by Heath Holland
Here’s a peek behind the curtain. I initially conceived this series on the movies of 1976 because I was fascinated by the year between Jaws and Star Wars, when the blockbuster was about to take over and movies were soon to be changed forever. I see 1976 as a transformative year, both for good and bad, but I wanted to avoid two movies that are talked about to death whenever this year in cinema comes up. Those two films are Taxi Driver and Rocky, and they’re the first movies people mention whenever 1976 pops up. But as I got deeper into this series, I realized that I didn’t just NEED to talk about those two movies. I HAD to talk about those two movies because they are critical to the narrative of the year that we’ve put under the microscope. One of them is very easy for me to talk about because I love and respect it and have nothing but good things to say about it. The other movie is Taxi Driver.
I don’t know what to do with Taxi Driver. I don’t know how where to put it. It’s a movie that I respect for being a huge achievement in filmmaking, for being well-acted, well-directed, and having a script that is uncomfortably relevant all these years later. Taxi Driver is one of those movies that changed Hollywood. It’s like The Godfather. It’s like Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz. It solidified both director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro as icons. And yet, Taxi Driver is the ugliest of movies. And while there are movies that may be even uglier, none of them are as beloved as this one, and I’ve always struggled with that.
If you haven’t seen Taxi Driver (you should), it follows a New York cabbie named Travis Bickle (De Niro) as he navigates a filthy city populated by the worst of humanity. Bickle is a Vietnam veteran who is also highly neurotic, and he becomes increasingly convinced that someone must resort to violence in an attempt to clean up the streets from the cesspool that it’s become. As the movie unfolds, Bickle becomes more and more disassociated from reality, from society, and begins to see himself as the hero in his own narrative. He starts carrying guns, waiting for a conflict so he can spring to action. You can look at the pictures in this piece to see how gun-obsessed he becomes. When he meets a young prostitute (played by a young Jodie Foster making her second--not final--appearance in this series) and her pimp (played by Harvey Keitel), Bickle thinks that he’s found his hill to die on. Or rather, the hill for everyone else to die on.
Shoot), but would go on to become frustratingly common. I think Taxi Driver has a lot to say in social commentary, and I do think that Scorsese is adept at seeing real villainy as it hides in the crowd, invisible until it can’t be ignored any longer.
But for me, Taxi Driver feels like crawling around in a dumpster to look for a diamond. Each person has to decide for themselves if they’re willing to be covered in filth and excrement to get to the “good stuff.” For me, this movie is a painful watch, and has only become more painful as I’ve gotten older and lived through legitimate trials. When Travis Bickle attempts to woo a woman that he finds attractive (played with grace and elegance by a young Cybill Shepherd), I am so uncomfortable that I can barely stay in the room. There’s a reason that I enjoy movies as escapism and tend to avoid things that look too deeply into the black soul of humanity. Having gone through a horrible divorce (all divorces are horrible) and a lengthy, expensive child custody case by the time I was in my early thirties, having slept in rooms with doors locked for my own safety from people I was supposed to trust, there are now parts of me that are walled up forever. For some reason, Taxi Driver attempts to bust through those walls and shine a light into the shadows, but I no longer have the emotional equity to allow that to happen. Self-preservation dictates that I can’t. This movie makes me feel absolutely awful. It’s so nihilistic and bleak that I can hardly stand it.
This begs the question, how far should art go in imitating life? I’m not one for censorship, and again, all these scummy elements are in service of a story that feels relevant and needs to be told. But do you dress up a kid in a see-through shirt and put her in pretend-compromising situations with grown men for the sake of art? I can’t answer that one. I can only tell you that I used to admire Foster for giving such a world-wise performance, but now it makes me sick to my stomach. The things that happen in this movie, I HOPE can never happen again, and I ask myself, do we need this?
I suppose that question is the thesis of this entire piece. Taxi Driver is a staggering commentary that has become more and more relevant, maybe even commonplace, in our own society…but do we need it? It’s the rhetorical question I ask Scorsese in my head over and over as he continues to make movies about awful people doing awful things. I have such a hard time reconciling the fact that they guy who loves George Harrison and Bob Dylan and directed Hugo, which is such an uplifting love letter to the power of cinema, spends so much of his time telling stories about the worst of us. And in my head, I ask him “do we need this?” Listen, I’m not here to say that we don’t, because maybe we do. Taxi Driver is an epic piece of cinema, powerful as the day is long, packed with some of the finest acting in the medium. It has classic lines (“You talkin’ to me?”) and classic scenes, and represents an achievement in cinema.
This brings me to the last thing that makes Taxi Driver such a challenge for me. In so many ways, this movie from over forty years ago looks a lot like the world we live in today. Cynical, weary, jaded, looking for heroes, but settling for anti-heroes. Replace Vietnam with the wars in the Middle East, replace Nixon with our current political climate, and you’ll see that so many of the struggles in this movie are still struggles today. We are tired. We are angry. We are waiting for someone to save us, but we know that no one will. Do we ever manage to beat our own demons, or do we just put them away for a while until a new generation comes along and unpacks them once again? These are the questions Taxi Driver raises for me, and this is why I’ve struggled so much with this movie. It’s a fantastic achievement for cinema and a really good example of the power of film, but it’s also SUPER depressing because it shows that we haven’t come very far at all.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!