Far and away my favourite era of cinema is “The New Hollywood”, generally perceived to have run from 1968 to 1983 and which I was born in the middle of (1974). It was a period of tectonic change in Hollywood, with 1975’s Jaws generating the commercial paradigm of” the blockbuster” which remains to this day Hollywood’s dominant mode. More pertinently, though, The New Hollywood was defined by the arrival of a new generation of young firebrand filmmakers who plied intensely personal and defiantly non-commercial visions, expressing vivid commentary on the state of an America in the midst of profound social, political and economic change.
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is a seminal film of the period. Released just a year after the bitter, painfully drawn-out end of The Vietnam War, the films portrayal of a lonely and depressed Vietnam veteran – mesmerically played by Robert De Niro in one of his signature performances – who returns to New York and is faced with an utterly alien, degenerate America that progressively stokes his inner rage to the point of explosion, remains as incendiary and unsettling now as it did then. American photojournalist Steve Schapiro was the special photographer on the set, chronicling the films production and capturing much of what we now regard as the films most iconic imagery. Schapiro’s dynamic work was previously only available as a limited edition volume from Taschen – costing an eye-watering £900 – but now, the German publisher has released a significantly more affordable “trade edition” – with, as ever, no sacrifice made on the gorgeous design and production values – providing a perfect companion to Taschen’s prior book with Schapiro, The Godfather Family Album, which collected his work on another absolute masterpiece of The New Hollywood.
As Scorsese himself notes in the books foreword, Taxi Driver was produced “in a very different New York. The city was in dire straits, right on the edge of bankruptcy. For many who lived in the five boroughs, it was a desperate time, and you could feel it out there, day and night. New York had become a nightmare version of itself, and we lived and breathed it, walked and drove through it, let our story become infected and overwhelmed by it, just like Travis Bickle…”
Schapiro’s photographs effectively capture the grimy, faded look of 70’s New York, but, like the film, also imbue it with an odd beauty, as the harsh glare of the light from street lamps and neon shop signs contrast with the encroaching darkness of night time. Similarly, there’s a grim enchantment to Schapiro’s images of the films climactic massacre, where Travis Bickle’s twisted vengeance erupts in a shocking, blood-soaked melee, best encapsulated in an overhead shot of the aftermath which looks like a hideous, real-life crime scene.
The best material, though, are the many shots of De Niro at work, plying his famed Method approach to acting and progressively, precisely crafting one of cinema’s greatest psychopaths. From early shots of the wiry, boyish-looking actor pumping weights to the sinewy, muscular Travis brandishing a Magnum .44 with a cocksure grin to the shaven-headed angel of vengeance, standing on a street corner quietly surveying his intended target, Schapiro engrossingly captures the character’s growth, with De Niro’s increasingly dark eyes regularly captured flashing an unnerving malevolence.
The book is augmented with an array of archival interview with the films key players – Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, De Niro via an extensive and uncommonly penetrating chat with Playboy magazine, and Jodie Foster (whose performance as a prostitute marked a startling transition from the wholesome Disney fare which started her career) – all of which provide fascinating perspectives, from the immediacy of the films release to years afterward when the film had embedded itself in to the annals of truly great filmmaking.
Gorgeously designed, Taschen’s custom “XL” format provides a suitably dynamic showcase for photography and, in Schapiro’s case, provides an engrossing intimacy. Like The Godfather Family Album, you get a fabulous glimpse into a cinematic milestone and fans of this key moment in Scorsese and De Niro’s legendary partnership will surely revel in this opportunity to get so close, it’ll feel like Travis is talkin’ to you…
TAXI DRIVER by Steve Schapiro is published by TASCHEN, priced £44.99.