Minutia Madness: Taxi Driver Edition
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! may apply to the movie in discussion.)Everyone knows what makes a movie good. Blurbs like “compelling”, “powerful”, and “explosive non stop thrill ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat!” are common place on movie posters. In reviews (including my own) people point out how the direction is “great”, how the writing is “awesome”, and how the acting is “wonderful”. Every once in a while you can find a really great essay from a smart film critic (a real one) or film maker that actually explains why a movie is good and helps you as a viewer become a better film watcher.
But what about those small moments that fall in between the cracks? I understand the need to talk about a movie in the broad sense, its the easiest most SPOILER! free way of saying if you liked or didn’t like a movie. I prefer people to talk in specifics, to actually know why something is good or bad. But this goes beyond all that. This is blowing the tiniest detail way out of proportion. This is what makes me a film nerd. This is Madness!!!
Written Paul Schrader; Directed by Martin Scorsese
A little while back I wrote an in-depth look at how Taxi Driver is basically one of the best movies ever made. Its a film where everyone involved in the making was firing on all cylinders and may not have known exactly what they were doing, but knew it would be good. I’ve seen the movie at least 50 times. But sometimes watching a scene out of order or out of context (while still having that full film context in the back of your mind) can help you see things you normally wouldn’t. This is what happened to me when posting this clip of Taxi Driver for one of our Podcasts’ Connection Clips this past week.I note in the full review that Bickle is a man who is more of a shell (filled with anger, disgust, and testosterone) than an actual human personality. Often time when asked for his opinion on something he will state he doesn’t know much about that sort of stuff (What does he know about?) and then change the subject. You get the best sense of character not when he is around others, but when he is driving around at night or in his apartment, alone, with his thoughts. Bickle also a couple times in the movie will mimic other characters and adopt their mannerisms.
When talking to the Secret Service guy Bickle crosses his arms in the same way, trying to act tough and on guard. When talking to Matthew (aka Sport) he slaps his boots and says “I’m clean” in a similar way Sport slaps his arms and says “I’m clean.” In this scene, Bickle mimics another character in a small, subtle way:
You know that awkward moment when someone says “Hey, What’s up?” and it catches you slightly off guard and you quickly try to think of something to say back while sounding cool but since the last thing you heard was “Hey, what’s up?” you end up just saying “Hey, what’s up?” This moment is not like that. Bickle is not a guy who gets caught off guard very often. But he is socially awkward at times.
When the shop keep asks “Que pasa?” Bickle both dodges having to answer the question of “What’s up?” with personal information AND he mimics the shop keep by mirroring back “Que pasa?” Bickle is a man who is most comfortable not when he is in the spotlight, but when he is in the shadows, the mist, observing the scum, the vile, the trash that litter the streets and building up his hatred for them, while contradictory driving “anywhere” in the city and taking sleazy cab fares.De Niro was given a bit of leeway in Schrader’s pretty tight script (especially for being just shy of 2 hours) and at the same time the shot is clearly pre planned. It seems as if no matter what the shop keep said to Bickle, De Niro was ready for to deflect and bounce back the greeting. He doesn’t stutter or stumble around his response, it is cold and calculated like most of Bickle’s social interactions. He tries to be friendly by tapping the cash register and showing familiarity, but he does not actually reach out to shake hands, high five, or fist bump the cashier.
The scene continues to Bickle inspecting his potential groceries before being interrupted. This first murder shot is a turning point for Bickle. Once you shoot someone, simply fantasizing about it doesn’t make the cut. Its only a matter of time before he decides to show New York City some “True Force.” The owner of the store also shows some disturbing behavior by telling a nervous Bickle he’ll take it from here and then beating the dead man while insulting him.
So what do you think? Is this bit of latin flair worthy of another Minutia Madness journal entry? Or am I just crazy for focusing on this minute detail?