Where do collective memories come from? From faded photography, and skewed reviews? A recent meticulous restoration of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver gives us a chance to see what the film looked like in 1976. The Taxi Driver of our memory is, according to many reports, a documentary-esque depiction of a faded, gritty New York that doesn’t exist anymore. A warped memory of an antiquated reality. The Taxi Driver of our memory is not from 1976, but from 1981 and afterward, after John Hinckley Jr. claimed watching the film 15 times in a row was the reason he shot Ronald Reagan, as “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” to Jodie Foster.
The Taxi Driver of 1976, however, has considerably less venom, and even less bite. The restoration shows not the bowels of hell, but gorgeous, glamorous New York City nightscapes. It also reveals itself to be not a masterpiece, but a film that plays as if it were made on a drug comedown. It has that obsessive, faded, disconnected tone, and the correlated occasional flashes of brilliance. (Actual flashes: white light on burnished black guns; the streaks of gold, green, and red lights in reflection all around an ink-black night—and also the glimmer of mercurial intelligence and complexity in Robert De Niro’s eyes that anchors each scene, transcending the fact that the character, as written, seems shabbily cobbled together from movie scenes and paranoiac fantasies.) The film seems not made in collaboration, but in a circle jerk. The bloodshed at the end is the payoff for three separate talents indulging in parallel fantasies, each at a different pace.
In a recent talk at the DGA, Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader talked together about the film for the first time since its release. Scorsese described how the film’s energy came from himself, Schrader, and De Niro all uniting in the same current, at the same time. “We didn’t talk,” he explained, “All three of us were wired into this kid.”
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (playing this weekend in the New Directors/ New Films festival) give us a chance to rewind, to see the background of that zeitgeist switch, that pivot point, that Scorsese and his cohorts were tapping into. Watching the era in reverse to see how they got there, to Travis Bickle and all the Mohawks and reactionaries that came afterward, it’s clear that the most crucial moment in Taxi Driver is when Foster’s flower-child prostitute, Iris, tells Bickle that she and her pimp get along because they’re both Libras. Taxi Driver is not about racism and sexism and violence as much as it’s about burnout from too much hippie-dippie fey ineffectualness. And The Black Power Mixtape ends up there, where Taxi Driver was seeded, in the agro burnout of faded ideals.
This Swedish Pop depiction of black power in America is a sweet, cool compilation of the counterculture. The real revelation in this particular film is not what it shows us about race or power, but the pristine, newly rediscovered footage from Swedish documentary TV of the streets of California and New York. The footage of New York in the ’70s shows it to be a fairly attractive place. Has it changed that much? Had it changed that much? The apocalyptic, hellish city streets of reputation are nowhere to be found in the imagery from either film. “It’s always the same to me,” said New Yorker Scorsese to Midwesterner Paul Schrader. “You don’t come from here so maybe it’s changed for you.” He went on to describe changes in Times Square, quoting Fran Lebowitz: “We built it for you. If you don’t like it, we can take it down.”