Friday, April 15, 2016

"Taxi Driver" @ 40

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."  

No, this wasn't something said by a Donald Trump supporter. It was a line memorably uttered by the great actor Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver which turns 40 years old this year. If you've never seen it, Taxi Driver is about a mysterious cabbie named Travis Bickle who roams a nightmarish NYC, lonely, detached, adrift in a chaotic world that he doesn't understand and hates. Eventually he becomes a gun-totting vigilante and unleashes his fury. It's a horrifying and amazing film to watch. 

Taxi Driver was a quintessential example of the 1970s New Hollywood ethos: brutal, profane, centering on an "anti-hero," and totally unsentimental. It's also, in many ways, a document about NYC in the mid-1970s: dirty, crime-ridden, and failing. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese, right after his earlier films "Mean Streets" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", and it rocketed him into the leagues of major American directors, paving his way to legendary status. The cast is also notable: besides De Niro, the film stars a pre-"Moonlighting" Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, a very young Jodie Foster, and, of all people, a frizzy haired Albert Brooks providing some much needed comic relief. Like all Scorsese films, it's brilliantly directed and has first-rate performances.

Looking at Taxi Driver today, it seems both very dated and totally relevant. Dated, because it's about an NYC that doesn't exist anymore. Watching the film, in an NYC where broom closets cost millions of dollars, is like looking at a world that is both familiar and distant, recognizable and unrecognizable, a friend from the past who has aged and whose body has changed (either really well or really badly). Yet, it's more relevant than ever because it's about rage, alienation, mistrust, a world gone mad, and the temporary but very real allure of senseless violence. Look at our current political climate. Can anyone possibly argue that this atmosphere of anger isn't even more real and toxic today? Is rage not a constant in American life today? Taxi Driver was prophetic.  

This fascinating oral history tells the story of how Taxi Driver was made and about the impact it left on America and American film culture. Forty years on, and so much and so little has changed.

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