TAXI DRIVER REVISITED: The Evolution of our Desensitized Culture

I recently again watched this Neo-Noir classic from a younger Martin Scorsese for the first time since it  came out in 1976; the cinematography is still gorgeous, as is the wonderful (and last) score from the great composer Bernard Herrmann, but the film was no longer shocking to me in the same way it was back then.

Maybe that’s the effect of the Directors who followed like Quentin Tarantino, who exponentially upped the level of violence in their films with mostly unsympathetic characters.  Maybe it’s the skinhead culture that adopted the “Mohawk” look of Robert De Niro in the scene from this film when he went postal.  Maybe it’s a popular culture that has jaded us to the use of the “n” word and other degrading language used in this film; back in the 70’s, we were not bombarded with these kinds of epithets every day in music and on television.  Even the shocking behavior of 12 year old Jodie Foster’s character in this film does not now still have the same impact it did then, before the sad case of JonBenet Ramsey and other manifestations of our culture that now sexualize even much younger girls — although it still strikes me that putting a 12 year old on a movie set into this kind of role was abusive and inappropriate.   I am now the parent of a 15 year old young woman, and wonder what kind of parent would allow their child to portray a young prostitute in a film like this?

The film does feature an amazing ensemble of actors and actresses, many of whom were not well known at the time.   De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Vietnam Veteran with Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome who takes to driving a taxi because he can’t sleep, stays up all night, and figures he might as well get paid for it.   The opening scenes of the film are classic noir:

Opening Scene (click on the link that says Go to HD version)

 Travis Bickle: Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

Bickle has a crush on Betsy (Cybill Shepard), a campaign volunteer for the vacuous Senator Charles Palentine; his campaign slogan of “We are the People” made me think of an equally vacuous political candidate last year with the slogan “Believe in America.”   A startlingly young Albert Brooks has a straightforward role as Tom, another volunteer for Palentine; Tom tries to protect Betsy from the oddball cab driver who seems to be stalking her.   Here is where Travis goes into Palentine Headquarters, determined to ask Betsy out:

Travis meets Betsy on a late afternoon break, and she admits to being curious enough to get to know him better:

Betsy: You know what you remind me of?

Travis Bickle: What?

Betsy: That song by Kris Kristofferson.

Travis Bickle: Who’s that?

Betsy: A songwriter. ‘He’s a prophet… he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.’

Travis Bickle: [uneasily] You sayin’ that about me?

Betsy: Who else would I be talkin’ about?

Travis Bickle: I’m no pusher. I never have pushed.

Betsy: No, no. Just the part about the contradictions. You are that.

Travis then persuades Betsy to go on a date with him, but makes the socially bizarre choice of taking her to see a Swedish porn film!

After this, Betsy understandably refuses to see Travis again or even talk to him on the phone.  Discouraged with the direction of his life, Travis talks to fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle):

Wizard: Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job – I mean, like that – That becomes what he is. You know, like – You do a thing and that’s what you are. Like I’ve been a cabbie for thirteen years. Ten years at night. I still don’t own my own cab. You know why? Because I don’t want to. That must be what I want. To be on the night shift drivin’ somebody else’s cab. You understand? I mean, you become – You get a job, you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn. One guy lives in Sutton Place. You got a lawyer. Another guy’s a doctor. Another guy dies. Another guy gets well. People are born, y’know? I envy you, your youth. Go on, get laid, get drunk. Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we’re all fucked. More or less, ya know.

Travis Bickle: I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Wizard: It’s not Bertrand Russell. But what do you want? I’m a cabbie. What do I know? I don’t even know what the f*ck you’re talking about.

Travis Bickle: Maybe I don’t know either.

Their conversation leaves Travis unsatisfied, so he embarks on a program to get in better physical shape and also purchases an arsenal from gun dealer Easy Andy.   He seeks out Iris, the young prostitute played by Foster, but the only way to talk to her is to buy her services from her pimp.

Travis decides he wants to help her escape the sordid life she is leading, and asks her to join him for breakfast the next day; their dialogue in this scene is classic.

Iris: God, you’re square.

Travis Bickle: Hey, I’m not square, you’re the one that’s square. You’re full of sh*t, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those f*ckin’ creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little p***y for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I’m square? You’re the one that’s square, man. I don’t go screwing f**k with a bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein’ hip? What world are you from?

Travis Bickle: You’re a young girl, you should be at home. You should be dressed up, going out with boys, going to school, you know, that kind of stuff.

Jodie Foster has said in a number of interviews that is was De Niro who really taught her how to act; before being in this film with him.  Other Directors would just tell her to “be herself”, but listen to her describe how De Niro coached and influenced her:

Jodie Foster on De Niro at the AFI Lifetime Achievement Salute

Towards the end of the film, Travis then decides go out in a blaze of glory, and leave whatever money he has to Iris to help her escape.  The first part of his plan is to assassinate Palentine; Travis shaves his head into a Mohawk, conceals his weapons inside his army jacket and clothes, but is spotted by the Secret Service agents protecting Palentine and flees the scene.   His backup plan is to kill Iris’s pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), along with a mobster and the sleazebag who rents out the hotel rooms to the prostitutes, and he does all of this in what can only be described as a true bloodbath.

Ironically, Travis not only survives, but is crowned a hero by the media for taking out all of the other lowlifes.   In the epilogue six months later, Travis goes back to driving his cab and happens to pick up Betsy as a fare.  She has heard about his exploits and tries to discuss them with him, but he merely takes her home and drops her off, free of charge, and the movie ends.

At the time this film was made, New York City was a far more depraved city than it seems today.   XXX rated movie theaters were everywhere and the streets were filthy; there were definitely parts of town where it would have been easy for anyone to despair about the human condition, much as Travis does.    He is a very lonely man, despite being surrounded by people, and his loneliness is like a giant weight on top of his head that eventually crushes him.

Herrmann’s incredible score helps to bring this out; a wailing saxophone is a musical counterpart to the very alienated main character.

All of the blood in the climactic shootout scene caused problems for the film with the MPAA censorship board; eventually Scorsese agreed to de-saturate the red colors in the scene to make it appear less gory.

This film unfortunately was a favorite of John Hinckley, the disturbed young man who shaved his head into a Mohawk like Travis and tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981.  He stated at his trial that part of his motivation was that he wanted to impress Jodie Foster, which is just disturbingly creepy.

Finally, there is this description from the late film critic Roger Ebert, which I think is very accurate and fitting:

“Taxi Driver” is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down. Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”


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ANNIE HALL: Relationships (and Films) That Can Be Like a Dead Shark

This 1976 film from Director and Star Woody Allen surprisingly won the Academy Award for Best Picture, somehow beating out “Star Wars” and some other great films.

I don’t think it was deserving of that award, but the film does have its moments.   Allen, himself a self-deprecating, Jewish comedian basically portrays himself as Alvy SInger, a self-deprecating, neurotic, Jewish comedian, a real New York snob who loves to read books about Death.    Here is his opening monologue, where he looks straight into the camera:

Alvy Singer: [addressing the camera] There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

Diane Keaton, who had a brief relationship in real life with Allen, portrays Annie, a likeable and equally neurotic space cadet who likes to say “La di da” when she can’t get her thoughts together.    She also has to get stoned every time before they have sex.

[Annie wants to smoke marijuana before sex]

Alvy Singer: Yeah, grass, right? The illusion that it will make a white woman more like Billie Holiday.

Annie Hall: Well, have you ever made love high?

Alvy Singer: Me? No. I – I, you know, If I have grass or alcohol or anything, I get unbearably wonderful. I get too, too wonderful for words. I don’t know why you have to get high every time we make love.

Annie Hall: It relaxes me.

Alvy Singer: You have to be artificially relaxed before we can go to bed?

Annie Hall: Well, what’s the difference anyway?

Alvy Singer: Well, I’ll give you a shot of sodium pentathol. You can sleep through it.

Annie Hall: Oh come on. Look who’s talking. You’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for 15 years. You should smoke some of this. You’d be off the couch in no time

It’s the 1970’s in New York City; everybody who is anybody  is seeing a therapist, trying new drugs like cocaine, and standing in line at the art house cinemas to see films from Federico Fellini, Max Ophuls, or Ingmar Bergman.   One of the funniest scenes in the film comes when Alvy and Annie are standing in line to see Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and The Pity” for the umpteenth time; behind them is a blowhard trying to loudly impress his date with his intellectual depth.

Woody Allen meets Marshall McCluhan

This next link is to a compilation of some of the other funny scenes from the film, including the famous scene in a kitchen where Alvy is terrified of the lobsters who have escaped, and a scene where Alvy and Annie exchange intellectual banalities, as subtitles on the screen tell you what both of them are really thinking.   There are also scenes of Alvy as a child, being humiliated by his teacher after he gives a classmate a kiss on her cheek, and a side by side scene with Annie and Alvy simultaneously talking to their individual therapists.

Best scenes

The film is another mid-life crisis for Allen; he was approaching 40 at the time, and reminiscing about all of his failed relationships, particularly with Annie.   As was his standard fare, he worked a lot of “Jewish Jokes” into the film.  In fact, Allen originally wanted to call this film “It Had to be Jew”, and he works in arrangements of that and some of the other songs from “Casablanca”.   But that comparison comes off flat, because the relationship between Alvy and Annie is frankly pretty shallow. 

They realize this themselves, and eventually break up after this memorable line of dialogue.

Alvy Singer: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.

This film sometimes feels like a dead shark, partly because the audience finds it difficult to root for the relationship between these two to succeed.   But as I said, it does have its moments, particularly when the focus is on something else than their own pas de deux.  

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Modern Times: Assembly Lines, Worker’s Rights, and Middle Class Dreams

“Modern Times” is Charlie Chaplin’s greatest film; it was the perfect combination of comedy with social commentary on mind-numbing assembly line work, worker’s rights, and middle class suburban dreams. It also marked the last screen appearance of The Tramp, Chaplin’s “everyman” persona who had been entertaining audiences all over the world for more than 20 years.

The Historical Context

Automobiles were first introduced in the early 1900’s, but originally were just toys of the rich; the USA was changed forever when Henry Ford began building cheap Model T’s using assembly line labor that was soon to let the cars sell for as little as $400. Workers on his assembly lines performed the same task over and over and over again; they were paid well, but had to do the exact same task thousands of times a day. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out the banks and people’s personal savings, and resulted in massive unemployment; large employers responded by cutting the wages of middle class workers, who were just supposed to feel grateful that they still had a job. The USA was still trying to come out of this era in 1936 when “Modern Times” was released. The many strikes and riots at textile factories and other manufacturing plants around the country often had deadly results. CEO’s and political leaders were horrified by the specter of Communism, which had gained its first foothold in Russia in the Revolution of 1917. J. Edgar Hoover, then the Assistant Director of the FBI, wrote an internal memo where he referred to Chaplin as Hollywood’s “Resident Bolshevik”; he even had met with Chaplin and urged him to stop mocking authority figures, but Chaplin laughed and refused. Henry Ford was said to have been outraged that the CEO in Modern Times physically resembled him.

The Film

Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, starred, and wrote the musical score for “Modern Times.” His acid humor is on display starting in the very first shot, a group of sheep being herded into a slaughterhouse that dissolves into a group of workers being herded into a large factory. The Tramp’s job on the assembly line is to tighten these two bolts on a metal plate over and over and over and over again, all day long. Meanwhile the CEO drinks his coffee, puts puzzles together, reads his newspaper, and spies on his employees, forever trying to think of ways to increase their productivity. In a savagely funny scene, the CEO invites a crackpot inventor to demonstrate a “feeding machine” for assembly line workers, potentially letting the CEO get more productivity out of his workers by not even letting them eat lunch. The Tramp ends up being hauled off to a mental institution; upon his release, he picks up a red flag in the middle of the street that has fallen off a truck; he starts waving it, just as a Communist Worker’s Rights Parade comes around the corner behind him. This gets him hauled off to jail for the first of several times in this film for being the “Leader”. While in jail, he foils the escape attempt of some fellow inmates and ends up with a comfy cell; he doesn’t have to work, gets 3 good meals a day, and is very happy with his life. When forced to leave, he eats a 50 course meal at a cafeteria that he can’t pay for so he can be sent back to jail. The Tramp and The Gamin (a young woman living on the street) escape on the way to jail when the paddy wagon crashes; they end up in front of the perfect American dream cottage, dreaming of their own middle class life in the suburbs; he picks grapes growing just outside the window, and milks a cow that comes by the back door on command; she pan fries a pair of 20 ounce Porterhouse steaks for them to eat. He wipes his hands on the drapes. Ah, the joys of being rich.

When the Tramp gets a job as a Night Watchman in a department store, they “eat cake” at the fountain restaurant, she models the furs, and then she goes to sleep on the satin sheets in the bedding section. The Tramp has a run in with some of his former assembly line colleagues when they come in to rob the store, and he ends up in jail again. Upon release, he learns that the Gamin has found them a dream house –– a shack where the roof and the floorboards collapse, the table loses its legs, and the Tramp can dive off the “dock” into their one foot deep “lake”.

What we can learn from this Film today

The debate over the fair distribution of wealth is at the center of the Presidential race in 2012; it was also something on Chaplin’s mind when he made “Modern Times.” In the past 4 years, millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes in what has proven to be the biggest financial crisis since the time when this film first came out; at the same time, the “1%” at the top of the food chain have seen unparalleled increases in their own wealth. The issues at stake haven’t changed much in the past 75 years, but it’s as important as ever that we model what we saw from The Tramp and the Gamin – to “smile”, to stay optimistic despite everything, and continue to believe that good will somehow prevail.

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