Saturday, November 14, 2009


As you may have noticed, I've been taking a break from the Ebert biz. Posts should resume in January. Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 21, 2009

#2: Taxi Driver (1976)

Perhaps I was a bit over-ambitious in undertaking this project the week I did, but there's a saying about the ubiquity of excuses and assholes. (Or is it opinions and assholes?) Anyway, I take the commitment to this blog seriously, and despite this rocky start, no more delays for the foreseeable future, especially now that I turn up in the second page of Google searches for "man"+"vs"+"ebert."  Who'd have thunk the obsessive clicking of my own URL would have finally paid off with such prestige? Who's laughing now, carpal tunnel syndrome? Who's laughing now? (Ow.)

On to Taxi Driver, my second choice for “How In God’s Name Have You Not Seen This Movie?” Week here at Man Vs Ebert. (Ebert’s Great Movies write-up can be found here.) We're going pretty hot and heavy with spoilers after the jump, so if you haven't seen this movie yet, do so before reading further.


Director: Martin Scorsese. You may have heard of him. This kid's going places.

Stars: Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, and...Albert Brooks! I love that guy. See if you can spot him!


In a Nutshell: 26-year-old Vietnam vet/cabbie Travis Bickle (DeNiro) desperately tries to make some meaningful connection to the outside world by clumsily courting a political worker (Shepherd), attempting to rescue an adolescent prostitute (Foster), and plotting to kill the men he feels control these two women
(Leonard Harris as a presidential candidate and Keitel as a manipulative pimp, respectively). Classic testosterone-fueled fuck-it-or-kill-it type stuff.

Prior Knowledge: Casablanca and Taxi Driver share another after-the-fact aspect I didn't consider when pairing them up this week. Both have become inescapable touchstones of popular culture. "You talkin' to me?" The mohawk. Jodie Foster's uncomfortably young hooker. John Hinckley Jr.'s slightly inappropriate love letter to Foster. (In my experience, mixtapes don't work much better, but, then, they don't get you incarcerated.) Much like Casablanca, I feared my associations-by-cultural-osmosis might dampen the film's impact.


Misconceptions: The reputation on this one pretty much prepared me for what it had in store. What I was unprepared for was just how sympathetic Bickle was. As Ebert says in his write-up, no one is immune to aloneness, feeling powerless before the desperate divide between self and other. The intimacy of Scorsese's direction (kicking things off with a closeup right in Bickle's eyes) and the immediacy of DeNiro's performance ("You talkin' to me," being but one snippet of his remarkable work in this) put us in the backseat of the proverbial existential cab Bickle is driving off of the proverbial existential cliff. Sympathetic or no, the dude is nuts.


In-Depth: Bickle's cab stalks the city like a peripatetic shark, its unblinking yellow turn light creepily aping a predatory eye. (And the marquee below can't help but be an intentional bit of foreshadowing.)


Bickle's mind, finding no solace in ambiguity, relentlessly shoves everything he encounters into one of two categories: potential threat or unvarnished innocence. (Watchmen's Rorschach clearly owes as much to Bickle as he does to The Question.) As one might imagine, 1970s New York is a little short on innocence, but just to be on the safe side, Bickle casts his net pretty wide. Black people? Threat. Prostitutes? Threat. Fetching young campaign worker, name of Betsy? Ding!


Once Bickle works up the nerve to stop stalking and start to walking into her office, Betsy finds his directness alternately unnerving and intriguing. While he's definitely intense, Albert Brooks' character's nebbish counterpoint shows how she could find Bickle's approach refreshing.

Things turn sour, however, when Bickle takes Betsy to a movie--one which just happens to be straight-up pornography. Unlike Benjamin taking Elaine to the strip club in The Graduate, this is an actual attempt to further intimacy. Bickle's dualistic mental framework can't fathom how Betsy is not hip to first-date porn: if he finds nothing wrong with it, why would she, a not-threat pretty lady? This kind of thinking inevitably--as many of us can relate--leads to many unreturned phone calls.


So naturally, Bickle plots to kill the presidential candidate Betsy's working for, perhaps thinking she's in his thrall. Along the way, he runs into another damsel in supposed distress, Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute who personifies innocence oppressed and corrupted. Thus, the time for action is nigh.


Upon equipping himself with the armory and haircut every self-respecting one-man army requires, Bickle loses his nerve mid-assassination attempt at the presidential candidate's rally, only to redouble his efforts on the coterie of Very Bad Men corrupting poor Iris. What ensues is a stunningly gruesome, naturalistically choreographed massacre that fells Keitel's pimp, the landlord (?) of the building in which Iris plies her trade, and a prominent Mafioso unfortunate enough to have indulged his pedophilia just that evening. But Bickle isn't bulletproof, and once all the Very Bad Men have been turned into corpses, he finds himself on a couch surrounded by their bodies, bleeding from what are most probably mortal wounds, which is also, coincidentally enough, how the cops find him.


And this leads us to...

The One Big Surprise: The ending. Thankfully, the inescapability of the film in popular culture did not spoil the film's denouement, where a fully healed Bickle lives on to receive a grateful letter from Iris' parents, the acceptance of his cabbie peers, and the rekindled attentions of Betsy, all of which he more or less rebuffs with an "Aw, shucks, it was nothing." Having finally accomplished something he sees as heroic, he no longer defines himself through others. The question: WTF? Is this the real life or is this just fantasy? (Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality?) I'd like to say I prefer one interpretation over another, but the truth is, I can't--not because the film's text points to one or the other but because the case for either outcome is equally disturbing.

If the denouement occurs entirely in Bickle's head, he has not only gotten away with murder, but his justifications for doing so remain unchallenged. In death, he finally becomes the hero in his own life rather than the annoying, unsettling distraction in others'. Furthermore, this redemption is illusory, and Bickle dies as alone as he was in the film's beginning. Flashes of A.I. (an unfairly maligned film, but that's a post for another blog) come to mind, where the robot never transcends his Mommy fixation and is only satisfied in his impossible quest thousands of years later by a convincing virtual Mommy fascimile just before he powers down for good.

But if Bickle's recuperation does take place in the real world, then society condones Bickle's actions and he's redeemed by the very impulses that rightly made him an outcast in the first place. Not only that, but some members of society now actually get off on what once repulsed them (see: Betsy). You think any of the ladies who wrote Bernhard Goetz off as a creepy loner came booty-calling in the weeks following his infamous subway ride? Actually, in asking that question, I tend to think the answer might be yes.

If you'll excuse my own dualistic impulses, most ambiguous endings give the viewer a choice between a "happy" outcome or a "bad" one. The ending of Taxi Driver sucker punches its audience with two possibilities, either of which would be "happy" in any other film but are equally disturbing when refracted through the prism of its twisted protagonist.

I would love if various interpetations of the ending were discussed below in the comments. It could happen, people. You bring the magic.

Rewatch: Oh, yeah, You betcha.


It might even be an owner. We'll see when Christmas comes around. It'd make for dynamite holiday viewing.  

Next up: Another delusional protagonist ventures forth into a fantasy world that may or may not exist in the first installment of "What Is Up With This Weather?" Week here at Man Vs Ebert. Don't miss it!

Friday, September 18, 2009

This is not a post about Taxi Driver

I was going to start this off with some witty comment about how I accidentally rented the delightful Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah vehicle Taxi (they're so mismatched!) or even the wacky-band-of-misfits romp D.C. Cab (Mr. T.? Mohawk?) but I opted not to insult your intelligence.

In a new venture such as this one, a rhythm needs to be established, a pace set. I have obviously not found mine yet, as I only watched Taxi Driver last night and was in was no shape by the film's end to fire off pithy observations on the film. Instead, perhaps unwisely, I went straight to bed and had a few very disturbing dreams...

All of this a roundabout way of saying you'll get a proper Man Vs Ebert fix tonight (or Monday, if you prefer to read blogs at work.) Until then, savor the anticipation with this little teaser of things to come. Enjoy!

Monday, September 14, 2009

#1: Casablanca (1942)

Welcome to “How In God’s Name Have You Not Seen This Movie?” Week here at Man Vs Ebert, a blog where I take on each movie featured in Roger Ebert’s first volume of Great Movies. We begin our journey with one of the most revered movies of all time and perhaps one of the most glaring gaps in my film education, Casablanca.

(Ebert’s Great Movies write-up can be found here.)


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dim the Lights 2: Dim Harder

So now that we’ve established in what ways I have been lacking, there’s still a bit more reflection to get out of the way before we get on with the movie absorbing. What exactly do I hope to gain by watching all these movies? What is the definition of a true film aficionado, anyway?

I propose that a true film aficionado possesses an unconditional love of film.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Dim the Lights, Part 1: Wherein Illusions are Dispelled in the Dark

Welcome to Man vs Ebert, a chronicle of one man’s quest to watch, absorb, and evaluate each one of the films on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. Let's be honest: I'm not claiming to be any authority on film. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.