Winter 2019

Scorsese's Inferno

Damien Chazelle revels in Taxi Driver's nightmarish mix of music, subjective imagery and De Niro in his prime


Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (Screenpull: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)


It's staggering," says Damien Chazelle from his front-row seat in a DGA screening room as Martin Scorsese's chilling urban character study Taxi Driver (1976) begins, and Bernard Herrmann's music—the maestro's last, an insistent groan of a score, part symphonic, part jazzy—ignites the subjectivity of lonely, troubled Travis Bickle's vision of New York.

"I don't think he ever saw the finished version, but how the music and imagery feed off each other, counter each other …" Chazelle says. "First you start with the fumes of hell rising up, you get that really scary music, so they're consonant. But then you go to (Robert) De Niro's eyes, and they're shot like Hitchcock shot the eyes in Vertigo, there's something creepy and voyeuristic about it. The lighting's unsettling, the closeness. And then the score's romantic, beautiful, the most sweet Herrmann ever composed. It's essentially a jazz combo, this whole score, and I have a special fondness for it."

Chazelle—who won the DGA's top honor for the musical La La Land and whose recent First Man chronicles the moon landing by Neil Armstrong—remembers being a New Jersey music student taking the train into Manhattan, and using a mix of those memories and the New York of classic '70s films to create the city feel of his musician drama Whiplash. "It seems to be a perpetual night," he says. "A grimy New York of green windows, deep blacks, rain-slicked streets, crime everywhere."

Newly hired as a cabbie, Vietnam vet Travis (played by De Niro), narrates his florid thoughts as Scorsese pans across his dingy apartment. Chazelle sees another Hitchcock shoutout, to Rear Window. "This is a beautiful shot, where you start in one corner of the room and slowly do a circular pan, constantly picking up various objects to tell you something about the person, and then finally, like the end of a sentence, you land on the person. Graceful, economic storytelling. I get such a high on this stuff."

Scorsese's initial driving montage ("All the animals come out at night," Bickle tells us) is given hypnotic purchase by Herrmann's score, and how Scorsese pushes the repetitiveness. "How pervasively it's used is part of its brilliance," says Chazelle. "It goes beyond the normal, comfortable margins of film music. It puts you in a trancelike mindset, drawing from a limited set of motifs. You're not in control as the viewer. You're in the cab. It's a great example of how music can put you in a character's head in a way even imagery can't."

Scenes from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Travis's narration also allows for a free association with the imagery, Chazelle says. "I think it operates very similar to the French New Wave. The stolen shots on the street, the jazziness. But Scorsese makes it his own. He takes what was black-and-white or romantic and Parisian, and makes it New York and grimy and scary, but sometimes romantic."

Scorsese punctuates the drudgery of cab driving with syncopated back-and-forth shots of the taxi meter and traffic lights, and Chazelle calls it "editing as music. Now you could turn it on silent and get a sense of rhythm and musicality." Traffic lights also dictate the movie's color scheme, he says. "That red, those great greens, and the kind of mustard yellow, piss-vomit color, he leans into those the whole movie. And the way [cinematographer Michael Chapman] shoots it, with the marquees and through the windows at nighttime, you fall in love with it, it's seductive."

When Travis joins fellow cabbies at a brightly lit diner, the chatter reminds Chazelle of how John Cassavetes informed Scorsese's early work. "The faces are real, there's total naturalism, an improvisatory feeling." But Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was another Scorsese influence, and as soon as Travis pops bicarbonate into his water, we're again in Travis's head as he stares at the fizz. "Then you get a moment like this, where it's sound design, subjective, expressionistic, which would be completely out of place in Cassavetes. That tension between Cassavetes and Welles is beautiful."

Inside the campaign office of presidential aspirant Sen. Palantine, however, where Cybill Shepherd's and Albert Brooks' characters work, Scorsese lets go of subjectivity for the small pleasures of Brooks being conversationally witty. "It's funny being reminded there's a world outside of Travis' headspace." Chazelle pauses. "And that world is an Albert Brooks comedy."

Shepherd's Betsy is Travis' obsession, and on their awkward date he takes her to one of his porno theater haunts, which repulses her. During Travis' subsequent apology to her on a hallway phone, the camera self-consciously moves away from him, and Chazelle sees in this quietly audacious shot another link to La Nouvelle Vague's playful experimentation. He notes, "This is stuff Scorsese borrowed and made his own, so you forget how radical the early Scorsese movies were, those moments where you're aware of the camera as independent of a person. Hollywood learned how to coopt those New Wave tricks, and the ones that maintained were the ones that could still get subsumed into a normal continuity, where it didn't really jar convention. It'd be cool if some of those were brought back or engaged with more. It's like this whole kit of unused colors is still there."

(Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

At a diner, Travis' wary, fearful staring at black people—a fellow cabbie, nearby diners, a strolling pimp outside tracked by the camera—sparks Chazelle to note that Taxi Driver is "one of the best movies about a main character's racism. You think of movies about self-professed white supremacists or Nazis, but this movie melds the camera with his way of looking at the world, and you can tell everything he thinks of as wrong with New York he blames on classes of people. It's not done with big speeches. It's done with silent cinema, and that makes it creepier, more insidious, because it's unsaid."

After our cabbie buys a bag of weapons in a hotel room, Scorsese holes us up with Travis in his apartment for an extended period of time as he readies himself for violent glory. "No score, no voiceover, you just hear the handling of the guns," notes Chazelle. "It's almost procedural. This is the movie at its most Bressonian, where it becomes this unvarnished study of what a person does alone. This is a new language for the film. But how carefully shot it is, the precise frames, the crisp sounds, it feels masterly. It's almost pleasurable."

Travis' volatility brings considerable edge to a strange, quasi-comical back-and-forth he has with a Secret Service agent at a Palantine rally. Is this a job interview? Who's sizing up who? Chazelle has been itching to get to this scene, he loves it so much. "De Niro's amazing, obviously, but the unheralded genius is the agent, that actor," he notes. "It helps that he's wearing sunglasses, too. You could almost think he's earnestly engaging. It's an ideal interchange, where there's an entire other dialogue going on that has nothing to do with what you're hearing."

Chazelle is also a fan of a drawn-out shot back at Travis' apartment in which he toys with tipping his television back. "Suspense at its most elemental," says Chazelle. "You're waiting for the TV to tip over. You almost want it to. I hadn't thought of it as a microcosm for the movie, but it totally is—how much can you tighten this guy before he pops? And when it does tip over, Herrmann's scary music kicks in."

When Jodie Foster's child prostitute Iris becomes the focus of Travis' savior energies—first he pays to talk to her, then takes her to a diner—Chazelle sees their scenes as acting showcases in tragically warped innocence. "Theirs is the closest to a genuine conversation in the whole movie," he says. "Their mental level, their demeanor, it's this inability to deal with the danger and complexity of New York."

ANTIHERO: Scorsese's title character, played by Robert De Niro, goes from courting campaign worker Cybill Shepherd, top, acting as savior to a young prostitute, played by Jodie Foster, in red, to potential political assassin. (Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

In an unusual move away from Travis' viewpoint, we get a scene of Harvey Keitel's Sport and Iris alone—pimp pacifying prostitute to Herrmann's familiar sax motif, which is now emitting from an onscreen record player. "I love when movies do that," Chazelle says about the diegetic use of the romantic theme. "It's kind of a no-no in film scoring, but it's been used in French New Wave, in Fellini with Nino Rota, even in Hollywood movies like The Apartment. But it's also something that wouldn't be as effective today because few scores use melody these days."

Their slow dance is broken up, however, by gunshots—anticipating a sharp cutaway to quick edits of Travis firing at a pistol range, directly at us. "Right at the moment when we're wondering why we're away from Bickle for so long, it's as if Scorsese is anticipating the question, and boom boom boom, Bickle comes back in firing a fucking gun in your face. Almost like he's pissed that scene just happened, and he's going to stop it from happening again."

We know an assassination attempt is coming when the action turns to Palantine's campaign in the park, but Scorsese saves Travis' mohawk as a pan-up surprise after a few disembodied shots of him at the back of the crowd. "Classic film reveal, a Harry Lime sort of entrance," says Chazelle, referencing Orson Welles' role in The Third Man. But Travis himself? It's now a monster movie, he says. "The paleness of his bald head, coupled with that gaunt physique, makes me think of vampires. The movie has become demonically possessed."

When he's thwarted by the Secret Service, Travis puts plan B into action, which leads to the movie's bloody, stylish brothel climax. Killing Sport on the steps out front is a long, mostly fixed take from a distance—from the driving up to a portentous chat to the shooting, then Travis walking next door. Knowing what's to come, Chazelle considers the restrained filming style of Keitel's death admirable.

"Of course, now we get into much more flamboyant shots and moves, canted, expressionist angles and fast cutting," says Chazelle as Travis makes his way inside, guns blazing to save Iris. "So it's really smart that he sets the scene with a long one-shot outside. It's as if you know violence is going to erupt if you just hold it without cutting."

(Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; Bottom Right: Photofest)

Scorsese had to desaturate the images, notably the blood, to get an R rating, but Chazelle thinks it's a creative compromise that worked. "Darkening the blood gives it this garbage brown color, and you can reflect the light in it in beautiful ways," he says.

The famous slo-mo overhead that freezes the carnage to survey it from above before craning away outside as the cops arrive, is Scorsese reformulating the narrative, Chazelle says. "It's as if the whole movie was the origin story of a crime scene photograph, one of those tabloid stories about five people killed that you put out of your mind, where you don't think of anyone as human beings. And we've just traced back the whole circuitous journey."

But is the epilogue—Travis back at work, called a hero in the papers, Betsy riding in his backseat, maybe flirting with him—a reality or a dying man's dream? Chazelle points to the otherworldliness of the ending's rear-view mirror shots—Shepherd's face, De Niro's eyes looking back. "It's a long enough lens that everything becomes the same plane of view, and it's all out of focus except for her, with the edges like an optical effect, and it's all surrounded by orbs of light. It's so beautiful, breathtaking. But is it unreal? Are we in a feedback loop, where that's what he imagines doing for infinity?"

As the credits appear, and the jazz motif glides in, Chazelle continues, "It's like we're back to the beginning of the movie, Herrmann's score, these credits. Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. So if you take it as real, what's next? Has a walking time bomb been set on the road again and told he's A-OK?"

Looking back again, Chazelle marvels at how Taxi Driver's portraiture remains a one-of-a-kind melding of Scorsese's cinema mind, performance and music.

"There's something about the homages, they're dissonant from each other, but they stand out, with jagged edges," he says. "And De Niro, for such a crazy character he plays, how little he plays 'crazy' is beautifully subtle. A lot of it's a silent movie performance. And then the repetitiveness of the music. I definitely learned from this movie how the score can be the soundtrack of the character's mind. I'm as big a fan of Herrmann as can exist. Even the doom and gloom of this score is romantic. There's a lushness to the scariness. It luxuriates in the fear."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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