There are some movies that are clearly not just movies. They are phenomena. I do not necessarily mean that they are what Variety calls ‘Big Boffo’, films whose grosses are up in the top 50 of all time. Some of the movies I am talking about – The Exorcist, for instance, or 2001 – are ‘Big Boffo’; but others, such as Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, are by their nature successful only with a limited audience. It is not the size of the audience that matters here, but the intensity of its reaction.
Beyond entertainment, what the three films just mentioned offered their audiences was provocation. They tapped into people’s emotions at a deeper level than movies are usually able to reach, and inspired passionate, sometimes even crazed responses. Aside from whether they are good art or bad, movies like these have an effect something like that which jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow once attributed to heroin: they ‘turn you every which-a-way but loose.’
Not every season produces such movies, but recently two have appeared in New York that seem to qualify, Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. These films first opened next door to each other on a strip of Manhattan’s upper east side where the four movie theatres that are the city’s most prestigious are located in a single block. From there, each film has spread its influence all over town.
If the social life that I lead is any indication (and I think it is), Seven Beauties is the most talked about movie this year, perhaps the most talked about subject. The numerous local interviews with Lina Wertmüller have about them a stunned and panting tone, and each seems to have been conducted by someone who has come directly from the theatre to talk to her. Seven Beauties has been playing in that one theatre since some time last year, and under its sway every other film Wertmüller has made has also been premiered or revived; for a while, four of her films were playing simultaneously in the midtown area.
Nor is Scorsese’s film far behind. Several days before it opened, Pauline Kael gave it so laudatory a review in the New Yorker that the film’s publicists immediately ran advertisements reproducing the whole review. The day that the film opened, the New York Times ran a very tantalising background article on its making. Scorsese has now spread out to other theatres too, and Taxi Driver is currently playing in two other midtown locations, besides its original one.
Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the composition of the crowd that is being attracted to it, ranging from rather tough-looking teenagers to overdressed dowagers, from middle-class couples out on a date to, I would guess, taxi drivers sneaking a few hours away from the job. The audience seems, in point of fact, very much the same wide cross-section of New York’s population that appears in the movie itself.
Not all movies that become phenomena of this sort are alike, of course. On the contrary, what gives a movie this appeal is often something fortuitously unique and, to Hollywood’s chagrin, inimitable. But in this case, I think the films really are comparable. Their audiences overlap to some extent, and were it not for Seven Beauties’ foreignness and subtitles, this overlap would probably be greater. What is more, both films try to spellbind their audience in the same way.
After first putting us at ease with a human predicament that is laughable, each film sidles gradually, at times almost unnoticeably, towards something far more serious. Each works on us by a kind of synaesthesia, confusing the impressions we get in one situation with the sense we have of another. Mingling sensations until they become indistinguishable, the cause of one seeming to produce the effects of another, these films succeed by playing upon our perceptions until we can no longer tell certain experiences apart.
It is not only in the nature of their appeal, then, that the two films are alike, but in the very way they are put together – the way they generate that appeal. Seven Beauties opens with an embrace between Hitler and Mussolini, and from that follows, in the first five minutes of the film, all of World War II. Beginning with bombardment, explosion and plane crash, some newsreel footage moves next to shots of a few snowbound refugees, then to the unburied dead, and finally to abandoned, bombed-out cities.
Only after we have thus been transported from apocalypse to desolation are we ready to meet Pasqualino ‘Seven Beauties’ (Giancarlo Giannini), who emerges from the sepia-tinted newsreel like the lone fugitive from an otherwise total destruction. In the last few seconds of the newsreel, a train hit by an air attack bursts open its sealed doors and spills Pasqualino into a wood somewhere in Germany. From the murky brown of the newsreel inside the train, Pasqualino is plunged into the murky blue of Seven Beauties’ colour photography outside. What connects the two is his passage through a moment of absolute night and darkness during which Wertmüller has, without our realising it, switched film stocks. It is a neat piece of work that anticipates perfectly a kind of moral hocus-pocus which goes on in the film as a whole.
Once Pasqualino is free of the train, it turns out that he is not alone, for he bumps into another Italian soldier, Francesco. As they wander together trying to escape detection by German troops, Pasqualino reminisces about his life in Italy, and the film begins a series of flashbacks that continues throughout his flight, eventual capture and internment in a Nazi concentration camp. What the flashbacks reveal is that at home in Italy, Pasqualino was an utter punk, but a rather charming one.
His memories begin with the time his obese sister, Concetta, was performing in a music hall. Pasqualino goes there to accost her in her dressing room after her act. He tells her that she has no talent, and that the pimp who has been telling her otherwise is leading her on. Her only defence is to protest pathetically that the man has promised to marry her. In this scene, as in many that follow, Pasqualino claims to be ‘a man of respect’, upholder of the family honour in all disputes. But the point of the scene is that, like Concetta’s singing and dancing, Pasqualino’s honour is just a bad act.
The scene opens on Concetta’s clumsily dancing legs, and when Pasqualino makes his entrance it is also with a shot of his legs as he walks down the stairs into the music hall. His gait just happens to be in time to her music, which establishes at once that, between her strut and his swagger, there is nothing to choose. As he bawls her out they are sitting at her dressing-room table, and instead of looking at her, he looks into the mirror. Like Concetta when she puts on the make-up for her performance, he is only posing and preening in the glass, putting on a false face that is ugly and overdone.
The next day, when he meets a waif crying in the street because she doesn’t sing well with her father’s barrel-organ, Pasqualino cheers her up by suggesting she tell anyone who complains that she is the fiancee of Pasqualino, a man to be reckoned with. So saying, he repeats with this girl precisely the deceit for which he has reviled the pimp encouraging his sister. But of course Pasqualino’s motive is only to console the girl, and what was cruelty and exploitation two scenes ago is now sweet and noble. It all goes to show that judgment is relative, all judgment.
Through all its consequences, Pasqualino’s dispute with Concetta’s boyfriend is pure comedy of errors. When the man refuses to keep his promise of marriage, Pasqualino threatens him with a gun that accidentally goes off and kills the fellow. When the local Mafia chief, who is Pasqualino’s counsellor in the ways of honour, tells him to dispose of the body, Pasqualino obediently sets about hacking it up for shipment out of town. But first the body almost bests him in a wrestling match; then, as he lugs the suitcases with the body in them through the streets, a dog sniffing at their contents gets Pasqualino at bay and makes him the centre of attention.
He no more than gets rid of the cases, when the police charge in to arrest him; and he no more than escapes their pursuit, turning defiantly to boast that they would never have taken him alive, when another detachment of cops sneaks up unseen from behind to make a fool and liar of him yet again. But all these fiascos, along with Pasqualino’s incarceration and trial, are only half of Seven Beauties; the other half, interspliced with them, is the story of his adventures in Germany.
All the Italian sequences really do, in fact, is prime us for the German ones. The atmospheres of the former seep into the latter through Pasqualino’s memories. Our first glimpse of Germany already suggests a place receptive to transformation, for in the daylight the woods in which Pasqualino and Francesco are hiding look like an enchanted forest, a misty, primeval place like something out of a German fairy-tale. It makes Francesco and Pasqualino into an Italian Hansel and Gretel lost in the Teutoburger Wald where anything might happen.
What does happen, appropriately, is that they come to a witch’s cottage, a mysterious rustic lodge in a clearing where an overweight Miidchen sits alone singing to herself. Wearing only a skimpy evening gown, she seems in effect a German Concetta. In place of Italian light opera, we get here the German version, each singer’s song acting as a kind of overture to the society in which Pasqualino must next make his way.
It is out of this context that Pasqualino’s internment in a concentration camp develops after his capture. Just as Concetta’s act is a comment on his life, a model to interpret it by, so Pasqualino’s life back home is itself the model for understanding events in Germany. The concentration camp even looks like back home. There one of Pasqualino’s favourite activities is to walk along a promenade lined with cafes and covered high overhead by a skylight; and after a while we realise that this piazza bears an eerie resemblance to the main assembly area in the camp. It too is a thoroughfare enclosed by high walls and roofed by a skylight.
Indeed, in another regard, this assembly area even reminds us of the very house in which Pasqualino lives. It is also a combination work and living quarters, the mattress factory operated by his sisters occupying the same rooms they live in, and its low arches and vaulted ceilings are echoed in the assembly area by a row of similar archways along one wall. In Pasqualino’s house, the only decoration is religious statuary in a glass case and a tailor’s dummy suspended from a hook on one wall; and in the assembly area, likewise, shrivelled corpses lie rigid as statues and dead men hang by their necks from the beams.
The light and colour of Italy are warm and amber or roseate, while the concentration camp is all in blues and slate grey, cold colours. Yet the camp is in its horrific way as beautiful as Naples. Wertmüller has stylised her concentration camp no less than everything else in her film, veiling it in a haze of lime dust from its crematoria rather like the mist in the German forest, and the result is an environment as unreal as that forest. Immersed in such a setting, Pasqualino resorts to the only skill he has, the one that always stands him in good stead at home: he tries to seduce the camp’s female commandant, and he succeeds.
Hailed to her office, he stands before her with his jacket still on and his pants down around his ankles. It is exactly the same state of dishabille in which all those hanged men outside are left on their gibbets, but no matter. The point is that this is a world where you are damned if you do and damned if you do not, where the martyrs and the collaborationists, those who die for petty defiance and those who grovel for dear life, are finally indistinguishable. So you may as well grovel.
Like the atmosphere in which they occur, events in the camp begin to seem like a mirror image of Pasqualino’s life back in Italy. Repeating an earlier sequence of those events, the film now gets it all backwards, however, just as a mirror does. Where before a bang is followed by a chuckle, when Pasqualino shoots the pimp and then has to get rid of the body, now the chuckle comes first, to smooth the way for the bang.
Pasqualino’s burlesque making love to the commandant is the funny part, but in its aftermath there is murder. As a reward for his performance on her office couch, the commandant makes Pasqualino a kapo in charge of his barracks. But when his friend Francesco goes berserk in the assembly area one morning, Pasqualino’s duties turn out to include shooting the miscreant.
Francesco even encourages Pasqualino to shoot in order to make it easier on him (and us). As Pasqualino fires the pistol right into the top of his friend’s head, the only thing the image on the screen contains, besides a tight close-up of the pistol itself, is the guards’ dogs straining at their leashes in the background. When the pistol goes off, the dogs start and bark at the report. This is the sole reaction to what Pasqualino has done, and it is of course the same reaction that we observed in the street after he committed his first murder. The association of images suggests that this new murder should be thought of as somehow comparable to the earlier one; indeed, accidental and hilarious as it is, the first murder becomes a mitigating circumstance in this grimly intentional second one.
Finally, Pasqualino returns home after the war. As his arrival is being awaited by his sisters and mother, all of whom are now prostitutes, the camera fixes on a photograph of Pasqualino taken in the old days. What a ridiculous figure he cuts with his pomaded hair, pencil-line moustache and bedroom eyes. When Pasqualino himself walks in the door, his hair is dishevelled, his face slack, his eyes wide and vacuous. As his mother stands him before a mirror (much as he did Concetta at the beginning), we see who the man of respect has become: a mere survivor.
Ever since the time at which this scene is set, in fact, the only hero we have seen in Italian films has been this sort of man, this survivor. Simply to survive is the only kind of honour that any Italian writer and film-maker has proposed in the post-war era. Startling and controversial a figure as Pasqualino may seem at the end, he is really just an inheritor of the heroes of thirty years ago-of Visconti’s fishermen and De· Sica’s old-age pensioners and bicycle thieves. Pasqualino’s return home at the end of Seven Beauties is neorealism brought to its ultimate, and perhaps logical, conclusion.
Though she represents the third generation of post-war filmmakers to come to prominence in Italy, Lina Wertmüller’s connection to the neorealists is a reasonably direct one. Her first important assignment was as an assistant to Fellini on 8½, and his first credit of equal importance was as scriptwriter on Rossellini’s Open City. Fellini’s influence is clear in the stylisation of Wertmüller’s film, which often has about it that quality of a tableau Fellini is so deft at creating. But the social message of Seven Beauties returns to the original neorealism with a vengeance and is not mediated as the style is.
With its partisan heroes who endure torture and death rather than collaborate with the Nazis, Open City would seem to be a film that affirms everything Pasqualino is not. Yet listen to how Rossellini himself explained his point of view in discussing his next film, Paisa, which also deals, like Open City and Seven Beauties, with the interaction between Italy and an invader. “There were two worlds which came into contact, each with a different psychology and mental structure.
“From this conflict was born a great confusion; so much so that in the end there were neither victors nor vanquished, there remained only the legendary heroism of the man who clings to life. And who lives, despite everything, whether he is one of the victors or one of the vanquished…” It is hard to imagine a more fitting apology for Seven Beauties.
Like Seven Beauties, Taxi Driver begins with a sequence that sets the mood for the entire film. In this case, it is not a whole sequence, really, but a single, protracted shot – a shot of a New York taxi cab driving down a street towards the camera through the vapour billowing out of a manhole. On the one hand, the shot just records the event noncommittally: nothing happens except the passing of a taxi, and nothing changes in the focus, camera position, etc. On the other hand, though, the shot is done with a telephoto lens and in slow motion.
Since such a lens tends to retard our sense of movement, especially in a head-on shot, it and the slow motion confuse each other’s effects until we are not sure what distortion we are seeing, if any. But the distortion is there, and the effect of this shot is to give the cab’s approach a bizarrely dreamy effect. It is as if we were somehow detached from the scene; as if the approach of this taxi were, as they say, unhinged.
This opening shot is elaborated in a sequence that occurs a little later. At the beginning, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran with insomnia, gets a night job driving a taxi; and soon, he confides to a journal which he keeps, he is working 14 hours a day, seven days a week. To convey this total absorption of Travis’s life in his job and in the night world of the city, the film becomes for a while merely a montage of his routine.
The meter in his cab ticks off the fares one after another, while outside the criss-crossed city streets become an endlessly repeated shot of a red traffic light, a diagonal wipe moving across the screen each time the shot replaces itself. In the sequence that seems specifically to echo the opening shot, we get a whole series of shots of the cab travelling the streets. This time each one is done with the camera mounted on the cab itself, so that we see some part of it – the front bumper, or the New York registration medallion riveted into the bonnet – passing before the cityscape.
Again, the effect is strangely detached and isolated. The close-up detail of the cab and the long shot of the streets float over each other without being in visible contact. We can see no relationship between them, and what the physical disconnection begins to imply is some profound emotional disconnection, some state of alienation, in Travis himself. In effect, Scorsese’s film is becoming a documentary of that alienation.
The film’s attention to quotidian reality is full of peculiarities, like the externally mounted shots of the cab and the diagonal wipes. Another is a lurid saturation of all red light in the film, so that its redness is burned in and bleeds past the edges of the traffic standards, directional signals, neon signs, etc. from which it comes. These peculiarities dislodge the film from the very reality it seems to study and change its subject from Travis’s working conditions into his mental condition.
When Travis seeks out a dealer in illegal arms to sell him some pistols, the deterioration of his mind becomes explicit. Yet the process remains gradual, sometimes barely discernible. He undertakes some standard physical conditioning, but then turns from calisthenics to holding his hand over a stove flame. Target-range practice alternates with practice in front of a mirror, drawing his pistols and taking offence at insults from imaginary strangers. A rail from a cabinet drawer he seems to be fixing turns into a mechanism for ejecting a gun from his sleeve into his hand.
The transitions are so uncertain that Travis seems scarcely aware of them. The course of events seems aptly described in a scene where he is rocking his television set back and forth with his foot while watching a soap opera. All of a sudden the set falls over backwards and blows itself out, whereupon Travis is even more startled than we are.
Though the gradual slippings of his mind obscure the enormity of what is happening to him, Travis undergoes no less a metamorphosis than Pasqualino does in Seven Beauties. Like Wertmüller’s film, Scorsese’s advances its plot by a series of trade-offs, by exchanging one set of circumstances and actions for another. Before Travis goes to the gun salesman, the strange documentary of his life as a cabby yields to a more conventional feature film treatment. But as Travis sees the salesman and then goes into training, the documentary reasserts itself: the engine we see him working at now is a gun instead of a car, but the point once again is just the routine of his life.
Since Taxi Driver begins with Travis approaching a garage manager for a job, when he similarly approaches the salesman for a gun midway through the film, the event would seem to signal the beginning of some kind of pattern of repetitions. And this is exactly what occurs.
Before Travis buys the guns, he becomes involved with a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), whom he spots entering the campaign headquarters of a presidential candidate. After observing her from a distance for some time, he one day goes into the headquarters to volunteer, and ask her out to a coffee shop on her afternoon break. Though at first amused by his directness, she soon refuses to see him any more. Exasperated, he walks into the headquarters at last to confront her and has to be thrown out by a cop.
Having been rejected like this before buying the guns, Travis becomes involved with a second girl, Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage prostitute, just after buying them. Where Betsy is a goddess from the haut monde, Iris is a lost soul from the demi-monde, a demonic reincarnation of the untouchable Betsy, even looking vaguely like her. Buying a 15-minute trick with her, Travis in effect gets to know Iris the way he does Betsy, at work. But he soon tempts her out to meet him too at a coffee shop, and there also tells her, as he does Betsy, that he feels he can save her from false friends. In the person of Iris’s pimp, there is even a counterpart for the candidate whom Betsy serves with such devotion.
This substitution of one woman for another is accompanied by a substitution of violence for sex. When Travis first notices Betsy, he only sits in his cab watching her through the plate-glass windows of the campaign headquarters until a colleague comes out to chase him away. After he buys the guns, he begins to stalk the candidate for whom Betsy works; and in one of the scenes establishing this, he sits in his cab around the corner from a street rally to observe him, as he had earlier watched Betsy, through the plate-glass of the building between them. Intent as Travis is on killing the politician, however, when a Secret Service man foils his attempt he simply makes Iris’s pimp his target instead.
In the shoot-out at the brothel which provides the film’s climax, the parallels play themselves out between Betsy and Iris, sex and violence, sanity and madness. In a scene back at the campaign headquarters, Betsy makes a bit of a fool out of a co-worker by challenging him to light a match with just two fingers – like, she says, a crippled attendant at her newsstand. Now, as Travis enters Iris’s tenement, the first random bullet fired at a room clerk blows away all but the same two fingers of his outstretched hand.
In a way, a perverse twist of the film’s imagery like this only follows from what comes before, carrying over the same explicit but bizarre sense of detail we have seen in the documentary treatment of Travis’s life. Yet, in another way, there is something new going on here. Earlier the film shows us Travis’s life in a way that proposes the madness and alienation with which he sees reality. Now reality itself seems to possess such madness. As Travis at last acts out his demented fantasies, the world unaccountably begins to accommodate and conform to them.
The extent to which this is so is revealed by the aftermath of the shoot-out. Recovering from his own wounds, Travis becomes, we gather from a magazine article tacked up on his wall, something of a local hero. Then one night, months later, Betsy gets into his taxi. She speaks to him almost as if she had expected him to be the driver – as if she had now purposely sought out his cab. As he drives her home, they chat about her candidate’s election chances, and briefly about what she has read of Travis in the papers. When she gets out she stands beside the taxi, seeming to have something more to say, wanting to prolong the conversation but finding herself unsure how to proceed.
Travis simply cuts her off with an easy, knowing smile and drives away. She lingers on the kerb looking after him; her posture suggests something unrequited in her attitude, and when she does finally turn to go in it is with an air of resignation. In its closing sequence, the film reintroduces a shot used frequently in the early sections – a shot of what Travis sees in the rear-vision mirror of his cab.
But in this end version of the shot, the image we see in the mirror only seems to reproduce the view of the streets we get through the windscreen behind the mirror. Since the frame of the mirror itself is inside the focal length of the camera, the contours of the mirror are blurred and indistinct. The image in the mirror now merges with the reality outside so that the two are indistinguishable. In essence, this is what happens in that penultimate scene with Betsy: Travis’s dreams come true.
Like Seven Beauties, Taxi Driver ends in a way that is crucial for the film as a whole and has almost a retroactive effect on it. After the shooting and the incident with Betsy, the film turns from a taxi trip into a head trip, a fantasy of insane rage and violence that is in the end authorised by the film itself. And the hero who emerges from the ashes here is a traditional one, a figure who has his origins back in the films of the post-war period just as Wertmüller’s Pasqualino does.
The hero Travis reincarnates is the one found in the American film noir. Actually, there were at first two different heroes around in that genre. One is the good hero, epitomised by the Raymond Chandler detective in films like The Big Sleep. He is a man who, like Travis, knows how to move through the city at night, but he is also a man who knows enough not to get involved with most women; his heroism is both defined and limited by his almost total lack of emotion.
The other noir hero, the bad hero, is found in such adaptations of James M. Cain as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. This man has an excess of emotion, and where the other hero’s nemesis is usually some gangster, this hero’s is always a woman, a blonde bitch goddess like Lana Turner in Postman and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver.
We always have the suspicion that the bad hero is at heart the person the good hero would turn into if he ever lost his grip on himself. The one thing the two types share, explicitly in the novels and at least implicitly in the films, is that violence excites them sexually. And in a synthesis that unites the two in the early 1950s, they become someone who is essentially a psychopath. Often a cop who still possesses the capabilities of the good hero, this man is now also driven by his obsession with a woman.
Whether his desire is to avenge her, as with Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, or to possess her, as with Cornell Wilde in The Big Combo, does not matter. The character Robert De Niro plays in Taxi Driver is an inheritor of the film noir hero just as surely as Pasqualino is an inheritor of the hero of neo-realism. But like Pasqualino, Travis in Taxi Driver transforms his heritage in critical ways.
Back in the 1950s, that third sort of film noir hero always had to come back to his senses to win out in the end. He must recover from his corruption into the bad hero and become the good hero again. But in Taxi Driver, Travis achieves the moral authority of the good hero not in spite of having been the bad hero, but because of having been him. Far from depriving one of such authority, turning into a psychopath now becomes a way to attain it.
In the end, Travis gains what Chandler’s detective had all along, the ability to do without another human being, even the bitch goddess; and at the same time, ironically, Betsy responds to him for the first time, his capacity for violence melting her heart where nothing else could. Her new reaction to Travis at the end is proof positive that he has gained authority in the eyes of the world. Who could judge these things better than she, who even knows a future president when she sees one? In Travis, passion and alienation combine with an effectiveness we have never seen before in our movies.
Without minimising Scorsese’s contribution to his own film, I think it safe to say that the film’s crucial link with film noir is through its scriptwriter, Paul Schrader. Back in the early 1970s, Schrader wrote for Film Comment the best article that has been done on film noir. But his influence on Taxi Driver goes far beyond mere historical mediation. His role in the making of the film seems without doubt personal, in the sense that his personality dominates it.
In an interview published recently (also in Film Comment), Schrader sounds at times just the way Travis looks when he is posing and practising with his guns in front of the mirror. He talks freely about how he keeps guns on hand, and when asked whether he is a “gun hobbyist”, he says it is “more an obsession”. If Travis’s point of view comes in the end to coincide with the film’s own, so that it is impossible to tell apart the filmmakers and the film’s hero, this element of identification may have something to do with it.
The major piece of criticism Schrader did before turning to scriptwriting is a book on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer called Transcendental Style. To find three of the gentlest directors in the history of movies in the background of Taxi Driver seems surprising. Yet it is clearly an idea in the back of Schrader’s mind, and Scorsese’s, that they too are making a film about religious experience. This is apparent from various allusions that Taxi Driver makes to Bresson – in a camera gesture that lingers, like Bresson’s, at waist level, or in Travis’s diet of bits of bread and apricot brandy which mimics the eucharistic diet of bread soaked in wine on which the hero of Diary of a Country Priest must live.
Curiously, Lina Wertmüller also seems to have conceived Seven Beauties to be a film about religious experience. As Pasqualino is being taken to kill Francesco, the other camp inmates are standing in rows watching. And suddenly, without any signal but as if following along in some liturgy they know by heart, they all kneel. When Pasqualino shoots Francesco, the others are kneeling in the background like communicants at the consecration of the host. As the priest celebrating this mass, therefore, Pasqualino is presumably redeemed by what he does – redeemed by his act of violence, just as Travis is by his.
More important than whether these films are about religious experience, though, is the question of whether they become a religious experience for us. This is a question that returns us to the concerns with which the discussion here began, for it is basically a question about what kind of appeal these films have for us. The first appeal – the one that brings us into the theatre – is to our curiosity.
We go to see Taxi Driver to find out how the other half lives, to get the inside story on some way of life that fascinates us precisely because it is beyond our ken and we have no other access to it. At the time Scorsese made his first New York film, Mean Streets, he stressed in interviews that he himself grew up poor in Little Italy where the film is set. ‘I’ve been there and I know,’ was the implicit claim he seemed to be making for the authenticity of his film; and it is a claim that we can easily imagine him extending to Taxi Driver.
The same is true of Seven Beauties, whose promise is also the disclosure to us of otherwise unimaginable experiences. But the second appeal that both these films have – the one that comes after we see them and makes us glad to have done so – is of an opposite kind. It is of a kind that is, we might say, religious. Because they are made up of images like daydreams and nightmares, movies are perhaps uniquely capable of affecting us on that primitive level where religious experience occurs.
Moreover, the intensity of the response to both Taxi Driver and Seven Beauties suggests that they are having just such an effect on their American audience. At the core of this experience of any movie is its ability to make us surrender our feelings to it and identify whole-heartedly with its characters.
This is what Taxi Driver and Seven Beauties accomplish in the end, despite having begun by assuming the greatest possible difference between their characters and audience. Among all the exchanges of one experience for another that occur in these films, the most remarkable is the one suffered not by their heroes, but by us. If this is indeed a religious experience, it is the most binding and fanatical kind, a con version.
Though Schrader’s book is often somewhat sophomoric, the idea seems to be that what the ‘transcendental style’ transcends is ‘differentness’. The audience ‘empathises’, to use Schrader’s word, with characters whose spirituality makes their experience remote from our own. I am not so sure that this is truly the style of Bresson or Ozu, but whoever’s style it is, Taxi Driver makes a Black Mass of it.
This is still not to say, though, that both these films do not accomplish something transcendent. In both cases, having gone to the theatre to see an expose of someone else’s life, we come away having got something even better: an apology for our own lives.
It seems hardly a coincidence that movie heroes who first appeared in America after World War II should be undergoing a resurgence of popularity today, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. (Keep in mind that back in the 1940s, the neorealist films had an impact in America perhaps even greater than in Italy.) In the last few years, violence has taken some peculiar turns in American movies and the movies Americans like.
Several years ago at Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, for instance, I noticed that people cheered when a cop brutalises a black man, and then again when a black man shoots a cop. It did not seem to matter who the victim was as long as there was a victim. Kung Fu movies, with their unfamiliar social factions and obscure motivations, satisfy the same desire for a violence that is meaningless to us. So maybe does Taxi Driver when Travis’s target changes arbitrarily from Betsy’s politician to Iris’s pimp.
Yet in many of the recent ‘phenomenon’ movies, all the violence does seem to have the same message. It is the message of Death Wish, and the message we get when the Indian kills McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Travis and Pasqualino may seem to come out in different places. In a way, it is as though Travis earns the kind of ‘respect’ that Pasqualino has at last learned not to believe in. But in truth Pasqualino and Travis are here to tell us the same thing too.
This is that it is all right to have held the gun in our own hand and pulled the trigger ourselves. More than that, it is good to have done so. It affirms us somehow. Right now, this notion is obviously welcome and gives these films extraordinary power. But eventually we may end up rather ashamed to have felt this way, and rather embarrassed by movies we took to heart because they encouraged us. We shall have to wait and see.
Originally published: 14 August 2020