We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Taxi Driver, 1976
‘Taxi Driver’ Named Best Film at Cannes Festival Amid Booing
Upon researching into the Taxi Driver win at the Cannes Film Festival, I wasn’t very surprised to discover that the film was booed when it was announced as the winner of Palme d’Or. Taxi Driver remains a controversial film, even by contemporary standards. But it’s hard to imagine the impact that it had at Cannes. The reaction to the film can be best summed up by the following statement made by famous playwright Tennessee Williams, who served as head of the Cannes jury in ’76.
“Watching violence on the screen is a brutalizing experience for the spectator. Films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and in lingering on terrible cruelties as though one were at a Roman circus.”
However, was it simply down to the film’s bloody climax that led people to boo it. Or is there a more complex reason for the adverse reaction that the film caused?
“The film hit a nerve with many critics and viewers alike.”
To some extent, Williams’ reaction to the film’s violence and it’s deranged anti-hero can be easily understood. When we realise that the year prior to Taxi Driver‘s win, the festival had been brought to a standstill due to a bomb scare. Travis Bickle’s mission to assassinate a politician may have been too close for comfort for the festival. Still, aside from this plot point in the film’s narrative, it was most likely the overall pessimistic tone and the character which led to the film being booed.
The film hit a nerve with many critics and viewers alike. And we must bear in mind just how fractured society was at this time. Perhaps the reason that the film generated boos was down to fact that the character of Travis Bickle represented a darkness that lays in so many of us. In a way, Bickle represents the country of America who injected themselves into situations in an attempt to be seen as a hero.
With the end of the Vietnam war still looming over America in 1976, Travis Bickle deranged hero complex could be read as America’s need to be seen as this global super power fighting against the evils of the world. But, like Bickle in Taxi Driver, it could be argued that the mission in Vietnam was misguided and a result of America’s own paranoia.
“Clearly Taxi Driver is a very personal film.”
The film emerged from screenwriter Paul Schrader’s own experiences. He found himself becoming isolated from society and an outsider. When his marriage broke down, and he lost his job as a film reviewer. In an interview, Schrader discloses how he ”took to drifting, more or less living in my car, drinking a lot, fantasizing.” Schrader’s condition worsened, and he soon found himself in an emergency room with a bleeding ulcer.
”I was about 27. And when I was in the hospital, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in almost a month. So that’s when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. This metal coffin that moves through the city with this kid trapped in it who seems to be in the middle of society but is in fact all alone.”
The fact is that clearly Taxi Driver is a very personal film, as Schrader has declared. He knew that ”if [I] didn’t write about this character I was going to start to become him — if I hadn’t already.” However, there is no use denying the fact that Bickle’s violent odyssey is hardly an isolated case. Hardly a week goes by without the media reporting on lone wolf type of individual who is driven to commit a horrendous crime, in an attempt to carry out some kind of mission.
Bickle was a warning to all of us, on what can occur if we push people to the edges of society. Perhaps, this was the reason the film being booed at Cannes? The audience didn’t want to be held accountable for failing people like Bickle who go on to commit terrible crimes.
“Taxi Driver is considered an important part of cinematic history.”
It is implied that we all have a Travis Bickle inside of us. Take the scene where a man gets into Travis’ cab and confesses he wants to kill his cheating wife. Not only is this chilling because the man seems so open about discussing murder, but because this character is played by Martin Scorsese himself.
The passenger could be anyone of us, reacting without thinking through the consequences. Murderers aren’t born, but rather created out of jealously, rash thinking and rejection. When presented with this disturbing revelation, it is hard not to feel compelled to boo at the screen. Our initial reaction is to dismiss this notion that we have a monster inside of us.
Of course, Taxi Driver wasn’t the first or the last film to be booed at the festival. Before it, L’Avventura (1960) had received boos. And since 1976, numerous films such as Wild at Heart (1990), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Antichrist (2009) have been booed.
Of course, Taxi Driver is considered an important part of cinematic history, and maybe it’s reaction at Cannes only helped to fuel its notoriety. In the case of Taxi Driver, having your film being booed at Cannes, doesn’t quite mark the end of your film.