Last time we learnt of Minnie’s frustrations with Driver’s lack of commitment and we’re left wondering whether or not Driver was the father of the baby in her belly and whether or not she wanted to stay with Driver. So, faced with such turmoil, Driver talks movies
Driver told me in no uncertain terms that I had to include his top five taxi movies, whatever they were at the time. Because, more than the colour of his eyes, or the tone and tempo of his voice, or even the degree that he received at university, these movies and their importance to him, spoke of him. That on the day he nominated these movies, this is how Driver saw himself. They aren’t meant to be in order of preference. That would be too hard for Driver to commit to for more than a day or two at the best of times, let alone across the ten days chronicled here. Even inclusion in the top five is fairly fluid but, as it stood when he told me, these were his top five taxi movies, listed by order of date of first release:
- Alfie, 1966
- Taxi Driver, 1976
- Taxi, 1978
- Night on Earth, 1991
- Collateral, 2004
Alfie, Taxi Driver and Night on Earth are wildly different films but are all long-term top five residents for just as wildly different reasons. And a Japanese film, Kamikaze Taxi, had only just been pushed out, almost certainly temporarily, since it had been in the top five for at least the last two years.
But a month earlier, Driver watched a DVD of the 1978 French flick Taxi and got all nostalgic about the first time he saw it. Not for the film itself, but rather for the life he led back then. The freedom to decide, on the spur of the moment, to run through the dusky streets of Carlton to catch the film at the Union Theatre at Melbourne Uni. The freedom when, after the film was finished, to stop and smoke the massive spliff he found just sitting on a table in the North Court. To just sit at that table on a warm summer’s night, light up that joint and quietly rejoice at his good fortune. While he liked the movie itself, he liked the night he saw it far more.
The release order of the five films also happens to be the order in which Driver first saw them. He watched Alfie in the lounge room at home with his family when he was just twelve years old, in grade six at primary school. At the time, Sunday Night at the Movies on was something of a big deal for the Ancelottis, or at least that’s how it seemed to Driver, because it was one of the rare occasions when his mother and father were both in the house together. His father, in particular, was almost always either invisible or absent in those years, being asleep in the morning when Driver ate his breakfast, starting his shift in the middle of the day when Driver was at school and getting back home around midnight, after Driver had gone to bed. Sunday was the only night of the week his father didn’t work, so it was their most reliable opportunity to share something. What Driver didn’t know was that his father relied on it for the same reasons as Driver did, and probably just as acutely.
Alfie was the first movie Driver watched with his family, during which his father actually stayed awake the whole way through. Usually, Luca would sit in his big, old floral-covered armchair with a glass of red wine resting on the chair’s broad wing, his fingers lightly and inattentively supporting its base. He would almost never finish the drink. Despite his best intentions, after a couple of sips he would be out like a light and whatever remained of his wine would spill from the glass as his grip on it loosened and spread across the chair’s fabric and onto the carpet. It drove Driver’s mother to distraction, but it was not something that was ever going to change. Everyone knew that. A couple of tea towels across the wing, another couple on the carpet and a resilient hope for the best, that’s all anyone could do.
But Alfie, it turns out, was different. Luca had an inexplicable respect for Michael Caine, who played the lead role. Not that Michael Caine’s acting didn’t deserve respect, but Driver never got to the bottom of why Michael Caine was singled out from all the other actors that Luca could have but didn’t afford the same level of admiration. Luca also liked Burt Bacharach, who wrote the title song, and he had a soft spot Dionne Warwick who made a hit out of it. Driver will admit that Alfie is not really a taxi movie – Alfie just uses his boss’ cars to chauffeur people about – but what Alfie does is true to the often intimate act of driving people around. Put simply, the film’s importance to Driver is that Luca stayed awake. Because he got to share it with his father it had as big an impact on Driver as any movie he ever saw. It couldn’t not make the list. It’s omission was inconceivable.
Taxi Driver was another film Driver first saw at the Union Theatre, almost straight out of school and at the end of his first summer there, this time with Punter to keep him company. While the Scorsese film came out in 1978, Driver didn’t see it until 1991, the Union Theatre showing it then because it was the ten-year anniversary of John Hinckley Jr’s attempt to kill Ronald Reagan. Hinckley famously said he did it to impress Jodie Foster because of her role in Taxi Driver and was accordingly found not guilty by reason of insanity. The fact that most uni students thought attempting to assassinate Reagan was not at all consistent with insanity gave Hinckley and the movie a cult status around campus. But that wasn’t the reason Driver went to see it. Driver had read an interview with the film’s writer, Paul Schrader, where Schrader had said he saw cabbies as ‘the perfect expression of urban loneliness’ and taxis themselves as ‘metal coffins’. In the years that had passed since that charmed night watching Alfie at home with his father, Driver’s relationship with Luca had been soured, for way to long. He didn’t like his father. Didn’t respect him, although he knew it was wrong for him to be so dismissive. He didn’t understand why his father had decided not to resume his medical career once he got to Australia and he thought, after reading Schrader’s interview, that watching the film might give him some insight into Luca’s decision. Not that he thought the film’s central character, Travis Bickle, was in any way like his father, but his adolescent brain had a tendency to oversimplify things (as did his adult brain) and even if his father’s and Travis Bickle’s circumstances were very different, even if the paths that led them both to driving taxis were chalk and cheese, he wanted some insight into what it was like to drive taxis. Because back then, he didn’t get it. Not only had he not started driving Luca’s cab, he didn’t see the attraction in it at all and he was pretty glad he didn’t.
Despite the long initial wait, Driver has seen Taxi Driver eight times. The first time he saw it, the opening scenes scared the shit out of him. De Niro’s Bickle was such a lost soul, such an isolated figure as he cruised the streets of New York in his cab. But the very last scene, where Bickle looks in the rear view mirror at some unseen image – maybe it’s just his own past that he sees – is one that Driver was sure, straight away, that he understood. There’s a fine line between reality and make-believe, between good and bad, and how you perceive those dichotomies. There’s an equally fine line between your own record of history and your role in it, and the record known to and accepted by the rest of the world. Your fact may be the world’s fiction. Sometimes the world actively conspired against you to produce that dichotomy, sometimes the cause was much more simply in your own head. Taxi Driver helped Driver to understand this even before the world conspired against his own fact to render it fiction. And he reached that understanding because of Travis Bickle, who looked back through that rear view mirror at his own past receding and saw something very different to what everyone else saw.
Somehow, it helped Driver to decide to love his father again, whether or not he appreciated him, and also to try to love what he did. And it succeeded in bringing the two of them together again so well that barely a year later Driver became his father’s second driver. His father’s partner. From 1992 he drove Luca’s cab part-time while he finished his law degree and then began practicing. And he continued that way – more or less – for almost fifteen years, right up until his father’s death, when rage and stubbornness and faith and impotence compelled him to take it up full-time. He still wonders whether he ever would have started working with his father had he not watched Taxi Driver that night with Punter. He still wonders why it drove him towards rather than away from driving. Everything’s about timing, everything in life. Driver was convinced of that.
Night on Earth gets a Guernsey for three reasons. First, Driver found it an undemanding, unchallenging pleasure to watch and still does, largely because of the second reason. Which is Beatrice Dalle. And the third is that Night on Earth was the first movie Driver and Minnie ever went to see together. It was their first date. The film covers five stories in five cities, each played out in a taxi. In the Paris story a blind woman (Dalle) is the passenger in the cab. The African driver has dropped her at her destination and, as he drives away he can’t stop looking at her in his rear view mirror. Compare the sight in that lucky bastard’s mirror with what Travis Bickle saw in his! What would you rather look at? The driver is mesmerised by Beatrice Dalle’s other-worldly beauty so, of course, the cabbie crashes. It’s said Jim Jarmusch wrote the script in eight days, the speed made possible because he had specific cities and actors in mind. If the story calls for a cabbie to crash his car because he’s staring back at a passenger who he’s just dropped off rather than looking straight ahead at where he’s driving, who else are you going to cast as the passenger than Beatrice Dalle? Driver is fairly certain something similar would happen to him if he ever had the sublime good fortune to have her in his cab. It almost did happen to him when he had Megan Gale in his back seat. He almost did crash his cab after dropping her off and credits lessons learnt in Jarmusch’s classroom for the narrow escape he had that night.
Which brings us to Collateral.
© Mick McCoy, 2013