Cinema: Potholes

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There is a certain kind of urban character who, however lightly we brush against him, instantly leaks the psychopathy of everyday anguish all over us. He is a man working in a menial job that brings him into constant, envious touch with people more fortunate than he, a man enraged by the bad deal life has given him but unable to articulate that rage. Instead, he is given to fantasies ranging from the glumly sexual to the murderously violent. He is, finally, a man of muttered imprecations and sudden, brooding silences; which of these moods is most alarming is hard to say.

Familiar Breed. Travis, the taxi driver, is such a creature, and Robert deNiro has him down pat in a stunning, veracious performance. Director Scorsese has his environment down pat too. The garage that Travis works out of, the cafeteria where he takes his breaks, the porno theaters he haunts, the menacing avenues he cruises are rendered with thoroughly depressing realism.

Fatness is the beginning, though not the end, of Taxi Driver's problems. For one thing, Travis is more a case study than a character. The backgrounds against which he moves never transcend the documentary category, never fuse into an artful vision of urban hellishness. Scorsese's work may be best-of-breed, but it is a familiar breed. The movie has an air of recent discovery, of shocked innocence about the tawdry quality of city life that is gratingly naive.

The film goes most disastrously wrong when it tries to turn slice-of-life realism into full-scale melodrama. At first it is interesting, and funny, when Travis becomes obsessed with a cool socialite (Cybill Shepherd) who is a campaign worker for a too slick, too vacuous presidential candidate. Their relationship begins with his following her around at a distance, proceeds to his awkward efforts to date her, ends when he takes her to a skin flick. It makes a nice little essay in the confusions of cross-cultural courtship. However, Travis' failure as presented is more farcical than tragic, and it never adequately explains his becoming a killer. He acquires a small arsenal of guns and starts stalking his lady's candidate.

Unsurprisingly, the Secret Service proves too much for him to handle. He heads to a whorehouse in order to rescue a teeny-bopper hooker (superbly played by Jodie Foster) and guns down a pimp and his friends. There is a nice irony that this outburst of extraordinarily gory violence turns an individual who was within a hair-trigger length of being a national horror into a local hero.

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