Complicated Gestures

For Nathaniel Rogers’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience

I’m of several minds about what makes a best shot in Taxi Driver, a film that brims with unusual camera positions, film speeds, and impeccable sonic cues. As I’m getting older, I’m more appreciative of sound and sound editing, and grateful for film makers who offer more than visual candy. That’s being too hard on candy, though, especially since Taxi Driver’s inspired visual rigor made it one of the early films that got me thinking about storytelling, that demonstrated how dramatic movement could be evidenced by both a story’s pacing and its visual depiction and arrangement.

When I go back to Taxi Driver now, I often return for my writing purposes: I’m interested in the texture of surroundings and how I might use them in fiction. Right now, I’m working on stories set in the late 1970s and it’s often helpful to look at films to see the condition of buildings, the prints and cuts of the era’s clothing (check out how much of it is in the last scene of Network, for example), store signage (for prices), and even once-popular products (like the three-striped Laura Scudder’s bag of chips that Goldie Hawn munches from in Butterflies Are Free). My stories aren’t even set in New York, but the work that a film like this can inspire my eyes to do is essential as I struggle to understand and use ambiance in fiction (a recent discovery: Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker from 1964).

That’s one reason why this shot fascinates me in particular. Near the end, as the camera descends from the carnage at the top of the stairs, we get this pan of Sport’s collapsed body in the hallway.

It’s an overhead shot but, unlike the more celebrated exit of the cops on the crime scene just moments before, this one gives us the close-up of the shoe and its exaggerated heel (which dates the shot appropriately), as well as the grimy and now-bloodied floor tiles (which, at least for me, are a reminder of how the cramped apartment entrances of some New York buildings seem to escape time altogether). The shot fascinates me as both a study of interior space and a sharp contrast to the more jeweled but equally lurid neon voyeurism of the opening and closing of this film. (It also reminds me quite vividly of the old ¡Alarma! tabloids that my father used to read—check out the photographer Enrique Metinides to see this shot replicated on much more desperate scales.)

Still, I chose this as my Best Shot, mostly for how it’s used to cue a character shift:

I taught a first-year writing course at Cornell called “Writing About Film,” and Taxi Driver often made it onto our syllabus. What intrigued me about my students’ first reactions was their inability (or unwillingness) to see Travis’s actions as anything but heroism (he “saves” Iris, therefore, savior!). During the course of our discussions, we often went to two key interactions that read as emblematic of his pathology: his slow-motion staredown with a black man at the cafeteria and his shooting of the robber at the bodega. The latter is a violent moment that is nonetheless amplified by the store owner’s brutalization of an already-dead body. It comes right before this scene and I study it for my writing, to think of how dramatic changes can be signaled across two scenes rather than just one and how juxtaposition can compound and complicate that change. How is the bodega scene preparing us for the next, in which Travis points his gun directly at the camera, only to have the target be revealed as a group of giddy slow dancers on American Bandstand? Travis watches them dance to a tender and plaintive Jackson Browne song. Is he longing to be like them? Or does watching them only exacerbate his isolation?

I love how DeNiro uses the gun in this scene: it’s upright for a moment while he watches the young people dance, but then he gently and deliberately rests the gun against his temple, as if the gun is the only substitute for companionship. It’s a literal depiction of the “bad ideas in my head” coming to fruition and a foreshadowing of the bloodied hand he uses at the end of the film, out of bullets and out of his mind. Looking at it as a writer of fiction, it shows me how simple gestures can function as shorthand for multiple meanings—it’s hard to do in text without being explicit about the meaning one most wants to convey. Here, I see this moment as one that might get first-time viewers to sympathize with Travis, lured on by how the scene gives us his perception of his exclusion from that dance, as if it made any sense (like his moment in the mirror) to have interactions with images that can’t talk back.

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