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Culture Warrior: ‘Taxi Driver’ at 35

By  · Published on March 29th, 2011

You hear the phrase “This movie could never be made today” quite often, and it’s typically a thinly veiled means by which a creative team allows themselves to administer loving pats on their own backs. But in the context of at a 35th anniversary exhibition of the restoration of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with a justifiably disgruntled Paul Schrader in attendance, such a sentence rings profoundly and depressingly true.

Like many of you, I’ve seen Taxi Driver many times before. For many, it’s a formative moment in becoming a cinephile. But I had never until last weekend seen the film outside of a private setting. And in a public screening, on the big screen, I’m happy to say the film still has the potential to shock and profoundly affect viewers so many decades on. For me personally it was the most disturbing of any time I’d ever seen the film, and I was appropriately uncomfortable despite anticipating the film’s every beat. Perhaps it was because I was sharing the film’s stakes with a crowd instead of by myself or with a small group of people, or perhaps the content comes across as so much more subversive when projected onto a giant screen, or perhaps it was because the aura of a room always feels different when the creative talent involved is in attendance. For whatever reason, I found the film to be more upsetting than in any other context of viewing.

But one of the most appalling moments of Taxi Driver occurs right at the film’s beginning, before any narrative action even takes place, and that’s the display of a Columbia Pictures logo.

When viewing a film like Taxi Driver one’s perspective is often blinded by the benefits of hindsight. When experiencing films that are considered essential viewing, we often see them as unique and exceptional manifestations of creative energy, or works of art that could not not get made. While Taxi Driver is often cited as one of the most notable products of New Hollywood and a breakthrough for a director who would go on to be known as one of history’s greatest filmmakers, the legacy often makes the reality less visible. In fact, there were many opportunities for Taxi Driver to not get made, or to not get made into its current form (Schrader initially approached Brian DePalma to direct, and Harvey Keitel’s character was originally supposed to be black). Taxi Driver is not a sacrosanct text articulated as a pure manifestation of creative expression, but a film whose production and end result were determined by a great variety of factors and timing.

But while historical context is obviously essential to understand the very existence of any film and its role in place and time, there’s something to be said about the determining framework of hindsight. When one attempts to understand the importance of, say, Citizen Kane or Rashomon, one typically looks at what came before, rather than what came after (which would involve the film’s influence and thus constitute a backward reading), to even approach knowledge of its intervention in the overall cinematic dialogue. One hardly expects to understand the difference a film made from hindsight, but such is the case with Taxi Driver because the film itself, arguably beyond the enabling specific career trajectories, made hardly any difference at all, and instead signaled a shift that it had nothing to do with.

When I see the Columbia Pictures logo now, I think Spider-Man and Adam Sandler movies. I think of movies that have been exhaustively pre-packaged for audience consumption. I think of products that have been changed by ad execs, merchandising firms, focus groups, test screenings, franchise potential, a star’s net worth, etc. I don’t, in short (spoilers for a 35 year-old movie coming up!), think of a movie whose protagonist is a psychologically troubled and racist cab driver who frequents XXX movie theaters, stalks a 14-year-old prostitute, attempts the assassination of a presidential candidate, and goes on a murderous spree that involves his own failed attempt at suicide. Paul Schrader is right. Taxi Driver could never be made today with studio money. It is the product of a time that has irrevocably passed.

But Taxi Driver wasn’t alone. Political assassination was a major part of mid-seventies New Hollywood. Look at Taxi Driver’s fellow underdog nominee for Best Picture that same year, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, whose ending is arguably even bleaker than Taxi Driver. A year earlier, Robert Altman’s Nashville, ostensibly a feel-good movie compared to these other two by its shorthand status as a movie about country music, ends with the cold-blooded assassination of a major character. These were representations of trauma coming out of traumatic times, and they were not without their own consequences: just as Mark David Chapman’s allegedly Holden Caufield-inspired murder of John Lennon drew comparisons to Nashville, Taxi Driver incited an even more direct reverberation of real-life violence as John Hinckley Jr’s assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was inspired by his obsession with Jodie Foster (possibly envisioning himself as a Travis Bickle-type attempting to “save” her). Not that the studios or anybody involved are in anyway culpable in this time, but films like Taxi Driver do undoubtedly run the risk of finding spectators who identify all-too-readily with its protagonist.

And that’s what’s so astounding to me about Taxi Driver. You hear about it all the time, but it really does represent a time in which movie studios took real risks. A script with a “Travis Bickle” in it wouldn’t make its way anywhere near studio offices today. The real antihero is dead.

But more than a great film representing the possibilities of an “open” Hollywood long gone, Taxi Driver heralded the end of that era. The assassination-centric films released at this point in history represent a fatalistic turn in New Hollywood. Long after the countercultural project is gone after one and a half Nixon administrations, filmmakers concede that establishment forces are too powerful not to win, but the best they can do is represent their devices cinematically. The bicentennial was the year New Hollywood ended. While “New Hollywood” would continue to produce a few more films and the turn to the blockbuster was a years-long gradual shift rather than an immediate one, 1976 was the last year films like these were made by studios to this great an impact. 1977 would bring on Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, thus giving studios new priorities and incentives that didn’t involve the unmitigated expression of the auteur-filmmaker, and the bloated visions of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) cemented this shift.

But then again, I’m not sure where New Hollywood could have gone from Network and Taxi Driver. The assassination of the title characters of Bonnie and Clyde at the beginning of the New Hollywood turn in 1967 inspired a revolutionary spirit. That spirit was waning by 1976, and the acts of violence depicted in those later films represented defeatism in the face of social change, and even an unavoidable complicity in those forces one attempts to act against. So New Hollywood ends just as Network does, with establishment forces regaining the control they had in the days of Classical Hollywood. And while Blockbuster Hollywood has no doubt produced some great films, Hollywood’s many ongoing crises of creativity really make me wish Paul Schrader was wrong.

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