Phantom Ride

  

There are reasons, beyond the eerie effect of Bernard Herrmann’s last score, why these shots in TAXI DRIVER became iconic (and much-copied).

Attaching a camera to a vehicle is an old idea, common long before purpose-built dollies existed. Do the car chases in D.W. Griffith movies count as tracking shots? Kind of.

But in all that time, I’m not aware of anyone using the car clamp to photograph details of the car itself. You film the road from the POV of the car, or maybe cheat with a lower angle to add dynamism. You film the people IN the car. But the bumper, the wing mirror, this is unheard-of. Scorsese has a real thing for unusual detail shots. He wants us to see things in a new way.

Scorsese had previously attached his camera to Harvey Keitel for the Rubber Biscuit drunk scene in MEAN STREETS. This is similar: Travis Bickle’s cab is, in a sense, an extension of him. The effect is not the natural one of a traveling shot through a city, or a view of a man in a vehicle. We’re aware of how the cab seems solid and fixed, the city transitory and fleeting. A similar effect to that created as an accidental by-product of the rear-projection in older movies, where the moving background is a film within a film, slightly diffuse compared to the solid hero and the half a car he’s driving.

THIS kind of shot is pretty common in modern cinema — the extreme shallow focus — but very rare in the seventies or earlier. Like with Travis’s autistic fascination with a glass of Alka-Seltzer, we get a dissociated, alien view of a familiar surface, stretching away like a metallic landscape seen by a myopic fly. The old idea of “making strange” used to assist the feeling of alienation.

TAXI DRIVER, in fact, is one of very few films where the montages of time passing are among the most striking and emotionally effective sequences. There’s the music and VO, of course, but also the fact that Travis’s feeling of drifting through time, unanchored by social ties, one day seeming like another, is a big part of what the film deals with, and montages are ideally suited to expressing this sensation. Normally, having to show time passing in between the dramatic scenes is a burden on a film, breaking up the narrative and deflating tension. Here, the glimpses of Travis’s hacking life, “drifting through an open sewer in a metal coffin,” as Paul Schrader once put it, give you the strongest feeling that all this is indeed heading somewhere. Somewhere worrying.

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7 Responses to “Phantom Ride”

  1. I tried to find a clip to illustrate this but couldn’t. The thing is the taxi is seen cruising the streets of New York at a relatively slow speed in no particular direction. It just MOVES with a clenched intensity keyed by the great Benny Hermann score

  2. Offered without comment:

  3. Ha!

    David E, your words serve the purpose as well as any clip.

  4. Regarding the Disney “Taxi Driver” it’s not just a joke. The Disneyfication of Times Square is an urban monstrosity. “Taxi Driver” evokes the darkness of New York in the 70s’ — a place and time I regard with much affection. Samuel R. Delany’s “Times Square Red / Times Square Blue” is an exceedingly thoughtful literary meditation of its urban squalor and the pleasures to be found there. Chereau evokes it in “L’Homme Blesse” too , which while set in rural France was inspired by the time he spent in New York.

  5. The Disney literalisation of “All the animals come out at night” made me laugh out loud, and it does work as a critique: something has definitely been lost.

  6. […] TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Interestingly, mounting the camera on a car is normal film language (although this still feels unusual) but latching on to any other moving object is still a […]

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