Culture Shock Presents: Taxi Driver

Screening: Saturday, August 11, Free and Outdoors on the Sifly Piazza. DJ Set and Video Projections by Ben “Bean” Worely Begin at 8:15 p.m. with Taxi Driver (1976) to Follow After Dark.

Taxi Driver was not just a hit but…an event in American popular culture—perhaps even an intervention,” wrote J. Hoberman just last year in the Village Voice. His essay, written on the occasion of Taxi Driver‘s restoration and 35th anniversary, contextualizes the film within New York history, film history, and American collective consciousness with the kind of linguistic and conceptual economy reserved for paradigm-shifting films. Like all of the movies in this summer’s Archival Gotham: NYC on Film series, Taxi Driver affords us the chance to see that city through the mediations of cinema and history, through a character’s eyes, and through our own eyes. Given Taxi Driver‘s groundbreaking content and landmark status, the rewards of re-watching and re-thinking this movie ever renew themselves.

As Hoberman points out, when Taxi Driver was released in 1976, we knew about Hitchcock and Godard and we knew about Robert Bresson’s ‘tortured loner’ film, Diary of a Country Priest (1951), but we didn’t know that an array of US filmmakers would combine and distill these cinematic influences (among others) to produce a string of ‘tortured man in a room’ films and an American New Wave.

In 1976 we knew about the 1972 shooting of presidential contender George Wallace (and the shooter, Arthur Bremer, whose meticulous journaling would in part inspire Paul Schrader to write the Taxi Driver script) but we didn’t know that in 1981 John Hinckley Jr. would watch the film 15 times and then attempt to assassinate President Reagan, all in an effort to win the affections of the film’s young star, Jodie Foster.

In 1976, we struggled with the omnifarious aftermath of the Vietnam War but we had yet to see wave after wave of veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1976, film critic Vincent Canby could write of Taxi Driver’s protagonist Travis Bickle, “he is a projection of all our nightmares of urban alienation” with a certain immediacy. He was, after all, writing from a desk in the New York Times Headquarters building at Times Square… the same Times Square which Travis Bickle obsessively circles, attracted and unnerved as he is by its prostitutes, hoodlums, chaos, and filth. We didn’t yet know Times Square would be scrubbed of a particular grime, only to have the distopic fear pulsing through Taxi Driver still ring true 35 years later.

As Hoberman so succinctly concludes, “The movie is Scorsese’s hometown farewell… Like Nero, he torches the joint and picks up his lyre. Taxi Driver is a vision of a world that already knows it is lost. A third of a century later, the Checker cabs are gone, as are the taxi garages at the end of 57th Street and the all-night Belmore cafeteria. Times Square has been sanitized, the pestilent combat zone at Third Avenue and 13th Street where Iris peddles her underage charms has long since been gentrified. New York is no longer the planet’s designated Hell on Earth…No nostalgia, though: In other aspects, the world of Taxi Driver is recognizably ours. Libidinal politics, celebrity worship, sexual exploitation, the fetishization of guns and violence, racial stereotyping, the fear of foreigners—not to mention the promise of apocalyptic religion—all remain. Taxi Driver lives. See it again. And try to have a nice day.”


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