No director has ever been so closely identified with New York in all its manifestations, its terrors and its glories, as Martin Scorsese, who was born in Flushing, Queens, 71 years ago. (Even Woody Allen has, at this point, become more or less a jet-setter, preferring European jaunts to the streets of New York.) Scorsese gave us fascinating portraits of New York’s past with the grotesqueries of Gangs of New York and the patrician beauties of The Age of Innocence. Prior to that he had mined his own experience of the City’s more contemporary, darker hazards in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The critic Robin Wood suggests the latter work is one of “rich and fascinating incoherence.”Wood perceives Taxi Driver as a fusion of film noir, horror, and Westerns. This amalgam proclaims itself through the nightmare vision of New York City, the psychopathic nature (“I got some bad ideas in my head”) of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, and Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader’s acknowledgment that Bickle owes much to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s 1956 epic The Searchers. I suspect, too, that Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence, which we showed recently, had its share of influence, with its denizens of the city of night, particularly on 42nd Street. (Scorsese had just graduated from NYU Film School and was making shorts when Goldman’s film was released to much acclaim.) Schrader’s dense and scholarly book Transcendental Style: Ozu Bresson Dreyer was published in 1972, and one might easily label Taxi Driver as Bressonian, in the tradition of Pickpocket. (Many of Schrader’s own films as a director, beginning with Blue Collar a year after Taxi Driver, were somewhat of a piece with his early Scorsese collaboration.) The two were reunited for Raging Bull, which we will be showing in August.
Robert De Niro had already made eight films before Scorsese cast him in Mean Streets. That role, plus Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II and Taxi Driver, established him as arguably the greatest actor of his generation. It’s ironic that he replaced Marlon Brando in that designation, since he had played the young Brando/Vito Corleone in Coppola’s prequel. (And like Brando, De Niro has struggled in middle and older age to find roles truly worthy of his talents.) Unlike several major directors of his generation, Scorsese has shown himself adept at directing actresses in his testosterone-dominated world. He found something special in the adolescent Jodie Foster—whom he had directed previously in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore—and Cybill Shepherd had never worked with a male director other than her discoverer (and paramour), Peter Bogdanovich. Their fine work foreshadowed the performances Scorsese drew in later masterpieces from Cathy Moriarity (in Raging Bull) and Michelle Pfeiffer (in The Age of Innocence). Taxi Driver is also helped immensely by Bernard Herrmann’s final score, and the film is dedicated to the composer.Scorsese’s cinematic world is frequently one of violence. The soundtrack album for Taxi Driver identifies the musical pieces with phrases that seem to be borrowed from a National Rifle Association commercial: The .44 Magnum Is a Monster; Target Practice; Assassination Attempt; After the Carnage. The director was forced to discolor the blood in order to get an R rating, and John Hinckley notoriously shot President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. (The film was shown at Hinckley’s trial.)
Yet Scorsese, in person, seems mild-mannered and gentle, and he radiates a highly articulate intelligence. Remember, he was also the director of The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Like Walt Whitman, who sang of himself, a great artist can contain multitudes. I was once distressed and depressed by an African American student who took away from The Searchers that John Ford was a racist. He seemed not to understand that John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards (one of the central models for De Niro’s Travis Bickle) could change and accept Natalie Wood (whom he had foresworn to kill) and her “half-breed” brother, Jeffrey Hunter, whom Wayne had repeatedly abused. This precluded the possibility of redemption, much as Travis is redeemed. One of the hazards of “auteurism” is to pigeonhole a director, to limit him and too narrowly define him. Scorsese has made many violent, frightening films, but he also made a fairy tale like Hugo.