Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Taxi Driver (1976), Pt. 2, a Fresh Appraisal

A few weekends back I saw Taxi Driver again. It had probably been three years since the last time I saw it. I decided on another viewing because recently I've been interested in the Arthur Bremer angle. Taxi Driver's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, is said to have come up with the idea for the movie based on Bremer's An Assassin's Diary.

None of the stuff I've read or the interviews I've seen mention An Assassin's Diary other than in passing. For instance, in an early 1980s interview with Paul Schrader about Taxi Driver there is zero mention of source material for the movie. In fact, Scorsese himself is unclear. In Scorsese on Scorsese (1996), edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Scorsese says "I never read any of Paul's source materials -- I believe one was Arthur Bremer's diary." Scorsese then goes on to say how his literary guide for the movie was Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). On Friday I speculated that Gore Vidal's New York Review of Books essay on the writings of E. Howard Hunt influenced Paul Schrader more than Bremer's An Assassin's Diary.

In any event, let's get to the movie itself, and why I think it represents Hippies vs. Punks ground zero. But before we embark, let me say a few words about when the movie premiered the winter of 1976. I was a sixth grader living in the Santa Cruz Mountains where my father's attempt to establish a communal-living situation/alternative school at an old Jesuit summer retreat was beginning to founder. I had a television in my dormitory room. Each room was self-contained with its own front door; the door opened to a wooden colonnaded walkway; the dormitory was in the same building as the communal kitchen and dining hall, but one floor below; the entire structure was built on a hill and the hill climbed upward until it disappeared into the forest above. (For an ambiance piece on the Santa Cruz Mountains, see the post on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life.)

I remember Taxi Driver was favorably reviewed with plentiful excerpts on television. And the overwhelming feeling I got as a kid watching those reviews and advertisements was one of fear. Here was a heavily armed skinny madman with a mohawk in an old fatigue jacket gunning people down in a city that looked like a real city. Taxi Driver scared the shit out of people.

I can't recall when I first saw Taxi Driver, if it was on television or at the movie theater. My parents took me to everything regardless of the rating (my mother took me and my sisters to see Bergman's Cries and Whispers), but I don't remember seeing it during its initial release. I do remember when I saw a new print of the film at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, which must have been to celebrate the 10th anniversary.

My takeaway from that viewing was how indebted the final shootout scene in the brothel is to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). And it's not just the yellow wash. Scorsese says that the rating agency insisted on desaturating the color to de-emphasize all the blood; this, according to Scorsese, ended up making the shootout even more lurid and horrific. (I think he's right.) But also there is something Scorsese does, which is subtle, when Bickle and the mafioso, whose blowjob from Iris is interrupted, have their gun battle. After the mafioso has been hit, Scorsese briefly speeds up the motion and mutes the sound, which is something Hooper did to accentuate the terror and violence of Leatherface's chainsaw attacks. (I noticed during my latest viewing that at the beginning of Taxi Driver Bickle drives by a movie theater with TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE on its marquee. Scorsese doffing his cap.)

Remember, it's fear that powers the counterrevolution to the 1960s. Fear of integration with blacks (anti-civil rights movement). Fear of sexuality (anti-black, anti-Hippie, anti-gay, anti-feminist). Fear of drugs (anti-Hippie, anti-black).

Sit down and watch Taxi Driver again and you will be stunned by its over-the-top racism and negrophobia. This would have been even more explicit if Scorsese had actually followed Schrader's script. Schrader had Jody Foster's character, the 12-and-a-half-year-old Iris, managed by blacks: Sport, the pimp, Harvey Keitel's character, was supposed to be black, as were the crime boss and brothel owner. Scorsese re-imagined the pimp as a streetwise Hippie; the crime boss and brothel owner, Italian mafia.

Quentin Tarantino points some of this out in his eight-minute review of Taxi Driver; he argues that the film is a success because of Keitel's performance. It would have been easy, Tarantino says, to botch that role, a theatrical version of Pat Boone sings rhythm & blues. But Keitel knocks it out the park. (My first viewings of the film as a boy and then college student I was absolutely mesmerized and terrified by Keitel.)

Tarantino defends the picture against charges of racism by saying that Travis Bickle doesn't actually kill any black people. This is not true. Bickle guns down a black guy who is robbing a convenience store. Bickle comes up behind the robber and shoots him. The store owner then proceeds to club with a length of pipe the mortally wounded thief. This is the scene that made a lasting impression on me when I first saw the movie. I had never seen anything like it. It was so violent, so real. Watch it again. It holds up to this day. Notice how the store owner refers to the scene as "Fucking Mau Mau Land."

It doesn't stop there. There is the scene when Bickle exchanges a threatening stare with a black youth using a golf club as a walking stick. There is Bickle's intimidating fellow cab driver, a big black guy in a dashiki who points his finger at De Niro like it's a gun. The whole picture screams negrophobia.

Then there is Bickle's background as a Marine. When I first saw Taxi Driver I assumed that Bickle was just an insane pretender who might not actually have any military experience. Seeing the movie again, it is clear that both Scorsese and Schrader intend Bickle to be not only a real Marine but a combat veteran. Scorsese got the idea for De Niro's mohawk by talking to a Vietnam vet; it is something, Scorsese was told, that soldiers did to say, "Don't fuck with me. I'm going into combat and am preparing to die." In 1975 when Taxi Driver was shot Saigon had just fallen.

The mohawk would become a Punk mainstay thanks to De Niro, as would the plaid shirts that Bickle wears. (De Niro did research at a military base in Northern Italy.) In seeing Taxi Driver again, what really struck me is how much Travis Bickle and his evolving hairstyles look like the Punks -- Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell -- performing at CBGBs that same summer.

We'll conclude with part 3 and a look Bernard Herrmann, the Hollywood legend who scored Taxi Driver and was known for his work with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Also, we'll attempt another helicopter landing at Hippies vs. Punks ground zero and try to answer the how and why Punks were used to wipe out the Hippies.

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