Sunday, August 14, 2011

Don't Make a Scene: Taxi Driver

The Story:  This is one of my favorite shots in all of film, and it's so, so simple.  But, it shows just how instinctive a film-maker Martin Scorsese is.  It's from Taxi Driver, his nihilistic study in loneliness, pathology, and violence (written by Paul Schrader, who formed a troika of mutual muses with the actor and director).  It's one shot, one take, one camera move.  But, it says a lot.

I remember seeing this at a preview house (with my brother) and this moment connecting with me.  Hack driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is talking to a girl on the phone, whom he only knows as Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works for the presidential campaign of Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), and there first date did not go well.  How could it?  He took her to a porno film.  For Betsy, Travis was an enigma that she wanted to understand.  But, now that she knows he's a creep, she'd rather not have anything to do with him.  Good choice.

But, Travis is smitten.  Here, he calls her to try to apologize and attempt a "do-over" but she's having none of it, and, for Travis, the call ends without success.

One shot, one take, one camera move.  We start out on the pay-phone (remember those?), with Travis hunkered over to give himself some semblance of privacy.  But, once another date has been rejected, the camera moves laterally away, smoothly settling on an empty hallway—the hallway that Travis will be travelling in a few moments to exit.  I've read a couple analyses that say that the hallway "represents" the void that is Travis' life or soul or whatever.  Yeah, maybe that'll work if you're "reaching" in a term-paper.  Sometimes, it is what is is.

But, the reality is—Travis is getting rejected.  Once Betsy says "no" to coffee, the call is over except for the useless, obligatory attempts at prolongation and a hasty, frustrated exit.  And it is at that point that Scorsese's camera moves, reflecting Travis' thoughts—he wants to get out of there—"this isn't going well and I want to be somewhere else (ANYWHERE else)."  At that point a clean getaway is on his mind, and so the camera moves, quite generously, to show the way.  One more way that Scorsese's camera work gets inside the mind of Travis (not a very good place to be), revealing his thoughts, emotions and reactions—without the need of the first-person voice-over narration Schrader provided throughout the film.

One shot, one take, one move.  But, intuitive, insightful, and elegantly simple.  And it speaks volumes.  Scorsese at his directorial best. 

The Set-Up:  Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is sick and tired.  He drives an all-night taxi, gliding through the darkened mean streets of New York, circa mid 1970's, among the night-hawks.  "A loner, he kinda keeps to himself," he has attempted a relationship with blonde goddess campaign worker Betsy and failed.  But, hope springs eternal.  Until it is smashed, bashed, bludgeoned, left for dead, cremated, doused, and the ashes stirred.  

Action. 




BICKLE: Hello, Betsy. Hi, it's Travis. How you doin'? Listen, I'm—I'm sorry about the other—the other night. I didn't know that was the way you felt about it. Well, I—I didn't know that was the way you felt. I—I—I would've taken you somewhere else. Uh. Are you feeling better or--

BICKLE: Well, maybe you had a virus or something, a 24 hour virus, you know. It can happen. Yeah. Uh. You, uh—You been working hard, huh? Well, it's—yeah...Can-uh. Would you like to have—uh—some dinner—uh—with me—um—in the next, you know, few days or sumpthin'?

BICKLE: Well, how about jus' a cup of coffee? I could come by the—the headquarters or something. We could--Oh, okay, okay, okay....Oh, okay. 

BICKLE: Did you get my flowers in the-- You didn't get them?

BICKLE: I sent—uh—some flowers—uh...

BICKLE: ..uh..well, okay, okay. Can I call you again—uh—tomorrow or the next day?

BICKLE: Okay. Uh, no, I'm gonna-- Yeah, sure, okay. So long.
(Hangs up)

VOICE-OVER: I tried several times to call her, but after the first call, she wouldn't come to the phone any longer. I also sent flowers, but with no luck.


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



2 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

This is always the go-to performance of De Niro for me, as cliched as it is. I love the film because it subverts all the investment in the character when it turns on its head, and for me it captures the essence of De Niro as an actor. I can never love him because he's so just so shifty, that I feel I can never completely like him and that's essentially Travis.

Yojimbo_5 said...

"Shifty"—that's a good word for him. I don't know if I ever liked Travis, but after awhile, I couldn't trust him. And that's dangerous ground for an audience member.

I know how old I am when someone says "as cliched as it is" about De Niro's performance. It seemed so fresh when I first saw it at a preview house in Seattle before it opened. But, sadly, the world has changed...and characters like these (and actors studying De Niro) are a dime a dozen.