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Book Excerpt: Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It by Jason Bailey

We are very proud to present an excerpt from Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It by Jason Bailey, available in stores and online today. This chapter is about Taxi Driver, an essential NYC movie and one that Roger Ebert greatly admired. The Amazon synopsis for the book precedes the excerpt and you can get a copy here.

A visual history of 100 years of filmmaking in New York City, featuring exclusive interviews with NYC filmmakers

Fun City Cinema gives readers an in-depth look at how the rise, fall, and resurrection of New York City was captured and chronicled in ten iconic Gotham films across ten decades: The Jazz Singer (1927), King Kong (1933), The Naked City (1948), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Taxi Driver (1976), Wall Street (1987), Kids (1995), 25th Hour (2002), and Frances Ha (2012). A visual history of a great American city in flux, Fun City Cinema reveals how these classic films and legendary filmmakers took their inspiration from New York City’s grittiness and splendor, creating what we can now view as “accidental documentaries” of the city’s modes and moods.

In addition to the extensively researched and reported text, the book includes both historical photographs and production materials, as well as still-frames, behind-the-scenes photos, posters, and original interviews with Noah Baumbach, Larry Clark, Greta Gerwig, Walter Hill, Jerry Schatzberg, Martin Scorsese, Susan Seidelman, Oliver Stone, and Jennifer Westfeldt. Extensive "Now Playing" sidebars spotlight a handful of each decade’s additional films of note.

Taxi Driver was one of forty-six films shot in New York City in 1975. The film industry was bringing somewhere in the neighborhood of forty to fifty million dollars per year into the city, and that wasn’t the only benefit for local businesses; in March 1974, the New York Daily News reported that restaurants featured in The French Connection, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and John and Mary “reported doing better business in the months after the films were released.”

The city wasn’t just extending permits. It made the old Court Street station at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn available for films like Death Wish and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (see sidebar on page 208), so filmmakers could get their subway scenes without having to shut down active stations. It joined the New York State Council on the Arts to make a sizable investment in renovating and reopening the Astoria studio so that filmmakers would have soundstages available (it had been all but abandoned in recent years, taken over by looters and squatters).

But the question remains: Why did the city bend over backward to make it easier for filmmakers to shoot in New York, when their product all but universally portrayed the city as a terrible place to live? The answer may be found in the Daily News’s anecdote of the making of a scene in Death Wish, in which Paul Kersey foils an attempted subway station mugging by shooting the young thug dead. The MTA was understandably reluctant to make Court Street available for the production of such a scene. But, according to the Daily News, “Beame got word of the impasse and managed to convince [the Transit Authority] that its image could withstand the films better than it could a veto of the attempts to make them.”

As the decade progressed, one can’t help but wonder if Beame ever reconsidered this particular cost/benefit analysis. For now, however, the most damaging portrait of the city was presented not in the movie houses, but on the evening news. The mayor’s 1974 hiring freeze hadn’t moved the fiscal needle one bit, and he was reluctant to make cuts (foreseeing, accurately, the potential political fallout). In 1975, the state took matters into its own hands, with Governor Hugh Carey establishing the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC for short) to, in effect, take over the city’s finances.

To avoid the city’s looming bankruptcy, Beame would have to follow the MAC directives for the upcoming fiscal year, which would begin on July 1. Chief among them were massive layoffs of city workers—including more than five thousand police officers and detectives. With two weeks left in the fiscal year, off-duty cops and firemen began distributing a crude, grisly, four-page pamphlet to tourists arriving at LaGuardia, JFK, Grand Central, and Port Authority. It was titled “Welcome to Fear City—A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York.” It advised the reader, perhaps too late, to “stay away from New York City if you possibly can.”

It warned visitors to avoid the streets after six p.m., to avoid public transportation and walking on the streets at all times, and to set not  a foot off the island of Manhattan. The front cover was emblazoned  with a chilling image of a skull in a black hood; a smaller skull accompanied a smug “Good luck” on the next page. At the bottom of the cover, below the pamphlet’s subtitle, was the author byline, just for clarity’s sake: “By NYPD, 1975.”

The layoffs, many of them announced with mere hours left on June 30, left police stations and libraries all but empty, firehouses padlocked, bridges and tunnels unattended, and daycare centers closed. By July 2, chaos reigned. Ten thousand city sanitation workers had walked off the job, and within days, an estimated fifty-eight thousand tons of garbage sat, uncollected, on the city’s fire-hot streets and sidewalks. Citizens were soon setting them on fire—but with fire stations closed (and many of the remaining firefighters calling in sick), most were simply left to burn. The New York Times described the scene in East Harlem as  a “vast incinerator of flaming garbage,” and found a young man who, before tossing a firecracker into a roaring blaze, declared, “If we’re going to burn, let the whole city burn.”

This was the New York City in which Martin Scorsese and company shot Taxi Driver.

“And as far as I was concerned, it was normal,” Scorsese laughs.  “We were doing [the 2016 TV series] Vinyl, and Mick Jagger and I were talking, and he said, ‘Marty, didn’t you realize that when you were standing on a corner, and behind you there’s a wall of trash that hasn’t been picked up? That something was amiss?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s just a New York garbage strike.’”

That reality couldn’t help but seep into the picture, which seemed timed, purely accidentally, to capture the dark mood of the city that summer. 

“It was all there,” Scorsese says, “and that’s what you see in the movie. I mean, you could taste it in the air. There was a sense of desperation. There was a sense of violence in the air too. But hot summers—like Do the Right Thing, take a look at that—with the heat, everybody’s outside, they have no air conditioning, getting on each other’s nerves. The whole city was like that.”

The mood of the city seemed to synthesize with that of the picture.  Crew members scouting locations near Lincoln Center reported seeing a large man, with no provocation, punch an old woman in the mouth. While the crew was in an Upper West Side bodega shooting the scene where Travis (De Niro) kills a stick-up man, a real murder occurred around the corner. “The shoot was hard,” Scorsese says, with uncharacteristic understatement. “We shot in places that were very difficult, where we weren’t accepted, weren’t welcomed, I should say.” The City was in a rage that summer—so much so that when a seemingly unwell black man rushes past Iris (Jodie Foster) and her friend, ranting, “I’m going to kill her, I’m going to kill her,” some viewers assumed he was not an actor but a real street person Scorsese had captured, like the Times Square drummer. “It’s as if the entire city is infected with homicidal rage,” writes critic Amy Taubin. “For the girls, however, the black man is just part of the scenery.”

But for all Schrader dialogue that reads like newspaper quotes—“Thank God for the rain, which has washed away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks,” “The animals all come out at night,” etc.—it’s important to note that the cumulative effect of Taxi Driver is due not to its verisimilitude, but to its stylization. The influence of film noir is omnipresent, from the lonely saxophone of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the protagonist’s first-person narration to his traumatic background: “Like film noir, Taxi Driver is rooted in post-war trauma,” Taubin notes.

“What World War II was to noir, Vietnam is to the story of Travis Bickle.” And if Taxi Driver is neo-noir, its specific connection is to the New York noir of Force of Evil, Kiss of Death, and even The Naked City. “If someone says it reminded them of ‘Mark Hellinger Presents,’” Scorsese shrugged, “I say, why not?”

But the style goes deeper than that. When the film was released, Schrader admitted that although he was happy with Scorsese’s direction, “it was not directed the way I would have directed it. I wrote an austere film that was directed in an expressionistic way. I think the two qualities work together. There’s a tension in the film that’s very interesting.”

Travis chooses to drive at night, and in the city’s skeeviest locations, all the better to create a nightmare atmosphere. The picture has a bleary-eyed, fever-dream quality, from the opening shot of the taxi emerging from the fog; it drives through symphonies of steam in the street, through the occasional baptism by fire hydrant. “Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope,” Scorsese explained. “And the shock of walking out of the theater into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me—that sense of being almost awake.” Producer Julia Phillips, in her memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, chose a blunter phrasing: “Taxi Driver is a cokey movie. Big pressure, short scheduled, short money, New York in the summer. Night shooting. I have only visited the set once, and they are all doing blow. I don’t see it. I just know it.”

Yet it wasn’t just the mood of the city that summer that we can now see reflected in Taxi Driver. In Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), the handsome but vapid liberal candidate who insists “We are the people” (but never really explains how), it’s not hard to see the shadow of John Lindsay. “We can only surmise that the vague liberalism espoused here by the candidate is antithetical to Travis’s aggressive, and psychotic, interventionalism,” writes Stanley Corkin, who argues that Travis sees, in both Vietnam and Manhattan, “places that need a redeemer who will not allow the conventions of law and custom to stand in the way of resolute actions.” It’s a thesis that puts little space (aside from some question of endorsement and approval) between Travis Bickle and Paul Kersey.

One can also sense the racial animosity that was brewing in the city at the moment as the white elites of the Municipal Assistance Corporation shifted the expenditures and priorities away from the black and brown underclass while preserving that underclass’s position of scorn  from white blue-collar workers. “The character is a racist,” admitted Schrader, though he pulled his punches a bit by rewriting the original ending, in which Sport and the rest of Travis’s victims are black.  “We would have fights in the theatre,” Schrader explained. “It would have been an incitement to riot.” Nevertheless, the character’s racism  and prejudice remain, between the lines: the suspicion with which  he regards the nattily dressed black men in the cafeteria and on the city’s sidewalks, how he takes aim at an African American youth on  American Bandstand, how unblinkingly he offs the black stick-up man in the bodega (the clerk delights in getting in a few retaliatory whacks once the robber is down, which seems somehow grislier than the  shooting itself).

And then there is Scorsese’s own, disturbing appearance. He wasn’t originally set to play the role of (per the end credits) “Passenger Watching Silhouette,” and had in fact already shot his own Hitchcockesque cameo as a random man watching Cybill Shepherd walk to work. But when the actor he’d cast (George Memmoli, who played the small but memorable role of “Joey” in Mean Streets) dropped out at the eleventh hour, Scorsese had to step into the role himself. And as Taubin writes, “When it’s the director of the film talking about blowing a woman to bits with a .44 Magnum because she’s having an affair with a ‘nigger,’ the words carry more weight than they would if said by a day-player. Scorsese articulates what Travis refers to as the bad thoughts in his head, the thoughts he can’t bring himself to put into words—leaving him in the end no choice but to put them into action.”

As Scorsese’s passenger speaks, his words carrying the vilest images of racism, misogyny, and violence, Travis remains still, watching the man’s reflection in his rearview mirror carefully. What the passenger sees—those eyes in that mirror—are our first impression of Travis, in the opening credits, his eyes isolated before we see him in full, an establishing shot and an establishing choice. The story is seen from his perspective, often literally (point-of-view shots are plentiful); we see the world as Travis sees it. And when we see what he sees, it’s often out of sorts: through the wet and blurry windshield, in slow motion, or through a filter of smeary light—stylistic reminders that what Travis sees, he often sees askew. And the edits often duplicate the character’s erratic perception, underscoring his anxiety and unease. Scorsese puts us in the character’s shoes, whether we want to be there or not.

But because we’re placed there, and spend such time in proximity to the character, some degree of empathy is all but impossible; we can’t help but sympathize, if nothing else, with his loneliness and social discomfort. He seems to have learned all of his social cues from watching others and doesn’t pick up on hints at his inappropriateness. Betsy is certainly wise to steer clear of Travis, especially in retrospect, but the way Scorsese shoots her ultimate rejection of him—by dollying away from Travis and settling his camera on an empty hallway—is telling. He will, over the course of the picture, show us violence, gore, misery, pain, and death. But not this. This is too much.

Travis Bickle’s loneliness is ultimately at the root of the film’s most quoted scene. It wasn’t much of anything in Schrader’s screenplay. “The script just said, ‘Travis looks in the mirror. Plays like a cowboy. Takes out the gun. Talks to himself,’” the writer recalled. “So Bob said, ‘What does he say?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, just like when you’re a kid, and you got that little holster, the cap gun, and you’re standing there, you’re going, “Oh!’” I said, it’s like that. He took it from there.” The scene came late in the shoot, so Schrader was also aware of who the true authority was by then: “I told him, ‘Bob, you know Travis Bickle much better than I do at this point.’ The irony is that the most famous line is not mine.”

De Niro looked at himself in the mirror and started riffing. He had conversations with himself, imagining the mirror as some no-account punk who made the mistake of messing with him; there was a fantasy/ role-playing element to what he did, present not only in Travis Bickle or Paul Kersey, but in every would-be New York tough-guy who’d follow, from David Berkowitz to Bernhard Goetz to Curtis Sliwa. Finally, he landed on a variation of a line he’d seen a local comedian use in a bit: “Are you looking at me?” Travis looked at himself in the mirror, saw a potential victim, and asked, “Are you talkin’ to me?”

It was one of the last things they shot. They were in an apartment of a condemned building on 89th Street and Columbus Avenue, which the production was using as its home base (they shot the bloody climax elsewhere in the same structure). It was, according to Scorsese, “one of the roughest and noisiest areas of New York. . . . I remember I was sitting at his feet, and I had headphones on, and all I could hear were the city sounds. I kept asking him to repeat himself.” The actor complied, each time loading the question and its follow-ups with more impotent rage and short-fuse menace, looking into the mirror as a man, but reflecting a ticking bomb. “When Travis looks in the mirror,” Amy Taubin writes, “he sees himself and he sees the other on whom he’s projected everything he despises in himself.” Thus, Travis is “rehearsing a murder that is also a suicide.”

“It is the last line, ‘Well, I’m the only one here,’ that never gets quoted,” Roger Ebert wrote. “It is the truest line in the film.”

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