Friday, December 3, 2010

Distant Relatives: Taxi Driver and One Hour Photo

Robert here, with my new series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

God's Lonely Men

When they tell what drew them so passionately to Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver script, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro often cite the line "I am God's lonely man."  Equally, One Hour Photo director Mark Romanek has cited Taxi Driver as an influence in his desire to make a film about modern loneliness.  The reason movies like this work at all is rooted in how easily we, the viewer, can initially relate to the characters.  We all know loneliness.  We all feel loneliness.  In an odd way, that feeling of isolation is one thing that unites all people.  So when Travis Bickle or Sy Parrish go careening off the tracks, we may no longer relate, we may in fact be appalled, but just a little, we understand.

Both Bickle and Sy work customer service.  Anyone who ever has can understand the immediate distaste that both develop for mankind.  But different than working the register at your corner store, Travis and Sy get a particularly bold first-hand view at the worst in humanity; whores, dopers, junkies, amateur pornographers of all kinds (Sy recounts store policy in terms of animal abuse and child pornography with the familiarity of experience).  Sy and Travis see themselves as islands in a sea of filth.  So it's not surprising that they latch onto whatever example of goodness they can find, in the form of beautiful Betsy for Travis and the flawless Yorkin family for Sy.  Nor is it surprising that they both eventually take measures to lend importance to their lives by correcting just a bit of the vast imperfection they see in their world.

You Are What You Do 
A man takes a job, you know? And that job - I mean, like that - That becomes what he is. You know, like - You do a thing and that's what you are.
In an attempt to give him some words of wisdom, Bickle's friend Wizard drops on him perhaps the most depressing truth he could possibly think up.  Neither men, Travis nor Sy would end where they do if they didn't feel their complete insignificance in the world.  Travis needs to recognize that as a taxi driver, he could never be as powerful as say, a politician.  Sy, who longs to be "Uncle Sy" to the Yorkins is instead dubbed "Sy the Photo Guy."  He is merely what he does.  The suggestion by Mrs. Yorkin that they're considering switching to digital certainly can't make him feel good about his job or prospects.

So aware of their insignificance and rejected, sometimes painfully so, by those who have power over the life they desire, Sy and Travis spiral down into the territories that finally challenge our sympathies. Although to be fair, elements of their lives have been challenging our sympathies all along.  As soon as we see Sy's shrine to the Yorkins and as soon as Travis takes Betsy to an adult theater we understand that we should be concerned about these desperately irrelevant men.  Lucky for both of them, they encounter opportunities to improve their increasingly disappointing realities.

Grandiose Gestures

After their explosive crimes, Sy ends up punished, Travis celebrated.  In part this is because Taxi Driver has more to say about society, almost echoing the cynicism of it's main character where One Hour Photo is more of a one man psychological case study.  And because of this, we get something in the case of Sy Parrish that we do not get from Travis Bickle: closure.  Mad man Sy is caught by the police, the Yorkins become a family again, even Sy seems to have relieved himself of his personal demons, which are (furthering the closure) exposed to the audience.  In Sy's story we're left at the end.  For Travis, we're left with the promise that this will happen again.

So does that mean that modern audiences prefer films more cleanly resolved?  Perhaps.  But by the end of One Hour Photo Sy (particularly because of the revelation of his past) has become more sympathetic than Travis.  Between these two men, the wrong one is sent to jail.  This is another lesson of both films: there are no real happy endings.  Will Yorkin and young Iris may be safe but both lonely men are still alone, despite one moment of action that may have finally leant real meaning to their lives.

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