6. The importance of objects
“Cabby, just forget about this. It’s nothing.”
Travis, like some of the best characters in film, doesn’t always talk about how he feels. Show don’t tell. The great Ken Keeler gave the following line to the Robot Devil in an episode of Futurama: “You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!” And so it is here. Instead we’re often left inferring how we believe he feels, or what we believe he’s thinking, when he interacts with people or, more frequently, objects.
A famous example of this would be the fizzing alka-seltzer he falls into a reverie while watching. But a repeated example would be the crumpled $20 bill that Matthew/Sport throws into his cab after dragging Iris out.
Travis never says a word about this bill. But he keeps it separate from the money he makes, and every time we see the bill we know what he’s thinking without him saying anything. He’s giving the object a story.
This is the bill he received for not driving Iris away when she leaped into his car. This is his failure. This is all the filth around him. This one crumpled $20 bill takes on a myriad of meanings, all at the same time. And when he hands it over to that portly man who runs the hotel with the words “This is yours.” we know that he’s putting a lot more meaning into those words than there would appear to be on paper.
Objects are great in film. They can be intricate, and say a lot of things without saying anything. And that, as you’ll find, isn’t as easy as you might have thought.
7. Your camera is alive
“Did you get my flowers in the… uh…”
After Travis’s disastrous date with Betsy he calls her up from a payphone. The call is stilted, difficult, and then halfway through, almost as though the film itself cannot watch this anymore, the camera tracks away and instead focuses on an empty corridor.
Of course, this is Scorsese’s response to Godard (for one example, you see a movement like this in Vivre se Vie [Jean-Luc Godard, 1962]), so you’d expect some unusual camera moments, and there are many in this film, but this is probably the most noticeable. It also represents something that just doesn’t happen enough.
Films are everything that the camera sees, and everywhere that the camera goes. And too often these cameras are dead, and nailed to a moment by tired old men who know how these things are done because they do this all the time and are dead behind the eyes from doing this so often.
Sometimes you need to remember that your camera is operated by a person and that person is alive, and your camera is alive too. It can go anywhere, and do anything, and it can show feelings by what it chooses to look at (or not look at) and how it moves. Sticking to the tried and tested ‘this is how things are done’ formula simply means we never go anywhere new.
Imagine the telephone call scene from Taxi Driver without that movement away from Travis. Pretty boring, right? It’s just a guy on a phone. And sure, sometimes we need to see guys on phones, but more often we need camera movements that start a discussion about their motivation. Of course, all these opinions about this movement are just what I think. What you think is equally valid.
8. Don’t underestimate the power of repetition
“You’re only as healthy as you feel. You’re… only… as healthy… as… you… feel.”
Travis writes in his diary, we hear voiceover, and he says the words ‘you’re only as healthy as you feel’ then he says them again, slower, and we see the tip of his pencil turning these sounds into written words in his diary, as though he were thinking things through before writing them down. Practising maybe.
We’ve seen things like this before. We’ve seen him start a rant with ‘Listen you…’ and then stop, start again, and we’ve seen the film mirror this: stopping and starting again, with something that one of the assistant Editors presumed was an error (Allegedly he didn’t understand it at all, and just implored for sanity with “But we’re repeating the same shot!”).
When you’re writing a film and making a film you want people to get certain pieces of information, or feelings, and one way of doing this which pretty much *all* great films do is through the use of repetition and mirroring.
It doesn’t have to be dialogue, it can be a movement, or a place, or an action. Have you seen that video going around recently comparing the opening and closing shots of a large number of films? Did you notice how those two shots are often extremely similar, or inverted versions of each other?
There’s a reason for that. Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) starts and ends with a conversation about how many bullets may or may not be in a gun. If we hadn’t seen this at the start, the one at the end wouldn’t mean much.
It’s all too easy to start trimming and trimming and trimming to make sure you’re not overstating something, but end up cutting away at what makes films magical in the first place. That would be a crying shame.
9. Sound is everything
“That .38? You go out and hammer nails with her all day, come back and it’ll cut dead centre on target every time.”
It’s easy to think that everything is about the camera. Hell, we’ve all made that mistake. But it’s not true, and to exemplify this let’s all look at the Easy Andy scene from Taxi Driver.
Andy lays out the guns, Travis tries them out: holding, aiming, concealing them on his person, etc. And the scene’s electric. One reason for this is Easy Andy. There’s a person at the top of their patter game. But another reason is the sound, and the absence of music.
Taxi Driver has quite an ostentatious score, which matches it perfectly (And, lest we forget, the final score that Bernard Herrman ever completed). But there’s none of that for this scene. Instead it’s the sound of the city, guns, voices, and, specifically, the sound of children playing that you hear while you watch this.
All the while we’re being reminded of who’s next door, who’s outside, all of the people surrounding this room. This is reinforced with the moment that Travis aims a gun at a man walking on the street outside, unaware that he’s being used for target practice.
You watch this scene in a dozen other movies and you won’t hear this kind of real world presence. You’d hear music, you’d hear accentuated gun spot effects (which, admittedly, you do hear here), and so on. But you wouldn’t hear the world that this scene takes place in.
What makes this scene so much richer is the fact that you’re hearing what you’re not seeing. You’re being reminded of what you’re not seeing. And that’s when you know you’re watching a great film: almost every time you’re reminded of what you are or aren’t hearing/seeing you know that things are pretty great.
So what sounds are you laying in, and why?
10. No one knows anything
“Are you talking to me?”
Something about Taxi Driver really lit things up. There’s a magic going on, some kind of alchemy that is unpredictable. If you’re interested in cinema (and I guess you must be, because you’re reading this) then you’ll be familiar with things like rewrites and test screenings and focus groups and so on.
A game of ‘how will this play in Peoria’ goes on all the time with studios, as though they had any idea about what’s going to work and what’s not. Sure, there are guidelines that can suggest a trend, and if one film does particularly well, then it only stands to reason that a sequel would also do well, but even this isn’t an exact science.
The point here is that no one really knows anything about what makes a film really click with people. They’ll say they do, because there are many people who are paid to make this happen. But it’s all a crap shoot. You can’t tell what’s going to work. On paper Taxi Driver looks like an excessively miserable film.
But the finished object is far from that: it’s alive in a way that few films are. Famously, Paul Schrader (the writer of Taxi Driver) said this once about screenplays: you have to have around 4 good lines, 2 great lines, and 1 fantastic line… or something like that. I could be getting my numbers wrong.
Now, if you mention Taxi Driver to someone then you’re probably going to get the response of ‘You talkin’ to me?’ That’s what everyone remembers.
You know what line Paul Schrader *didn’t* write? That’s right. The line was an improvisation from De Niro.
So, what I take away from this whole story is that Paul Schrader doesn’t know a god damn thing. And neither do I. And neither does anyone.
Walking around and talking like you’re Johnny Big Film is a complete waste of time, because you’re not, and nobody is. You’ll see all this stuff about audiences and what people want and Save the Cat, and so on, but the truth of it all is that no one has a clue. Steven Spielberg made Always. There are no greats, no masterminds.
You can have a rough idea of how things are going to play and how people might react to things, but you will never be able to correctly predict this. Taxi Driver is a fantastic lesson in the mysterious alchemy that filmmaking is.
Author Bio: Ben Woodiwiss holds a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Cinema Culture Studies and is a Writer/Director at Look/Think Films. If he’s not talking about films he’s seen, then he’s talking about films he’s made, or writing new ones, and is very likely to be either smoking or drinking coffee right now. Follow him on Twitter at @benwoodiwiss.