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Same but Different--Taxi Driver and CollateralTerm Paper

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¶ … Passive Cruising to Active Killing: Violent Transformation in Collateral and Taxi Driver

Michael Mann's 2004 Collateral and Martin Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver reflect a world in which stagnation is overcome by means of explosive (and intrusive) violence: the main character exists in a kind of dream -- a walking somnolence -- a bubble -- from which he is finally awakened (or thrust) by the insanity of his surroundings. In Taxi Driver, the protagonist succumbs to his own bout of insanity in response (similar to Hamlet's fall within Elsinor). In Collateral, the protagonist rises to a level of heroic virtue. While the two films share similar motifs (the driving of the cab, the depictions of gritty city life at night, horrific violence), the overall works take these motifs to entirely different places. Mann's film rides them safely through the conventional structures of the crime film genre. Scorsese's rides them through a Dostoevskian labyrinth of the mind until the mind cannot take any more. This paper will compare and contrast the two films in terms of genre, theme, vision, and objective, and show how the sequences of transformation reflect two very different journeys, meanings, and messages (though one single universal idea) in world cinema.

Scorsese's Taxi Driver comes, as all Scorsese's films do, from a personal place (Al-Sayyad 172). Having grown up on the "mean streets" of New York City, Scorsese identifies with the characters he shoots in this film (at one point even playing the part of a psychotic cuckold who rants to Travis about what he is going to do to his cheating wife with the gun in his hand). The director's role in the film serves as turning point for the protagonist, who calmly listens and allows the seeds of violence to be planted in him (Jones 221). It is, as becomes clear throughout the film, the only thing at all that is being planted in him. Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle is a man far removed from the level of "wholeness" that Collateral's Max possesses (even if he only possesses it diminutively).

Max, who dreams of a beach paradise (the culmination of his dream-plan to operate his own fleet of limousines) but has lazily been driving a taxi for 12 years, finds his rude awakening in the form of a body literally falling on top of his cab. The body is the work of Vincent ("I shot him, the bullets and the fall killed him"). Vincent represents the aggressive side of the American Dream: the take what you want by whatever means necessary side. Vince is violence personified. But this being a neo-noir film of the classic crime genre, Vince gets all the good lines -- a salute to the cool under fire personas of all crime genre heroes and villains. More to the point, heroes and villains are virtually indistinguishable. The one redeeming virtue of most heroes in crime genre films is this: they aren't in it just for the money (though this is not the case in Andrew Dominik's neo-noir Killing Them Softly; Brad Pitt's Jackie is just in it for the money -- "America's a business, now fucking pay me" -- but that is what sets him apart: he has a principle and sticks to it). The hero needs a principle -- and that principle has to be higher than that of the "villain," who might also have a principle as well (Mast 293). The Western (the crime film set in an earlier, dustier time) is replete with such characters (played by Eastwood, Cooper, Ford, Bronson, Van Cleef, and Robards to name a few). The Coen Brothers' Tom of Miller's Crossing is another, and so is the star of Scorsese's Goodfellas -- Henry Hill (the man the viewer sympathizes with -- and perhaps roots for? -- even though he is not particularly heroic in any sense of the word). The crime genre is about establishing the fact that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man, as Solzhenitsyn said: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" (Solzhenitsyn 168). Thus it is in the crime film and thus it is with Max and Vincent. The two need each other -- Max needs Vincent to jolt him out of his rut, and Vincent needs Max to get him through the night.

While this paradigm does not apply to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which transcends genre and acts as a sort of Holden Caulfield gone mad movie, it does at least provide a framework: Travis Bickle is the good man who goes crazy, pushed there by societal failure (in every possible sense of the word -- morally, politically, economically, socially). He becomes Vengeance and represents the abysmal spiritual plight of a world that has fallen off the rocker: as Amy Taubin quotes at the beginning of her essay: "Really, it is not violence at all which is the 'point'…but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence" (9). Or, as Flannery O'Connor quoted for her second novel: "The kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away." Violence is a given -- it is a fact of life: it is what separates the men from the boys, to put it colloquially. It takes different forms and different objects: one need not destroy a host of pimps; one can be violent with oneself through discipline and austerity -- the end goal is the same: "purity," as Scorsese called it (Taubin 11).

Mann attempts to visualize this purity as he pans above the city, looking downward at the intersecting roads, like arteries, just brushing over the tops of electrically-lit skyscrapers, while Bach plays over the scene. The cab gliding through traffic, driven by a man who may be on a mission but that mission has taken a back seat to his everyday life -- until this night. Now, Death Itself is riding in his back seat, and Max will be given a new mission: stay alive -- and save the girl. If the combination feels cliched it is because it is -- but this is a film that plays within the parameters of the genre. It does not deviate except in terms of style -- the basic plot points are the same.

Taxi Driver, however, is a different story. Travis Bickle is also a man behind the wheel, whose initial mission is to drive the cab -- but who receives a new mission as the surreal, haunting, chaotic world of the city closes in around him and he has (seemingly) no choice but to shoot his way out. He is Mt. Vesuvius erupting -- and, yet, the point is not the violence, but rather the cleansing effect that the violence has: it purges, it purifies. That is the point. The same is true in Collateral: Max is made a bigger man by the end of the film -- and he gets the girl. Like, Travis, he too must partake of violence.

Indeed, if Travis becomes a "new man" via rampage, the same may be said of Max. Max and Vincent square off in a wild-west style shoot-out -- except here it is on a subway and the two are firing at one another through a pair of subway doors. The action is itself chaotic and impersonal -- much different from Travis Bickle's explosive demolishment of the pimps, which is very personal -- exceedingly personal. Max cannot face Vincent until after the bullets have been fired. Then Vincent calmly joins his adversary in the same subway car, sits across from him, and two share a final moment: the Killer dies, and the hero lives. One may be tempted to read some commentary on the ethnicity of the hero in this film (the stark contrast between black and white is evident), but the fact is that the role was not originally written for Jamie Foxx. At one point, producers debated hiring De Niro for the role (in a salute to his earlier cabbie film). That idea was nixed in favor of a younger star. Ethnicity is not the point -- although it is part of the formula.

Ramone, the first to die in Collateral, is a drug-dealing Hispanic. The underworld, in fact, is filled with ethnic minorities. Vincent, dressed in gray, with gray hair and goatee, represents an almost albino-like image of the Anglo-Saxon American -- straight-laced, all business, full of one-liners and a sense of everyone else's hypocrisy, but hell-bent on delivering every last bullet that he's been commissioned to deliver. (In one sense, Vincent is nothing more than James Cameron's Terminator -- just shorter and a little handsomer. He is a vehicle for a genre piece.) Ethnicity is more apparent… [END OF PREVIEW]

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