One of the many nice things about the new Blu-ray disc of the restoration of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is that the supplements restore to us the very first audio commentary on the film, featuring the film's screenwriter Paul Schrader as well as its director. Recorded in 1986 for the Criterion Collection laser disc of the film, it's a commentary in the Criterion style—serious, frank, in-depth, not the sort of self-congratulatory "I love this shot" stuff that audio commentaries became associated with in the height of the DVD boom. In any event, when Criterion's license on the film went out, Sony began overseeing the DVD editions, and the exemplary laser disc commentary went by the wayside; somebody at Sony was on the ball enough to acquire the material from Criterion and include it here. It's still a bracing listen. From the hindsight of ten years past, and having endured any number of personal and artistic crucibles since the making of Taxi Driver, Schrader and Scorsese are in reflective frames of mind, fully cognizant of the fact that Taxi Driver was in a sense an extraordinary occurrence. Scorsese: "It was a beautiful script. There’s only two scripts that I’ve gotten that were completely there, that we hardly had to do any work on…Taxi Driver was the first one, later on it was King of Comedy by Paul Zimmerman[...] Bob and myself felt as if it had been written for us in a funny way." Schrader: "[It was v]ery much a serendipity. Three people coming together at a certain point in their lives all needing to say the same thing. You know, occasionally in art you get lucky, and you’re in the right place at the right time with the right people."
It is particularly interesting to listen to them talk about what they were feeling, about what they were doing, in conjunction with exploring what a couple of first-rate critics, Manny Farber and his partner Patricia Patterson, saw them doing in the film. The Farber/Patterson essay, "The Power And The Gory," was first published in the May/June 1976 issue of Film Comment. (Taxi Driver premiered in February of that year.) It can now be read in the Library of America's indispensible volume, Farber on Film. An extremely detailed and vivid piece of prose, it alternates so vehemently between admiration for the film and grave offense at it that it can almost be considered as a piece of Writing Against Itself. The arguments against the film are not, as it happens, as easy to dismiss outright as Pauline Kael's hideously smug and classist "What am I doing here watching these two dumb f--ks?" whinge on Raging Bull. Farber and Patterson characterize as "diversionary" the "pounding, illustrative music that grinds you," and "the spike words which stud the [...] soundtrack."'Pussy' and 'fuck' have never been harvested so often; the black race is mauled by verbal inventions spoken with elaborate pizzazz styling[...]" The picture winds up Farber and Patterson to the extent that it turns them into "plausibles," to use Alfred Hitchcock's coinage for his least favorite kind of movie viewer, and they make a list of "plot impossibles." They inveigh against the use of the DeNiro: "the intense DeNiro is sold as a misfit psychotic, and, at the same time, a charismatic star who centers every shot[...]" To some, that paradox might seem key to the film's glory, but Farber and Patterson are clearly quite irritated by this. They cannot, however, disguise their delight at the bravura filmmaking: "The amount of twisting questions that are thrown at the spectator highlights its director's boldness in intricate visuals." Still, one senses that Farber and Patterson can't enjoy their enjoyment. They deeply distrust the film. A key to reading the essay: they frequently use variations on the verb "sell," and when they do, that's a signal that they're gonna bitch about something. They even take the filmmakers to task on the marketing of the picture: "The movie's ad campaign (the poster of DeNiro as a looming presence, the interviews with crew members almost before the final mixing, the terrible schlock novel now sold in every supermarket which takes [Arthur] Bremer's diary and Schrader's script to an unbelievably trashy depth) is revelatory of what the filmmakers feel it takes to move, score, and hold your territory in a competitive U.S.A. society."
This contrasts quite a bit to Schrader's pronouncement (I'm paraphrasing here) that the Taxi Driver script leapt out of him like an animal, or Scorsese's various proclamations concerning his own identification with Travis Bickle's sense of isolation and anger. On the commentary track cited above, Scorsese's remark about feeling the script had been written for him and DeNiro comes after he recounts a clash with studio execs over matching shots in the lunch-with-Betsy scene, recollecting in tranquility that it was a "serious" clash and leaving it to the listener's imagination just how serious it was, given the personal volatility that was much more a part of the Scorsese forefront than it was in 1986, or than it is today.
Almost forty minutes into the film, there's the shot of Travis on a pay phone after his disastrous porn-theater date with Betsy, hunching over a little, trying to make out what's gone wrong. The camera slowly tracks to the right, and into a view of an empty hallway leading to the front door of the building. Here's Scorsese talking about the shot on the commentary, as he looks at it: "We’re holding on him, and he’s just getting refused and rejected and rejected, then the camera starts to move, to the hall. As if it’s about to reveal something. And it doesn’t. The idea is meant that the revelation comes much later, when he explodes. I think this is one of the last things we shot, one of the last days of shooting…and then he enters the frame and leaves. And when I thought of that shot…it presented to me how the style of the picture would be…where the moves would be…the camera moves would seem…uh, if I could really put it in words I wouldn’t have had to put it on film." At this point Scorsese pauses and seems to gather himself. "The idea is that…theres a sense again of anxiety, a sense of uneasiness, of the camera tracking to an empty hall. Is that his soul?...Is that…the emptiness he’s feeling in his heart? Or are we about to reveal something, is there about to be an explosion, is something terrible about to happen in the hall? It was the idea of keeping the audience off balance all the time, and that was the piece…all the other shots came from that concept that’s in that shot right now. It just turned out to be one of the last shots we took, but it was the first shot I thought of."
One is reminded of Vladimir Nabokov's essay "On A Book Entitled Lolita," and the passage wherein he evokes "Mr. Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale School, or Charlotte saying 'waterproof,'" and then pronounces, "These are the nerves of the novel." Many an English lit major no doubt said "Really? Charlotte saying 'waterproof'?" and then paged back through the book to find the passage and see if it resonated any differently as a result. It's worth noting that the shot thus doted on by Scorsese isn't even mentioned in the Farber/Patterson essay.
I don't know if Scorsese or Schrader ever went on record with their reaction to the Farber/Patterson essay, but the two were/are admirers of Farber, and I recall one of them describing a visit the two made to Farber's studio, where they took in his wonderful paintings, as a "pilgrimage." Also, I wonder what Farber would have made of Scorsese's recent Shine A Light, which to my mind is, among other things, very much a film about what it takes to move, score, and hold one's territory in a competitive worldwide market.