Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), title character of Taxi Driver, speaks this line to his own reflection in his fleabag apartment, while playing with his new guns. Martin Scorsese's masterly 1976 film, now celebrating its 20th birthday with a rerelease at Valley Art Theatre, has no more enduring scene than this of Travis rehearsing his new badass attitude, all by his lonesome.
For decades now, the received wisdom in film scholarship has been that cinema is a visual medium. It's obviously true--you sit and look at film, and pictorial composition is central to most great film. But cinema, though undeniably visual, is something else first.
Strictly as a visual medium, film can never beat painting or sculpture or drawing or even still photography. But as a narrative medium, the cinema is potentially the greatest of all, even if its potential has never been fully realized. Film may say to us, "Look at the pretty pictures," but more insistently it says, "Let me tell you a story."
That may be why, for all cinema's supposed attachment to the visual, so many of the medium's classic moments are verbal--famous lines. And with 20 years under the movie's belt, it seems safe to say that Travis' cocky inquiry now qualifies as a classic. Only two other lines in the American cinema of the '70s can compete with it, both of them from Francis Ford Coppola films: The Godfather's "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" and Apocalypse Now's reflective "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like . . . victory."
The lines of dialogue that become perennial catch phrases in our culture are those which, with some degree or other of poetic grace, distill what the film is about. The theme of The Godfather is absolute power--it's about what happens to the human soul when it can't be refused. And waxing eloquent to the smell of napalm sums up AN as well--that film was at least as much a trip through Coppola's psyche as it was through Vietnam, and Coppola, God help him, couldn't hide that he loved that smell, too.
Sometimes the summarizing power of the quotable line is blunt and unsubtle: "'Twas beauty killed the beast" at the end of King Kong, for instance, and The Maltese Falcon's borrow of Shakespeare's "The stuff that dreams are made of" are almost like closing tags out of Aesop.
But sometimes a famous line can get across a film's truth in a more elegant and cryptic manner. Casablanca's "Here's lookin' at you, kid" blips through the ear as a lover's mindless remark, until you think about what's actually being said: "The very act of looking at you rates a toast." Add the flippant "kid" to avoid sounding maudlin, and it conveys that picture's romantic sensibility to perfection.
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the assertion of the "Federale" that "We don' gotta show you no steenkin' badges!" brings one up short with a chilling reality: He's right. They don't. Out in the wilderness, the rules are off. And when Joe E. Brown, having learned that Jack Lemmon isn't a woman, allows that "Nobody's perfect" at the end of Some Like It Hot, it's a summary not only of that film's spirit, but of the spirit of farce in general. More apropos of both our era and initial subject, Dirty Harry's "Go ahead . . . make my day," from Sudden Impact, takes all the nicety out of it: Harry likes his job best when he gets to kill people with legal and moral impunity.
Which brings us back to Taxi Driver. Cab drivers are not supposed to make their day the same way that Harry does (in the real world, Harry isn't supposed to, either). But Travis, who mistakes his own sexual frustrations for righteous anger at the "moral decay" he sees from his cab, feels a powerlessness so intense that he takes up arms against it.
The term "alienation" is one of the most overworked in this century's criticism, but it can't be omitted from a discussion of Taxi Driver. Travis is so out of synch, not only with the world but with his own psychological needs, that he must trump up the circumstances by which he can release his rage, which he does playing guardian angel to a child prostitute (Jodie Foster). And for an expression of alienation, the question "You talkin' to me?" is about as flawless as it gets. That this probably never crossed screenwriter Paul Schrader's mind when he wrote the line, or Scorsese and De Niro's when they executed it, only adds to its resonance.
Taxi Driver is a classic because it seemed to sum up the psychoses of late-20th-century American life with that defensive line--the paranoid preparation for combat, the crazy misplacing of anger, the weird and disassociative way we choose our targets. Movies are just playing coy if they try to deny any bit of culpability for this mindset, and in the case of Taxi Driver, this influence seemed almost direct.
John Hinckley Jr. was obsessed with Jodie Foster and almost pulled off what Travis only tried to. His big mistake was going after Ronald Reagan, toward whom the rest of the country had the same fixation that Hinckley had for Foster. After all, for all the filmmaker's best efforts, audiences liked Travis and cheered for his triumphs. Also, Bernard Goetz seemed like he might have lived just a few doors down from Travis Bickle. He, too, was all set for when somebody started talkin' to him.
The significance of the line in Taxi Driver is that Travis is alone in his room when he says it. He may think it's a challenge, but maybe he's really asking, "Why isn't anyone talking to me?"
Directed by Martin Scorsese; with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, Joe Spinell, Leonard Harris and Martin Scorsese.
(At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)