Cinematographer Michael Chapman died on Sept. 20, 2020. He was 84. We hadn’t heard or seen much of Chapman recently (his last credit was Bridge to Terabithia in 2007), but Chapman was king in the 1970s and ’80s.
Chapman’s first credit as a cinematographer came on Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, but he had worked as a camera operator for Gordon Willis on The Godfather and Bill Butler on Jaws. But it wasn’t until he hooked up with Martin Scorsese that things clicked. His shot Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Waltz (1978), American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978), and Raging Bull (1980). The talent that worked on those movies is an embarrassment of riches, but Chapman’s contributions are beyond measure. From the pre-fight Steadicam/crane shot in Raging Bull to a jaundiced nighttime New York City in Taxi Driver. Both of those movies are deeply unsettling portraits of destructive men, but Chapman’s camera is what makes them accessible. He neither elevates nor lowers them; he presents them as they are, as they feel, from one moment to the next.
It’s hard to quantify my relationship with Taxi Driver. Revulsion morphed into comprehension, then empathy. I don’t think I would comprehend the world without it. I first wrote about it in 2015, one month after Dylann Roof walked into Charleston, South Carolina church and opened fire with a handgun. Roof killed nine people that day, all of them Black. I didn’t mention Chapman in that review—I was too focused on the Travises in the world—and Chapman’s omission is regrettable. For a comprehensive look at Chapman’s work, see this obituary from the American Society of Cinematographers. From Boulder Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 50, “God’s lonely man.”
For most, Taxi Driver is summed up by one of the most famous lines in cinema: “You talking to me?” Conveying masculinity and bravado, it readies angry men for battle. But it is misleading. It is an act, a façade. The truth is found in the line that follows: “Well, I’m the only one here.”
Both were ad-libbed by Robert De Niro—the actor who gave Travis Bickle flesh and blood 39 years ago—and both portray a violent psychotic as true then as it is today. Taxi Driver may take place on the mean streets of pre-Giuliani New York, but it is not the locale that makes Taxi Driver relevant; it’s Travis.
Travis, a returning Vietnam Vet with voices in his head and hatred in his heart, takes a job driving a cab at night, hoping to drown out the demons. It doesn’t. Travis tries to express these thoughts, but he can’t. When he tries to talk about it with a co-worker, he barely manages, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” Alone, Travis fills notebook after notebook with fragmented thoughts of hatred, racism, manifestos, confusions, and fears, but in the presence of another human being, eight words are the best he can do.
Taxi Driver isn’t a celebration; it’s an exorcism. Watching it isn’t always a pleasant experience, but it is a necessary one. For writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver was a chance to shine a light on their own personal demons.
If only Travis could have done the same. Instead, the idea of true force builds in his mind, and the only expression he is left with is violence. In Schrader’s original screenplay, Travis was to massacre a group of black men, but race relations in New York were tense, and Schrader and Scorsese were afraid the movie would incite riots. Instead, they cast Harvey Keitel as a pimp, stuck a feather in his hat—referencing Scar from The Searchers, one of the models for the movie — and let a couple of Italian pimps be Travis’s target. It worked, and Taxi Driver did not incite any race riots. But, it did compel John Hinckley, Jr. to try and assassinate President Reagan. Movies can harm. They can even kill.
They can also illuminate. They throw light into the darkest corners of the psyche, evaporating the shadows to see where the boogeyman lives. Travis is a sick and lonely man, and maybe he was born sick. But a series of events isolated him further, and he struck back the only way he knew how. His acts are monstrous, but he is no monster. Taxi Driver understands that. It treats Travis with the same humanity and compassion as it would any character.
Watch Taxi Driver more than once, and that becomes clear. Watch it enough times, and you’ll see that it’s not about Travis Bickel; but it’s actually about Dylann Roof, James Holmes, Elliot Rodger, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, etc.
Taxi Driver allows us to understand these men, and we need to understand if we are going to help them. If we don’t, they will terrorize us forever.
Taxi Driver is available to stream on Netflix.