Taxi Driver

In summation: Watch it.

Taxi Driver is one of those classic movies that I’ve always heard about, but never taken the time to watch. Whenever I would hear references to it, I would think to myself ‘gosh, I really should watch that’, but by the time I was near a television it would be forgotten. This changed, however, when I began watching Orange is the New Black. For reasons that I can’t properly explain, Natasha Lyonne‘s Nicky Nichols character always makes me think of a young Jodie Foster.

nicky1I say for reasons that I can’t properly explain because she really doesn’t look anything like her. Her hair is maybe kind of the same color, but aside from that, the resemblance is slight at best. I think it’s the whole streetwise sassy girl thing that Lyonne delivers in OitNB that makes me think of Jodie Foster. I’ve absorbed through cultural osmosis that Foster’s character in Taxi Driver had that same persona. Regardless of the reason, I happened to be thinking about Taxi Driver at the same time as it happened to be on the Starz Add-on for Amazon Prime. Everything fell into place last week, so I finally watched yet another movie that I’ve been hearing about for the better part of my life.

The video quality in Taxi Driver really held up quite well -as it has for most of the classic movies I’ve been watching recently. The only things to indicate that the movie is as old as it is are the cars, clothing, and language that were contemporary to the time. Well, that and the horribly overt racism. The racism is the one part of most classic movies that I find difficult to ignore. It’s like when I was trying to watch the TV series M*A*S*H recently and found that there was a character named Spearchucker in it. Seriously? What the hell was wrong with my parents’ generation? It stands to serve as a reminder that the baby Boomers had their flaws. As for Taxi Driver, there were only a couple of actual ethnic slurs, but every black person was portrayed in cartoonishly stereotypical fashion. To the point that I think it might have been less offensive if they had just had white actors wear blackface for the scenes. But, as I said, the racism is just something you have to know you’re in for when you watch classic movies.

deniroAside from that issue, the movie was pretty good. Being born in the early 70s, I can’t recall seeing Robert De Niro in any movies prior to about 1990 (Goodfellas), at which point he would have been 47 years old. I would have been sixteen. Of course a 47 year old looks like they are about 100 to a sixteen year old, so I had no idea just what kind of shape he was in back in the day. Holy Jesus is that guy tone, but showing a bit of the far-too-skinny look that 70s stars tended to have. But to give credit where credit is due, He does look amazing.

fosterI was also a bit surprised at just how young Jodie Foster looked. My cultural osmosis told me that she played a streetwise prostitute, so I had expectations that she would look like a streetwise prostitute. I thought she would look like the photo of Natasha Lyonne above instead of looking like a child. It was very difficult for me to believe her in the role of a prostitute. It may have been impossible were it not for the fact that it was made clear that she wasn’t voluntarily selling her body.

Another surprise regarding Foster’s character is how little she was in the film. She didn’t make an appearance at all until it was more than halfway over. When she finally did come onscreen, she had only a couple of scenes of any substance. I believe Cybill Shepherd’s character, Betsy, (and I didn’t even know Shepherd was in the movie until I watched it) had more screen time that Foster’s character did. Regardless of which of them was on screen more though, Shepherd’s character played a much larger and more important role in the development of the plot and De Niro’s character.

The actors all put in solid performances in this movie. Unlike many films from my parents’ generation, none of the actors in Taxi Driver subscribed to Charlton Heston and William Shatner’s patented if I was portraying these events in an overly dramatic fashion, this is what it would look like style. The characters were interesting, the story was engaging (though with a heavy dose of foreshadowing which I believe goes beyond what I had gleaned about the movie from years of cultural osmosis) and the ‘special effects’ were reasonable enough to not destroy the movie. Don’t get me wrong, the effects looked fairly horrible by today’s standards, but I can’t judge a forty-year-old movie on what it would look like if filmed today.

The story is basically what you’ve probably also gleaned from references over the years: De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, is a returning Vietnam-veteran-turned-taxi-driver who doesn’t have any friends. Early in the story he is dressed fairly well, groomed well, and appears to be fairly normal. He attempts to pursue Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who initially obliges, but he blows his shot with her when he chooses to take her to see a porno on their first date. He does this, I might add, after she tells him outside the theater that she isn’t interested. She leaves the theater in a huff which ends their brief relationship. Once it ends, Travis becomes quite stalker-ish, continuing to pursue her despite her obvious disdain for him.

Surrounded only by his friends at the taxi company -all with grandiose stories about guns, drugs, and hookers- Travis slowly begins to devolve from the relatively normal person he is at the start of the movie to one who doesn’t trust anyone. He also begins to display Olympic-level paranoia (one would assume that the intended purpose of all of this when the film was released was to show the instability of our returning veterans of foreign wars). Ultimately he begins to amass a collection of guns and knives. It is clear that he plans to put these weapons to use, though his intended purpose is intentionally left unclear. He could either use them for a relatively good purpose or for a relatively bad one. Which choice he makes is left until the climax of the story. Since I recommend you watch the movie, I will avoid further spoilers.

Perhaps the biggest story to come from Taxi Driver, though, is the story of the assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan in 1981. In a story that will be familiar to those from my generation, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to kill Reagan outside the Hilton hotel in Washington D.C. He was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity based on his defense that the assassination attempt was solely perpetrated to impress Jodie Foster -who Hinckley became obsessed with after watching the movie Taxi Driver.

Since I was only seven years old at the time, I don’t think I understood most of what was going on with his trial. I know that it was the first time I heard about the movie Taxi Driver though, and it found it’s way onto my mental to-watch list right then and there (much like Ozzy Osbourne’s song Suicide Solution made its way onto my to-listen list in 1986 when another lawsuit happened*). The media frenzy that surrounded Hinckley’s arrest and trial are my first real memories of seeing the legal system in action -at least when placed in a national spotlight.

Having now seen the movie, I think Hinckley’s defense seems plausible. While De Niro’s character isn’t actually doing what he does to ‘impress’ Foster’s character, he is doing what he is doing to help her. I could see how someone with a bit of a detachment from reality could make the leap from one to the other.

That brings me to the final point that I took away from this story: Our parents’ generation was simply better at raising children than subsequent generations. In this story, De Niro’s character not only uses his arsenal to kill people, but at the end of the story he is celebrated as a hero by the media, the police, and even the parents of the runaway prostitute. There appear to be zero negative consequences for his actions, and a ton of praise. The fact that dozens of kids didn’t run out with guns-a-blazin’ to shoot up their high schools suggests that our parents were much better at helping us understand the difference between fantasy and reality than we are with our children. Perhaps that’s because our parents were the last generation to actually raise their children as opposed to plopping them down in front of TVs and video games to do the parenting for them.

If this film were released today, I am absolutely certain that it would be met with stiff opposition from parents’ groups and would almost certainly have an NC-17 rating -despite having very little actual violence. Even with that rating, I’m sure it would be named and blamed in every shooting for the next decade. When I think of other stories of killers (like Natural Born Killers) that have been blamed for all kinds of violence since their release, I can’t think of a single one that so clearly celebrates the actions of the killer.

*I believe the controversy surrounding Ozzy’s song Suicide Solution was horribly misplaced. I really think they chose the wrong song from that album to attack.

The Case: McCollum et. al. v. CBS, Inc., et. al. On the evening of October 26, 1984, nineteen year old John McCollum shot and killed himself while listening to the recorded music of rocker Ozzy Osbourne. That night, John listened repeatedly to several of Osbourne’s albums, including Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman, and Speak of the Devil. With his headphones on and the music playing, John placed a .22-caliber handgun to his head and took his life. John’s parents filed a lawsuit in a California civil court alleging several causes of action against Osbourne and his music label, CBS Records. The central premise of each cause of action was essentially the same: the lyrics, tones, and pounding rhythm of Osbourne’s music had the cumulative effect of encouraging self-destructive behavior…

I remember the media blitz surrounding this even though I was only 12 at the time. This was a big, big deal. And while I was far too young at the time to realize just how important this case was, I have come to realize since. Thankfully, and justly, the case was ultimately dismissed:

The trial court dismissed the McCollum’s complaint holding that the First Amendment was an absolute bar to the lawsuit. On appeal, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision holding that there was nothing in any of Osbourne’s songs that could be characterized as a literal command to an immediate suicidal act, nor was it intended as such.”

Of course the song on trial there was Suicide Solution which I think really shows us why this young man killed himself. His parents didn’t look beyond the title of the song to see that Suicide Solution is a song about alcohol addiction. They even hired some audio experts to come in and testify to there being subliminal messages telling you to shoot yourself in the song. I can’t say for sure that there aren’t such messages, but I can say for sure that the parent’s inability to look beyond the title probably wasn’t limited to music. Suicide Solution is about alcohol abuse, but had they gone back one track they would have heard Goodbye to Romance, a song about lost love that says over and over again, “I guess that we’ll meet in the end”, referring to being together in death (I related to that song so much in my teenage years that one of my horrible teenage poems is an acrostic of the title).

And the fact that the parents didn’t even bother to listen to the other songs on the album, or even read the lyrics, is probably a microcosm for how much attention they gave their son. While I’ve not researched it, I would be willing to bet that he had just been dumped by a girlfriend and retreated to his bedroom since he didn’t feel comfortable talking to his parents about it. And he really needed someone to talk to about it. The whole thing reminds me of an episode of South Park, where the parents get so caught up in crusading against things that they completely ignore their own children… Who are invariably the ones suffering the most from what they are crusading against.