Sunday, May 2, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: Taxi Driver

The Story: "You talkin' to me?"

I wonder what screen-writer Paul Schrader thinks of this scene.* Schrader put a lot of his heart and soul (and probably a bit of his sanity) into the script for "Taxi Driver." His man who falls between the cracks ("God's lonely man" as he calls himself) has so isolated himself that his psyche is unravelling in a series of self-reflexive delusions. Trolling the streets in his hack, ferrying the entire strata of the denizens tramping the streets of New York, he spouts ambivalence to what he sees.

But, deep inside that brain ("squirming like a toad"), it's Judgement Day. And a combination of alcohol and barbituates to keep him awake behind the wheel isn't helping his mental state any.

Schrader articulates his character, Travis Bickle, with a mumbled narration translated from a diary the cabbie keeps of his day-to-day existence, as well as the fantasy-letters he sends to his parents. It's how we get to know the real Travis, as Robert De Niro's performance is contained and seems to seep out of his eye-balls, his dialogue limited and tentative, while on the sound-track the sounds of the street play in the background with the immediacy of being in the room.

So how must Schrader feel that the one scene that everybody remembers and percolated into the nation's zeitgeist is this ad-libbed scene in front of a mirror?** Travis has armed himself and adapted the weapons for concealment and surprise. But that's not enough. As he practices his draw, he practices his 'tude, too. Mouths his lines, tries his stance, chooses his persona, like an actor playing a role, he wants to see what his audience sees and refine it. And the "You talkin' to me?" like the rest of the mumbled, off-the-cuff, bits of play-acting, is a pose, a feint, and a challenge, all played out with a cocky grin because he knows the end-game.

That the angle favors him speaking to the audience just gives the scene a little more heat.

"Taxi Driver" still creeps, thirty years and a couple of intrusions into reality later. It may be the greatest film of the 70's, that last bastion of quality film-making before film-makers became students of students, and the block-buster mentality sunk everything to the level of the bottom line. "Taxi Driver" reflects the drifting schism of activism and narcissism in the post-Viet-nam America. The nation's wounds were still deep, and it seemed like there were more loose cannons all too eager to fire into them in a sado-masochistic urge to cauterize them in the muzzle-flash.

The Set-Up: Veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) drives a cab up and down the night-soaked neon streets of New York, a steady diet of coffee and barbituates interfering with his sleep, his strike-out daytime activities feeding his feelings of elevated persecution and paranoia. While the city swirls with political gamesmanship and doorway seaminess, Travis has taken up arms against his perceived sea of troubles as a self-appointed vigilante—the concept hardening, the targets still undetermined. For now, the demons he encounters are in his own mirror, and he's embracing them.


Travis Bickle: Yeah.

Travis: Uh-huh.

Travis: Faster than you, you fuckin' son of a--

Travis: I saw you comin'...

Travis: fuckin' shit-heel.

Travis: I'm standin' here. You make the move.

Travis: You make the move.

Travis: It's your move.

Travis: Don't try it, you fuck.

Travis: You talkin' to me?

Travis: You talkin' to me?

Travis: You talkin' to me?

Travis: Then who the hell else are you talking-- You talking to me?

Travis: Well, I'm the only one here.

Travis: Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?

Travis: Oh, yeah?

Travis: Huh.

Travis: 'kay...

"Taxi Driver"

Words by Paul Schrader (and Robert De Niro)

Pictures by Michael Chapman and Martin Scorsese

"Taxi Driver" is available on DVD from Sony Home Video

Large Association of Movie Blogs

* At this point in the script, it just says: "Travis speaks to himself in the mirror."

** Not only is "You tlakin' to me?" #10 in AFI's list of the 100 most-memorable screen-lines, the sequence has been parodied endlessly—even by De Niro himself (in his guise as "Fearless Leader" in the De Niro-produced "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."


Simon said...

Get your shit together, De Niro, it's stuff like this that depresses me.

Yojimbo_5 said...

That's funny. That's what I was thinking when I watched "Meet the Fockers" last night.

April Skye said...

Wow I really enjoyed this post, it was wonderfully written and I found myself agreeing with everything you said. Taxi Driver is one of my all time favourite films, it just has so much depth to it. It's one of the most wonderfully portrayed character pieces I've ever seen.

My favourite part is how he declares he will get fit and strong yet we see him popping pills, barely getting sleep and eating sugar laden meals. He is a "walking contradiction", just like the record he shows Betsy at the diner.

I do recall reading two books about the making of Taxi Driver. This was early last year sometime and I'm actually certain that the infamous 'you talkin' to me' scene was totally improvised on de niro's count.

April Skye xx

Yojimbo_5 said...

Glad you enjoyed it, April. Keep up the good work, by the way.

The Floating Red Couch said...

Funny story....

A TA in my cinema class @ Washington in 1998 got his undergrad from NYU and he was working at a bar in the same neighborhood where they were shooting A Bronx Tale.

So, one day after shooting, Bobby D comes in with his crew. My TA was working the register and Bob sez: "Hey, can I get a beer?" My TA doesn't turn. Bob sez: "Hey. Can I get a beer? Hey. Hey!" My TA turns and sez: "You talkin to me?"

Yojimbo_5 said...


Great story, and kudos to your TA's chutzpah. What did DeNiro do? Did he laugh? Or did he yell at him to give him "a f$#%@in' BEER!"

The Floating Red Couch said...

OH! I totally forgot the best part: He gave him a part in the movie. He was a passenger on the bus.