Largely influenced by the French New Wave and other international film movements, many American filmmakers in the late 1960s to 1970s sought to revolutionize Hollywood cinema in a similar way. The New Hollywood movement, also referred to as the “American New Wave” and the “Hollywood Renaissance,” defied traditional Hollywood standards and practices in countless ways, creating a more innovative and artistic style of filmmaking. Due to the advent and popularity of television, significant decrease in movie theater attendance, rising production costs, and changing tastes of American audiences, particularly in the younger generation, Hollywood studios were in a state of financial disaster. Many studios thus hired a host of young filmmakers to revitalize the business, and let them experiment and have almost complete creative control over their films. In addition, the abandonment of the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code in 1967 and the subsequent adoption of the MPAA’s rating system in 1968 opened the door to an era of increased artistic freedom and expression.
One of the most prominent and influential directors in New Hollywood was Italian-American Martin Scorsese. His first major critical success, and what is often considered his “breakthrough” film, was 1973’s Mean Streets. This film helped to establish Scorsese’s signature style in regards to narrative and thematics as well as aesthetically. Scorsese developed a unique and distinct directorial flair to his films, with reoccurring themes, settings, cinematography, and editing techniques, among other elements. This led a number of film critics to declare Scorsese an “auteur,” similar to Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and other auteur directors of the French New Wave.
While Scorsese directed a number of films in the New Hollywood period, including the Oscar winner Raging Bull (1980), the film that best captured the issues of its time and the essence of New Hollywood was Taxi Driver (1976). Taxi Driver was a huge departure from typical Hollywood and exemplified what New Hollywood wanted to achieve in a number of ways. The non-traditional narrative combined with the unique aesthetics of the film truly set it apart from its conventional Hollywood predecessors.
Disjunctive editing was one of the cinematic practices favored by New Hollywood. In opposition to the traditional continuity editing of Hollywood, disjunctive editing further distanced New Hollywood films from their predecessors and served a number of purposes – from forcing the audience to actively be engaged in the film to disorienting them for artistic, ideological, or psychological purposes. Andre Caron, in his article “The Last Temptation of Travis Bickle,” asserts that Scorsese uses jump cuts as a “sudden distancing process” in order to separate the viewer from Travis. In one of Taxi Driver’s most memorable scenes, Travis practices confronting someone in front of his mirror. He points his gun at his reflection and utters the infamous words, “You talkin’ to me?” Scorsese quickly cuts on the sound of the gun cocking, and then juxtaposes this with long takes of Travis talking. This is followed by a series of dissolves of Travis staring at a wall, and then a jump cut of Travis turning around twice, all with a voice-over. The editing used in this scene, as well as the non-diegetic sound of Travis’s voice-over, all disturb and disorient the audience, in addition to mirroring the paranoia and delusions occurring in Travis’s head. While it brings the viewer closer into Travis’s state of mind, it also makes his thoughts seem more violent and disturbing. In her book, Hollywood Renaissance, Diane Jacobs discusses the innovative editing and camerawork present in Taxi Driver, saying: “While the camera’s pacing accelerates as the film progresses, it is as restless as its character’s mind from the very start” (146).
In contrast to the jump cut, New Hollywood films also heavily employed the use of long takes. The average shot length in Hollywood films of the 1960s was about eight to ten seconds. When Travis calls Betsy to apologize for their disastrous date and attempt to make plans with her, a long take of over 90 seconds is used. The take begins with a medium shot of Travis on the phone, followed by a pan to the hallway, where the camera remains throughout the rest of Travis’s conversation, even though he is off-screen. Travis is then shown walking down the hallway and out the door, without the camera’s position on the corridor ever changing. In New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, Geoff King states that “the intervening moments” when the camera is not on Travis in this scene are “strange and disorienting” (33).
In another homage to the French New Wave, New Hollywood films were often produced on a low budget, employing certain techniques out of financial necessity that also added to the artistry and originality of the films. Location shooting was once such technique that was prevalent throughout much of these films. Taxi Driver consists of almost all location shooting throughout New York City. People in the background of many scenes were often simply pedestrians passing by, instead of paid extras. Some of the sound in the film was natural sound recorded right off the New York City streets, including car horns, traffic, music, and talking. In A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Kolker declares: “In much of his [Scorsese’s] work there is the sense of capturing a ‘reality’ of places and events that might exist even without his presence” (182). All of this gives the film a gritty realism of street life and shows the city through Travis’ eyes – dirty, seedy, and full of immorality.
The city plays a crucial role in the film. The more Travis explores it through his taxi driving, the more he comes to despise it and its inhabitants. He longs to rid of it of its “filth” and “scum,” and his plans for doing so become increasingly more radical throughout the film. Kolker claims: “The mise-en-scene of Taxi Driver represents more than New York, a place of tough people, crowded streets, fights, and whores. They represent…a New York-ness, a shared image and collective signifier of New York…” (180). Scorsese uses the architecture, spacing, and visual dynamics of the city to explore its inner depths and show the audience Travis’s world, which only location shooting can truly achieve.
Looking past the cinematic and aesthetic aspects of Taxi Driver, its narrative and overlying themes also go against traditional Hollywood and are representative of New Hollywood films. To begin with, the film lacks a typical, cohesive plot. Geoff King claims: “Films of the Hollywood Renaissance do depart, to an extent, from mainstream narrative conventions” (43). Much of the narrative simply follows Travis and his everyday life, without necessarily seeming to lead anywhere in particular. The film focuses more on Travis’ psychological state and his growing hatred rather than a concrete plot. “The narrative of Taxi Driver fails to establish any clear-cut motivation for Travis Bickle’s action,” remarks King (43). It is also full of interwoven story lines, such as those of Betsy and Iris, and strange anecdotes, including the cab passenger who has Travis park while he tells him his plans for murdering his unfaithful wife. It is not until near the end of the film that the true rising action begins and the audience begins to see the film working towards a climax.
The unconventional narrative of Taxi Driver is also exemplified in the character of Travis. “We are encouraged to have mixed feelings about Travis right from the beginning,” remarks Jacobs (144). Travis is presented as very morally ambiguous and the audience is unsure of how to feel about him. King states: “Moral ambiguity and complexity are two of the primary virtues of many of these films, marking them out from the usual melodramatic Hollywood fare based on more simplistic oppositions between good and evil” (32). Since the film is told from Travis’s point of view, including many point of view shots and voice-over readings from his diary, the audience can’t help but relate to him and feel somewhat sympathetic. However, as Travis’s thoughts and behavior become more outrageous and violent, the audience starts to feel more disconnected from him. His outburst directed towards Betsy at the campaign office and his failed assassination attempt on Palantine are both events that show his deranged state of mind and further distance him from the viewer.
Despite all of this, his interest in helping Iris shows a more caring, nurturing side to Travis. The climactic shoot out scene in which Travis kills three men complicates this sentiment though. On the one hand, Travis has helped this young girl escape a life of prostitution; yet on the other hand, he has done it in such an extreme and violent manner that is difficult to understand. In his article “Martin Scorsese,” Marc Raymond claims: “It [Taxi Driver] is a film fueled by the tension of sympathizing with Travis’s loneliness while being repelled by his violent, anti-social behavior.” The conclusion of the film has Travis being hailed as a hero and local celebrity by the newspapers, and even includes a letter from Iris’s dad thanking him for his actions and allowing his little girl to return home. This makes Travis even more morally ambiguous and further complicates his character. King believes that “ultimately more disturbing [than the violence], is its [Taxi Driver’s] refusal to take a clear stand towards the central character Travis Bickle” (33).
The use of protagonists such as Travis is a frequent occurrence in New Hollywood films. They often revolve around a main character who is an “outsider” of society, a loner, who possesses questionable values and beliefs, and may have some sort of psychological problem, whether it is outright stated in the film or implied. This develops a greater sense of realism, since real life does not have a distinct plot and there are no people who are completely “good” or “bad.” New Hollywood directors played with genre this way, making their films difficult to classify as falling into one genre or another. Taxi Driver works in this manner, as it cannot be easily labeled. “They [New Hollywood directors] tried in various ways to come to terms with narrative itself, the story and its telling, and to realize the possibilities inherent in refusing the classical American approach to film” (Kolker 9). In contrast, traditional Hollywood cinema loves to define its characters as “good” or “bad,” the protagonist is almost always a positive, likable, and relatable person, and a formulaic and familiar genre format is typically used.
New Hollywood pushed the boundaries on what was acceptable to be seen on film. “The treatment of violence in American film has changed in significant ways with the emergence of New Hollywood,” claims Thomas Schatz in New Hollywood Violence (1). Under the Motion Picture Production Code, films were highly censored and scenes believed to be too violent or sexual were cut out. When the code broke down in 1968, New Hollywood directors embraced their newfound freedom and featured graphic violence, obscenity, and sexuality as common thematic elements in their films. Taxi Driver is no exception. The entire film centers around Travis’s violent thoughts and tendencies, and throughout most of the film he uses extremely vulgar language. There are numerous violent scenes, with the most graphic being the final shoot out scene in which Travis kills three men. Blood is splattered all over the floors and walls, and Travis motions shooting himself in the head with blood soaked hands. Even though this scene may not seem that violent today, at the time it was quite shocking, and Scorsese had to desaturate the color of the blood to attain an “R” rating.
Taxi Driver is teeming with sexuality as well. Travis is shown visiting a pornographic movie theater and then later takes Betsy on a date there, and Scorsese inserts shots of people engaging in sexual activities from the porn film into the scene. Sex is also a huge thematic element of Taxi Driver. Travis drives around and watches the prostitutes walking the streets at night, increasing his disdain for the “scum” and “filth” of the city. In another scene, Iris’s pimp explicitly tells Travis the things he can do with her and describes her talents. The entire concept of having a character like Iris, a twelve year old child prostitute, was very controversial and cutting-edge at the time. All of these elements were groundbreaking and almost unheard of in Hollywood films before New Hollywood. Michael Ryan, author of Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, claims that New Hollywood “viewed sexuality as a rich terrain of possibility rather than an evil to be repressed,” and goes on to say: “It would be impossible…to restore the conservative order of sexual and moral propriety that prevailed prior to the sixties” (18). Since the 1970s, the amount of graphic violence, obscenity, and sexuality in films has immensely increased and is now commonplace in both the top critically and commercially successful films, which attests to the lasting effects and influence of the New Hollywood movement.
Taxi Driver is ultimately a film that rebelled against the cohesive practices of traditional Hollywood in favor of a different, more progressive, and more artistic style of filmmaking. In regards to both the cinematic and narrative aspects of the film, it broke away from its predecessors and had a huge role in creating a new language of American cinema. Taxi Driver fully embraced the principles of New Hollywood and helped define the movement and its impact.
Caron, Andre. “The Last Temptation of Travis Bickle.” Off Screen (1997). Print.
Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1970s.” Filmsite. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.
Friedman, Lester D. American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations. Oxford: Berg, 2007. Print.
Jacobs, Diane. Hollywood Renaissance. New York: Dell Pub., 1980. Print.
King, Geoff. New Hollywood Cinema: an Introduction. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.
Kolker, Robert Phillip. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
Raymond, Marc. “Martin Scorsese.” Senses of Cinema (2002). Print.
Ryan, Michael. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1988. Print.
Schatz, Thomas. New Hollywood Violence. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. Print.