Back in the Driver's Seat

At the risk of coming off like some stodgy codger bemoaning the passing of the good old days of American cinema, it really does seem to me that these days they don't make quality American movies like they did in the Seventies. The Godfather (I and II), Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Carnal Knowledge, The Sting, Network, Rocky, M*A*S*H, Mean Streets, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall. From a pop-culture standpoint, the decade will probably be best remembered as the disco era, but some of the finest American movies ever made came out of Hollywood during those ten years. And none of them is more powerful or disturbing than Taxi Driver, the Paul Schrader-penned, Martin Scorsese-directed descent into a hellish maw of urban angst and anomie. Isolation, alienation, racial tension, societal decay, hollow political rhetoric, the difficulty of connecting with other human beings in general and bridging the communication gap between men and women in particular A Taxi Driver fearlessly confronted these defining issues of our time and did so with such passion and conviction that the film imprinted itself on the subconscious in ways that a more linear, less expressionistic film could never hope to do. Taxi Driver feels like the cinematic equivalent of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream.

When I heard Columbia Pictures was releasing a new print of Taxi Driver to celebrate the film's twentieth anniversary, I had mixed emotions about seeing it. Taxi Driver is my favorite movie of all time, a film I viewed so frequently in the years immediately following its 1976 release that I stopped counting when the meter clicked into double digits. No other film -- for that matter, no other work of art in any medium -- ever affected me as deeply; to say the movie touched a nerve would be to understate its impact on my life. (If you've seen the film, you know this means I was one disturbed little camper.) But I haven't watched it in maybe a decade, although I still own two copies of the video and one audiocassette of the soundtrack. Too painful.

But watching a videotape is one thing, and viewing a freshly restored print of the film with a digitally remastered (the first time ever in stereo!) soundtrack at an actual theater is something else entirely. So I went. The remastered version really highlights legendary composer Bernard Herrmann's moody, portentous score, which was already a major character in the film. Visually, the movie looks about the same, which is to say dark as hell. I wondered if pulling the new print directly from the original camera negative was going to brighten things up a little, make the colors more vibrant A sort of like the restored sections of the Sistine Chapel. No chance. Much of Taxi Driver takes place at night or in the shadows of dimly lighted rooms, hallways, and movie theaters. This new print confirms Taxi Driver's status as one of the darkest movies ever made.

But while the sound and visual clarity have improved, not one frame of the actual story has been added or deleted. Self-described "God's Lonely Man" Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) still decries the squalor surrounding him while he battles insomnia by driving his cab through the rain-slicked, garbage-strewn streets of New York City at night. He still fails miserably in his attempts to woo Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the preppy campaign worker and unattainable ice princess. He still liberates twelve-year-old hooker Iris (Jodie Foster) from her smooth-talking pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). And Travis still slips into and out of that vacant-killer grin, solicits advice from fellow cabbie the Wizard (Peter Boyle), and listens nervously while an angry passenger (Scorsese) discloses his intention to murder his adulterous wife.

Twenty years later Taxi Driver still packs a mean wallop. The film -- so controversial upon its release for its gritty realism, its bloody climax, and its cynical coda -- retains the power to shock and unsettle viewers. Contrary to the claims of the film's detractors (many of whom came out of the woodwork following John Hinckley's Bickle-esque assault on President Reagan in an effort to impress Jodie Foster), Taxi Driver is not a call to arms for nut cases. It's more of a warning: Modern life generates too many Travis Bickles -- anonymous, powerless little guys who can call attention to themselves only by picking up a gun. That admonition is every bit as valid today as it was two decades ago, just as Martin Scorsese's hypnotic direction, Paul Schrader's incisive writing, and Robert De Niro's incendiary performance have stood the test of time.

Taxi Driver isn't the only digitally remastered cult film currently enjoying a revival at movie theaters. But at least devout fans of Scorsese's brutally realistic drama have had the opportunity to watch it on video. The same cannot be said for Heavy Metal, the animated 1981 soft-core sci-fi odyssey based on the magazine of the same name. Over the last decade, however, Heavy Metal has been the single most active title in Columbia Pictures' entire library, a staple of midnight shows at theaters around the nation. While groundbreaking for its time, Heavy Metal has since been eclipsed in terms of both innovative animation and erotic content, especially by the new wave of sexually and violently graphic Japanimation. But Heavy Metal maintains a loyal core of fanatic devotees who can't get enough of its half-dozen interwoven sci-fi, fantasy, and sword-and-sorcery story lines, as well as its charmingly dated soundtrack featuring tunes by early Eighties arena rockers such as Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Sammy Hagar, Nazareth, and Journey. Rumor has it that it's still a good movie to see when you've got a buzz on, but no one here at New Times could verify that from personal experience. Cough, cough.

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