Decades Blogathon – Taxi Driver (1976)

Decades Blogathon Banner 20161976So this is the end; the final day of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition. Thank you once again to everyone who made this such a great blogathon. My biggest thanks goes to my partner in crime on this enterprise – Tom from Digital Shortbread. We had a blast with this in 2015 and this year’s event has been just as much fun. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade and it’s my turn to focus on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

Looking to the Academy Awards as a critical barometer for the best films of a given year is, for the most part, as redundant an exercise as swimming through treacle.

The list of Oscar clunkers is long and ignominious and among the most glaring is the dearth of statuettes awarded to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A browse at the contenders that year reveals some genuine American classics – All The President’s Men, Network – but it was Rocky that knocked them all out to win Best Picture.

Taxi Driver Poster

Whilst great cinema and the sort of Cinderella story Oscar voters love, Rocky is a lightweight compared to Scorsese’s indisputable masterpiece which remains, 40 years on, one of the greatest films ever made and a dramatic tour de force for its star Robert DeNiro.

Although the hellish neon-lit New York City streets have become a chapter best left in the Big Apple’s past, the central conceit of Taxi Driver – a sad, painfully lonely and depressed young man acts out on his rage and resentment in increasingly violent and deluded ways – is a story that in all likelihood will never be far from the news headlines.

As effective as Scorsese’s brilliant visual storytelling and DeNiro’s powerhouse central performance are, without Paul Schrader’s deeply unsettling script Taxi Driver wouldn’t be the classic it is today. Schrader had been going through a messy divorce at the time and poured his damaged soul into the creation of Travis Bickle, using the taxi as the perfect vehicle (sorry) for the ex-Vietnam veteran’s loneliness and alienation.

Travis sees himself as an avenging angel (“a man who would not take it anymore”), who is the embodiment of the rain that will come and wash all the scum off the streets. The voiceover that runs throughout the film – words spoken from a journal he is writing – is both his manifesto and an expression of self-efficacy.

Taxi Driver

This mythologising can be found in Scorsese’s visual style, which gets inside Travis’ unbalanced head space and flits between stark lucidity and fever dream. This is evident in the opening scene, with the taxi cab emerging in slow motion from the steam of the street vents before cutting to a sharp close up of Travis’ uneasy eyes. The visuals of this scene are lent extra weight by Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score (tragically, he died hours after completing it), which opens with a escalating snare drum before switching to a jazzy saxophone for the close up.

Herrmann’s composition, one the most remarkable in cinema history, perfectly soundtracks the nightmare that unfolds, flitting between a militaristic aggression that builds towards the film’s climax and a romantic delusion in the scenes Travis shares with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) (“They. Cannot. Touch. Her.”), a campaign volunteer for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).

Taxi Driver

The connection an infatuated Travis tries to form with Betsy is both pitiful and tragic – none more so than when he takes her on a date to watch a skin flick and is surprised when she storms out. Travis sees Betsy as a figure of chastity; someone he can save from the “animals” who prowl the streets and when that goes south he switches his attention to Iris (Jodie Foster), a pre-teen prostitute whom he believes is the personification of innocence in a damned world (the multitude of candles in her bedroom have distinct Catholic overtones).

Although unbalanced, it takes time for Travis to become the mohawk-sporting vigilante we remember and the film adroitly takes us on a journey; which includes a cry for help to seasoned fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) when he confides that “I’ve got some bad ideas in my head”. While Wizard’s advice is ultimately discounted, his belief that “people become their jobs” rings true in Travis’ case as he becomes as worn down as the tyres of his taxi cab.

Taxi Driver

The film’s finale, desaturated by Scorsese in order to avoid an ‘X’ certificate, retains an almost mythic quality and remains shocking to this day. The bloodbath that we know has been coming (Travis is repeatedly bathed in red light throughout the picture) is almost Grand Guignol in its execution and culminates in one of cinema’s most celebrated shots as Travis, his mission now complete, defiantly raises a blood-soaked finger to his head and pulls the trigger. A story related to Betsy by fellow Palantine volunteer Tom (Albert Brooks) earlier in the film about how the Mafia blow the fingers off of a thief who fouls up has resonance during the gunfight as a mafioso suffers a similar fate at the hands of Travis.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Foster giving a revelatory performance as the tough-talking, but vulnerable Iris, while Harvey Keitel provides a memorable turn as Iris’ pimp ‘Sport’ – but it’s Keitel’s Mean Streets co-star who dominates.

DeNiro famously obtained a cab driver’s license and picked up fares in preparation for the role, while also absorbing the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot presidential hopeful George Wallace in 1972. DeNiro’s total inhabitation of the character is frightening at times – what light there is in his eyes dims to a black void as he becomes more obsessed with his self-appointed calling.

[spoiler warning]. Much has been spoken of the bravura tracking shot in the aftermath of the battle (is it an out-of-body experience?) and the scene that follows it. Is Travis’ metamorphosis into a tabloid hero real or is it still a fever dream? The very final shot of Travis shooting a look into the rear view mirror of his cab suggests that, if this is indeed reality, his rehabilitation may not be permanent.

“You talkin’ to me?”. A magnificent work of pure existential cinema, Taxi Driver will continues to talk to us for another 40 years and beyond.

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Decades Blogathon – The Outlaw Josey Wales

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It’s day four of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the awesome Tom from Digital Shortbread. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and this typically first class review of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales is written by Michael’s It Rains… You Get Wet.

Senator: “The war’s over. Our side won the war. Now we must busy ourselves winning the peace. And Fletcher, there’s an old saying: To the victors belong the spoils.”
Fletcher: “There’s another old saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

Words like “unexpected”, or at the very least, “unanticipated” could well have described actor Clint Eastwood’s sixth effort as a film director. Though the ‘western’ was what made him a ’60s icon, spurring his rise to movie box office supremacy the subsequent decade, the genre’s popularity was already dying by the bicentennial year of 1976. As much as John Wayne in real life, as was his final film character in The Shootist. Why those terms fit so well when it comes to describing The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Most critics and studios had by then read the tea leaves and diminishing returns since the genre’s heydays in the ’40s and ’50s. Even the considerable John Ford had closed out his westerns by 1964; most well aware his last great one, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, occurred in ’62. Then again, it was the ’70s. Tumult flowered, especially after the fall of Saigon put the final kibosh on the Vietnam War that had divided the country almost as much as the American Civil War did the previous century.

The same vestiges that weigh so heavily upon Clint Eastwood’s lead character and the tale’s storyline – which reveal much, so this is your standard spoiler alert warning for what lay ahead.

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While the western may have fallen out of favour with ticket buyers, perhaps even among the unemployed and disaffected during the recession-riddled era, the genre remained a more versatile vehicle than given credit. I know it’s not one with universal appeal these days, but remains a favorite of mine since childhood. Yet, The Outlaw Josey Wales proved to be a more than worthy work for its actor-director, the era of cinema, and as a classic that’s stood the test of time as it approaches its fortieth year.

From the atypical cold opening to its less than clear-cut ending the film, which uniquely swam against the unsentimental tide of the time, proved a turning point in Eastwood’s budding directorial career to be one of best the ’70s ever produced.

Synopsis: As the Civil War rages, Missouri farmer Josey Wales is pulled into its carnage via a rivalrous band of pro-Union Jayhawker militants who’ve murdered his wife and young son. Scarred, left to bury and grieve for his family, joining the pro-Confederate Missouri bushwhackers is the only recourse as Josey sees it – spending the rest of the war skirmishing with the murderers tied to U.S. Senator Jim Lane’s Kansas Brigade, led by the man most hold accountable for the atrocities, Captain Terrill.

The war’s conclusion barely ceases antagonism, even as both sides look to end the Kansas-Missouri border conflict. Most in Josey’s posse are persuaded to surrender by a fellow rebel, Captain Fletcher, seeking amnesty for his men. Wales steadfastly refuses. As a result, he and a wounded young man – the lone survivors in Terrill’s treacherous massacre of the Missourians – turn themselves in. Now with a $5,000 bounty, Wales heads for the Indian Nations in Texas to hold up and escape his pursuers.

With death on his trail The Outlaw Josey Wales vows his own war against those who’ve wronged and betrayed him.

Senator: “You’re going after ’em, after all. Fletcher, I’m giving you a commission. Hound this Wales to kingdom come.”
Fletcher: “Hound ’em, Senator? A man like Wales lives by the feud. Cause of what you did here today, I’ve got to kill that man.”
Senator: “Well, he’ll have to run for it now… and hell is where he’s headed.”
Fletcher: “He’ll be waiting there for us, Senator.”

Traditional westerns have used revenge as a staple in many of its dramas, from film to television. Redemption, too, as both apply here. By itself, this goes against expectations in the conventional portrayals of most 19th century shoot-em-ups and horseback melodrama. Rightly identified as a “revisionist western”, this film’s stature only rises when keeping the punctilios and Clint Eastwood precisely in mind. Chiefly, as it tosses the ‘Man with No Name’ concept that brought him fame on its well-worn ear.

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Purposely going against his ’60s Italian spaghetti western persona [^1] by giving the character a name and distinct backstory steeped in American history. Drawing Josey Wales as much of a victim as well as a pistoleer during the bloodiest period of this country. One of the few films casting the Civil War with an eye toward how the conflict conducted itself out west, in Missouri [^2] and Texas, specifically. As opposed to the uniformed blue and gray hostilities down south, à la John Ford’s Horse Soldiers.

The Outlaw Josey Wales proved to be a milestone by showing naysayers the western could still kick up as much dust as any contemporary antihero ‘genre flick’ making waves, or those deemed “… imbued with an intelligence and riskiness”, as ShortList once described. Elevating Eastwood’s work as a filmmaker, confidently breaking from his mentors’ (Sergio Leone, Don Siegel) stylings, as a result. Certainly, beyond a studio merely placating its movie star…

Sim Carstairs: “Ten year I been ferryin’ Kansas Redlegs, Union cavalry, Missouri guerillas… you name it. Mad dogs them guerillas. You look sideways at ’em… they kill ‘ya.”
Carpetbagger: “Sound like hard men to do business with.”
Sim Carstairs: “You bet. You know in my line of work, you gotta be able either to sing The Battle Hymn Of The Republic, or Dixie, with equal enthusiasm… dependin’ upon present company.”

Based loosely on The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales [^3] by Forrest Carter, aka Asa Earl Carter, a segregationist speech writer for George Wallace, KKK member and later a western novelist, producers saw a certain something in the material. Its treatment of Native Americans. Screenwriters Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus transformed its less savory elements into a literate treatise on war and its slaughter (echoing our Vietnam involvement) and filling it with surprisingly savvy character dialogue [^4].

That is, among the usual badass aspects most expected of Clint Eastwood back then. The customary violent western loner that’s just never left alone. Somehow the family he’s lost restored care of the colourful dramatis personae latching on to his journey west. Mainly the indigenous people, here finally given a chance to shine outside the genre’s habitual clichés, for once. Chief Dan George (post-Little Big Man), Will Sampson, and Geraldine Keams opening viewers eyes way before Dances With Wolves (1990).

The first third of the film creating the grim aura of Josey Wales against the overcast, mud-strewn Missouri landscape [^5]. A rebel guerilla hell-bent to rage upon any Kansas Red Leg or blue coat. The worst of ’em that won’t put his guns away or swear allegiance to the Union. The sea change for the vengeful widower, the youngin’s (Sam Bottoms) eventual death, which closes the chapter. The distinct reshape in tenor marked by sun-filled vistas and foliage, even occasional humor, once the outlaw reaches “The Nations”.

It’s what sets the tough-natured The Outlaw Josey Wales apart and turns the work into something quite compelling in story and approach.

This would have been Philip Kaufman’s second western to helm (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid his first), but famously “creative differences” brought Eastwood back into the ‘star-director’ role, and we’re ever grateful. The supporting cast rich with Eastwood regulars and western vets, but most notably the pairing of deep-voiced Dirty Harry co-star John Vernon portraying the put upon Fletcher, tasked to hunt his colleague alongside his despised enemy, Captain Terrell (Deliverance‘s Bill McKinney).

Directory of photography and another long-time crewmate of Malpaso Productions, Bruce Surtees’ distinct cinematography claimed the autumn light for this film production, which even John Ford would have been proud of. Hoisted it above the few westerns then dribbling out of Hollywood. But with an unmistakable neo-noir edge, color contrasted with heavy shadows, which envisioned its use in Eastwood’s later masterwork Unforgiven. Again, could only be tied to an era such as this one, me thinks.

Wales would say, “I reckon so.”

For all that ’70s attitude, The Outlaw Josey Wales remains a timeless tale to behold, even if you’re not into this genre. A former “grey rider” finding himself at the center of a growing community of outcasts, including various tribal people, castaways of a now defunct mining town, even Jayhawkers (Sondra Locke’s first collaboration with Clint) and a red bone hound. Flipping a death-fixated revenge western into a remarkably redemptive life-embracing, post-Civil War study.

Hell, even Orson Welles considered it one of his favorites.

Whereas aging former outlaw William Munny spends his journey up to Wyoming losing family and friends in Unforgiven, 1992’s Best Picture winner, the opposite was true with this film. Our fugitive gains both in his unlikely odyssey down Texas way, even if The Outlaw Josey Wales received little award recognition as America turned two-hundred. Each served as a counterpoint for the other; allegories bookended just 16 years apart. Evidence the western far from dead then, as a genre or storytelling device, and even today.

Fletcher: “I think I’ll go down to Mexico to try to find him.”
Josey Wales: “And then?”
Fletcher: “He’s got the first move. I owe him that. I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over. What do you say, Mr. Wilson?”
Josey Wales: “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

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[^1]: The uniquely supernatural High Plains Drifter, which preceded this film, an eerie homage to his early Sergio Leone horse opera trilogy.

[^2]: Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil (1999) another that showcased the guerilla warfare going on between Kansas and Missouri during this “War Between the States.”

[^3]: Listed in the movie credits under another title, Gone To Texas.

[^4]: Kaufman and Chernus should have garnered at least a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, but the vaunted Academy only recognised Jerry Fielding’s fine work with an Original Score nomination that year.

[^5]: Northern California locations standing in for Missouri, with Arizona-Utah for what the Spanish referred as Tejas.

Debuts Blogathon: Clint Eastwood – Play Misty For Me (1971)

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Day 4 of the ‘Debuts’ Blogathon, hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, and today we welcome the contribution of Cindy from Cindy Bruchman. As Cindy’s site states, she talks about places, movies and books (she’s a published author for goodness sake!). Her film posts spotlight interesting topics and she publishes some really interesting articles. Head on over there and see what I’m talking about.
 

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Play Misty For Me (1971)

 
Clint Eastwood starred and directed Play Misty for Me in 1971.  It was a psychological thriller about a stalker who fell hard for Eastwood’s character, Dave Garver, a disk jockey at a California radio station. Jessica Walter played the pretty fan who calls in when Garver is on the air and requests to hear the jazz song Misty.
 
Play Misty For Me PosterThe film popularized the Johnny Mathis version and was Eastwood’s choice for the film and it functioned as an effective contrast. The cozy melody was associated with a sexy, female voice and became the ice breaker in an ‘accidental’ meeting in a bar and the one-night-stand. From there, Evelyn’s harmless personality transformed into a descent into psychotic fury punctuated with the butcher knife that should scare any man from succumbing to the one-night-stand; the plot was revisited in the 1980s version, Fatal Attraction. The confident, soft female who is casual and percolates passion. She lures the man to ecstasy but returns with an emasculating vengeance.
 
Play Misty For MePlay Misty for Me was a compelling, low-budget film that made Eastwood millions. As director, the film allowed him a new playground with which to play, and over the years his films employed trademark techniques that have made him one of the most commercially successful directors to date.     
 
As a director, Eastwood’s status has grown to heights rarely seen in the history of movie making. His reputation as a man’s man and his sex appeal – he was 50 when he starred in Play Misty for Me and his filming of the sex scene with Donna Mills at the waterfall showed tasteful eroticism with a romantic sensibility – has wooed women for decades.
 
Play Misty For MeHis stature grew as a director after winning the Best Director Oscar for Unforgiven (1992). Eastwood owned the 2000s, with Best Director Oscar nominations for Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Gran Torino (2008).
 
When you watch an Eastwood film, there are similarities in his directing technique. His camera follows the story through the perceptions of one protagonist.  Through sensory variation, his films are beautiful because you see, hear, smell, and touch the setting through the camera lens. This first person telling allows the viewer to share, and therefore, enter the film.
 
Play Misty For MeEastwood loves contrast. He loves to highlight a body part while the rest is in the dark. You will hear the character talking but only see a hand or a shoulder. He likes to use his setting to the max. For example, he will plant signs around the set that enhance the theme of the film. Remember in Million Dollar Baby all the signs in the boxing gym that reiterate key lines such as “Tough Ain’t Enough”, referring to Maggie, who had more heart than anyone on the planet? He likes to simulate the feelings of a character’s emotions with the movement of the camera. If the agonized character expels fury, the camera shoots up the fury to the sky like in Mystic River.
 
Play Misty For MeEastwood films feature misunderstood, strong characters who are alone in their world and rise from adversity. He loves the underdog. He often stars in his films and portrays the grumpy old-man who is trying to survive in a world that has changed too fast. If he isn’t the poster-boy for the angst of baby-boomers, I don’t know who is, for the man is the epitome of a generation when ‘real men don’t cry’ and his surly countenance hides a soft, romantic heart.
 
This desperado is a universal character and Hollywood’s long-enduring icon. At 83, he’s the manifestation of all his characters. I wish he were my neighbour; we’d listen to jazz music, drink and watch the sunset. I bet his stories are amazing just like his career.
 
Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Armando from Film Police has the unenviable task of dissecting David Lynch’s mind-warping debut Eraserhead. Check it out!
 
Meanwhile, check back here tomorrow for Day 5, when Naomi at She Speaks Movies takes at look at Bong Joon-ho’s 2000 debut Barking Dogs Never Bite.

Debuts Blogathon: Terrence Malick – Badlands (1973)

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Welcome to Day 2 of the ‘Debuts’ Blogathon, jointly run by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop. Today’s entry is provided by Charles at Cinematic. This is one of the first blogs I followed and it remains one of the best out there. As well as sterling reviews, this great blog asks some fascinating questions that genuinely make you think. Do yourself a favour and give it a try.

Terrence Malick

Badlands (1973)

BadlandsIn his forty-year career, Terrence Malick has stood as one of cinema’s bravest, boldest directors. The filmmaker often approaches his subjects with such a poetic manner that his movies communicate and speak to me in such a way few films can. Malick’s serene imagery has defined all of his movies, and his most recent movies strongly exemplify this trait.

The director’s debut, Badlands, may not be as ambiguous as The Tree of Life or To The Wonder, but it’s one of Malick’s finest efforts and a pivotal moment in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.

kobal_badlands460Badlands is inspired by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who went on a killing spree in 1958 with 11 victims, including Caril’s father. The film revolves around two characters. Kit (Martin Sheen) is based on Charles Starkweather. He is 25-years-old, collects the garbage for work, and wears a James Dean-like outfit, symbolising his rebellious spirit.  Holly (Sissy Spacek) takes Caril’s place. She’s only 15; a lonely freckled schoolgirl who also narrates the story.

The two first meet out on the street while Holly is twirling a baton. Kit approaches her and talks to her a bit, telling her he just left his job as a garbage man. Holly looks at him and falls in love with him and soon the two embark on a romance.

BadlandsThe love between a 25-year-old and a schoolgirl may be a bit disturbing, but Malick assures the audience that this relationship is not sexual. Rather, he connects how these two different characters are much alike. They are shunned by society and don’t know how to react.

Within the first 20 minutes, Kit shoots Holly’s father (played by Warren Oates), an action that has severe repercussions that reverberate throughout the rest of the film. Kit burns down Holly’s house and soon the two run away into the woods, hoping to disappear and find a new life. But as more and more people run into their way, the bodies start piling up, which threatens the relationship between Holly and Kit.

BadlandsBadlands has a similar story to Bonnie and Clyde, another pivotal film in the New Hollywood age. But Bonnie and Clyde focused on the two eponymous characters’ crimes and the outside world’s reaction, while Badlands shows some indication of the pedestrian perspective, particularly at the end, and it’s really about how Kit and Holly react to their victims. Malick takes a unique perspective and portrays the duo as a lost, innocent couple who seem ignorant of the world around them. In the pivotal scene where Kit shoots Holly’s father, Holly really doesn’t know what to do afterwards. She slaps Kit out of anger but still follows him like a blind puppy, as she does throughout the rest of the film. Kit, on the other hand, possesses little awareness on the vileness of his crimes. He does not seem pleased or angry about his killings, but sees it as a needed action. After shooting a few men who were following him and Holly into the woods, he argues: “I killed them because they was bounty hunters who wanted the reward money. If they was policemen, just being paid for doing their job, that would have been different.” Kit’s lack of remorse towards his victims defines the detached attitude of the film. Like Bonny and Clyde, Holly and Kit are lost, rejected souls but, unlike them, Holly and Kit don’t seem to have an urge to rejoin society. And while Bonny and Clyde is a great movie, I would argue that Badlands is a stronger, more confident film.

BadlandsWhile Badlands is a narrative-based film and not quite as surreal as Malick’s other pictures, it sets up many common and recurring traits that have defined the director’s style. Malick’s love of nature is evident here, as he presents clear, pristine, and beautiful images, be they bugs climbing through leaves or flowers bustling through the wind. He also utilizes voiceover to describe Holly’s inner emotions and thoughts, which become more direct into introducing plot elements than what his later films do. With many of the Malickian elements toned down, Badlands may be the director’s most accessible piece.

BadlandsWhile my favorite Malick movie is The Tree of Life, Badlands is certainly a highlight in the director’s filmography. Coincidently, the film debuted in the New York Film Festival in 1973, which also featured the breakthrough from one of cinema’s best directors: Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. While both movies share different stories, both show two great filmmakers providing viewpoints on American society.

Editor’s Note: The Debut blogathon gave me a good excuse to buy the new Criterion Blu-ray of Badlands, which was approved by Malick himself.  The restoration is top-notch and the disc is loaded with some great extra features, including a documentary about the making of the film.  It is well worth the price and one of the best Criterion sets I won.

Head on over to Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop where Isaac from The IPC is covering Jodie Foster’s 1991 debut Little Man Tate. Get yourself over there now!

Check back tomorrow, where Ewan at Ewan at the Cinema will be covering Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless (À bout de souffle).