but not providing a character who can actually address any of these issues, even if only on a local or personal scale. So if the audience is searching for any real heroes, it best look elsewhere.

This brand of cynicism is not incongruent with traditional noir. Indeed, the genre's heroes are just as often anti-heroes, and what's compelling is how they walk the line between the two categories, often making us doubt whether there's any essential difference between them. Although these characters are typically cops, crooks, or private eyes, they can also be drifters, prizefighters, reporters, or working stiffs. The common ground in all these cases is that their ultimate status as good guy or seedy operator seems to be determined by how they respond to a central challenge that fate places in their way. Can they overcome their own greed, sleaziness, or moral inertia to achieve some kind of symbolic victory, even if it's pyrrhic in nature?

taxi_driver-poster-300.jpgCertainly Travis thinks he's embarking on such a quest when he undertakes his regimen of morning push-ups and afternoon gunsmithing. Yet here Taxi Driver brilliantly critiques the spirit of the times by presenting a nightmarish take on the Me Decade's penchant for self-improvement. Just compare two of the more famous "training" sequences in American movie history: Travis's and Rocky Balboa's in the film that ended up winning the Best Picture Oscar over Taxi Driver. Rocky jogs up steps in an affirmation of upward mobility while Travis holds his fist over an open flame, suggesting that the purging of impurity can be achieved only through sacrifice that is almost too painful to endure.

To be sure, redemption in noir always comes with a price -- sometimes, the ultimate one. And in fact, Travis does plan on dying as a result of assassinating Pallantine and explicitly communicates this to Iris in his goodbye note. Then, at the close of the film's bloody climax, he makes a point of trying to kill himself. The fact that he does not perish, though, that nothing of value is sacrificed, is where Taxi Driver is most radically iconoclastic. Whether the epilogue is in actuality a dispatch from a coma-bound Travis is probably a topic best addressed elsewhere, as an exploration of cinematic "incoherence," but in its surface narrative the epilogue demonstrates that, yep, redemption with all the trimmings is clearly possible -- but in a way that renders the term utterly meaningless.

When Cybill Shepherd in Lizbeth Scott-mode stops just short of apologizing to Travis in the final scene we're heading into territory where fantasy trumps reality. Moreover, Travis's act of "heroism" is almost accidental -- his rescuing of Iris is a hastily conceived "Plan B" after botching the assassination attempt. Once the moral compass is so corroded, Taxi Driver contends, the blood that boils in a man seeks a target, and this is just as likely to be one that's "deserving" of death as not.

Of course it's from this strikingly ambivalent ending that Taxi Driver gains so much of its power. Travis is publicly lauded as a hero, but we know better, or at least know that the truth is far more complex than the tabloids would have it. And so the way that the film exploits the subtle yet inherent contradictions of noir is devastating: Travis never fully confronts his demons or pays any lasting price (except for "a little stiffness" in his neck), and yet feels redeemed nonetheless.

One reason that old-school noir remains so attractive to audiences is the way it reaches an artful compromise between cynicism and idealism. Many of its most memorable examples neither shy away from depicting a world suffused with untempered brutality and sexual anguish nor hesitate in comforting us by positing the possibility, albeit bittersweet, of attaining wisdom if not outright salvation.

The beauty of Taxi Driver is that it keeps us fans of noir honest by illustrating that even dreams of redemption must be critically examined lest they breed monsters. As a cautionary tale about redemption itself, it thus takes a unique position as a fitting elegy for the genre that it both celebrates and burns to the ground.

Taxi Driver will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, April 21.

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Jodie FosterMartin ScorsesePaul SchraderRobert De NiroTribeca 2016

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