AFI Silver hails `Taxi Driver'

FILM

FilmColumn

February 25, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver (1976), once asked Martin Scorsese, its director, "This privilege we have of creating unreal images, things that we make up, that never happened - does this privilege, this freedom, allow you to live vicariously? To what extent does it relieve sexual tension?"

Scorsese answered, "None" - and a minute later added, "I was crazier when I finished Taxi Driver than when I began."

A new 35mm print of Taxi Driver premieres Monday at 9:10 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring - and this story about a violently alienated Manhattan cabbie is still crazy, and harrowing, after all these years. (It's part of a month-long tribute to Scorsese; next week's features also include Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and New York, New York.)

From the moment Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle saunters into the cab office and asks for a job, so out-of-it that he doesn't understand the manager's vocabulary yet so resolute that he gets what he wants, he's a maddening mixed figure: both repulsive and attractive. He befuddles people who should see through him.

His magnetism and drive enable him to swing a date with a pretty political-campaign worker played by Cybill Shepherd (though he's pitifully clueless once they're together) and pose as the redeemer for a pubescent streetwalker played by Jodie Foster. But his loathing for the corruption and debasement of the contemporary city - and his self-loathing for being drawn to it - eat him up inside. You watch with fascinated horror as he readies himself for combat. You know he's going to explode, whether at Shepherd's candidate or at Foster's pimp.

Bickle's service in the Marines, the "King Kong Company" patch on his military jacket, and, later, his Mohawk haircut marked him in 1976 as a Vietnam vet. But Vietnam never comes up in the movie. It is about American nightmares - not necessarily that one. Bickle wants to be a "person like other people" - and can't. So in his mind he erects an alternate Gotham, where he can appear to be "like other people" while grooming himself to be their savior.

De Niro sunk scarily deep into his character without sacrificing creativity - it was the actor who came up with Bickle's legendary paranoid riff, "You talkin' to me?" But it's Scorsese's feeling for '70s New York as a place that pricks nerves and smears perceptions that makes Taxi Driver a vision of hell as reflected in a rearview mirror.

Sticky fingers

As the second entry in its series Exploring African-American Women Through Film, the Maryland Film Festival presents the 2001 feature Lift tonight at 7:30 at the Walters Art Museum. It stars Kerry Washington (Mrs. Ray Charles in Ray) as a worker in a top department store who swipes pricey fashion goods from Boston boutiques for favored clients. Joy Lusco-Kecken, a writer and story editor for The Wire, will serve as host of the program, which begins with a short film that Lusco-Kecken co-directed, Woman Hollering Creek. Tickets ($10, $8 for students, seniors and Walters members) are available at the door.

A very blurry line

The improvisatory made-in-Baltimore feature Winterlude premieres Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Charles. The production collective Chlorofilm describes Winterlude, its debut feature, as "a portrait of young love and misguided cinematic agendas that blurs the lines between fantasy, reality and memory." The movie also screens Saturday, March 5, at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9, at 7 p.m. Tickets ($6) are on sale at the Charles.

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