A to Z of Films Meme (T)

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Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a hell that we don’t want to see, but some of us live in. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, taxi driver, is a desperate alienated man who tries to make contact but fails repeatedly. After a series of failed attempts to connect, he is so lonely that he asks himself in the mirror, “Who you talkin’ to?”

This powerful loneliness is the epicenter of the havoc Travis creates, and though his character is one of the strangest of all movie heroes, many people connect with him because they have experienced something like that in their lives.Taxi Driver

When a girl rejects him, the camera dollies away to an empty hallway. It is as if the girl’s rejection is unbearable, but later we are shown the horror of violence in excruciating detail. The camera’s avoidance of the rejection is the most important shot according to Scorsese. He once said “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”, but in this case, he keeps an important thing out of the frame.

Varying speeds of slow motion are used dramatically, either while observing faces in close-up or to increase awareness of Travis’s point of view. For example, the shots of the taxi are at normal speed, but what Travis observes on the street from inside it are in slow motion. Scorsese takes us inside the mind of Travis without using dialog.

See Thurman’s excellent analysis of how Scorsese pays homage via allusions in Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver is great because it is not a superficial, violent, portrait of a sociopath. It actually takes us inside the mind and character of such alienated people, helping us understand them better. If you look at Martin Scorsese, he looks so gentle that it seems he won’t even hurt a fly. He grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood with violence all around him, and says he just wanted to be a parish priest. Those childhood days underlie many of his films, and it is important to understand Taxi Driver in the context of his own words:

Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.

Runner Up

Titanic

Extravagant, spectacular, and dramatic, Titanic is the most-voted for movie that is not in the IMDB Top 250 charts. Clearly, there are those who like it and those who don’t. Here are some reasons why I like it:

TitanicI admire Cameron. He took great ridicule and criticism in his stride for making the costliest and most delayed motion picture, while working as a one-man army as producer, director, writer, and editor. Heck, he even drew the sketches of the artist hero, Jack! It is a reach of greatness against all odds.

Attention to detail in an epic of this size is ‘beyond fanatical’ as the NYT puts it. One of the longest Trivia section in the IMDB details the extraordinary extent to which Cameron went to make the movie seem real. Learning about the meticulous level of detail will make you realize that you need multiple viewings to appreciate it.

The characterizations and storyline of the romance was deliberately ‘standard fare’, since any attempt at serious character study would have been dwarfed by the vision of the script – to create a cinematic spectacle of the tragedy of the Titanic.

Unforgettable touching scenes: a mother reading to her children while knowing they are doomed, an old couple embracing in a watery grave, musicians performing while staring at death in the face.

The actual tragedy doesn’t strike us or the characters in an instant, like many times in real life. The gravity of the situation slowly descends upon us, slowly. This is handled very sensitively, unlike sudden hysteria so typical of disaster movies.

Awe-inspiring special effects that are subservient to the story and not the other way around.

The movie educates the audience of the ships layout and its physics in an entertaining fashion before tragedy strikes. This is ingenuous, because after it strikes, we actually understand all the stages of the sinking without being focused on the physics. Rather, we are so knowledgeable about the ship that we are fully immersed in the tragedy, emotionally involved with the characters, and know exactly what is happening and will happen.

Making a suspenseful, engaging movie of this kind is a technological feat. Making it without altering the facts or deviating from history, and weaving a romantic drama in it, is virtually impossible. Cameron is a genius who achieves it.

Noteworthy Mentions

The Indian Taare Zameen Par was a good mainstream movie that did not conform to any of Bollywood’s usual formulas. I have yet to find a sub-titled version of Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist.

Tenue De Soiree was weirdly interesting. As a kid, I actually enjoyed the 1978 British adaptation of The Thirty Nine Steps more than Hitchcock’s version. Two Half-Times in Hell, Zoltán Fábri’s Hungarian masterpiece that ‘inspired’ Hollywood’s Escape to Victory, is highly recommended. Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari is high up on a mountain that I am still learning to scale – simple, powerful, and now competing with Citizen Kane as one of the best films ever made. So, here are my noteworthy mentions:

  • Throne of Blood: Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth with the extremely powerful acting of Mifune is stunning. The end of the film where Mifune is killed by a thousand arrows is unbelievable, breathtaking, and iconic in cinematic lore.
  • Terminator II: Pure entertainment.
  • The Third Man: One of the best-ever film noir movies, that I saw only once and want to see again.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, a beautiful adaptation of a classic.
  • The Terminal, Spielberg’s entertaining light film of an immigrant with a unique problem. Observe the entire construction of the set of the Terminal and study Janusz Kaminski’s unbelievable, astounding camera work.
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28 thoughts on “A to Z of Films Meme (T)

  1. Mahendra, I was quite positive that Taxi Driver will cut your list. Certainly Scorsese’s best film for me very very closely followed by Goodfellas. It was so anti narrative and un-Hollywood like at that time that it had trouble finding takers, even though Scorsese already had success behind him when he made Taxi Driver. I had seen the dvd with Scorsese’s detailed interview ..it gives so much more insight into the film and scorsese’s style of film making. Yes, as you say, it had autobiographical undertones. Also, it’s universal theme of loneliness found/finds resonance with audiences across the world.
    Titanic was that ultimate romantic film, so perfectly cast and executed.
    Thanks for talking about some other films which I might see now. Strangely, I didnt find Terminal good enough even though it’s theme of cross cultural mis communication is one of my favorite themes. I found Spielberg’s handling of the story quite amateurish and stereotyped. Perhaps I was too harsh with the film.
    Mockingbird, as you might know, cut my list under K, so nothing to add.

  2. I have Taxi Driver in my laptop but have not seen it yet.
    Titanic is a sort of an example in many ways. To have the conviction of making a movie with such a budget is an achievement in itself.

  3. Taxi Driver – I knew you would mention it somewhere.

    Titanic – They made good use of the budget, but I didn’t like the movie a whole lot.

    Tare Zameen Par – The best part of the movie was how Amir Khan took the backseat. Excellent movie.

    Terminator II – I like the movie, but I was surprised to see you list it

    The Terminal – Didn’t like the movie a whole lot

    To Kill A Mockingbird – Loved the movie and the book. I remember reading somewhere that in the poll for the best movie hero character Atticus Finch was voted at the top (and for villain character it was Dr. Hannibal Lecter).

    Anand

  4. Titanic is Bollywood kitsch shot with tenfold budget (or more?). I endured it. And I swear it would have been difficult, if not for entertainment I got from people crying and gasping around me.

    Taxi Driver, I couldn’t have put that better. Precise review, if there was one.

    In T, Truman Show had an interesting concept. Although execution left a lot to be desired.

  5. As usual a good list and I agree with with asuph about the Titanic although I enjoyed the movie thoroughly! I enjoy kitsch too! Taxi Driver is one I need to see I guess but I don’t know how Amit will be able to enjoy it on his laptop! I dream one day of having a personal home theatre and catch up on all the movies I have missed. I imagine myself doing this at the age of eighty 🙂

  6. Hmm…I don’t have the DVD of Taxi Driver, only the VCD, so I haven’t seen the Scorsese interview…perhaps you will be kind to do a post on it? 🙂

    The Terminal – well, I loved the film, and more when I saw it again and again after buying it. Perhaps reading NYT’s review or Roger Ebert’s review will provide more glimpses.

  7. You are exactly whom I had in mind when I wrote that some people do NOT like Titanic! 🙂

    Thanks for the Taxi Driver compliment…

    Hmm. Haven’t seen Truman Show. Will add it to list. Thanks!

  8. I too had that question about Amit and his laptop! 🙂

    I share your dream…with a young child it is very difficult to enjoy movies at home. I’m waiting for when she grows up so I can get back to some good movie watching at home!

  9. Mahendra! Now it’s time for me to pass on the spoon to you, with water, of course. Only I won’t, because you’ll pass it back to me, as I haven’t seen the movie 🙂

    cheers,
    asuph

  10. I deserve the spoon! 🙂

    But at least I’m trying. After the post and comments on ‘An Equal Music’, I did not pick up a non-fiction book, but chose to read a classic that has been in my library for many years, left unread: Farewell to Arms.

    If you have Mockingbird, would love to read it next…

  11. I have it, but not sure if it’s loaned to someone. Let me check today when I get home. Will bring it along when I drop in this week (if I have it that is).

    cheers,
    asuph

  12. A piece I wrote in the context of Truman Show (spoilers galore!):
    http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/4-23-2004-53288.asp. It’s an old piece of writing, so I’m not too happy about it, but neither am I too unhappy. It belongs to an era when I used to write non-fiction regularly :).

    BTW, you should watch it (Truman Show) for another reason: beautiful music. Mostly classical piano works.

    regards,
    Amit

  13. Hmm…benign determinism vs. random and potentially risky free-will. Nice read, thanks for sharing. Wish you continued writing non-fiction as well.

    The ‘scripted life’ aspect of the movie reminded me of ‘The Game’ starring Michael Douglas…

  14. I am not surprised to see Taxi Driver. But was surprised to see Titanic 🙂 To Kill a Mocking Bird – Loved the book better than the movie. The movie seems a bit more in-your-face than the book. So many nuances in the book! Haven’t seen Tare Zameen Par. It has been on my lsit for ages!

  15. “Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.”[Scorsese]

    I much prefer a conversation while drinking a cup of tea. 😀

    Re:Taxi Driver, it wouldn’t have been the excellent film it is without Bernard Hermann’s jazz score, which he completed hours before his death. And Paul Schrader deserves a mention for his excellent script which incorporated some autobiographical elements into Bickle’s character.

  16. Me too, but not many people can meet face-to-face, especially from different geographies and generations and time periods…

    Yes, the score and the script…there are simply too many things to like in this movie!

  17. Mahendra:

    If all iPhone owners use Runpee there would be quite a queue at the loos in those times. Exclusivity does not work if accessible to the masses.

  18. Tora Tora Tora? Not sure how high it would rank here. Perhaps as a noteworthy mentio? I mean considering you chose Titanic as runner-up 😉 !!!

    Arun

  19. Ya. You are right. It was more like a documentary 🙂 – but still had a charm because it is bi-lingual – but acting was not impressive.

    Titanic for me was sappy to the core – and US public in general is enamored with the Titanic story which also is some reason for all the awards (almost a clean sweep IIRC). But I must say, Caprio is a good actor (not here, but other movies e.g. Blood Diamond)

    Arun

  20. I wonder if some of Titanic’s critics will have a different viewpoint had they seen the movie in a different light. No advance knowledge of the movie. No awards. No crowds surrounding them. No discussion of the movie with others who have ordinary movie tastes. And then watch the film critically. Just thinking out loud!

    Yes, De Caprio is a solid actor. He had to work to get out of being stereotyped after Titanic and he did it well. Catch me if you can, The Aviator, all feature strong performances. I haven’t seen Blood Diamond…

  21. Yes. That may have helped tamper my irritation (although I did think that the movie had plus points). But sappiness – I think I can detect when I see it 😉 ! I guess that part wasn’t my cup of tea – besides it is subjective. What is romantic and wonderful to many, can be sappiness to others. Not that I detest romantic movies – but the one hear I didnt find that charming (maybe because the underlying theme is something so so common in Indian movies)

    In any case, Titanic was fa…r better for me than say American Beauty – I just didnt get it AND I know very well about US suburbian life (even from an American standpoint).

    Arun

  22. Absolutely agree. I’ve emphasized many times in this series that the cinematic experience is a deeply subjective one.

    One more thing is that this series (meme) is where you list your own favorite films and write about why you like them. So the posts are strictly not ‘reviews’, but justifications for liking the movie. A slight difference, but it matters and reflects in the post.

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