On Death and Taxis
   The Cab as Sacred Space
   by Timothy Dugdale

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.

But 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.

Charley 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 maddening experience.

Some 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.

In 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 completely localized.

Thirty 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 Schrader.

Then 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 would know.

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.

When 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.

In 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 lonely man.”

Clark moved “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 and lies.

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.

Los 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.

A good 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 church.

-- Timothy Dugdale

Buy the films mentioned in this article [click here]

Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University of Detroit Mercy. He is also the founder of Atomic Quill Media.

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