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.
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.