Sunday, September 25, 2011

Taxi Driver - Study of Alienation

Martin Scorsese has been around a long time giving us some unforgettable movies through the decades.  Being a huge admirer of his work, this last decade has seemed to me to be his weakest link. The past month, on revisiting some of his path breaking earlier works, I was yet again mesmerized by his keen observation of the human psyche and how the troubled and often violent characters populating his stories were astutely depicted with no glorification to their circumstances. They came 'as is' and entering their heads was Scorsese's greatest strength.

Collaborating with Paul Schrader and Robert DeNiro, he achieved his milestones in two movies, 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull'. They both decorate the annals of cinematic achievements. Revisiting them, I debated arduously on which to review. 'Taxi Driver' won for the reason that it was unlike anything I had witnessed before, this chilling character study of a man crippled by his loneliness and social ineptness descending into madness, his delusions leading to a horrifying bloodbath. Travis Bickle (DeNiro) is an ex-Vietnam Marine taken to driving a taxicab entire nights on the streets of New York, to escape his insomnia. He sees the filth on the streets, the overflowing garbage, the pimps, prostitutes and such creatures of the night all around. The cab's backseat is the scene to many a rendezvous for sex and worse. He hopes that one day a "real rain would come and wash the scum off the streets". An ominous thought!

A constant monologue carries on in Travis's head and we are privy to it. We see him as the desperately lonely man, alienated by a society he is unable to form a connect with. The few people shown to have a conversation with him are put on their guards, knowing something is just not right. Scorsese, intriguingly never bothers us with his history, the past that he comes from. In an angelic looking political campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shephard), he sees a purity that, to his eye, is untouched by the filth of the city. Managing to hook a date with her, he takes her to watch a pornographic movie in the seedy parts of the city he is acquainted with. He doesn't know any better. Obviously, she walks out on him. His anger irrationally gets targeted at Palantine (Leonard Harris), the politician Betsy campaigns for and sees as the savior.

He also encounters a 12 year old child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) who, he assumes in his warped senses, needs rescuing from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). It all ends in a spine chilling climax open to much debate. Travis has delusions of being God's lone man on a mission to cleanse the streets filled with scum, of being that biblical rain washing it all away.

The 70s was for America, turbulent times in modern history with the Vietnam war, the changing climate in politics and the sexual revolution gathering force. Cinema mirrored these themes and the cynicism of the times reflected in many a directors work. Martin Scorsese became a name to reckon with in this era, first with 'Mean Streets' and more significantly with 'Taxi Driver', which was one of the pioneers in the changing landscape of cinema. A lot of Scorsese's works dealt with the outsiders in American society often arrested in its underbelly. Another underlying similarity in his characters is the Freudian    Madonna/ whore complex they portray in their treatment of women. Scorsese went on to make greats like 'Raging Bull', 'Goodfellas' (another favorite), 'Casino' among others.

The script by Schrader is deeply moody, an internal scouting of the psyche of violence even as the viewers take an unsettling ride through the dimly lit, haze filled streets of New York and see through Travis Bickle's eyes, the grim filthiness of the lanes he carries his fares through, his complete social isolation and then his journey into being the vigilante, the cleaner of the degenerate streets.  The entire movie is from Travis's point of view and we somewhat understand, if not empathize with this lonely man. Bernard Herrmann's melancholy yet ominous music, his last masterpiece (he died soon after the completion of the film's soundtrack), has the smooth jazz of saxophone at the onset giving way to the trumpet blaring over drum beats, as Travis descends into psychosis.

With all the brilliance of the material, the thread holding it together is DeNiro's tour de force. Barring Raging Bull, this is possibly his finest work. He walks a fine line in not completely alienating the audience, given the unlikeable nature of the character. Watch him practicing with his guns in front of the mirror, mouthing the famous 'You talkin' to me.....well, I'm the only one here' monologue and the hallmark of a great actor is established.  Jodie Foster is memorable as the child prostitute as is Cybill Shephard. Watch for the two bit characters played by Martin Scorsese himself.

The degeneration of modern urban society seen through the eyes of one of its alienated inmates remains relevant over three decades into its release. Descending into Travis Bickle's warped world, hearing the thoughts he pens into his diary, his desperation for social acceptance and the confession to his absolute loneliness, it is hard not to understand to some degree what can push a man over. We needn't sympathize with Travis, but we all understand loneliness and have kept it's company at some point. Its the constant companionship of it that could eventually turn horrific.

Originally released in 1976
Available on DVD
My Rating: 4.5/5

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