Taxi Driver (1976) and The Auteur Theory

Originally a piece I wrote for a University assignment, presented here for it’s somewhat prescient link to the three of us as collaborators and our rally for the spirit of collaboration to become the industry’s main focus, as opposed to it’s current objective of making bank.

Read the piece after the jump:

‘You know, like, you do a thing and that’s what you are. You get a job, you become the job.’  Delivered to Travis Bickle by fellow cabbie “Wizard”, this line from Taxi Driver (Scorsese. 1976) inadvertently becomes inherent when talking about the ‘auteur’ and the theory of authorship. The man who writes, becomes the writer, the man who directs, the director, but who is the author? Often regarded as “Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver”, this essay aims to highlight the other main collaborators and how their contributions are equally as important, if not more so, than Scorsese’s. As C. Paul Sellors (2010. p.1) asserts in his book on authorship, ‘filmmaking is ‘a collaborative endeavour’’ and as such no singular author can be pulled from the process.

Emerging from a long period of depression, alcoholism, and the breakdown of his marriage screenwriter Paul Schrader ended up in hospital suffering from a stomach ulcer. Schrader pulled inspiration from Arthur Bremer, and most importantly, the isolation he himself was feeling at the time, ‘the theme was loneliness, or, as I realised later, self-imposed loneliness’ (Taubin, A. 2000. p. 10.) Bremer, a deeply troubled Wisconsinite who permanently paralysed Alabaman Governor and Presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972 after a failed assassination attempt, directly inspired Schrader’s screenplay.

Though Bremer’s An Assassin’s Diary was not published until 1974, Schrader had followed news articles that had divulged small amounts of the diary and felt a connection to the themes found within Bremer’s troubled story as both had been sleeping in their cars. Having written ‘two drafts in ten days’ (Wilson, M. 2011. p.50), Schrader had created a character that syphoned it’s being from these two people and themes far larger than any one man, becoming an archetype, what Amy Taubin (2000. p. 18.) describes as ‘a cipher that each viewer decodes with her or his own desire’.

To view the whole film in this manner can conversely be a negative; Schrader’s depression and isolation never lead him to assassinate or attempt to assassinate anyone. Lehman and Luhr (2008, p. 86) posit that any discussion on authorship should be based on the ‘the films themselves, not the living persons who made them’ and that to imply that knowledge of the authors background can give a greater insight on the film is ‘reductionist and simplistically fixes meanings precisely when they should be opened up and explored’ (2008, p. 78). However does having what can be taken to be his personal politics filter into his script make him the sole and definitive author?

The script was turned down by a myriad of studios after being considered ‘too dark, too violent, it’s protagonist too unsympathetic’ (Taubin, A. 2000. pp. 11-12.), However, once the producers optioning the script saw Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), they felt confident to move forward. This confidence was not found just in Scorsese and his palpable talents, but Mean Streets star Robert De Niro too. This duo brought in contributions of arguably equal or more significant importance as Schrader’s.

Scorsese not only brought in his intimate love and encyclopaedic knowledge of film and film history but also his love and many memories of New York, the films setting. Raised in Little Italy, Scorsese brought a number of his own experiences to the project including, as he recalls, ‘the children messing about in the water spurting from a fire hydrant’. At the last moment, he also added a brilliant piece of acting, as a .44 toting racist upset with the interracial infidelity of his wife. Said Scorsese in an interview with Michael Wilson in Scorsese on Scorsese (2011, p.57) ‘The actor I had in mind, George Memmoli, had a serious accident while performing a stunt on another film and I had to replace him at short notice’. Any inference gleaned from the importance of Scorsese’s appearance here can then be dismissed as accidental and without artistic intent.

This works as a prime example of Lehman And Luhr’s (2008, p.86) notion that; ‘The primary focus of either a linear or structural authorship study is the films themselves, not the living persons who made them’. Can the fact that Robert De Niro allegedly spent a month working as a New York cab driver before the shoot then be dismissed? Can you dismiss the fact that pimp “Sport”, was originally an African-American character? Or that the casting of Harvey Keitel (who, like De Niro, immersed himself within the role, rehearsing with genuine pimps) led to the part being significantly upped from just 5 lines in the original script?

When you consider the films most famous scene, in which Travis confronts himself in the mirror, repeatedly asking ‘you talking to me?’, is it not impairing to disregard De Niro’s contribution to said scene? He did in fact improvise the entire scene from the five word description ‘Travis looks in the mirror’. With contributions that are undeniably important, in that scene and the entire film, is it not arguable that in this case and for any film, that actors are not only necessary as a base requirement but also, on rare occasions, completely indispensable for the suggestions and the physicality they bring to their roles?

As an ostensible ‘big 3’ of essential components, the writer, director and cast are not solely responsible for the way a film turns out. There are a legion of roles that fill out a production crew and each one of these may come with crucial suggestions. C. Paul Sellors (2010, p. 125) explains it perfectly when he analogises it thusly:

‘A sound recordist who proposes a recording technique because she feels it will add to the films meaning will have participated in the cooperative activity of developing the film’s meaning if other members of the authorial collective accept the sound recordist’s suggestions.’

Influences controlling the film can come not only from the inside and during the production, but externally too. Producers not only have the obligation to make a watchable piece of art, but a sellable product; they have to use their influence to ensure it exists within a certain set of rules. The Motion Picture Association of America too had a hand in certain scenes, such as the blood soaked finale. Having been threatened with an X-rating, a move that would drastically decrease the amount of people able to view the film upon it’s release, ‘Scorsese, rather than making cuts, had the scene printed so that the blood appears less red’ (Taubin, A. 2000. p. 21).

This ability to alter the state of the film cosmetically can toy with the original intentions of the true ‘auteurs’ creative decisions. This adds another layer on what becomes an increasingly large and bewildering tapestry of influences and decisions. This makes a critical analysis of a film, it’s components and meanings and who to credit with the title of ‘auteur’, a difficult task.

The final layer in this tapestry then, is the one which will realise the film as a tangible piece, complete with a voice of it’s own, one that will separate it from it’s creators and their intentions. This layer is a screening of the completed film, the audience is now free to gather their own feelings and opinions on the piece. In the advert-saturated world of today it has become impossible to visit the cinema without a mind filled with media influence and preconceptions, the absence of which is surely necessary to be able to view a film without bias and to form fresh opinions on it.

As opposed to Wizard’s theory of becoming what you do, a film becomes what is interpreted as and what is ultimately said about it. At this point in a films life, its director’s/writer’s/actors’ intent becomes irrelevant and it’s interpretations become numerous and varied, Sellors (2010. p.33) writes; ‘intentionalists maintain that the author’s intent is essential for interpreting a work, and anti-intentionalists that the author’s intentions have no bearing on a works meaning once it’s in circulation’.

Once the film and the opinions on the film enter circulation, the film begins to exist not only as the physical artefact and the collection of stories behind it but as an accumulation of theories, myths and conclusions. Is it not authorative to be able to interpret, in this manner, can’t the audience be considered authors of how the film exists post-release?

Taxi Driver is relevant to the theory of authorship thanks to it’s trifecta of similar, rather than identical voices, the blending of those voices and the subsequent, singular piece that evolves from this collaboration. I would argue that the piece authors itself as part of a push and pull between influences, Taxi Driver would not be what it is had all the right pieces not been in the right place, falling in the right way. Authorship is born of compromise and Taxi Driver is a potent example of this due to it’s three biggest contributors and their relationship as artists.

– Oliver Drew

Ollie sketch91

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography.

  • Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. (1997) Film Art – An Introduction. 5th ed. US: McGraw-Hill, p.477.
  • Lehman, P. and Luhr, W. (2008) Thinking About Movies. 3rd ed. UK: Blackwell Publishing, p. 78-86.
  • Sellors, C. (2010) Film Authorship – Auteurs and Other Myths. London: Wallflower Press, p. 1-33.
  • Taubin, A. (2000) Taxi Driver – BFI Film Classics. London: British Film Institute, p.9-22.
  • Wilson, M. (2011) Scorsese On Scorsese. 2nd ed. Paris: Cahiers Du Cinéma, p.48-61.
  • Taxi Driver – 2-Disc Special Edition, 1976. Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA: Columbia Pictures.
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7 thoughts

  1. Pingback: Taxi Driver – Martin Scorsese (1976) | A World Of Film

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