Its Film and Music
Taxi Driver is nervous, tired, fuzzy and dark. That’s really the only way it can be described. Encompassing that is the fact that, more than anything else, Taxi Driver can be recognized as a piece of New York City film-making. New York (particularly at night) is also nervous, tired, fuzzy and dark and similarly is almost impossible to describe. It’s almost twice as impossible for me in particular to describe either of these things, seeing how I live in the thick of it and don’t have the appropriate distance to be anything approaching objective. But here goes.
The main concept of the film is the desire for a second chance, a fresh start. T.S. Eliot would call it rebirth or renewal. But our protagonist isn’t content to wait until April for things to begin again. He cleans out the back of his cab every night. He is constantly driving under gushing fire hydrants. He sees New York as a cesspool and thinks it needs a good scrubbing. He spends the entire film treating symptoms and not diseases.
We get a wonderful idea as to what it must be like to be an insomniatic cabdriver. We see the back seat primarily through the rearview mirror. An inordinate amount of screen time is given over to streetlights, stoplights and shots through the cab’s windows. There is a wonderfully voyeuristic feeling to the movie - Travis spends most of his time watching people. He sits outside the campaign headquarters. He keeps an eye on his passengers. He watches the world go by.
The camera and Travis are an ideal match in this film. The camera acts like a cab - it doesn’t do anything daring or particularly noticeable except for the fact that it rarely keeps still. It’s always zooming or tracking, and many scenes are done in one shot or with amazingly smooth editing.
The only time the camera isn’t neutral is in the last 15 minutes or so - what looks like a crane shot of the aftermath of the shootout. It works - it’s the only part of the movie that’s really sensational (the pseudo assassination attempt was nothing compared to this) and it’s the only part where Travis succeeds in acting out against what he believes to be wrong. Therefore, a little unbelievable camera work is appropriate.
The lighting seems to be garish, but mostly realistic. That is to say, it might not be strictly natural but it certainly looks like it. Even the pulsating red lights that plague Travis’ nights look contextually correct.
As the camera’s behavior fits Travis’ behavior to a tee, so does the music. It fits the overall character quite well. There are three themes. The first is a jazz theme that usually appears when Travis is driving, usually at night. It’s hard to describe the exact sound except that it sounds like New York. The second is a military theme that goes with Travis’ monologues and journal entries. It smacks of precision, order and repetition. The third, like the only fancy camera move in the film, occurs after the shootout (not during it - there is no music whatsoever during that - the only sound is the exaggerated reverberation of the gunshots.)
There is no incidental music. The only musical themes are these three, and they exist almost completely without alteration. As well written as these themes are they do tend to create a feeling of monotony. They blend into the background unless you’re actively listening to them, but when you’re out to find them they’re everywhere and…well, they get on your nerves. That fits the picture of New York that we’re given to believe, seen through the eyes of a frustrated and bored cabdriver whose nights tend to blend into months or years of darkness.
Ralph Rosenblum (I believe) said that good film-making style is invisible- it’s not seen, it’s felt and understood. This film fits that description perfectly. The camera mimics our main character in such a wonderful way that we merely get sucked into the picture more than we would with a completely invisible camera. Travis is obviously a little nuts, but we empathize with him anyway. A camera that made a bigger deal of itself would make him a less likable person.
Likewise, if the music was more intrusive it would pull our attention away from Travis’ life and make us realize that we really are just experiencing a fantasy. This is one of those rare movies where the camera and the score compliment the acting when necessary and get out of the way when not. It’s tight, and attention was paid to the little things. It’s those little things that are truly appreciated.