What is there left to say about Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver? Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe it's one of the great American films of the 1970s? And if there is, that person is dead wrong.
Taxi Driver - playing in a limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week as part of the ongoing Essential Cinema program - is, quite simply, the shit. Set in a nightmarish end-times New York, it tracks the deterioration of unstable Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who takes a job as a cabbie because he can't sleep nights and ends up turning vigilante - sort of - in a twisted attempt to clean up the streets and save a child prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her venal pimp (Harvey Keitel).
Scorsese brings Paul Schrader's squirmy screenplay to seething life, playing every moment for maximum unpleasantness - even playing one of the ugliest roles himself, in a directorial cameo that outdoes Roman Polanski's appearance in Chinatown for auteurist malevolence.
David Cronenberg raised eyebrows in the 1980s when he selected Taxi Driver as part of the science-fiction retrospective he was curating for TIFF, but it makes perfect sense now; the movie's Manhattan, where the fuckers and screwheads vastly outnumber the decent folk, seems to validate the cultural nightmares stoked by exploitation films like Death Wish. No wonder the rest of America was terrified of the place.
Taxi Driver also marks the end of the New Hollywood renaissance as production shifted away from gritty realism towards blockbusters. It's also a case study in a movie being ahead of its time; John Harkness used to hold it up as a prime example of the way the Academy Awards are never quite on point with the pulse of cinema. In 1976, Taxi Driver was up for Best Picture along with three other era-defining American films: Network, All The President's Men and Hal Ashby's excellent (but largely forgotten) Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory. The fifth nominee was Rocky ... and we all know how that turned out.
If you're in the mood for something a little different, there's Teenager Hamlet, which drops into The Royal this weekend for just two shows - one tonight (Friday) at 7 pm, and a second on Sunday afternoon at noon.
I first encountered Margaux Williamson's strange little project two years ago, as an installation at the Toronto Film Festival. It was halfway between a documentary and a performance art piece, consisting mostly of footage of art-student "Hamlets" and "Ophelias" being prodded by interviewers Sheila Heti and Sholem Krishtalka to share their thoughts on culture, theory and their own identities. A few of them are occasionally seen wandering through some woods in cottage country, "interpreting" the final act of Shakespeare's tragedy.
The long, looping conversations - which feature observations along the lines of "I don't know if I'm gregarious or not, but I'm certainly verbose" - are sure to drive some screaming from the room, but as Williamson's themes emerge, her subjects grow more articulate, and you can't help but grow curious about what they'll say or do next. There's also an invaluable clip of Phil Donahue interviewing Ayn Rand in 1980. Turns out she was a Charlie's Angels fan, because that show offered a vision of exceptional women doing impossible things. (I wonder whether Aaron Spelling would be surprised or flattered to learn he was an Objectivist.)
Williamson has reworked the material, trimming some sequences and adding others; this version runs 76 minutes but remains as odd and intriguing as it was in 2008. It's also newly available on DVD, so if you can't make the screenings you should be able to order it from the website.