Saturday, April 16, 2011

Taxi Driver

A lot of the movies that are amongst the best movies of all time, according to this or that authority on such things, make me feel at the end like "okay, so, now what?" Is that the mystery ingredient that makes a movie great -- the failure, at the end, to have any clear sense of a story having been told with a particular point or conclusion?

You might be thinking I disliked Taxi Driver even more than I've disliked a lot of the other "must see" movies on my list, but that's not really true. There was a bit more to like about it than some of the movies I've watched this way recently. There was more suspense, more eagerness to see what would happen next, and the fact that it didn't end the way it seemed inevitable that it would maybe contributes to that.

On the other hand, the way it did end felt entirely unsatisfying. The final twist seems to be nothing more than "it happened that way because the writer says it did" and since the explanation for how it came to happen that way happens off-camera it never has to be justified. Saying it seems implausible doesn't buy much, because we know so little about how it could have happened. But it is implausible; and the fact that this gets hidden behind a big blob of ambiguity only makes the sense of being dissatisfied with the ending that much worse.

You know what else is weird about it? In a way, it almost feels like a Hollywood tacked-on happy ending. Okay, it's not exactly happy ending material in the usual sense. But compared to the tone of everything else in the movie, it's wildly unjustified in how positive it is. Is that, in fact, the point of the movie: that by the end, a fairly miserable and lonely existence can seem like an implausibly positive outcome? If so, it was only achieved by unvarnished trickery.

I also have to admit that I don't see what's the big deal about the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene. Maybe it's just gotten diluted from overexposure. But in the context of the movie, it was just one scene out of dozens with the same tone and feel and content, and I'm not sure why that one, and not one of the others, is the one everyone makes a fuss over.

In the end, the only reason I'll remember the movie is because it's been made such a big deal out of that I felt obligated to pay close attention and remember things, but even given that, I bet most of it melts away in my memory. What is there about it to stick with you? Clearly, something, for a lot of people, but I don't know what. About the only thing that grips is that twist -- and that twist feels entirely like the filmmaker yanking my chain, not the story taking me by surprise, so that's not going to haunt me. Anyone can write a story in which the rules suddenly change near the end, in which there turns out to be a gun on the mantle that we never saw in the first act, but that doesn't make it art.

Maybe it's just one of those movies that is powerful for sending a message that I already got. I don't know if that's enough explanation, though. Plenty of books and movies have felt powerful for me despite me already feeling familiar with their themes or messages. Maybe it's just that there's nothing there but the message, so if you haven't gotten that message before, you feel the impact of the message and then give credit to the whole movie for it, but if the message isn't new to you, the movie turns out to have not much else to offer. Whereas other movies might have a message but also have other stuff going on, so even if the message doesn't take root, the movie can still be an incredible experience.

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