I was in a cab last week. The driver was from Afghanistan and we got to talking. He told me about the political history of his country since the early part of the 20th century. Sometimes it was hard to hear him so I leaned forward in my seat. After awhile, I asked how long he’s been here and he said twelve years. Then I asked him what he likes most about America.
“Freedom of speech,” he said. “Where I am from you look but you cannot see,” he covered his eye with his left hand. Then he put his hand over his ear, “You listen but you cannot hear.” He touched his forehead. “You think but you cannot speak.” He looked at me in the rear view mirror.
“I am a passionate man. Here, I can speak my mind and not be afraid of going to prison.”
I felt aware of how I take the freedom of speech for granted. But in that moment, I appreciated it like never before.
From “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” here’s Kael on Robert De Niro.
First, in Mean Streets:
While an actor like Jeff Bridges in The Last American Hero hits the true note, De Niro here hits the far-out, flamboyant one and makes his own truth. He’s a bravura actor, and those who have registered him only as the grinning, tobacco-chewing dolt of that hunk of inept whimsey Bang the Drum Slowly will be unprepared for his volatile performance. De Niro does something like what Dustin Hoffman was doing in Midnight Cowboy, but wilder; this kid doesn’t just act–he takes off into the vapors. De Niro is so intensely appealing that it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work as Charlie. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible; Johnny Boy can bounce off Charlie’s anxious, furious admiration.
The Godfather Part II:
Brando is not on the screen this time, but he persists in his sons, Fredo and Michael, and Brando’s character is exteneded by our seeing how it was formed. As Vito, Robert De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but he has Brando’s wary woul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end. In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a coward landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.
…De Niro’s performance is so subtle that when he speaks in the Sicilian dialect he learned for the role he speaks easily, but he is cautious in English and speaks very clearly and precisely. For a man of Vito’s character who doesn’t know the language well, precision is important–sloppy talk would be unthinkable. Like Brando’s Vito, De Niro’s has a reserve that can never be breached.
Robert De Niro is in almost every frame: thin-faced, as handsome as Robert Taylor one moment and cagey, ferrety, like Cagney, the next–and not just looking at the people he’s talking to but spying on them. As Travis, De Niro has none of the pleasant courtliness of his Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Vito held himself proudly, in control of his violence; he was a leader. Travis is danger in a different, cumulative way. His tense face folds in a yokel’s grin and he looks almost like an idiot. Or he sits in his room vacantly watching the bright-eyed young faces on the TV and with his foot he slowly rocks the set back and then over. The exacerbation of his desire for vengeance shows in his numbness, yet part of the horror implicit in this movie is how easily he passes. The anonymity of the city soaks up one more invisible man; he could be legion.
…Some actors are said to be empty vessels who are filled by the roles they play, but that’s not what appears to be happening here with De Niro. He’s gone the other way. He’s used his emptiness–he’s reached down into his own anomie. Only Brando has done this kind of plunging, and De Niro’s performance has something of the undistanced intensity that Brando’s had in Last Tango. In its own way, this movie, too, has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex–bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes Taxi Driver one of the few truly modern horror films.
And Raging Bull:
As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grown them–he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left. What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable. De Niro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with: his La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some semi-religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt. He has so little expressive spark that what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro. His appearance–with his head flattened out and widened by fat–is far more shocking that if he were artificially padded.
Raging Bull isn’t just a biography of a genre; it’s also about movies and about violence, it’s about gritty visual rhythm, it’s about Brando, it’s about the two Godfather pictures–it’s about Scorsese and De Niro’s trying to top what they’ve done and what everybody else has done. When De Niro and Liza Minnelli began to argue in Scorsese’s New York, New York, you knew they were going to go from yelling to hitting, because they had no other way to escalate the tension. Here we get more of these actors’ battles; they’re between Jake and Joey, and between Jake and Vickie. Listening to Jake and Joey go at each other, like the macho clowns in Cassavetes movies, I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb fuck,” and Joey says, “You dumb fuck,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?
I watched horror movies as a kid–respectable ones like “Carrie,” and “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Omen,” as well as “Halloween,” and “Friday the 13th.” I also saw a bunch of low-budget horror classics like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “I Spit on Your Grave.” But it was a phase that didn’t last. Horror movies were never my thing, and the older I got the less interested I was in being scared.
I was also just as likely to be scared by an action movie like “The Road Warrior” or “Aliens” or a thriller like “Fatal Attraction” than I was by a horror movie. Horror movies were just iller, with all the blood and guts gore.
I got to thinking about scary movies over the weekend cause of Halloween and you know which one stands out? “Taxi Driver.”
It’s not a horror movie, strictly speaking, but it is a nightmare vision of New York and one that was easy to identify with–the isolation and danger, the fear and violence.
Scorsese once told an interviewer:
It was crucial to Travis Bickle’s character that he had experience life and death around him every second when he was in south-east Asia. That way it becomes more heightened when he comes back; the image of the street at night reflected in the dirty gutter becomes more threatening. I think that’s something a guy going through a war, any war, would experience when he comes back to what is supposedly ‘civilization’. He’d be more paranoid.
Pauline Kael gave it a rave in the New Yorker:
In its own way, this movie, too has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex–bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes “Taxi Driver” one of the few truly modern horror films.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, this scene featuring Martin Scorsese himself, really freaked me out…just, so…tense: