I had the privilege of seeing the new restoration of Taxi Driver projected in Digital 4K at an actual theater with Paul Schrader in attendance this past weekend, so I figured it might be worth writing a bit about here. Schrader stayed for a Q&A, as well as a more general forum the following day and gave me quite a bit to think about.
I had not seen the film in years and did not really remember enough to form a coherent thought about it from before. I saw it when I was quite younger, yet I am too young to have seen it in its original release and context. Part of the discussion revolved around its 35 year history and how it has come to take its place in the pantheon of ‘great 1970’s American Cinema’; a time where the so-called New American Cinema, which included such new ‘film-school directors’ as Martin Scorsese, began a short lived era of newly found creative freedom from the Studio system who were eager to capitalize on the growing, yet hard-to-understand youth market.
After a strict Calvinist upbringing that apparently kept him from seeing a film until he was a teenager, Schrader started a career as a film critic, a self-professed protege of Pauline Kael, who veered into screenwriting and then directing. His first solo screenplay was Taxi Driver, after only co-writing The Yakuza with his brother Leonard (which was apparently one of the highest selling scripts of all-time, at the time). It is a story he claims came about as a means of “mental therapy” for the “dark place” he was entering in his life. Schrader confessed that he is very much drawn to character-driven, confined pieces (in comparing himself to Scorsese, with his penchant for broad canvases, sweeping over an ensemble of characters and setups, Schrader prefers to focus on drilling at one particular pinpoint of one particular skull within that canvas, if I’m remembering the metaphor correctly). Taxi Driver is very much a film about a guy confined inside his own space, working out (or rather not working out) his own mortality.
Whether you have seen the film or not, you have no doubt heard of its lead character Travis Bickle, or at least seen a clip of Robert De Niro‘s infamous “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. This is the stuff of film history, forever imprinted on the cultural consciousness. But what exactly is it all about?
I don’t think I could properly answer that question, at least not in a way that has not already been covered by entire books devoted to the subject. I just think it’s worth remembering that every film that reaches such levels of exposure has its context evolutionarily shifted outside of it and its authors control. Schrader approached this point in responses to questions about Travis Bickle’s anti-hero type status on the culture (from his likeness being co-opted as “punk” to his comparisons to real-life terrorists (mostly of the pre-9/11 variety). Schrader was adamant that this character is a psychopath. He is not to be sympathized with (he kept the references to Vietnam to a minimum in part because of this; he did not want people to use this as a rationalization for the character’s behavior). The original character was apparently also much more overtly racist (all the people killed in that scene were intended to be African-American). Schrader made a case that he saw the characterization being racist as being different than the film being racist, but Columbia Pictures appropriately differed with this view and required otherwise.
Schrader has had 35 years to answer questions relating to Travis Bickle, so I take it that he would have expounded a bit if he had some sort of ambivalent identification with the character. Schrader acknowledges that the character comes from both his own creative inner musings and from what he had read about real-life figures like Arthur Bremer (though he claims to not have read his diaries until after writing some of the narration and being surprised at how accurately he mimicked the writing style).
He did touch a bit upon the idea of the “glory in death” that is symbolized by the mohawk that Bickle changes to at that particular moment in the film that he has given himself over to his own evil. Though this could have come from the character’s background as a combat solider (though again this is never expounded upon within the film), Schrader made the obvious, retrospective link to his latter interest in and film biography of Yukio Mishima (which comes from a completely different cultural context, but perhaps shares some similarity in their grandiose/delusional? ideas of ritualized performance).
As another completely unrelated piece of trivia, Tony Bill, a producer who would eventually leave the project, originally pushed for Jeff Bridges as Travis Bickle, because of his previous involvement with the actor. Neither Schrader or Scorsese thought Bridges could pull off such a performance at the time. Scorsese originally wanted Harvey Keitel to play Travis, because he was much more intimate with him than De Niro at that point. Scorsese was eventually convinced otherwise, obviously.
One of the most interesting things Schrader said about the film was his belief that it works as a kind of “evil loop” both structurally and thematically. It starts with the shot of a taxi driver plowing through the smoke-filled streets and ends with the same. Schrader referred to it as a “metal coffin” floating through the decay of the world. Being a self-proscribed “Midwesterner”, Schrader attributes the ethereal filmed New York setting entirely to Scorsese and seemed to not entirely articulate (or even grasp) its importance as a character/setting here (especially in comparison retrospectively to today). The “metal coffin” remark makes me think of the narrative indebtedness to Ancient myth, though this could have been more simply culled from something like Jean Cocteau‘s Orpheus.
Almost every scene is seen through or from Travis’ unreliable viewpoint. Scorsese had Schrader write two additional scenes without Bickle, one between Albert Brooks and a campaign advisor in a hotel room (which was later cut) and the one between Sport (Harvey Keitel) and Iris (Jodie Foster) in the bedroom when he keeps her from leaving him. Schrader hated both of these scenes because they did not adhere to narrative structure.
While there is that question of a skewed perspective through the eyes of the unreliable narrator, Schrader was also insistent that the epilogue to the film was entirely realistic. It is not a dream or some sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. While he acknowledges that it is obviously ironic in its intention, Schrader says that Travis is no longer interested in Betsy (Cybil Shepard) because he will simply “find another one” and “start all over”. The cycle will presumably continue he gets caught and/or dies.
There’s not much analysis here on my part. I guess I just wanted to get across the thoughts that Schrader put out there for the crowd. Taxi Driver is a film that he included in his own attempt a few years ago at putting together a cohesive film canon in the great piece of writing “Canon Fodder” for Film Comment that can be found, along with much of his other writing, on his personal website.
Schrader seemed very soberly pessimistic about the current state of American film financing (meaning there is no money in the U.S. to be had these days for films many of us are interested in). I’m not sure if I’m quoting or paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of: “Hollywood doesn’t make dramas anymore. It doesn’t do character-based films”. Spectacle (3D or otherwise) and broad comedy is all that is expected to make money, so that is what is produced. He frequently reminded us all that technology is making the old way of making, distributing, and viewing movies obsolete. Though, he is in no way against incorporating new technology (in forgetting to bring the DVD of his ten minute showreel of film clips, he showed a downloaded version from his phone). It’s just that, with the proliferation of choices out there that this technological revolution has brought, no one has figured out a proper revenue model to pay for the quantity of quality product that could rival something like the “New American Cinema” these days. Looking around at the beautiful new theater in which his film was just projected (in 4K digital no less), Schrader deliberately remarked: “This is so twentieth century”….
Paul Schrader is currently awaiting scheduling and finalized funding (“from the Latin market”) to come together for The Jesuit that he hopes will star Edgar Ramirez (‘if he can get him’) and frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe. Prompted from my own question, he will hopefully be following this with Xtreme City, a “Bollywood American Gigolo” that currently has interest from Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio (with Martin Scorsese in a producer capacity). Schrader explained the complicated courtship of Khan (co-writing the script with a relative of his who wrote his upcoming RA. One). Schrader doesn’t think DiCaprio will choose this project, as he has many other more lucrative offers to choose from. However, SRK has apparently agreed entrust the American casting decision to the filmmakers (which he would normally have control over before accepting). I’d like to see a masala crossover film and Schrader would certainly bring an interesting perspective to what one usually expects from Mumbai…