Friday, April 22, 2016

Taxi Driver: Still dangerous, still remarkable 40 years later

Harvey Keitel (left to right), Michael Phillips, Paul Schrader, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Kent Jones gathered for a 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Tribeca Film Festival. (photo credit: Getty Images)

The day Taxi Driver opened, Feb. 8, 1976, screenwriter Paul Schrader went to a theater across town and saw a line around the corner still as the first showing was to begin. He worried something had gone wrong with the projector or, god forbid, the print. He asked the girl working at the theater what all those people were doing there. She told him they were here for Taxi Driver. He asked if it had not already started, and she said they were lined up for the next showing.

“I walked up [into] the theater,” said Schrader. “It was the very first screening in New York, and the cab pulls out of the steam, and it says ‘Taxi Driver,’ and people in the audience applaud. The film had never been projected before. It was some kind of New York groundswell that just was there.”

To this story, director Martin Scorsese responded: “Incredible. I had no idea. None.”

The scene outside the Beacon Theatre
So went the 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Beacon Theatre on the Upper-West Side of Manhattan. Robert De Niro pulled together a reunion of the filmmakers behind the cinematic classic as one of the centerpieces of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded. Onstage were Scorsese, De Niro, Schrader, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, producer Michael Phillips, and moderator Kent Jones, who is program director of the New York Film Festival.

The overwhelming feeling of the moment was awe – from an audience with a group of legendary actors and filmmakers assembled before them and from those onstage who still seemed stunned their little film found any success at all.

“What I saw [in the script], I can’t articulate,” said Scorsese. “It just had to be done, that’s all. I think Bob and I, we never really spoke about meaning or theory of any kind. Paul is the one who expresses it. I just had a kind of determination to make it, and I said earlier, I didn’t think it was a film that anybody was going to see. I felt it was just made out of the passion of the situation.”

That passion drips down the screen. It explodes out of the speakers. It demands your attention even when the only thing on screen is an empty hallway, one of the film’s many signature shots. On the big screen, the steam seems to pour out into the theater, and characters that have become larger than life through pop culture and critical appreciation feel more real but still larger than life. This is how this film was meant to be seen – in a packed house with that gorgeous yet ominous Bernard Herrmann score booming throughout the auditorium.

“It’s part of being in the city at night in the summer,” said Scorsese. “You can feel it in the film, Michael Chapman’s photography. You can get a sense of – you can taste – you can taste the humidity, and you can taste the sense of sometimes a kind of anger and violence that was emanating from the streets themselves. It was crazy.”

The city is nothing like that anymore. One imagines that is for the best. The world Taxi Driver depicts feels divorced from reality, like a metaphor for something darker in the human experiment, and it is those things, too, but to a person, the filmmakers assured us life in the city was like that and that people like Travis Bickle and worse were all around.

“When I read it, I identified with it, as I think we all did,” said De Niro. “Even though Marty’s from the heart of New York, I’m from the heart of New York, not far from each other in Manhattan, we just identified with the character.”

Ultimately, the character is the film, as is De Niro’s remarkable, terrifying performance. Pop culture, in some ways, has reduced Travis to a Mohawk and “Are you talkin’ to me?” However, when you see the performance again, in its proper context, it is hard to imagine a more thorough examination of psychosis, of a man on the brink of madness, capable of committing any number of terrible acts, and just waiting for the moment to strike.

“This script began in the best possible way,” said Schrader. “It began as a kind of self-therapy. There was a person who I was afraid of, who I was afraid of becoming, and that person was the taxi driver, and I felt like if I wrote about him, I could distance him from me, and it worked. … After 40 years, that therapeutic power is still imbued in the film.”

A film written as therapy, made out of necessity, depicting a hellscape at the heart of the American soul, one understands the filmmakers’ bafflement at its success. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, Scorsese got wind the jury president, Tennessee Williams, was not a fan. Believing they had no chance to win, Scorsese and the cast did their required interviews and promotions, got on a plane, and came back home.

Phillips stayed behind to represent the film just in case. Well, just in case arrived and the film was announced as the winner of the Palme d’Or, the highest award of the festival and one of the highest honors in all filmmaking. To his shock, Phillips said, when he went onstage to accept the award, half the audience celebrated. The other half booed. After Phillips told the story, Scorsese just shook his head.

Jones, attempting to save the evening from that somewhat downer ending, offered: “Well, the film got the last laugh.”

With that, the assembled legends stood, clasped hands, and took a bow. Forty years and an ocean away from that divided audience in Cannes, hundreds of film lovers had gathered to show their appreciation for a work of pure genius. As the wild cheers of a grateful crowd echoed through the room, the truth was plain for anyone to see. Yeah, the film got the last laugh.

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