If you’ve read any previous KIMT’s Weekend Throwdowns, you might have noticed I complain a lot about the barren creative wasteland that is modern Hollywood. It’s a place where soulless corporate calculation has driven artistic ambition so far underground it has to look up to see the soles of a C.H.U.D.’s feet. I’ve seen so many reboots and remakes which recycle cinema like it was Soylent Green that I pray to the sweet saint of San Andreas for California to just drop off into the ocean so we could start over with a film industry in Albuquerque or wherever.
But every so often, something slips through the labyrinth of overindulged creators, plastic studio executives, foolish focus groups, unthinking release schedules, overblown franchise envy, and always having to worry “What will the Chinese think of this?” Every so often, we get something that’s not just as good as the tales from our golden yesterdays but it’s better because it speaks to us in the language of today. And this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will consider the things that separate and connect classics old and new as we pit “Taxi Driver” (1976) against “Joker” (2019) to see if maybe Martin Scorsese should watch a few more comic book movies before making up his mind.
"You talkin' to me?"
“Taxi Driver” is one of those works of art that outlives its own time. As Shakespeare survived the Elizabethan Age and Charles Dickens the Victorian, director Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader’s odyssey through the mean streets of 1970s New York City still stands long after those streets have been gentrified and Disneyfied beyond recognition. It’s the story of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a cab driver consumed with restlessness and alienated from society. Travis is a raw wound under a placid mask who is indifferently disgusted by the disorder and degeneracy around him.
Travis becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) who works in the campaign office of Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a man running for President back when the New York primary actually mattered. Whatever picket fence fantasies Travis might have had with Betsy are shattered when he takes her to a porno flick on their first date, sending him spiraling into a homicidal and suicidal depression disturbed only by barely post-pubescent prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). But Travis proves as hapless a protector of Iris as he was a lover for Betsy.
"I'm sorry...do we know each other?"
“Taxi Driver” is one of those films you really have to see if you want to be considered a true fan of cinema. Not just because it is one of the definitive works of one of the art form’s true masters and not just because it’s that damn good but because it will help you understand the connection between cinema and the civilization in which it is made. This film couldn’t have been made any time other than the 1970s. It was a brief period when both the industry and audiences were willing to follow an artist’s vision through to completion. Judged by modern storytelling standards, “Taxi Driver” is full of deficiencies. It has too many characters that don’t tie directly into the plot. Travis Bickle’s character arc essentially ends at the mid-point of the movie. It’s politically incorrect in some particularly gross ways. And it ends in a way that leaves you wondering what the whole thing was all about. Nothing is tied up neatly with a bow.
But that, in addition to Scorsese’s visual brilliance and De Niro’s onscreen magnetism, is what makes “Taxi Driver” so enjoyable and so significant. It’s a fictional time capsule of what a particular place at a specific time meant to people, or at least what they wanted it to mean. It’s the New York City people used to dream of running away to and the New York City they regretted a few months after arriving. The streets are as full of whores and hustlers as they are of garbage and parts of the city are considered so dangerous that only nutjobs like Travis willingly go there. But it’s also a place where well-dressed people cleverly flirt as they try to get someone elected President and where a gorgeous woman can allow herself to be swept away by a man’s unbridled need for her. “Taxi Driver” isn’t just trying to show you a different place. It’s trying to take you inside a different frame of mind.
"You talkin' to me?"
43 years later, “Joker” will take you to a familiar place you’ve never really been before and take you inside a madness you think you know but leave you someplace you’ve never been. In Gotham City in some time that sure looks and sounds like the 1970s, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rent-a-clown with a brain disorder that causes fits of uncontrolled and violent laughter. Arthur lives with and cares for his addled and invalid mother (Frances Conroy) and regularly sees a social worker who asks without truly caring about Arthur’s inescapable bad thoughts.
As Arthur’s mother writes to famous millionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) to rescue her and her son from their struggles, Arthur pursues his dream of being a standup comedian and pursues the cute single mother (Zazie Beetz) down the hall of their apartment building. Eventually, Arthur is victimized one too many times and shoots down a trio of obnoxious stock brokers who kick the crap out of Arthur on the subway. It turns out the trio worked for Thomas Wayne and when he refers to those less fortunate than himself as “clowns,” it turns Arthur’s killings into the spark that sets of a protest movement of painted faces and masks that wants to tear down Thomas Wayne and every arrogant, entitled thing for which he stands. As Gotham seethes, Arthur’s fingertip grasp on reality slips and he stumbles and crashes his way out of being Arthur and into being…someone else.
"Hey buddy, I'm just here for a laugh. I don't want any trouble."
“Joker” is the story of a cracked man being shattered by the uncaring world around him and finding out his deranged brokenness gives black-hearted hope to others. Joaquin Phoenix is spectacular taking a role that has already been elevated to iconic status by two other performers, Heath Ledger and Mark Hamill, and making you forget any other version ever existed. As unforgettable as Ledger and Hamill’s performances are, this Joker may be the first time anyone has taken a comic book character and made him into someone who could actually exist in the real world. There’s nothing larger-than-life or sardonic about him. He’s not trying to celebrate or mock the comic book genre. This Joker is terrifyingly human.
Both “Taxi Driver” and “Joker” are movies about the violent result when men are left with no place to be in the world but what’s fascinating is how their differences reflect not the choices of their creators but the options allowed them by their era. Even though the film lets the viewer inside Travis Bickle’s head through voiceover narration, the film never allows you to genuinely identify with him. You’re not supposed to see yourself in him. He’s a freak performing for your amusement. The hyper violence at the end isn’t startling because you care about what happen to Travis. It’s startling because mainstream movie goers hadn’t seen anything like that before. I think if Scorsese had tried to make the audience empathize with Travis, the response would have been revulsion and I think Scorsese knew that.
"You talkin' to me?"
“Joker,” on the other hand, comes into a world so desensitized to depravity and carnage that being asked to acknowledge the humanity in a murderous maniac isn’t so unthinkable. It doesn’t ask the audience to empathize with Arthur Fleck any more than you can empathize with a rabid dog. But it does ask the viewer to consider what it means to live in a world where another human being can be reduced to the level of a diseased animal.
Visually and narratively, “Joker” director/co-writer Todd Phillips blows the young Scorsese out of the water. As powerful as “Taxi Driver” is, there’s a reason why anyone only actually remembers one scene out of the film. A lot of the techniques and styles Scorsese would go on to perfect are present but “Taxi Driver” is messily organic and not always razor-focused. Viewers will come away from “Joker” with not only images but several scenes burned into their memory. And to be fair, some of that has to do with the massive improvement in the amount of money and quality of technology and craftsmanship Phillips could put into his work. Scorsese is a genius but in 1976 he was comparatively trying to paint with only two colors and half a brush. Phillips can not only do so much more than Scorsese could but he grew up knowing he could do so much more and that allowed his vision to expand and refine itself in ways 1976 Scorsese couldn’t conceive.
"Listen, I've had kind of a bad day. If you could just..."
Phillips even manages to overcome the persistent problem in modern filmmaking where everything just looks too perfect. The precision and attention to detail Hollywood brings to bear is so astonishing that it sucks away some of the verisimilitude. In modern movies, even the dirt looks clean and the grime looks neat. “Taxi Driver” has this funky, lived-in appearance because Scorsese had to actually film in real locations where didn’t have the time or the capacity to control every little thing on the set.
“Taxi Driver” is almost universally acclaimed as a masterpiece but this Throwdown goes to “Joker.” “Taxi Driver” tells the tale of a world that in many ways no longer exists…or at least we like to pretend it doesn’t. “Joker” carries the same sort of power but in a manner than can’t be denied or dismissed. I can’t guarantee that “Joker” will still be considered a masterpiece 40 years on but I’d be willing to bet $50 on it. That’s a hell of a lot more than you can say about most motion pictures that get cranked out nowadays.
Even if you hate comic book flicks, you should still watch “Joker.” I can’t exactly promise you’ll enjoy it because it is about a man’s mental and spiritual destruction. “Feel good hit of the fall” is NOT how I would describe it. But some experiences are still worthwhile even if they aren’t all that pleasant.
"I don't see anybody else you, so you must be talkin' to me!"
Taxi Driver (1976)
Written by Paul Schrader.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Richard Higgs, Harvey Keitel, and Steven Prince.
Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver.
Directed by Todd Phillips.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, France Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glen Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, and Rocco Luna.
"Yes. Yes, I am talking to you. Want to hear something funny?"