I thought it might be an interesting experiment to write down, whilst watching it, what I was thinking and feeling about a film. These aren't notes that are going to be put together later. This is a charting of my experience of the film. I hadn't seen Taxi Driver before. I had an idea of the general plot but I didn't know any details. The following is only edited for spelling/grammatical errors.
An odd start...the camera circles as if in search of a production logo, happening upon a stylised taxi that looms from the steam. Eerie and epic: something wrong, something put right...a troubled hero is in the making...that hulking vehicle shrouded in the fog could be the batmobile...
He looks around the city. The image is fuzzy, nostalgic, disorienting. It's all about what this man sees - we get a close up of the eyes that lingers. I want to turn away...
Those who know what a film is about and where it might be going and those who don't know see two different films. It's a shame I know anything at all...
He wants a job...Travis (he has a name now) says he's fine, that he's on the up and up, but the camera says different. It sweeps in on him - although he's not being aggressive, the camera is bringing him in to our faces, revealing the aggression on his behalf, brushing the sand away from the ruins. It's letting us know...As of yet he's still De Niro and De Niro has history too...
Why can't he sleep?
He wants to remove the "garbage and trash off the sidewalks". It's matter-of-fact how he says it. He lists the people he hates, while he cruises. He lists the people he hates to himself: "wash all the scum off the streets".
His taxi is his world. He can make the rules in that bubble. He goes under a spray of water. He could have avoided it but I suppose he wants to be cleansed.
Is he exaggerating when he says "clean the cum...blood off the back seat" or is this a filthy New York on the slide? There is an impression that he might think this about himself. Where does the war come in? Has he seen the worst men can do? Can he only see the worst in them...
He goes to watch a dirty picture...to exorcise the demon? An inoculation of sorts perhaps. He does a little bit of what he hates. In a small way he seems to be part of the problem
"Days go on and on...they don't end" The voiceover narration comes across like a depressive The Wonder Years. It's nostalgic. It's wry. It's intimate. It can't help but be...can't help but sympathise because we are in his mind.
I like where this is going. It's grabbed me and yet it's barely gone anywhere - it's building like all good stories. It hasn't gone forward, it's deepened, like Bela Tarr's The Man From London truncated the noir template and stretched time...
He watches a girl (Cybill Shepherd - the character is still just an actress). "She appeared like an angel...they...cannot...touch...her" he intones in time with a slow motion that says he's smitten. Then we see him writing it, scrawling it..in large letters indicative, in film parlance, of instability.
The film doesn't have a clear aesthetic, a palette or 'look' as so many do in 21st Century Cinema. It makes a refreshing change.
Political campaign. A new thread, new characters...can be disconnecting...can switch you off...but the 'angel' is here. Linking the stories, she sees Travis lurking in the cab outside the window. Now the Taxi Driver is the outsider in the world and in our story...beautifully done...He's guilty, he disappears as soon as he is confronted...
Driving around, the music is all romance and wistful...with what...the city? The whole world, through his eyes, is tipping from sophisticated and cool to gaudy, teetering alcoholically on high heels.
Rude conversation in the bar - but this usual misogyny is unusual because of what's gone before...
Travis watches and listens to the story - a crudely related sexual encounter = and smiles a little smile. Suddenly danger...something's stirring...it's bubbling...that fizz...wow...
This goes so much further than Scorsese's 'Gangster films'...the anger...the rage...it's born of more than hair-trigger insecurity or an attitude...it's a fatal coalescence of the real, imagined, the psychologically ingrained...a trauma that is sensitive to the slightest imbalance, the slightest offense. But what's crucial is that the offense has a palpable presence.
The film changes moods quickly - back to the 'Angel' and her colleague...how do you light a match when your fingers are broken?...nice...I needed time out...Travis is coming in...what does he want?? He asks her out..."most beautiful..." creepy and sweet. The dynamic is fantastic - will she lift him up out of the mire or will he drag her down?
My knowledge of the general outline of the plot is amplifying the tension...
"You're a lonely person" he says of her...he's talking about himself. Maybe he sees himself in her...
You can't pigeonhole him as a sad and geeky loner...or a man on the brink...he's more...he's complicated and slippery.
"You're gonna be my friend?" she says. Hard and soft...he can be charming...he has a puritan purity...he wants everything to be right and that stance has a mutant strain...a militant morality
A meeting for coffee...a little misunderstanding (a Scorsese trope)...awkward silence...when he doesn't know what to say..he says "you have beautiful eyes" Their gazes are so strong...the connection is believable..."I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like you," she says...she quotes a song: "He's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction." "Is that about me?" he asks "Who else would I be talking about?" The world revolves around him.
Another misunderstanding...people who wilfully expect the worst and see insults and attacks from all angles. Insecurity. The film is losing a little traction...I don't know why...it seems to be moving towards a more streamlined version of itself, squeezing through a tight spot and scraping off its intricacies.
Politician Palantine: "I have learnt more about America from riding in taxi cabs than in all the limos in the country" what's "the one thing about the country that bugs you the most?" Palantine asks. Bickle says: "...full of filth and scum...get headaches it's so bad...flush it right down the f***ing toilet..." clever, normally it's the politician who inadvertently reveals his deep dark emotions to the regular guy and not the other way round.
His taxi takes in the city as customers...it is the city...
The romantic and yearning music is like...a mantra? It appears when he's not doing anything...a comfort blanket, something gone to repeatedly...
A New York instead of the New York. his New York. He only sees the bad - trash in his car.
He's in a suit for a date...he's self-aware...something I wasn't entirely sure of before...despite the diary entries...
Lyric theatre "explicit...provocative..." film called "Sometime Sweet Susan" - taking her to "dirty movie" - a contradiction indeed. This is funny, uncomfortable. and sad.
"About as exciting to me as saying: "let's fuck", she says. She runs away: "I have to go!" "Wait a second!" It's scary and worrying...for her and him...she's good for him... She's seeing the worst in him too.
Clinging on to her, begging her on the phone...Halfway through his attempts to get through to her we pan across to a corridor down which he'll walk - he's not gonna succeed. The film knows it, we know it. There's a humour in the rhythms, the touches...the film is ahead of us and Travis...I get a hint of something inevitable...
"I think I've got stomach cancer...you're only as healthy as you feel" he is paranoid....slow-speaking again...the world is what you make it...I worry for him and what he might do, I worry like an acquaintance if not yet like a friend. She did overreact I suppose.
It's sad, very sad. Unlike in Goodfellas or Casino, we care. He has redeeming qualities or at least qualities that can be redeemed.
An argument with a customer over the meter. What's going on with him. He's on the edge. Woman in the window...the customer's wife,...affair...it's sad for him but he's not whiter than white. He's a racist: "nigger lives there"... this place is quicksand...to pull someone out you get stuck in...pulling yourself out you sink further...customer says he'll "blow" them "right apart"... horrible and terrible, "you must think I'm pretty sick..." This is Scorsese's confessional. In fact he is Scorsese...Does the sickness in a director's films make him sick?
His laugh is sickening anyhow.
Travis looks at the other taxi drivers in the cafe. There's something new in his walk and his demeanour, head slightly higher, chest out...a confidence that he was right all along...he uses each encounter as fuel... He circles their conversation. He doesn't really talk. He takes in.
He looks at a crumpled 20 dollar note. Earlier a pimp had thrown it dismissively into his cab, having stopped a young (too young, as if there is any decent age) prostitute getting in. It plays on Travis' mind. He keeps it separately in his pocket... more guilt.
One of the friends says "bye..." and fires an imaginary gun at him...seems too cute...he didn't do it, the film made him. Thankfully so far Taxi Driver is almost free of 'look at me' inauthenticity.
It feels like he's going to explode and I want it to happen...I want it to happen...to relieve the tension...to dispel the migraine.
"I wanna go out and really...do something", he says. 'Wizard', his friend, if he has friends, looks at him with concern. Releasing the tension will destroy him.
"I've got some bad ideas in my head..." The conversation is touching... they can't express themselves perfectly but they are there for each other. Wiz: "that job becomes what he is...".The film needs to mind that it doesn't become a poetic statement or somesuch...
Ominous music, looking out the BACK of the cab now. I am in no doubt, the film is spiralling down towards a violent conclusion.
The taxi's headlights are his eyes in the dark - prowling - the girl and her pimp 'Sport' appear again - hits the accelerator:
"loneliness has followed me my whole life...everywhere..." The atmosphere is rich but it doesn't own the film or the people. It's not too claustrophobic.
"Suddenly there is change" Travis is a filter of the world, a sewer from which steam rises. He lets it pass through him. He's a chameleon. He let his environment change him and now he will change it... he will stand up and stand out. A gun shop...the camera caresses the gun seductively in CU. Guns are being pimped - sold as "beautiful" etc.
Violence, exploitation, sex.
P.O.V. tracking down barrel of gun out the window. Scary. He's buying everything...he doesn't want the drugs...doesn't want escape...wants change. He's preparing his guns, crafting them...the build up goes on too long, it adds nothing appreciable apart from the bare bones of what it shows...we know he's meticulous...this is stalling.
Did anything happen in particular to him in Vietnam? He sees evil, corruption, hears explosions on the streets - echoes of war or the birth of it. I feel like I need to know but I am also aware that it might undermine the film if I did know, if it spotlit 'reasons'...
Palantine's event...a brilliant shot...Travis arrives...we pan across and a bodyguard / security man appears with Travis now walking behind. If there was any doubt, now we know for sure what his intentions are... that's the essence of cinema: a visual language. Travis comes up to him. There's a new aura of mockery and menace ..."I saw suspicious people...over there". As throughout the film, the problem is him not them. Here he made them up, and to an extent he has done all along. I understand this character. The film doesn't grip entirely but it does build nicely around his changing mindset.
He's like a crazed child. Now he's pretending to want to be in the secret service. "Thanks a lot hell jesus" Travis says when the man says he'll send him an application. Evil and Good, disbelief, moral equivalence, right and wrong in zero gravity. Palantine's car arrives and the angles suggest that Travis is walking over and then (high camera angle) shooting - but he isn't. A cute fake - a trial run.
Looking in the mirror..."You make a move...it's your move". He can't draw faster than himself. He can never win or lose or ever escape himself.
Mirrors have been used up until now to look askew, furtively at something...he's looking straight on...he is his enemy "Talkin' to me" cross reference from before: "About me?" he asked "Who else would I be talking about?" she said
The scene crystallises his self-absorption...it's a grandstanding that doesn't come artificially from the film's wish to impress...out of context this famed sequence was artificial...now it makes sense: it's Travis... "I'm the only one here" ...He is...
There's still residual humour in the overkill of his aggressive stance - things might be bad (how bad, who knows) but he is seeing ghosts...nevertheless the irony is slowly dying. He is the antagonist. He practises his spiel, one I'm sure he won't get to say. He's simply getting his mind straight and his world view in order. Organised.
His list of enemies "the scum, the dogs, the filth" etc. is in effect the same target reiterated. They build up to an army in his head. Can he resist this invasion or is he welcoming it as an excuse and outlet for his rage?
It's like a dream turning into a nightmare...
Back in the cab...Where's he going? Who will he attack? Palantine? Why??
He's in a shop and a man pulls a gun. Bloody Hell. Travis shot the armed robber. I thought he would use the opportunity to try on his tough guy act. This is indisputably not an act. The camera flicks into a Hitchcockian overhead angle both shocking and dramatic (I'm aware of the new perspective but it doesn't take me out of the world). He's now a murderer but that doesn't matter. It's more about his mind. He's a hero son of a bitch.
The shop owner beats the armed robber's dead body. There's a lot going on : despair, prejudice, racism (the robber is black)...pain on both sides. The man's shop has been robbed again and again. It can't all be in Travis' mind...
The reasons for Travis' actions suddenly seem shallow. We believe he feels what he feels but we feel there must be a deeper motive, like there is for the shop owner - something which happened in which he wasn't a mere observer, where he was personally violated. If that is so, it is withheld. Rightly.
He writes a letter: "Dear father and mother..." says he works for the government...secret...pretends he's with Betsy...fantasy not a fantasist. Are they still alive? Are they part of it. "To a couple of good scouts". Seeing that Anniversary card hits me hard....very moving and not a squeak of sentimentality.
TV show. TV that he was rocking falls over just as woman on screen says "I love y-". "Goddamn....Goddamn" he says...headaches...it's like he's cursed. He can't escape it. It feels like the film is moving towards Suicide. He doesn't want to hear either from the wicked or the kind.
Picks up Iris the young prostitute. Why Iris? Eye, flower...or just a pretty name. It's worrying and tense...the film isn't burning with quite the intense flame I think it wants to but it's timing is perfectly judged. It doesn't need to go faster or slower.
He talks to her pimp. She's "12 and a half years old man" he says. This is horrifying and yet, by using age as the key to the horror, you make the rest of prostitution seem less unacceptable...I understand the choice but maybe an older girl would have been better...one who is vulnerable despite her more mature age.
Going up to Iris' room..."when that cigarette burns out...your time is up" she says. "Your time is up" - death. "Your future's all used up" as Marlene Dietrich said to Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.
Travis says her name is nice. Reminds me of The Exorcist when Father Merrin called remarked that Regan's middle name (Theresa) was "lovely". There's something very affectionate and touching about liking someone's name - like you cherish their soul and guard their identity...
Iris is lost too....drugs...what does she want?...she wants this life because it is the best that she can make of the hand she has been dealt - the rest is too far beyond to think about seriously.
I'm worried, really worried that he won't meet her at 1:00 like he said he would. The dark seedy corridors of this infernal motel are nauseating.
He does meet her...what a relief. "You're so square" she says. More talk of what's cool or not. Is he helping her, as he attacks her choices, or is he haranguing her? She's smart but her precociousness can't mask her youth. It's wonderful to watch these two feel for each other, forging a connection.
"Have you tried looking at your own eyeballs in the mirror?" she says. Eyes again, that stare that you can't hold...that holds the truth.
He tells her what Sport has been saying behind her back. "He doesn't he doesn't mean it" she says - it's heartbreaking. Iris and Travis are great, they are there, vivid and real enough to touch - Iris and Travis are great, not Jodie Foster and not Robert De Niro.
Her laugh is...I want to hear more of it...which is important...it's natural, it doesn't worry about being cool or square. Travis says he's "going away for a while".
Iris and Sport in her room - tough to watch....all she wants is affection...he is emotionally blackmailing her....seducing...hugs...hypnotic...using...making her rely on him - This is more hateful than a scene of sexual violence or a punch and a black eye could ever be. The most disgusting and depraved of acts. "I wish every man could know what it's like to be loved by you" It's a seduction for which only a gunshot should be the climax.
A gunshot! (at the firing range).
Travis prepares...the music glides down and then stays poised in suspense, tipping over again and again, getting up over and over....He writes a letter to her "When you read this I will be dead". "There never has been any choice for me" Travis...it seems right...it certainly rings true.
It's well done how Betsy is rejected as a main character and goes back to the sidelines. There is no feeling that she has to be weaved throughout the film. This is what happens in real life - people come on and off stage.
An assassination is in the offing..perhaps...Travis' new Mohican haircut is too obvious on everyone's part. Palantine stretches his arms out like the statue behind him, trying to be a leader like all the others who came to be immortalised. Travis doesn't have a hero madman to look up to. He doesn't have any role model or...anybody.
Travis applauds. Why does he want to kill him?? Travis runs as soon as he is spotted. Guilt and fear return. He neither wants anarchy nor to be controlled.
His rage is focussed on specific representatives of strata of society that he is dissatisfied with...he doesn't do it indiscriminately. He gets to know his prey...feels a closer bond, a magnetic force. This is another good aspect of the film. It doesn't want to exaggerate.
Now Sport appears - good, he's going to get what's coming to him - I mean...oh no...he's going to be killed. This film isn't as hardcore as I imagined it would be...the darkness isn't overwhelming or fetishised.
"I don't know nobody named Iris" says Sport. Travis shoots him "suck on this" - again the gun is a phallic symbol, offering a brute climax.
The gunshot echoes and he walks into the motel. There is pained breathing...it's a death...a coming apart...a degradation..the camera shifts around, reeling and jerking...it is as if the motel is the underworld...He climbs the steps...it's awful...Iris is crying...he tries to kill himself but the guns are empty...again he can't escape himself...he is stuck in a hell...lost in the rings...he sits calmly and she cries...
He mimes to shoot himself...doesn't seem right... until it is revealed as a metaphorical suicide...he kills himself or that self in his mind... we float above and over the carnage as in Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. We look over the chaos with a sense of catharsis, glory, and a little grief sobbing on her bed. Acceptance too.
Newspaper clippings on a wall...'Taxi Driver battles gangsters'. A sort of hero. They don't know how premeditated and merciless it was, or doesn't it matter? I'm torn, caring more about what his actions mean for his own peace of mind as opposed to the suffering of his victims....this is troubling...but to be expected.
Letter from Iris' parents to him is striking. Beautiful and poignant - her father's voice-over is the last narration we hear. We've stepped outside of his mind. Now people are seeing the best in him...
He denies being a hero when Betsy appears in his cab - again, he is aware. Is he clean of that dirt? He wanted to kill himself and only luck saved him. Is that Travis really dead? She gets out.
He flicks a final look in the rear-view mirror- he has spotted himself and takes up the challenge of this interior aggressor - it is a quasi-maniacal look, simmering with irrationality. Scorsese makes a poor decision. He should have left his state of mind suspended. Now Travis appears ill rather than an imbalanced man who can be righted. Maybe I want a happy ending...that's to the film's credit.
The credits roll. A good film, very good in some respects, but, despite a few delicate and unconventional touches, idiosyncratic triumphs and admirable restraint, never a great one.