Through the ceiling

Last of my short series on moments in TAXI DRIVER.

After the big shoot-out/massacre, Travis slouches onto the couch with a gaping hole in his neck and greets the first responders by putting a blood-dripping finger to his head and miming blowing his brains out —


— and Scorsese retreats to directly overhead, looking down through a slit cut in the floor or the rooms above (the building was condemned, fortunately), tracking away from Travis, across the mayhem left around him, and out the door.

We get surprising and unfamiliar views of a ceiling lamp and a doorway from above. I showed this to a friend one-time who was unimpressed, feeling that since these angles are eccentrically removed from anything we ever experience in life, they were tricksy and essentially ineffective. I disagree with this demand for Fordian austerity, for the following reasons —

It’s fun to see things from unusual angles! Admittedly, “fun” might be a peculiar sensation to be experiencing in this scene of horror, but visual pleasure complicates the emotions and makes the horror sing out.

It feels like an OOBE — an Out Of Body Experience, as if Travis’s consciousness has left his body and is drifting away. Now, that’s not literally what’s happening — unless it is, and the rest of the film is a dream Travis entertains himself with after death, which isn’t likely to be anybody’s FIRST interpretation of what’s going on in those strange scenes. But the feeling of projecting out of the body remains, and seems to be the main thing motivating the camera movement, at first, anyway. It turns into an exploratory move as the scene develops, retracing Travis’s bloody path into the building.

(Fiona points out that you don’t have to be dying to have an OOBE — you can just be so dissociated it just happens. Trauma — like having a chunk blown out of your neck – cn do it. And Travis is already having trouble staying in the moment, as seen in that shot where his POV descends into a glass of Alka-Seltzer.)

You could also relate it to a Hitchcockian God’s-eye-view, a frequent Scorsese trope — these overhead views are present when Travis first gets his job, recur in the boxing ring in RAGING BULL, return in force in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and are back in unheard-of abundance in SILENCE, suggesting that they do have something to do with religious feeling, the idea of a superior, observing force, superior even to us in the audience.

Tonally, the sequence is a kind of numbed lull, a respite from the trauma even while the brain matter is still oozing down the walls. So withdrawing from the scene, which we’ve been almost subjectively involved in, makes sense. Scorsese has found the most distant way possible of filming the action in this relatively confined space.

One other thing adds a kind of resonance. In the following sequence, as the camera continues drifting about Travis’s apartment, picking up items pinned to the walls, we see a newspaper report on the shooting incident, in which an artist has mapped out the scene with an overhead view exactly like Scorsese’s tracking shot, only stationary. They could be storyboard, or production designer’s plans.

The next clipping on the wall, btw, is the obligatory Catherine & Charles Scorsese cameo, as we see a still of Marty’s parents — playing Jodie Foster’s parents — watching the news. (The IMDb cat list, “verified as complete,” doesn’t tell us who voices Foster’s dad in this scene’s narration. I don’t think it’s Mr. S.)

5 Responses to “Through the ceiling”

  1. When I first saw Taxi Driver (from the front row at a sold-out screening at Odeon Leicester Square, I think – I had the impression they were all quite young, professional and middle-class, as opposed to the hip and rowdy midnight movie habituees I was used to) I’d pretty much gone in blind. Was vaguely aware Scorsese was THE hot young director, but hadn’t seen any of his other films (I’m not even sure Mean Streets got a proper release in the UK) and hadn’t read any reviews.

    Result was that – although I was already a big horror movie fan – the bloodiness of the massacre REALLY caught me off guard, with the yellowish cast and Herrmann’s brooding score helping to make it particularly nightmarish. When Travis mimes shooting himself in the head and blood drips off his finger and the camera tracks up, for the second time in my filmgoing life I nearly fainted, and had to put my head down between my knees (my date said afterwards he didn’t even notice).

    By the time I’d recovered and looked up at the screen again, Travis had survived what I’d assumed had been a fatal neck wound and everyone was hailing him as a hero. In the light of what I’d just seen, this was so unexpected I really DID interpret it as a death dream. At most, I thought it was possibly wish fulfilment, same way that Rupert Pupkin is hailed as a stand-up superstar at the end of King of Comedy. For years, I was very resistant to accepting the ending of Taxi Driver as objective fact.

  2. I think it’s perfectly sensible to accept the ending as something that only MIGHT be objective fact.

    Pretty unusual for a movie to end with a death-dream and never show the sleeper awakening, but TD is unusual in all kinds of ways.

    Alas, I first saw the film on VHS. With my mum. She was interested because she’d like Paul Schrader on the South Bank Show. We had a very good chat about it afterwards.

    I recall a visceral sense of dread overtaking me when that salmony desaturation began. Clearly something unutterly horrible was about to start: why else would the movie’s colour be retreating to some dark corner of the room?

  3. Originally the color wasn’t de-saturated. But Marty was encouraged to do it to avoid an “X” rating.

    There’s something tentative and dream-like to the endings of all his movies.

  4. To me the ending was always real. And yes the ending feels dream like but so does the whole film. To me with select exceptions, and mostly intended ones (like Brazil or Lynch’s films), the ending-was-a-dream is more or less making criticism into conspiracy theory. Especially post-classical, because in the Golden Age such kind of ideas could be supported as a challenge to censorship since most of the happy endings in old movies are total fakes.

    Schrader got real upset with people saying that ending wasn’t real. And in First Reformed he went ahead and made an ending that was intentionally left open to dream interpretation. Although even there I think what happened did happen.

  5. I quite like the idea of criticism merging with conspiracy theory. We know classic era filmmakers used “codes” to communicate to those in the know, under the noses of the censors. And there are examples like Total Recall, where Verhoeven knew he couldn’t get away with robbing Arnie of heroic status and revealing the whole thing was VR, but he faded to white at the end just to give a hint.

    Censorship often makes things worse – as with Karloff and the little girl in Frankenstein. The desaturated ending of Taxi Driver creates this really sickly feeling — and looks like faded Eastmancolor, which is ironic given Scorsese’s activities as a preservationist.

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