What Makes Taxi Driver So Powerful? An In-Depth Study of Martin Scorsese’s Existential Film on the Human Condition

The field jacket, the mohawk, the "real rain" that will "wash all this scum off the streets," the virtuoso tracking shot over the aftermath of a massacre, "You talkin' to me?": so many elements of Taxi Driver have found permanent places in cinematic culture, and almost as many have found permanent places in the culture, period. Thanks to its wide-ranging influence as well as its presence that endures more than forty years on, even those who've never seen the movie in some sense already know it.

What makes Taxi Driver so powerful? Lewis Bond, video essayist and creator of Channel Criswell, sets out to answer that question in the two-part, feature-length analysis above. Martin Scorsese's fifth film, and the second of his collaborations with Robert de Niro, Taxi Driver came out in 1976.




Adapting the film noir tradition for an even more cynical post-Vietnam era, it ostensibly mounted a grim critique of America. Audiences of the 1970s, especially audiences of New Yorkers, might have readily identified with the judgments of moral, social and urban decay bitterly aired by de Niro as Travis Bickle.

But before long, those first viewers surely realized that they were watching a work of art both more complex and more universal than that. Bond's reading of the film gets right to the study at its heart of isolation, hypocrisy, purity, corruption, desire, and vengeance, characteristics found in but hardly unique to the human experience in 70s New York City. "Martin Scorsese's 1976 film is a film that does not grow dated, or over-familiar," writes Roger Ebert in a 2004 appreciation. "I have seen it dozens of times. Every time I see it, it works; I am drawn into Travis' underworld of alienation, loneliness, haplessness and anger."

Ebert understands, as Bond does, that "utter aloneness is at the center of Taxi Driver, one of the best and most powerful of all films, and perhaps it is why so many people connect with it even though Travis Bickle would seem to be the most alienating of movie heroes. We have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are better at dealing with it." Yet over the past four decades, even as New York has emerged from near-bankruptcy to become one of the most expensive and glamorous of all cities, real-life Travis Bickles have visited their violent, misbegotten vengeance all over America. Making Taxi Driver, Scorsese and his collaborators thought they were capturing the dying gasp of a city. Instead, they captured an aspect of the human condition that haunts us more than ever today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear David Lynch Read from His New Memoir Room to Dream, and Browse His New Online T-Shirt Store

We think of David Lynch as a filmmaker, and rightly so, but the director of EraserheadBlue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive has long kept a more diverse creative portfolio. He began as a painter, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and has also tried his hand at photographymusic, and comic strips. More recently, writes the AV Club's Randall Colburn, "Lynch has also released his own line of coffee, collaborated on Twin Peaks-themed beer and skateboards, and created his own festival. His latest endeavor? T-shirts, which is wild because it’s hard to imagine the ever-dapper filmmaker ever wearing one."

Perhaps a line of Lynch-approved traditional white shirts, made to be buttoned all the way up even without a tie, remains in development. But for now, fans choose from the 57 T-shirts designs now available at Studio: David Lynch's Amazon store. All suitable for wearing to your local revival house, they include "Turkey Cheese Head," "Cowboy," "Small Dog,""Small Barking Dog,"and "You Gotta Be Kiddin' Me." What kind of life, now solidly into its eighth decade, has both enabled and driven Lynch to make not just so many things, but so many Lynchian things? Perhaps we can find a few answers within the nearly 600 pages of Room to Dream, Lynch's new memoir.

"Fans who share Lynch’s pleasure in mystery will approach this book anxiously, hoping that his secrets may somehow be both revealed and sustained," writes the Washington Post's Charles Arrowsmith of the book, an excerpt of which you can hear read by Lynch himself above. (He begins by saying "I'm going to tell you a story about my grandparents" and ends with the image of his young self vomiting into a helmet he'd brought to school for show-and-tell.) And those who fear that the conventionality of the memoir form might flatten out Lynch's idiosyncrasies can rest assured that "in telling his life story, Lynch demonstrates the same disregard for causality and tonal consistency that marks his films."

Despite including not just Lynch's perspective but the perspectives of many others ("surprisingly candid ex-wives, family members, actors, agents, musicians, and colleagues in various fields," proclaims the jacket copy), "Room to Dream pulls off a neat trick in drawing back a curtain and revealing relatively little. Despite the book’s heft, there’s not much to explicate the mysteries of Lynch’s work. But then, for him, the mystery’s the thing. To explain would be to destroy. What we get instead is insight into his creative process." As dedicated Lynch enthusiasts understand, the creative process, which throughout his career has led him not to answers but ever more strangely compelling questions, is everything.

Note: When Room to Dream comes out on June 19th, you can download the audiobook version, which Lynch helps narrate, for free if you sign up for Audible's free trial program. We have details on that program here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Film Thought: A Close Look at the Masterful Editing of Sherlock, Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

What has drawn Sherlock, the BBC television series starring a modern-day version of Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved consulting detective, such great acclaim? Some of it, of course, has to do with the formidable acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. But if you believe Evan Puschak, better known as the video essayist the Nerdwriter, much of the genius of this "intoxicatingly inventive TV show" lies in the editing.

The plot of each episode runs on how Sherlock "gets from point A to point B, from problem to solution, mystery to clarity," and just as Cumberbatch must convincingly portray the figuring-out process with his performance, so must the editors with their cuts. Puschak illustrates Sherlock's creative, idea-dense way of doing this with just one sequence of three minutes and 42 seconds. It comes triggered by a bout of withdrawal from cocaine, a choice that stays true to the nature of the character Conan Doyle created, brilliant but also a drug addict.




During this sequence, Sherlock arrives at just what every good detective story needs: a revelation, a moment when both he and we see the pieces of information the story has previously presented from a new angle, in a way that reveals the crucial relationship between them. And as essentially a cinematic work, Sherlock literally shows it from not just one but many new angles, even from perspectives impossible in real life. As with any well-crafted piece of editing, you can only feel this sequence's power when you watch it, not when you read it described. Puschak takes full advantage of his own form, the video essay, to not just show it to us but break it down to its constituent elements.

Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories won their wide and avid readership by offering a glimpse into the workings of an unusual mind, making them legible in text. Sherlock goes a dimension further by making them legible in image and sound. The relationship between the two parallels the relationship between the traditional essay and the video essay: the latter, in this case, allows us to follow the process of Puschak's thoughts about Sherlock not just textually but audiovisually as well. And with his channel's just having passed one million subscribers, he seems well on the way to achieving a Sherlockian level of popularity himself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Deep Study of Terence Malick’s Filmography

Yesterday we featured the Directors Series, the ever-expanding collection of video essays that seeks out the essence of the auteurs of our time by closely examining their entire filmographies. So far, the series' creator Cameron Beyl has taken on the work of Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan — all titans of cinema, and with the exception of the last, all American. Given that apparent cultural inclination, Beyl's choice of a subject for the just-begun current chapter of the Directors Series follows naturally: that uncompromising American transcendentalist of the silver screen, Terrence Malick.

It also makes good sense to focus on Malick now, given that he's spent the past few years in a period of surprising late-career productivity. After establishing the filmmaker's identity and main themes as well as giving a sketch of his colorful (and often only sparsely documented) life, Beyl uses his first episode on Malick to get into his "crimes of passion" movies, his 1973 debut Badlands and its 1978 follow-up Days of Heaven.




The latter seems to have solidified in the cinematic consciousness many of the basic elements of Malick's style, including hushed yet often grandly philosophical narration; a worshipful, even religious view of the natural world; and a relentless expansion of his own visual language. But though the film won Malick a Best Director award at Cannes, he didn't make another movie for twenty years.

After returning to filmmaking in 1998 with the James Jones-adapting World War II picture The Thin Red Line, Malick appeared to pick up right where he left off: The New World, his interpretation of John Smith's encounter with Pocahontas, came in 2005, followed by 2011's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life. That film, deeply personal in its depiction of an American childhood in the 1940s and even more deeply personal in its zoom out to the cosmic scale, reveals as much about Malick's obsessions as anything he's done. Yet the startlingly many pictures he has directed since — the improvised romantic drama To the Wonder, the Los Angeles odyssey Knight of Cups, the history-of-the-universe documentary Voyage of Time, the experimental musical Song to Song, and his upcoming return to WWII Radegund — tell us, as Beyl will show, that his cinematic explorations have many more awe-inspiring places still to take us.

Watch Part 1 of the Malick study above. Find future parts on the Directors Series Vimeo page.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

“The Directors Series” Presents Free Immersive Studies of Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson & Christopher Nolan

Humorist and movie critic Joe Queenan once stood outside a theater after a screening of Jurassic Park and asked each exiting viewer if they knew who directed the film they'd just seen. Only five out of the ten who talked to him, he reported, could name Steven Spielberg. (Not just one but two of those who couldn't said, inexplicably, that the Michael Crichton adaptation had been directed by Stephen King.)

Queenan pulled this stunt as an informal test of "auteur theory," which holds that the director, despite the inherently collaborative nature of the medium, is ultimately the "author" of a motion picture. But what does it say about auteur theory that half of his sample of viewers couldn't come up with the name of quite possibly the most famous filmmaker alive? Does the identity of a film's director matter as much as those of us who subscribe to auteur theory believe it does?

As for the case for the auteur, if you've got fifteen hours or so to spare, you can watch it made in depth by the Directors Series. These multi-part video essays by writer-director Cameron Beyl examine what makes an auteur an auteur not just one filmography, but one film at a time.




Beyl launched the series with the ideal selection of Stanley Kubrick, an almost Platonic ideal of the modern auteur, whose career-long jumping from subject to subject and even genre to genre reveals all the more clearly the elements of his bold cinematic signature.

Then came series-within-the-series on directors from the generation after Kubrick: David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Christopher Nolan. Though all alive and vey much still active, they've all forged the kind of strong styles that inspire worshipful retrospectives at cinematheques the world over. Even the kind of moviegoer who thinks Stephen King directed Jurassic Park surely senses, on some level, the common sensibility shared by films as outwardly different as Fight Club and Gone GirlBoogie Nights and There Will Be BloodRaising Arizona and FargoMemento and Interstellar.

In the Directors Series, Beyl reveals the techniques these filmmakers use to make their body of work a unified cinematic project, and so rise to the status of true auteurs. Try to replicate Queenan's experiment today, and you may well find that many, if not most, of the viewers who've just seen one of their movies won't know the director's name. That, of course, doesn't mean that they didn't enjoy or appreciate the director's art — but it also doesn't mean that, equipped with the kind of insight provided by the Directors Series, you won't enjoy and appreciate it even more.

Follow these links for more on each series: Stanley Kubrick (3 hours), David Fincher (3.5 hours), Paul Thomas Anderson (2.5 hours), the Coen Brothers (4 hours), and Christopher Nolan (3.5 hours).

The first video from each series appears on the page above.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Winners of the 48 Hour Science Fiction Film Challenge: The 2018 Edition

Writes Metafilter: "Every year, as part of their science fiction film festival, Sci-Fi London organise a challenge in which entrants are given a title, line of dialogue and description of a prop, and then have 48 hours to turn in a completed 5 minute film or piece of flash fiction. The winning films and flash fiction stories from the SciFi London 48 Hour Challenge are now available to watch and read." The first place film winner you can view above. Find other winning entries via the links below:

THE FILM CHALLENGE:

THE FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE:

Enjoy.

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On June 10th, at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in England, director Arwen Curry will premiere Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin, the first feature film about the groundbreaking science fiction writer. The film's website notes that "Curry filmed with Le Guin for 10 years to produce the film, which unfolds an intimate journey of self-discovery as Le Guin comes into her own as a major feminist author, opening new doors for the imagination and inspiring generations of women and other marginalized writers along the way." Starring Le Guin herself, who sadly passed away earlier this year, Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin features appearances by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delany, and Michael Chabon. You can watch the brand new trailer for the film above.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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