Visual Design – Taxi Driver
The first two and a half minutes of the film Taxi Driver (1976) begin with a close-up shot of a cab rolling through the hazy miasma of a dark, musty street. The camera then fades into the eyes of a weary driver, seemingly unfocused as he stares ahead in the same fashion he must do every single night. He’s bathed in red from a nearby traffic light, and his line of sight reveals an out-of-focus panorama of pedestrians crossing the street. They’re illuminated as well; little smudges of red dancing across his vision. Nothing about him really stands out, yet it is later revealed that he is a mentally unstable war veteran honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines after the Vietnam War. His only escape from himself appears to be watching porno movies, driving customers during the graveyard shift, and purging the community of its rampant filth and corruption. Moments like these make it later apparent that Taxi Driver strategically employs the use of props and colored lighting to convey the message that Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is a disillusioned man who is tortured by his own personal nightmare of social rejection and powerlessness.
Red is the color of excitement, passion, and love, emotions that Travis longs to feel. However, it is evident that he has no prior experience exploring these qualities, and comes across as awkward with human confrontation. We see him reinforce this notion with his own thoughts: “All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life towards morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” During his first break from work we see him walk into an X-rated movie theatre and approach a concession stand worker. However, instead of the usual refreshment request we would expect, we see him attempt to act upon his earlier musings by introducing himself then repeatedly asking for her name. Although from an objective point of view one can’t deny that his demands were creepy and unwanted, it’s unfortunate that what he thought was a genuine act of friendliness was met with a brusque retaliation. He’s intentionally dressed in the same dull beige military jacket we’ve seen him use during his night shifts, and although that jacket may have once been interpreted as a symbol of national pride, it now hangs on him as a reminder that he is now a washed up war veteran looking to add some color to his life.
It is solely through coincidence that Travis managed to secure a date with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). After staring at her through her office window from his cab for an uncomfortably long time, he works up the nerve to approach her the next morning. In this scene the dull beige is still prevalent in his pants, but this time he’s now wearing a red blazer, suggesting that he hasn’t given up on finding passion. His lines to her are incredibly direct and intense, imposing his analysis on her of why she wants to go out with him before actually asking her out to lunch. His offbeat persuasion is intriguing, and Betsy can’t really be blamed for accepting his offer. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you”, she says.
His strange charisma even carries through to the end of the meal and into the next date. We can finally see him starting to show signs of passion as he buys her a record of the song she mentioned during their conversation. He’s still wearing the red blazer. Everything goes well right up to the point where he stops her at a theatre playing a dirty movie. She reluctantly enters and tries to watch, but is repulsed by what she sees and storms off, never to talk to Travis again. Once more, while it can’t be denied that objectively his actions were dubious, he merely intended to place them both in an intimate situation so they could grow closer. Since he’s never felt loved before, taking her to a pornographic movie was most likely the only method he thought he could produce such an...
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