Zero is the Loneliest Number

I love the weird diminishing array of phones. And the lack of nose room for DeNiro — it creates an imbalance that eventually helps justify the camera taking off on its own, tracking right in a way completely unmotivated by onscreen movement, a move which “corrects” the composition — and then keeps going, like an automaton, into nothingness.

If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to keep delving into TAXI DRIVER.

When Martin Scorsese came to o a Q&A in Edinburgh, preceding the release of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986, the teenage me, who had only recently discovered his work, was in attendance, and my hand shot up when the call went out for questions from the floor. There’s usually an awkward pause when such a request is made, so if you sit at the front (desirable for movies, essential for personal appearances), and you DO have a question, this is the time to ask it.

Scorsese had been talking frankly about his career, the current scene in Hollywood (“The studios like to be able to look out their office windows and see what’s going on, and their offices are in San Francisco, so if the films can be set in San Francisco, they like that. Like the new STAR TREK is set in San Francisco. Really. They go back in time. And they save the whales. No, really!”) and the recent collapse of the original planned version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Aidan Quinn was already losing weight for it…”)

I asked about Travis’s phone call to Betsy in TAXI DRIVER, and you can read most of Scorsese’s answer in Scorsese on Scorsese ~

“That was the first shot I thought of for the film, and it was the last I filmed. I liked it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.”

I had mentioned in my question that some critics had objected to the shot — as I recall, Kael was one — on those grounds. I had found the shot mysterious, since tracking away from your subject and staring at an empty space seems counter-intuitive. It reminds me now of Mike Hodges’ reasoning for pulling away from a tragic moment in THE TERMINAL MAN. “It’s too painful!” He tries to give the character some privacy. And “the Americans,” he says, couldn’t understand this at all. The Hollywood system is to push in on the emotion. That’s why Kael flinched at it, and why teenage me found it mysterious.

But Hodges’ approach, and even more so Scorsese’s, produces the appropriate emotion in an indirect, discreet way. What’s more lonely than Travis on the phone to Betsy, hopelessly failing to get through to her on a clear line? That empty corridor leading out into night and the city, which he will finally walk down.

7 Responses to “Zero is the Loneliest Number”

  1. I love that shot too and in one sense find it oddly Ozu-like and in another clearly influenced by Godard’s “2ou 3 Chose Que Je Sais D’elle” which pops up as an obvious influence at other points in “Taxi Driver” specifically in relation to —

  2. That shot is very Antonioni-esque. It’s different in a lot of respects in context but it’s very reminiscent of that moment in L’AVVENTURA where Monica Vitti and Gabrielle Ferzetti stop by a village to search for Lea Masari and as they are leaving, the camera slowly tracks in to them from an alley as their car moves out. That scene was quite debated with some saying it was the hidden viewpoint of that missing girl seeing the people she left behind because it doesn’t seem motivated or coming from another viewpoint, but it does suggest a level of judgment.

    That judgment I think is what is there in that image and moment of TAXI DRIVER. It’s a movie that other views puts across Travis’ subjective view but here we have a judgment on that subjectivity, allowing us to disconnect from it, disassociate from it, and it’s a moment that typifies Taxi Driver’s form, we are invited to indentify with Travis from within and yet also see his pathology from outside and confront it. The King of Comedy has that great surreal moment from the basement where he’s addressing the cardboard crowd in a basement and the camera pulls back further and further away to reflect an empty white wall closing and framing everything but that’s more obvious rather than subtle. It’s an essential Scorsese moment because it’s the basic thing you see in all his films. The clash of subjectivity, of interior and exterior viewpoints. You see that in all his films after that, including The Age of Innocence, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Silence.

  3. That’s an excellent observation.

  4. The first thing I concluded about Taxi Driver was that reviews calling it realist were missing half the picture. It captures things about a specific time and place but filters them through a damaged mind… and yes, Scorsese doesn’t just give us Travis’s take on things, any more than he does with LaMotta.

  5. Scorsese’s idea of realism is a very composite and multilayered one. It’s a created and constructed one. One of the inspirations was David Hockney, via the documentary A BIGGER SPLASH, and Scorsese also cited Minnelli and Powell. TAXI DRIVER’s visual style, the presentation of New York at night, is very lush and seductive despite the documentary observation of the city during the Pre-Giuliani era of decay. And that visual beauty and sense of joy in that reality clashes against Travis’ obsession for a scum to clear the earth.

    You know historically, Travis got his wish granted since Giuliani (and also Trump since he and his Sidney Falco-eque son-in-law, profited a lot from the city’s gentrification) actually did clean “the scum” and made it a billionaire’s paradise and in the process made it impossible for Travis to operate meaningfully. Basically Travis would absolutely have voted Trump in 2016, even if his actor/director/screenwriter entirely oppose him and continue to do so.

  6. Travis is both ideologically incoherent and leaning to the right, which would make him a natural Trumpite except I don’t think he’d ever motivate himself to the polls. His only political interest is an assassination attempt targeting the boss of the girl who snubbed him, and when that proves too difficult he wipes out entirely unrelated people and becomes a hero.

    Neither Travis nor Senator Palantine nor the film really look forward to a different New York: from their perspective the “organisational problems” look intractable.

    Travis’s real problem is loneliness. If he looked out of his can window today he’d still be angry at the world and see people who need wiping out, because he has to.

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