Mise-en-scene in Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is about Travis Bickle, a "sick" taxi driver who is both a prophet and/or a mad man. We are never allowed to know what the movie itself thinks of him, we are never told to love him or hate him and the movie never states whether he is ethically right or wrong. This movie is not about the answers to the problems of the society. It is just about the questions and unknowns. It is just an interesting journey in the modern society that could make people discuss about Travis hours and hours. Talking with other people, I was amazed how people can think of him in different ways. Some say he is "sick", some say he is their "prophet". The fast cuts in the editing (when he practices with the guns) make us enter in his state of mind. But also, some long takes force us to analyze and understand what happened (Very high-angle takes that Scorsese calls "Priest shots" after the massacre.). The movie switches dynamically between these styles, which leaves the audience an infinite ways of thinking about the Travis.
This is beyond doubt not a journey like Odysseus where the hero always moves forward. In Taxi Driver the hero's journey is always around the same circle. He does not meet any new people or experience new situations. Same people turn around him, or maybe he turns around the same people and he repeatedly recognizes similar concepts in them. In a realistic movie the fact that he meets with those people so many times and in so many different places would be a mistake. However, this is not a realistic movie. Palantine who was already around him (thanks to the posters and Betsy) gets into his car (which is highly unlikely to happen); he sees Iris in many different unrelated places (three times); Scorsese appears in the movie twice (the unknown one of these is in the scene where we first see Betsy. He is also watching her in the back.). Also different people reminds him of similar concepts: Betsy and Iris are both woman who are to be saved from the lives they are stuck in, and he sees many different people who cannot communicate with him. This circle with Travis in its center is also represented in the camera movements: either the camera is traveling around him or it is panning to show the panorama of the New York life through his eyes. Moreover, in two different scenes the camera and Travis make the other 180 degrees of the circle and meet at the same place. These formal elements help us understand and feel how Travis is also encircled and alone in that sick world.
The fact that this is not a realistic movie is also proved by some of the elements in the narrative. First of all, Travis is described as someone who never sleeps, and we really never see him sleeping. Secondly, the time gaps between the shots (sometimes a week, or maybe a month: after he first signs up for the job, the next shot is in his apartment, and he describes his daily routine.) also prove that this is a stylized movie. Lastly, although he is almost illiterate (- Education? - Yes, some, you know, here and there!), he has a diary and we hear him telling us what he is writing. He sometimes even becomes poetic. All of these are almost implausible for an ordinary taxi driver. As a final point about the realism, I think the appearance of Scorsese himself is to remind us that "this is just a movie" and that we should not get into the story too much. I think he appears at a very important point, when everything starts to boil and the audience risks to be caught in Travis' delirium too much.
Travis' alienation and loneliness is one of the most underlined ideas in the movie. Even when he is with other people he is very seldom shown as having a real communication with them. One very interesting shot is when he first sits in the café with his friends. He sits on the other side of the table and they are on the other sides of the frame. They seem like they are very far apart from each other. Also, when Travis talks with other people (except Iris and Betsy) he never looks at them. There are even some shots where we see what he is looking at, which shows his disconnection with those people. Naturally, for a person so disconnected to the society "exchanges" are very important. It could be an exchange of a gun or a paper or feelings. Scorsese emphasizes these using some unusual high angles, looking at the action from above. It happens four times in the movie: in the taxi office, in the movie theater, in the gun exchange, and most importantly when he first declares his love to Betsy in the campaign headquarters. In the last one, there is only a shot of the desk from above and the camera is panning in a strange way with no obvious reason. However, we know from the two other scenes that this shot underlines the "real exchange" of feelings between Travis and Betsy. Furthermore, in one of the best shots of the movie, after his useless and empty talk with Wizard the camera just stands and watches his cab going away and fading in the streets while Wizard is looking at him. The scene announces his detachment from the people and the society.
As Taxi Driver is not moving forward as a movie, there is no reason for an obvious change in style. The dizziness of the colors and the fact that the background is often out-of-focus in the whole movie reminds us that there is no way to see the society in a sharper way and finding solutions. We are almost lost in it. Very shiny colors, especially reds, blues and greens, form the main palette of the movie. However, there are some slight changes of colors. For example, in the scenes where he continues his relationship with Betsy, a peaceful green dominates the screen. In the scenes leading to the final massacre, red becomes the leading and threatening color. Again, after that, green again becomes the main color as the scenes have a feeling of calm in them. Moreover, the Sport's street is darker than many of the places in the movie suggesting a mystical feeling, which prepares us to the climax that happens there.
Other important things I want to note about the mise-en-scene are the costumes and the hairs. Travis often changes the way he is dressed and his hairstyle according to the situation. He becomes a very nice-looking guy when he is going to meet with Iris or Betsy. He wears his nice shirts brushes his hair. When he is going to show his anger or his dark side he either wears his marine or leather coat and leaves his hair as it is or even, at the end, shaves it. These changes show the instability of his personality and the two opposite characters of Travis Bickle, a prophet and a sick guy. When he looks nice, we tend to like him; when he looks crazy, we are afraid.
Furthermore, the costumes and the hairstyles help Scorsese call attention to one of the most important parallelisms of the Taxi Driver that I already mentioned. Betsy often wears red clothes as Iris does when they meet with Travis. In addition, they are both blondes. That forces us to understand the parallelism between them; according to Travis they are both to be saved from the lives they are stuck in.
The climax of the film is obviously the massacre as it is probably the most intense and shocking scene of the film. It is shot and edited as if it was a dream and we are never sure whether it really happens or whether it is just Travis' imagination. The only thing we know for sure is that it is the explosion of his unexpressed feelings toward the society and the manifestation of his hate against the people. The use of red and some unusual high angles stress the dreamy quality of the scene. Sport's reappearance and Travis' survival despite the shot that just missed his throat are out of our worst nightmares. Again, Scorsese does not expect us to believe in it. He just wants us to meditate in what happened.
The following scenes also have the same dreamy mood. The greens dominate the night scenes and an interesting peacefulness is expressed with the very slow panning of camera and the tender voice of Iris' father. Also the fact that Travis got away without going into prison and Betsy's way of looking that shows her admiration for him make the scene seem like a wonderful dream.
At the very end, although Travis is again driving the car, his face is lightened very strongly in a way we are not used to in the movie (It was always dark!). Is he enlightened? Is he a prophet? However, suddenly, something happens and his face seems red in the mirror, but he fixes it. Is he a lunatic? Is he dead or dreaming?
You won't find the answer to these questions in this movie.
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