Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Taxi Driver

50. Taxi Driver (1976)
Dir: Martin Scorsese

When he made 'Taxi Driver', Martin Scorsese cemented his place in the great directors' canon. His earlier indie film, the excellent 'Mean Streets' (1973), had shown what a promising talent Scorsese was and also marked the first time he worked with his longtime acting collaborator Robert De Niro. This partnership would go on to create some of the most memorable films of the next few decades and 'Taxi Driver' would become renowned as a landmark in both their careers.

For a film that achieved such crossover acclaim from both audiences and critics, 'Taxi Driver' is a surprisingly slow-paced, dream-like character study. Anyone expecting a constant stream of action and violence based on the film's controversial reputation will find their expectations completely unfulfilled. Likewise, anyone expecting an exercise in studied cool a la Jean Pierre Melville's 'Le Samourai' (1967) will find instead a dour, seedy, realistic trawl through scummy locations and the psyche of a lonely, depressed and unstable man. Though there has been a macho tendency to romanticise the lifestyle examined in 'Taxi Driver' since the film's release, the reality is that of a tragic and pathetic figure who no sane person would model themselves upon.

'Taxi Driver' has little actual plot and instead focuses on a series of moments in the hellish existence of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a former Marine (honourably discharged) who takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver in an attempt to combat the chronic insomnia that makes his every day a 24 hour nightmare. During the daytime he visits porn cinemas, records his thoughts in a diary (which provides the film's narration) and searches around for something to give his life meaning. He finds potential candidates for the latter, first in Cybill Shepherd's political campaign volunteer Betsy and then in Jodie Foster's twelve year old prostitue Iris. With Betsy, Bickle's interest is romantic, while Iris presents him with a moral quest, part of his ongoing desire to "wash the scum off the streets".

Paul Schrader's excellent screenplay presents audiences with an unforgettable character but it is De Niro's performance and Scorsese's direction that really make Bickle a classic creation. Scorsese gives his actors a lot of room to improvise and the result is a remarkably natural set of performances and flow of dialogue. 'Taxi Driver's most famous sequences, in which Bickle rehearses his gunplay in front of a mirror ("You talkin' to me?"), was entirely improvised by De Niro from the barest of stage directions. Bickle's coffee shop date with Betsy was also largely unscripted, capturing the sort of realistic awkwardness that is so difficult to put down on the page.

The loose realism of 'Taxi Driver' is one of the major attributes that make it so endlessly rewatchable but there's a lot more to it than just the performances and dialogue. Scorcese and cinematographer Michael Chapman have turned the New York locations into squalid, hallucinatory dreamscapes in which the terrifyingly immersive viewing experience constantly seems one step removed from reality. Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann's ominous, hip Oscar nominated score provides these otherworldly backdrops with the perfect accompaniment. There are fans of 'Taxi Driver' who would have you believe that De Niro is the whole show but the walking contradiction that is Travis Bickle could not have plausibly existed outside of the mesmerizing world that Scorsese, Chapman and Herrmann create for him.

Which is not to degrade De Niro's legendary performance. Typically dedicated, De Niro obtained a taxi license and spent weeks driving a taxi around New York in preparation. He also lost 35 pounds in weight and listened repeatedly to tapes of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer's diaries (which partly inspired Schrader's script). This excessive approach was not wasted. De Niro inhabits Bickle completely, down to every paranoid glance and visibly skewed thought process. De Niro's earlier performance for Scorsese, as 'Mean Streets' young tearaway Johnny Boy, was also brilliant but his turn as Bickle shows a greater psychological depth and complexity of technique, probably largely due to Bickle being a much meatier role.

'Taxi Driver' is so completely focused on Bickle that the supporting cast gets less to do than the average secondary players. Nevertheless, there is at least one more excellent performance in the form of young Jodie Foster's pre-teen prostitute Iris. Foster shrewdly avoids playing Iris as a victim, making Bickle's obsessive need to become her self-appointed protector more psychologically complex. The relationship between Bickle and the vibrant, streetwise Iris is the film's most fascinating dynamic and the closest Bickle comes to forming a proper relationship, outside of his fellow taxi driver and street-level philosopher 'Wizard' (Peter Boyle). There was much controversy at the time of 'Taxi Driver's release about such a young actress playing the graphic role of Iris but these concerns are proved at best naive by the maturity of Foster's portrayal.

Something that is rarely mentioned in reviews of 'Taxi Driver' is the fact that the film is, in a way, quite funny. Amongst the grit and sleazy realism, there are moments of grimy black humour that add to the film's overall appeal. Most obvious in this respect is an amusing turn by Albert Brooks as Betsy's fellow volunteer campaigner and admirer. Brooks, an underrated performer and director in his own right, creates a sort of anti-Bickle with his goofy, self-aware antics which fail to charm Betsy at every turn. His presence (in a handful of scenes which are some of the only ones in the film that don't feature De Niro) sets up a nice contrast which clues us in as to why Betsy would ever consider agreeing to date Bickle. If Brooks is emblematic of the middle class suitors she is used to, the mysterious allure of Bickle's working class bit of rough has obvious appeal to Betsy. Also amusing is Scorsese himself in the role of a racist cuckold driven to frantic, murderous intent which he spills to Bickle in the back of his taxi.

But it is De Niro who gets the most laughs in 'Taxi Driver'. His recent glut of hammy comedy turns have lead many to write him off as comedically unskilled but De Niro was always funny, his talents were just better suited to more subtle humour. His keen ear for speech patterns and eye for body language, along with his uniquely expressive face, provoke laughs of recognition as he flawlessly essays human vulnerabilities. Travis Bickle represents one of De Niro's most deftly walked lines between tragic, terrifying and hilarious. His naivety in taking Betsy to a porn cinema on their first proper date, his willingness to appropriate any viewpoint that helps him in his own personal quest, his self-conciously lying letters to his parents; these are all amusing moments even as they unsettle. A particularly funny exchange between Bickle and a secret service agent is a highlight for me too.

Although it bears comparison with several studies of isolated figures before and since, 'Taxi Driver' feels like a completely unique experience. It is hugely important in Scorsese's development as a director and yet it stands out as stylistically unusual in an ouvre which is far more diverse than some critics are willing to give it credit for. Describing 'Taxi Driver' as a drama, a character study, a black comedy or even (as some have rather inaccurately stated) a thriller seems somehow inadequate. It has elements of all these genres but they combine to create a paradoxically beautiful examination of ugly subject matters. Having rewatched 'Taxi Driver' recently, I've found myself unable to get its invigorating mixture of exquisitely executed elements out of my head for the last few days and, in conclusion, the most accurate description of the film I can come up with is a suitably glib four word summation, the inadequacy of which speaks of 'Taxi Driver's indescribability: A hazy little miracle.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

One to Avoid: Bronco Billy

Bronco Billy
Dir: Clint Eastwood

During my many years as a film buff, I've always had a stange relationship with Clint Eastwood. As an actor, I've never thought him that convincing and occasionally he's downright wooden. But Eastwood has an undeniable presence which, given the right role, can be spellbinding. His famous performances as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone's superb Spaghetti Western trilogy ('A Fist Full of Dollars' (1964), 'For a Few Dollars More' (1965), 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' (1966)) were the stuff of legend, making Eastwood a superstar without requiring him to do much acting at all. Yet occasionally, Eastwood can pull a suprisingly impressive performance out of the bag, such as his downbeat Oscar nominated turn in 'Unforgiven' (1992) or his curmudgeonly old man in 'Gran Torino' (2008).

Eastwood's maddening inconsistency as a performer also characterises his work as a director. Since he started working behind the camera in the early 70s, Eastwood's diverse range of projects have been all over the map in terms of quality and style. When he's at the top of his game, Eastwood is a superbly reliable director and his masterpiece count is surprisingly high. He has been responsible for some of the greatest post-60s Westerns ('High Plains Drifter' (1973), 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (1976), 'Unforgiven' (1992)) but has also scored big in several other genres, notably with gripping dramas like 'Mystic River' (2003) and 'Changeling' (2008). It is with two genres in particular that Eastwood seems to come unstuck. One is the action thriller. Although, along with the Western, this is the genre Eastwood is best known for starring in, his directorial attempts in the genre tend to be flat, uninspiring and silly (1990's 'The Rookie' being the prime example). Despite their shortcomings, however, Eastwood always seems quite comfortable acting in the action film genre with which he is so familiar. It is the other genre that sees Eastwood most embarrassingly and consistently out of his depth and it is thankfully a genre he has been wise enough to largely avoid as both performer and director. The genre is comedy.

To say Eastwood is completely devoid of comic talent is unfair. The Man with No Name and Harry Callahan both incorporate the occasional, effectively dry quip into their personalities and Eastwood's crochety old man in 'Gran Torino' is often hilarious. It is when he attempts to throw himself whole-heartedly into a primarily comedic role that Eastwood is truly excruciating. Nevertheless, two of his highest grossing films as an actor were the daft fist-fights and orangutans comedies 'Every Which Way But Loose' (1978) and its sequel, 'Any Which Way You Can' (1980). Perhaps inspired by this success, Eastwood made his one and only comedy as a director, 'Bronco Billy'.

Oddly enough, 'Bronco Billy' is a film Eastwood frequently names as one of his favourites amongst his own directorial work. Apparently the film has one of the friendliest and most fun on-set atmospheres Eastwood had ever experienced and these happy memories have obviously seeped into his appreciation of the finished product. Surprisingly, however, critical response to 'Bronco Billy' was also largely positive. Critics were amused by Eastwood's flimsy parody of his own film persona but implications that 'Bronco Billy' has anything profound to say about the death of the cowboy tradition and the American Western are not backed up by Dennis Hackin's spectacularly appaling script or Eastwood's broad direction.

'Bronco Billy' tells the story of a run down travelling circus with a cowboy theme and its ragbag collection of ex-convict acts, lead by moralistic cowboy Bronco Billy (Eastwood). As they travel from town to town and struggle to keep their heads above water, the performers cross paths with Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), a spoiled heiress who has to marry someone before her 3oth birthday in order to inherit a fortune. She fulfils this contract with the exasperated John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis), who she then mistreats to the point that he disappears with all her money and her newly-fixed car, leaving Antoinette stranded in the middle of nowhere. Attempting to find her way back to civilization, Antoinette turns to Bronco Billy's Wild West Show' for help and relunctantly becomes another in a long line of Billy's assistants in his shooting and knife throwing act.

Even without going into all the other silly plot developments and unlikely coincidences that make up the rest of 'Bronco Billy', you already have a sense of its tone; A shapeless collection of vignettes made of stitched together cliches and unexpected events without the necessary character development required to arrive at them. Eastwood struggles to bring some gravitas to the proceedings, aiming for an examination of the dwindling popularity of the cowboy archetype that made him famous. This is clearest in a scene in which Billy and his cohorts, desperate for money, decide to carry out an old-fashioned train robbery. Ultimately, they discover that modern day trains are resistant to old-school Western bandits and give up. It's an idea with promise but loses everything in execution. The decision to carry out the robbery is arrived at too easily for a supposedly moralistic, self-appointed role model and the revelation that Billy's gang are all ex-convicts is not justification enough and is very awkwardly tacked on very close to the train robbery scene by way of explanation.

The train-robbing scene is not the only unmotivated, unlikely or superfluous plot element. Others include an evil lawyer and step-mother who have a couple of scenes and then vanish with little comeuppance, a phoney instituionalisation which leads to a ludicrous coincidence, and a giant circus tent made entirely of American flags. Hackin's script seems to be aiming for a sort of small-town fantasy that we're not supposed to take entirely seriously but he doesn't sell the notion enough to excuse the risible narrative development and his attempt to balance it with wistful meditations on lost legends and forgotten men makes for an uneasy mixture.

Aware of the fact that 'Bronco Billy' is not meant to be taken totally seriously, Eastwood plays up the silliness by encouraging his cast to give the broadest of performances. Eastwood's central performance is not utterly disasterous. He at least has a good time with it, even if Billy never seems like a real person. Far worse is Sondra Locke, Eastwood's beau at the time, with whom he starred in several films including the brilliant 'Outlaw Josey Wales'. Locke seems even more uncomfortable with comedy than Eastwood and is clearly only involved because of Eastwood being at the reins. Her transformation from a spoiled brat whose selfishness reaches levels of pantomime villainy into a soft-hearted lover of small-town folksiness is completely without depth. Her eleventh-hour suicide attempt is the film's worst moment and comes with even less build-up than the train robbery. Eastwood attempts to play her aborted overdose for a laugh and the result is one of 'Bronco Billy's most uncomfortably misjudged moments. In recognition of her efforts, Locke was nominated for a prestigious Golden Razzie award for Worst Actress. The rest of the supporting cast are mostly completely forgettable, other than Scatman Crothers, whose alcoholic Doc Lynch is all half-hearted wisecracks and cartoon double-takes.

Eastwood should be applauded for attempting something different and, despite his apparent love of the film, for recognising that he should never try this particular path again. 'Bronco Billy' is a total mess of a film which doesn't seem to know where its own plot is going or who its target audience might be. All 'Bronco Billy' does know is that it wants to comment on changing times and the death of the old west but in its struggle to do this, Hackin's script eschews almost everything else required to make a film enjoyable. There's potential in the kernel of an idea behind 'Bronco Billy' but it would take a better script, a more suitable cast and a director with more experience of comedy to draw out the Capra-esque ideal to which is seems to aspire.