I have the flu. Yesterday was the worst; I felt so messed up that I couldn’t enjoy anything — reading, playing video games, watching movies, nothing helped. I just wanted to sleep, but even that didn’t help much because my mind kept going. It was just talking nonsense and wouldn’t shut up.
Today I realized that part of the reason I couldn’t distract myself from the fever and chills and coughing with entertainment was that I was trying to watch crap. First I tried Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms, which was just the most depressing dreck I’ve ever seen. Tedious fight scenes, inane dialogue, a plot with zero surprises, and worst of all, hackjob animation in that “American anime” style you see everywhere now from Batman: the Animated Series (another severely overrated franchise) to Teen Titans. Well, come to think of it, that’s not very far.
Then I watched Full Metal Alchemist, which was great, but in Japanese, and I kept nodding off, so I couldn’t read the subtitles. And later on I threw on V: The Final Battle, which was a great concept and quite the TV event back in the 80s but now seems like a bunch of running and shooting and getting captured and escaping. Those lizards had the worst security I’ve ever seen.
Given all this, you wouldn’t think it would pay to try and watch a depressing movie from the 70s, even a classic like Taxi Driver, which I’d never seen before. But it turned out to be the perfect way to pass the time, because first of all it’s brilliant, and second of all it’s got a surprise around every corner and very few mindless fight scenes. It turns out classic cinema is the best medicine.
It probably helped that I knew not to trust Travis Bickle from the get-go, and indeed he’s one of the greatest ambivalent screen characters I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help but hate him most of the time, seeing in him every creep out there who thinks he knows how to make the world a better place and wants to do it with guns. And yet of course we’re invited to respect him for his white-knight desire to save the women he meets from their respective hells, neither of which he really understands, and it seems to be pure luck that he ends up doing something relatively good instead of inexplicably evil. The film’s pretty objective about Bickle, fortunately, letting us see him for the fucked-up human he is and not just a scary psycho or a vigilante saint.
The subtlety of the film is amazing: Cybill Shepherd and Peter Boyle both have scenes with De Niro that perfectly illustrate Bickle’s failure to connect without belaboring either relationship. What can I really say that hasn’t already been said? Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Scorsese’s own freaky cameo — all just brilliant. I don’t think it’s a film I’ll watch over and over for the pleasure of it; there’s nothing pleasurable here except five-star filmmaking, but everyone knows that.