2017 is a special year for anniversaries. It marks the 100th birthday of the historic Russian Revolution, one of the most important political events in the 20th century. The revolutions of February and October upended the political, social and economic structures that reigned in Russia. A Soviet government was established once Lenin rose to power, intent on implementing a Marxist agenda in Russian conditions. This had far-reaching, long-term effects on the global order.
The events of 1967 bear a similar significance for the American cinema. Although the governing structures were not dismantled as occurred in communist Russia, the products of the era were nothing less than revolutionary. And even if the experiment only lasted 13 years (from ’67 to ’80), even if it was an ephemeral movement, the films made – by young, ardent artists with nothing to lose – were ineradicably monumental. Many of them, such as Taxi Driver, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show and Apocalypse Now are still regarded as the height of American cinema. 1967 established a movement that will last in the collective memory for centuries.
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) arrived amidst a resurgence in American cinema. Directors were no longer bound by studio demands. Instead, they were afforded sole creative control, answerable only to themselves and the artistic team working on any given film. It is no mistake that Taxi Driver coincided with what many of us now know as the ‘American New Wave Period (late ‘60s to the early ‘80s)’. Taxi Driver is indubitably the product of Scorsese’s, De Niro’s, Schrader’s and Chapman’s cinematic nous.
Taxi Driver is a perfect marriage of content and form. Scorsese’s understanding of how form impacts content; namely that form can generate meaning, is key to the artistic success of the film. Michael Chapman’s cinematography is a real highlight, as it gives rise to establishing and clarifying thematic and character concerns in the film. Similarly, other formal elements (editing, acting, music) work in conjunction with the cinematography to make Taxi Driver what it is: a modern filmmaking masterpiece.
Despite the overwhelming critical acclaim of the film, there has been insufficient attention paid to the eminence of the camerawork that is so essential.
This list intends to remedy the lack of shot analysis of Taxi Driver, and provide a view on the greatest individual shots of which Taxi Driver is composed. The definition of ‘shot’ for the purposes of this piece is quite loose. To be clear, it incorporates everything that is going on in the shot.
Travis stares down a group of African Americans
Prior to the shot, a group of African American adolescents boisterously walk past Travis (Robert De Niro). They strut by confidently, and Scorsese gives us no indication that these young men have done anything wrong. Nevertheless, Travis locks eyes with the leader of the pack; intensely scrutinising and implicitly castigating the group. We get this sense that Travis is less than accommodating to this group by De Niro’s taut, vexed facial expression. This shot is presumably the product of the use of a Steadicam, and it travels from right to left while remaining focused on Travis’s response to the group of young men. We are put into a first person perspective, seeing with our own eyes the unmitigated loathing Travis has for the African American men. The red light that Travis is draped in only acts to reinforce the uneasy, hostile feeling that pervades the shot.
There are no words spoken, only looks exchanged. That is where the power of the shot is derived from; the quiet, pent-up rawness of it. It is as though Travis bears so much hatred for African Americans that he cannot even bring himself to speak to them. Despite his many encounters with African American characters, Travis only says one word to any of them: ‘hey’, before he shoots a robber dead in a convenience store. Travis’s burgeoning prejudice is notably the product of his poor level of education amidst a decadent American social climate.
It seems logical that Travis should have looked away, or attempted to minimise his contact with African Americans. This is because people usually try to limit their exposure to things they dislike. Travis does not take this approach. Early on, he states his happiness with working ‘anytime, anywhere’. As a result, he travels to Harlem, Queens, and the Bronx where criminality and drug use is rife. Travis is not psychologically immune to these unpleasant elements of New York, and he asserts his condemnation of them many times throughout the film. Nevertheless, Travis feeds his loathing of the virulent underclass of New York, which only reaffirms his anti-social and misanthropic tendencies. Therefore, this shot seeks to clarify something about the character of Travis Bickle: that he is a man so lost that his only way out of this pit of hopelessness is to revel in an isolating racial hatred.