‘Taxi Driver’ at 35; US Blu-Ray released today

I posted a lengthy piece to my own blog yesterday on the film(s) I re-watch most often. Going by my minimal record of what I see and when, a log I’ve kept since the beginning of 2005, I was surprised to realise that I last watched Taxi Driver (1976) in December 2008.

Turning 35 earlier this year, the film was first released in the US in February 1976. Interestingly, that was three months prior to its screening at the Cannes Film Festival earlier that year. Three months. When you consider that – as I posted last week – the confusion and likely legal battle surrounding Terrence Malick‘s new film, The Tree Life, boils down to a proposed Cannes 2011 premiere that looks set now to be preceded by a UK release two weeks prior to that, it seems that a lot has changed in the film industry. And it isn’t as if history provides a bad omen for Malick’s film: Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or.

The film, which is released on Blu-Ray in the US today and in June here in the UK, is doubly interesting in the context of a changing (or changed) film industry. For starters, perhaps more than any other film of its kind from that period, Taxi Driver resists and also encourages theories surrounding auteurism. It’s referred to as “a Martin Scorsese film”, of course, but it is equally that of script-writer Paul Schrader, or even its star, Robert De Niro.

Like Citizen Kane (1941), the film is one where each principal artist involved seems to have a particular stake on authorship, so excellent and self-defining is their contribution; even those appropriately inclined could argue Bernard Herrmann – whose first film score was for Kane and whose last, incidentally, was for Taxi Driver – “makes” the film. Critics and scholars forget that auteurship doesn’t have to be the fetishisation of the director-as-author.

Another reason why Taxi Driver is historically interesting is that it’s obviously a film unlikely to be made today. Indeed, if any film is unavoidably “of its time”, Taxi Driver seems explicitly so. Landon Palmer’s “Culture Warrior” column at Film School Rejects insightfully touched on this last Tuesday.

Palmer laments the appearance of the Columbia Pictures logo before the actual film starts, addressing the fact that, when he sees the same logo in cinemas today, he associates it with “movies that have been exhaustively pre-packaged for audience consumption”, of “products that have been changed by ad execs, merchandising firms, focus groups, test screenings, franchise potential, a star’s net worth, etc.”

I have to agree here. For a great variety of reasons, Taxi Driver is a “classic” not because everybody loves it – I know many who don’t – but because it reminds us of a period during which the studio system somehow accomodated such risqué projects.

Taxi Driver‘s Blu-Ray release comes as part of its restoration, and the new transfer will make its theatrical rounds in the UK from May onwards. I’ll review the film properly to mark that occasion; in the meantime, though, having not done so since 2008, I ought to re-watch it.

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Michael Pattison is a film critic from Gateshead.

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