The opening page of Taxi Driver’s script breaks all the rules of screenwriting. It’s a dense, imposing block of text: “TRAVIS BICKLE, age 26, lean, hard, the consummate loner… He has the smell of sex about him: sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the inevitable. The clock spring cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.” Loneliness, sex, anger: everything you need to know about Taxi Driver’s nut-job anti-hero is in writer Paul Schrader’s hard-bitten prose. “What made this film special,” says Martin Scorsese on this long-awaited Special Edition, “was the precision with which Schrader created the character.” It’s true: few other movies have created a protagonist so iconic. Or so insane…
Since 1976, Travis Bickle has become a poster boy for misfits everywhere: that iconic shaved head, gun-toting, bare-chested image of unfocused aggression (“You talkin’ to me?”) has been Blu-tacked onto the walls of a million bed-sits (“Then who the hell else are you talking to?”). Seething with the disillusionment of a specific time – post-Nam, post-Nixon – it has actually become timeless, a young man’s movie about hatred and despair. Living out of his car, playing with guns and watching porn, Schrader was Travis Bickle; so was De Niro (who moonlighted as a cabbie) and even Scorsese (“I lived those feelings”). Anyone who’s had the teen-20s blues knows they’ve a bit of Bickle in them, too. It’s ironic that a film about loneliness should connect so many people, from New York to London to Beijing. “I was in China in 1984,” recalls Scorsese, “and a young man kept asking me questions about Taxi Driver, ultimately ending: ‘What do you do about the loneliness?’”
THE EYEBROWS HAVE IT
Taxi Driver has never been treated well on DVD. Now remastered and repackaged in this two-disc Special Edition, it looks like that neglect has finally come to an end. The line-up’s impressive: two commentaries, over two hours of featurettes and Schrader’s screenplay. But as with Bickle, what you see isn’t what you get. The yak-tracks are solo efforts by Schrader (erudite, entertaining) and Professor Robert Kolker, author of A Cinema Of Loneliness (whose talk of “formal structure” and “closed systems” is just plain erudite). There’s no Scorsese, no De Niro. Given Bobby’s out-of-character awkwardness, the latter is no great loss… but surely someone could have picked up Marty’s commentary from the old Criterion disc? With a movie as obsessively analysed and critiqued as this, it’s hard to break new ground. A 70-minute Making Of doc, familiar from earlier releases, doesn’t help in that respect. At least it gets soundbites from the main players. Jodie Foster remembers turning up on set with her mother, a woman game enough to let her 12-year-old daughter play a Time Square tart and lecture Harvey Keitel about the evils of Hollywood. Schrader talks about the 15-year-old hooker who became the inspiration for Iris. He paid her to stay the night in his hotel room (on the sofa, naturally) and dragged her to breakfast with Scorsese the next morning.
Schrader is all over this Special Edition like a rash, but Scorsese bounces back in the second disc, bushy eyebrows bobbing up and down as he talks about his cinematic references. Most fans know about Godard (the Alka-Seltzer shot) or Bresson (Pickpocket’s influence on the gunplay). Yet Scorsese is more enamoured with Fassbinder’s The Merchant Of Four Seasons, Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet or Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano. How many other directors could discuss Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and its “sense of guilt and paranoia through camera movement” and make it riveting? If more film studies lecturers had Marty’s passion, cinema would be a better place.
THE ANIMALS COME OUT AT NIGHT
A quirky bit of lateral thinking gives the disc’s other extras some offbeat charm. Best of all is a doc about real-life ’70s cabbies, which rounds up some roughneck New Yorkers to recount their time among the trannies, pimps and pushers. The war stories are lurid – “So then the guy pulls out an axe, a silver, long-handled axe…” – and a timely reminder of just how much New York has changed since ’76.
As the extras wrap, though, it’s hard not to feel a little miffed. Where’s the in-depth assessment of Taxi Driver’s legacy? There’s a whole documentary waiting to be made about how Foster-obsessed loner John Hinckley Jr did a real-life-Bickle on Ronald Reagan. What about the movie’s post-shootout coda… real or just a dream in Bickle’s dying mind? And could nobody tie down De Niro and get him to talk in depth about the madness in his method, driving a cab around New York streets? Scorsese may have won the Oscar for The Departed but it’s Taxi Driver that’s his real masterpiece. Isn’t it time for a definitive DVD that shows the respect it deserves? Some day a real rain will come….