Seeing Double is the Scene-Stealers series that celebrates the only thing better than watching one movie—watching two movies.
Each week we look for a more perfect cinematic union as we view and discuss a pair of movies chosen either for things they have in common or things they don’t. The films may be old or new, obscure or well known, celebrated or reviled. The only rules are that we must justify the pairing up front, and all titles have to be readily viewable at home, as determined by their availability to rent or stream through the most popular home video websites.
Held in May of each year, the Cannes Film Festival is probably the most prestigious of all. Each year, 20 films officially compete for what is arguably the most coveted award in all of cinema, the Palme d’Or. For the remainder of the month, Seeing Double will be dedicated completely to double features of films that either won or tied for this top prize.
First up is “Taxi Driver” and “Paris, Texas,” a paring that was actually suggested by Roger Ebert in a roundabout way in his Great Movies articles of the former and the later. In both, he directly compares each to the classic Western “The Searchers”. Beyond that, and the fact that both films have protagonists named Travis, I’m not really sure what they have in common or how they’ll play together. I’m eager to find out.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a lonely man. A young Vietnam veteran on the fringes of society, he struggles to “become a person, like other people.” Unable to sleep, he takes a job “hacking,” as he drives his cab late at night through some of the seedier parts of New York City’s boroughs.
Facing rejection, he finds himself dangerously drawn towards violence as a means to make a name for himself. Will his obsession with a political candidate lead to destruction, or will his nascent friendship with a pubescent prostitute provide a path for redemption?
Paris, Texas (1984)
After wandering through the desert, a man (Harry Dean Stanton) collapses on the floor of a bar. A doctor calls a number in his wallet. The man is named Travis, and the phone number belongs to his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell). Four years earlier, Travis and his young wife both disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Walt had all but given up hope he’d ever see his brother again, and he is eager to get answers.
Unfortunately, Travis literally isn’t talking. As Walt tries to ease Travis back into his old life, they journey from Texas to California. But how will Travis’ young son react to the presence of man who has been gone for half his life? And is there any hope of finding his mother and reuniting as a family, or are the mistakes of the past too great to overcome?
Upon first viewing it thirteen years ago, I was surprised at just how approachable “Taxi Driver” is. My impression of it was always that of a dark and harrowing journey into madness and violence. While there are elements of that, the movie has a sense of humor and energy that makes it easier to watch and even easier to return to. Watching it now for the fourth time, I was pleasantly reminded of this fact.
There’s a bit of a loose, improvisational feel to some of the scenes as the character show an unguarded and awkward side to themselves which lends to the realism.
The film also feels very cleanly segmented, as if divided into chapters 12 to 15 minutes in length: Travis takes a job, Travis falls in love, Travis’s heart is broken, Travis starts to lose it, Travis buys some guns, etc.
The first and the second halves are most clearly defined by Travis’ words said towards the beginning of the film, “I don’t believe one should devote his life to morbid self attention. I believe that someone should become a person, like other people.” In the first half he tries to become a person. In the second, he devotes his life to morbid self attention.
Bickle is one of cinema’s great anti-heroes for good reason. As horrible as some of his actions are, the film does a great job at showing how he arrived there in a way that makes the seemingly inexplicable much more relatable.
As far as the link to “The Searchers,” goes, I do see it. Travis “rescues” a girl that doesn’t want to be rescued. He can be just as irascible and emotionally stunted as Wayne’s character, and he too is holding a candle for a love that didn’t work.
I guess the comparison works mostly because there really aren’t any movies that feel quite like, “Taxi Driver,” so this comparison is better than most. Bickle really is like an old-fashioned loner anti-hero, a character much more common in Westerns. In a lot of ways he feels ripped from a more traditional time, and now he has nothing but his thoughts and his righteous indignation to keep him company.
Whereas “Taxi Driver” fittingly can be all over the place emotionally and tonally, “Paris, Texas” is much more consistent as it slowly unravels the story of a man who felt the need to walk away from everything that made him human. In fact, it’s rather brilliant in the way that the less it tells you, the more you want to know.
Considering it’s a film that consists almost entirely of dialogue, making the lead character mute for the first 40 minutes or so was a pretty ingenious move. Once he does start talking, every word inspires rapt attention. And just past the half-way point when Dean Stockwell’s character yells out “I’m sick of this fucking mystery. Just tell me what happened,” it’s probably funniest moment in the film because it perfectly expresses the audiences’ feelings.
And while we do get answers to nearly all its mysteries, it answers them on its own terms, in a manner that helps ensure the film’s lasting impact. Coming after “Taxi Driver,” I think I was extending that film’s sense of dread and violence to some of the scenes in “Paris, Texas.” But the specter of emotional violence and devastation is very real, and in a way, more disturbing.
I think the modern Western comparisons are a little more obvious here ,in part because the setting invites them. As two characters set off to find a woman who has been separated from them and who apparently does not want to be found, a parallel to “The Searchers” is apparent.
WORTH A DOUBLE FEATURE?
I think it’s interesting that both films feature often silent protagonists who seems to have difficulty relating to other people, even family. Both seem to talk the most when allowed to speak or write for stretches where they are mostly uninterrupted. Both also either display or have a history of jealousy and rage.
I also find it striking that both substitute the sex industry as the modern equivalent of being kidnapped by Comanches. It’s also interesting that while “Taxi Driver” plays like a great novel, “Paris, Texas” shows its roots by being much more play-like.
As a double feature, I was really pleased how the nihilism of the second half of “Taxi Driver” actually set up the more contemplative first hour of “Paris, Texas.” It also helped fill in the blanks as the Travis of “Paris, Texas” tries to explain how he could be so scared by the darkness that he was capable of, that he no longer felt fit to go on living his life.
Regardless of their status as Palme d’Or winners or the comparisons to “The Searchers,” the films play well together mostly because of the way the explore the depth of the loneliness of two characters adrift from society, though in very stylistically distinct ways.
As always, I can’t watch any double feature without thinking of alternate pairings. Here are a few potential alternatives for each.
For Taxi Driver:
Light Sleeper (1992) – “Light Sleeper” is the third of four in a series that screenwriter and director Paul Schrader calls his “night worker” series. “Taxi Driver” is the first. “Night Sleeper” actually has quite a few echos of “Taxi Driver” in it, and unfortunately is often overlooked.
Night Movies (1975) – There aren’t a whole lot of parallels between Travis Bickle and this film’s detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), but both protagonists seem to have a loneliness at their core as they wade through human depravity.
For Paris, Texas
Don’t Come Knocking (2005) – The re-teaming of Sam Shephard and Wim Wenders was savaged by critics, mostly because it couldn’t touch the greatness of “Paris, Texas.” This film is still worth exploring though, particularly as a bookend.
Rolling Thunder (1977) – In some ways this film is like the center of a Venn Diagram between “Taxi Driver,” “Paris, Texas,” and “Death Wish.” The shell of a man, trying to reconnect with his humanity and family as well as the Texas setting makes for an interesting thematic link, while the violent revenge provides a stark contrast. Interestingly enough, this was also co-written by “Taxi Driver’s” Paul Schrader.
Repo Man (1984) – Harry Dean Stanton is probably the best part of this Western and Noir-inlfuenced, punk-tinged cult classic from writer/director Alex Cox, a man so enamored with “The Searchers,” he recently made “Searchers 2.0.”
The Wizard (1989) – Oddly enough, the film that I was most reminded of by “Paris, Texas” was actually the 100 minute Nintendo commercial known as “The Wizard.” Both are road movies, both involve families torn apart, both feature otherwise intelligent characters that have mentally checked out and stopped talking, and both feature the famous dinosaur statues in Cabazon, CA also featured in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”