Saturday, February 4, 2012

Same as it ever was: Taxi Driver's mean streets

By Steve Evans

A recent conversation about the physical transformation of New York City over the last 40 years set my mind to thinking about some of the great films made in Gotham and one picture, in particular, that still works brilliantly today as social commentary. Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver, remains a virtual travelogue of the sights and sounds one could experience in NYC during the city’s seedy low point, when Times Square was as dangerous as any jungle in the Congo and neighborhoods such as the East Village, some 30 blocks south of the Theater District, were home to lost souls and impoverished individuals whose notion of hope consisted of nothing more than surviving through another day.

Scorsese has said that the New York of Taxi Driver was meant to represent all American cities, where structural and social decay might eventually corrode a man’s soul. In the case of the film’s title character, that corrosion leads inexorably to isolation, alienation and murderous madness. I have seen the film many times and explored New York City extensively through the years, from Harlem to Wall Street on the southern tip of Manhattan and east into Brooklyn.

Decades of revitalization and governmental efforts to clean up New York have long since transformed much of the city’s Manhattan borough into a gleaming, gentrified habitat for the rich and those who aspire to be. Most everyone else has been marginalized. Times Square in 2012 is virtually unrecognizable from the steamy, rain-slicked hell that Scorsese captured on film 36 years ago. Gone are the grindhouses, sex shops, the hookers, the drug addicts and the pushers who catered to them, replaced by Starbucks and Sbarros pizzerias, Disney theaters and four-star hotels. Whether this is a good thing may depend on individual notions of adventure. Some people want to feel exhilaration and a sense of danger when exploring major cities. Others may be in town to see a performance of Phantom of the Opera after dining at Sparks Steak House. Street people are not a part of the latter equation, although you can still see them, just off the sidewalks, slouching in the shadows.

Beyond the thick layer of sleaze, the dilapidated buildings and grime that permeate the surface of Taxi Driver, there exists the world of the disenfranchised and the doomed. Midnight Cowboy (1969) explored themes of isolation and hopelessness among society’s outcasts, but Taxi Driver hammered home the point with such force that much of the picture has entered our iconography.

As the unhinged taxi driver Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro famously asks, “You talkin’ to me?” while brandishing his weapons. He speaks to a mirror. The answer comes later, in a gore-drenched shootout with low-level mobsters and a pimp when Travis attempts to rescue a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from a brothel, which was filmed at 226 E. 13th St. in the East Village (above and at right; frames from the film captured from my DVD). The same building’s front steps were later the scene of a real-life tragedy in 1988.

A former slum, the East Village is now home to NYU students, artists and theater folk. The room where Travis Bickle completes his rampage rents today for $1,690 a month, according to a NYC real estate listing (below, the facade of the building as it appears today). The original residents are long gone, perhaps pushed back into Brooklyn. But they are somewhere.

Renovating 100-year-old buildings and converting them into loft apartments might improve property values, but it does little to address the social ills on display in Taxi Driver. That is the real, lingering power of the film, because we can see in hindsight how little has changed in a generation. The streets may be cleaner, but the people who walk them are not demonstrably different.

One minute Travis runs from his failed attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate. The next, he’s gunning down a pimp. Scorsese and Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader engage in not-so-subtle allegory by making the Machiavellian politician and the sleazy pimp interchangeable in the eyes of their protagonist. Travis Bickle says he feels compelled to “do something” to clean up the streets and, by extension, clear his troubled mind. He is a man sickened by his environment, by his inability to connect to anyone in any meaningful way. He is not a hero.

Decades later, the politicians have cleaned up many streets, but not the minds of the wildly different people who inhabit them. To some extent, the current Occupy movements reflect this idea of the disenfranchised taking a stand. I wonder sometimes how far it will go.

It is said that violence is the final refuge of a man who has run out of options – and ideas.

In this election year, when the wealthy spend millions to elect rich politicians whose ideologies are in sync principally with their campaign contributors, the simmering of the disenfranchised can be felt on the streets, echoing across the Internet and occupying the front pages of the remaining newspapers in America. It can be felt in every budget cut, every rejiggering of social policy that shifts power and wealth to a smaller, more concentrated elite. There is anger. Taxi Driver never seemed more relevant – or frightening.

The original promotional poster for the film featured a tagline: “In every city there is one man….”

Today I suspect there is more than one.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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