At long last, it seems The
Apprentice is running out of gas. Lord knows it’s about
time. An hour spent with people aspiring to be Donald Trump is an
hour too long. The show takes you through many emotions, none of
them pleasant. Relief comes only when the smug vulgarian dispatches
his victim of the week. The “winners” sullenly cart
their luggage up to the suite; the loser heads outside where a yellow
cab waits to spirit them away from a dream deferred, if not denied.
who is the loser, really? I keep waiting for the person in the back
of the cab to look out the window and start smiling. The spell is
broken. And then,
once over the George Washington Bridge,they order the cabbie to
take them to the nearest bar where they buy a round of drinks for
the house. Just like Mick (Paul Hogan) in Crocodile Dundee,
when he goes for a late-night cruise in a cab around spending the
evening in the company of the snooty boyfriend of the journalist
who has brought the crocodile man to the Big Apple.
Sheen should never have gotten in the back of the limo with Michael
Douglas in Wall Street. Once you get a taste for riding
in those things, you’re toast. You’re cut off from the
little people, you’re cut off from the sounds and smells and
annoyances that make living in a big city such an exhilarating and
big cities, though, are hardly Thrillsville. In Ten, Abbas
Kiarostami offers the viewer very little of Tehran through the windows
of a de facto gypsy cab driven by a lovely young divorcee.
The terrain that interests him is psychic. The “cabbie”
picks up a variety of women and they discuss issues and ideas that
would be unthinkable in a society dominated by a male-centered theocracy.
The car is a privileged space. There is one interloper, however:
the driver’s young son who rages against her for divorcing
his father. You only have to look at his contorted face and listen
to him parroting the party line of pious machismo to know that she
made the right decision. Driving is liberation.
What would a city be without its taxis? A good cabbie knows all
the nooks and crannies of the place, where to go, where not to go.
They can save your day. Or ruin it. I decided to give Madrid another
chance, so I saw Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Thanks to Aldomovar’s kind-hearted faith in coincidence, Carmen
Maura gets to ride not once but twice with a very wiggy but very
sympathetic cabbie who favors leopard skin seat covers and mambo
music. The men are all shits in the film except for this sweet little
man with the towering pompadour and unctuous demeanor.
Night on Earth, Jim Jarmusch offers the viewer five cab
rides in five different cities – LA, NY, Paris, Rome, Helsinki
- as odes to favorite directors or actors. Only the sequence in
Rome works and works beautifully thanks to Robert Benigni who subjects
a priest with a heart condition to an explicit confession of his
assignations with a pumpkin, a sheep and a naughty sister-in-law.
But it is New
York that is synonymous with the taxi. Manhattan is an island full
of busy, ambitious people who need to be somewhere fast. Go-getters
from around the world arrive daily to stake their claim, including
the guys behind the wheel. You can ride in a hundred different cabs
and meet people from a hundred different countries. Here is globalization
years ago, New York was a different place. The city was filthy,
close to bankruptcy and seething with racial strife. Deep in the
bowels of Taxi Driver, ex-Marine-turned-psychotic cabbie
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) commits his first murder. While he’s
doing a bit of shopping in a bodega, a young black punk comes in
and tries to hold the place up. Travis pulls out one of the numerous
pistols he’s purchased and blows the kid away. Stunned, Travis
stands over the body not knowing what to do with himself or the
heater. Meanwhile, the bodega owner gleefully goes around the counter
and grabs a tire iron that he puts to work on the corpse. Travis
escapes to his cab. It’s an absolutely riveting scene of savagery,
perfectly in keeping with the infernal view of New York circa 1975
conjured up by Martin Scorsese and obscenely lapsed Calvinist, Paul
with his consummate genius for bi-polar dynamic range, Scorsese
cuts to Travis, .44-caliber Magnum in hand, finger on the trigger,
watching “American Bandstand” on the telly in his hovel.
He is absolutely mesmerized by what he’s seeing. Here is an
America in which a misanthrope and racist like him can live. Through
the blue glow of the screen comes the cocksure pleasure of the kids
as they sway to the final verse of what is arguably the finest song
Jackson Browne has ever written, the title track from his 1974 breakthrough
album, Late for the Sky. Not only is the melody achingly
beautiful, Browne’s voice and lyrics are wistful in the extreme.
It’s a song you imagine being sung by a man driving away with
tears in eyes from his lady’s pad in Malibu, after the final
breakup of a romance they began in the Summer of Love, but which
has now fallen afoul of the realities of a generational hangover.
Growing up sucks, especially with Nixon in the White House.
Earlier in the
film, Travis romances Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a WASPy debutante
working for the presidential candidate Travis eventually tries to
assassinate. She gives him a record by Kris Kristofferson, whom
she describes as “part prophet, part pusher.” Like she
Travis is unconvinced
and takes her to a Times Square grindhouse to debase her of such
idealism. It works. She leaves in disgust. The fuse is lit.
you think of Scorsese and pop music, you invariably think of his
period pieces like Raging Bull or Goodfellas in
which pop songs, particularly doo-wop, at once capture the romanticized
outlaw machismo of the characters while articulating their pathos.
The Bernard Hermann score of Taxi Driver builds a coherent,
unifying mood of discord and malaise, perfectly articulating the
synchronicity between Travis’ interior world and the city’s
rot. An elegy for a downward spiral through Hades.
Taxi Driver, Scorsese is totally in the moment of the day.
First and foremost, Taxi Driver is a bleak essay on fame
and anonymity in post-’60s, post-Watergate America. Scorsese
is not mocking “Bandstand.” To the contrary, it is the
charmed planet that Travis wishes he were on, where he’s in
the arms of a dream girl, where he is somebody other than “God’s
“Bandstand” from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, the land
of eternal youth (including his own). But it’s also a place
of incredible decadence, a place full of fallen prom kings and queens
who know exactly what Browne is saying. Scorsese makes the psychic
linkage between the bloody neon hell of New York and the sunny madness
of LA — two infernos bracketing a country addicted to illusions
As the last
strains of Browne’s song fade out, Scorsese cuts to the streets
of New York where Palantine, the candidate, is invoking the words
of Walt Whitman in a speech that Travis watches with sullen menace
from his cab. Alone, lost, he is very much late for the sky.
Angeles belongs to the limo, not the cab. You think of Richard Gere
bearing flowers and opera as he arrives to wisk reformed hooker
Julia Roberts away to his sparking empire. In Night on Earth,
Jim Jarmusch would have us believe that a class act like Gena Rowlands
would take a cab from the airport, a cab driven by Winona Rider.
Hah! LA is a monster with no heart. The city is spread out into
to enclaves, rich and poor. At night the core is empty. But the
conceit of a contract killer hiring a limo for the night to cart
him from hit to hit would test even the most powerful suspensions
of disbelief. How would they converse? Over the intercom? Or perhaps
Tom Cruise could ride up front and they could cruise on over to
Chateau Marmount and wait for a fellow celebrity Scientologist in
need a ride home? Hence Michael Mann, director of Collateral,
has Jamie Foxx shuttling Tom Cruise around in a cab. I’ve
always thought Mann’s best work was in Thief because
he achieves a superior balance between plot, character and style.
Collateral fires strong on two of those cylinders: character
and style. Foxx’s cabbie is hardly a lifer. He’s ready
for better things in the music industry but they cost money. So
the risk and reward equation of the taxi is a necessity. The film
opens with him picking up and chatting up Jada Pinkett-Smith. Better
than digging ditches. Where he drops her off, Tom Cruise is waiting.
Foxx’s night is in the crapper. This is just the sort of thing
Mann, the crypto-Buddhist loves: outrageous circumstances for an
ordinary guy. The Big Test. Collateral owes more to Groundhog
Day than it does Taxi Driver.
That Foxx will
triumph at the end is a given. More complex is the fate of Cruise.
He dies on the subway, not in the cab which has long since been
destroyed in an escape ploy by Foxx. Earlier, Cruise’s hitman
had mused darkly about a man dying on the subway and being left
to ride the line all night, back and forth.
cabbie would never let that happen. At the conclusion of his sequence
in Night on Earth, Benigni gently places the priest that
he has killed with his confession on a park bench. Outside of a
Buy the films mentioned in this article
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University
of Detroit Mercy. He is also the founder of Atomic