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Film Analysis / Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released in 1976, won many awards, including four Academy awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Best Music. Mr. Scorsese also won the Palm d’ Or from the Cannes Film Festival. In addition, the U.S. Library of Congress found this film “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” and entered it into the National Film Registry in 1994. (1.)

Martin Scorsese has successfully completed an exercise in world building. The mise en scene of this production serves to paint an extremely realistic portrait of New York City in the 1970’s. The city by far, is the most powerful character in the film, seemingly driving everyone crazy, and thereby controlling their actions. As Travis Bickle says, “all the animals come out at night,” which he, in a very human like manner, doesn’t realize includes him. Seemingly, pimps, drug dealers and gang members, ran the city, but by the end of the movie it seems in fact, the city ran them. Scorsese also comments upon the condition of some of the veterans who came back from Vietnam, many of them with similar mental conditions to Travis’. Mr. Scorsese and his talented crew use many elements of the narrative and stylistic subsystems to accomplish his goal, such as an excellent script. Stylistically, he uses costuming, locations, and camera framing to guide the direction of this film. All of these techniques help us visualize New York City of the 1970’s, serve to accentuate the human nature of these occupants of the street that most “civilized” people would consider sub-human, and thereby aids us in relating to “scum ball” characters, such as a Bi-polar taxi driver, a child prostitute, and some poor lady, who has to work at the snack stand at Travis’ porn theatre, who just wants creepy guys to stop hitting on her.

Travis Bickle is a Vietnam vet trying to ignore his demons. He cannot sleep, so he decides to become a taxi driver. He drives around New York City all night, judging the people of the streets, even as he is a potential psychotic, who will eventually plan a killing spree. He becomes obsessed with a “high” class woman named Betsy. Betsy is a professional campaign manager, who does not understand the underbelly world of Times Square 1970. Eventually Travis comes across a child prostitute whom he decides to save from the streets.

Paul Schraders’ script is as real as it gets. It is disturbingly sexual, money centric, full of danger and desperation. In other words, it is Times Square of the 1970’s. The dialogue is authentic and sparse. From the pimps and hustlers selling their wares, to the taxi drivers sitting around telling their faux stories about the passengers, to the passengers themselves who leave bodily fluids all over the cabs. These people are loathsome. There is no college talk here. In fact, the only time the dialogue gets flowery and long winded, is during Travis’ journal entries. Everything else is short, sweet and to the point; Do you want to buy this girl, do you want to ride in this cab, do you want to vote for this candidate, and the answer is always a brief “yea” or “no,” followed by any number of creative explicatives. Actually quite often the characters do not even answer each other. The one exception to the crass dialogue rule is Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd. She is a college educated, professional, and she speaks with the vocabulary of a person from this background, but even she manages to keep her dialogue efficient.

Martin Scorsese uses the locations of this film to make well-rounded characters. From Travis’ apartment which is run down, but tidy. Everything is stowed in its proper place, like a good marine would do, and has the Spartan accommodations, befitting a man with no connections. He doesn’t have a wife, or friends, or family, whom he interacts with. At first he just sits around writing his manifesto, but eventually moves on to using his apartment as a staging ground for his assault on humanity. It does not take much space for this, just a mental disorder. Betsy’s office is clean and sterile, just like her. The Pimp and Iris’ office, aka the streets, is dirty, hazardous, and morally debase. The taxi is the centerpiece location of this film. A staple of New York City, continuously circling the city like a shark searching for prey. This particular cab is poignant, because it helps to keep Travis separate from everyone, even as people surround him. Even when people are in his car, a divider separates them from him. Necessary for security, the divider does just that, when it comes to human interaction.

The costuming in this film also serves to further the story. Travis is dressed as a cowboy most of the movie, which is how he sees himself. He believes he is a man that will come to the aid of anyone in distress, which actually turns out to be true. Throughout, he also wears a Vietnam era Marine jacket, which now serves to let us know, that in the best-case scenario, this man is an offbeat, loner, who is about to start a ruckus. This audience cue that is so common to us now, is due in part to movies like Taxi Driver, Deer Hunter, and Rambo. Iris is dressed as a sexually mature woman, but the outfit only serves to make her seem puerile and naïve. The way she wobbles on her high heels, the makeup that brings out her childlike freckles, and the general uncomfortable nature of her stance in these clothes. In contrast, Betsy dresses as a professional with money and interest in fashion would. Wearing beautiful, flowing clothing, she is Travis’ angel, the girl above all whom, ironically, he eventually spurns. In addition to this, there are the host of characters such as the gang members, prostitutes and tourists that are all costumed to the success of this film.

Michael Chapman’s cinematography is chilling and elusive. The camera moves quickly, so you are not always sure what you saw. The exception to this is the framing of the camera for the really important moments. Just enough to let you into this world to give you the feel of it, but not so much that one good shower could not wash off the residual anxiety that is the underpinning of this movie. The windows of the cab, and the passenger divider are used to frame Travis quite often, usually when he is judging someone. The side windows of the taxi are also used to frame the street people from Travis’ point of view, giving the effect of everyone being separate and alone in a sea of people. Throughout the movie people are framed in doorways, such as when Travis’ is stalking Betsy and we see him both framed in the cab window and the political office door. Martin pulled off the old double frame just to get across the importance, and stalkerishness of this character. We also see excellent use of framing when a passenger, played by Scorsese, is planning on killing his cheating wife. We see his wife framed in front of a window, completely naked, but she is also standing behind a sheet over the window, obscuring her identity. Scorsese gives us the notion that the idea of the wife is more important that the actual woman. Another efficient use of framing includes when Travis goes to the gun range, and we literally see a small square from the targets point of view, that contains Travis and a lot black surrounding him. It gives us the idea that this man is little, but he is dangerous, because he has a very big gun.

I have watched this movie four times over the last week, and I love it more each time. This film is filled with all of the elements of the cinematic subsystems, used in an efficient and creative manner. First I was astounded by the cinematography, and the rawness of such as the use of water throughout the film, from fire hydrants, puddles and rain, to name a few that is cleaning the city, or the surging score that vacillates between sexy, Jazz saxophone to a menacing orchestral piece that pops up every time there is a specific danger on the horizon. Then there is Robert Dinero. I truly believe Travis Bickle is one of the greatest characters ever created. He is a “walking contradiction,” as Betsy states. Is he crazy, is he sane, is he a criminal, or is he a hero? It’s hard to keep it straight. You want to say, oh he’s just a crazy, Nam vet, but he saves Iris in the end. He is socially awkward, not understanding many of the minor social interactions throughout the movie, but he pulls off a very romantic gesture and manages to get Betsy to go out with him. He then takes her to a porn theatre for their first date and has no clue why she is offended. Then after he becomes a hero, Betsy offers her love, and he turns it down, only to voluntarily devolve back into madness. I feel I could write an entire paper over Travis Bickle, so I believe it is fair to say that Robert Dinero one hundred percent deserved this Best Actor Oscar.

Martin Scorsese has created a true masterpiece. By making the city of New York City a powerful character, we see how insignificant we all really are. Scorsese has used many cinematic subsystems to tell an immersive story, that is both realistic and fantastic, filled with lonely people and a completely contradictory main character. Through the use of a first-rate script, locations that advance the storyline, costuming that adds to the world building nature of this movie and the camera framing that says more than dialogue in a script ever could. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and most certainly Martin Scorsese took this adage to heart.


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