AFI #52: Taxi Driver

“You talkin’ to me?”

Some would argue that Martin Scorsese is America’s greatest film director, and given the body of work it’s certainly an argument you’d have trouble disputing. Despite the critical acclaim he’s getting lately for films including Hugo, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island and others (and these are all great films), if you’re like me it’s the old school Scorsese that turns you on. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Raging Bull and of course Taxi Driver leave the viewer in sheer awe. I’m not going to have the “best director ever” argument here, but suffice it to say there has never been anyone like Scorsese and I doubt there will ever be another.

Taxi Driver is a cinematic masterpiece on several levels. First, it moves like a Scorsese film, which is to say the viewer becomes the camera and you feel like you’re in the scenes. There is a cadence to it that is unmistakably Scorsese, all building to the violent penultimate scene and the calm and surprising finale. Taxi Driver is a nod to film noir, complete with the voice over of the lead character and the dark feel of the film. The streets of New York are always dirty and it’s raining most of the time. Our protagonist sees the dark side of New York, from hookers to thugs to pimps and mafioso. The rain is in fact a metaphor for what cabby Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) wishes for this city — that all the scum gets washed away.

Second, De Niro is tremendous in this role. The film is a deconstruction of Travis Bickle, the Vietnam Vet returned to civilization struggling with inner demons. We don’t know exactly what Bickle’s demons are, but we can guess from his narrative that he is tired of the filth of the world (the city itself, degenerate people, America) and feels compelled to “do something.” He is lonely, can’t sleep, has debilitating headaches, all of which lead to his instability. Every little thing that happens to him in the film leads up to his moment of violence. De Niro was nominated for Best Actor for this role, but he did not win. The Oscar that year went to Peter Finch in Network, who also wanted to clean up the world and it ultimately led to his downfall.

Finally, Taxi Driver is a tale of America in the mid-70s in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world in which everything seemed to be coming apart. New York itself was in reality experiencing a time of disillusionment and crime was rampant. But ultimately the film takes a surprise turn that to avoid spoilers I’ll just say is either comical or sad depending on your point of view. It’s really a remarkable foreshadowing of reaction to Bernard Goetz a few years later in New York and leaves the viewer questioning the meaning of heroism.

One thing that is unfortunate about Taxi Driver is that it will always be associated with the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley who claims he was obsessed with the film and Jodie Foster and that he shot Reagan to get Foster’s attention. Foster plays a young prostitute in the film, and frankly her work is overrated in the film. She was nominated for an Academy Award but she was barely on the screen. Nevertheless, when people think of Taxi Driver today they wrongly think it’s a film about a guy who tries to assassinate a politician to get the attention of a woman and that’s not factual. If anything the spurning of Bickle’s attention by campaign worker Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd) was another piece of the puzzle that led to his breakdown but Bickle did not try to kill Senator Palantine to get her attention, or Jodie Foster’s attention. In fact, he didn’t even shoot the Senator so that argument doesn’t hold water. Still, oftentimes the myth becomes the fact and that’s the case with Taxi Driver, misguided as this assumption is.

By the way, De Niro made The GodfatherTaxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter over the course of six incredible years. Two Oscar wins (Godfather and Raging Bull) and two best actor nominations. Damn!

Next Up: I’m skipping #51 (West Side Story) because I’ve seen it and I don’t want to suffer through it again! So on to #50, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

AFI #53: The Deer Hunter

In 1978 the Vietnam War was still very much on the minds of Americans and this played out artistically with intense films over the years meant to stir the emotions and remind us that war is hell. This particular war gave us some very memorable and important films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Coming Home, In Country, Gardens of Stone, and The Killing Fields. The best of these films at portraying what it might have been like in Vietnam was Apocalypse Now, and for my money the best at portraying what it was like for those who served was The Deer Hunter.

The 1979 Best Picture winner starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage and John Cazale is the most emotional depiction of the war’s toll on small town America. Most of the film isn’t even set in Vietnam, but rather in the small Pennsylvania steel town where first-generation Americans born of Russian immigrants volunteered to go to Southeast Asia in support of the country that did so much for their families. The three “heroes” played by Walken, Savage and De Niro leave their hard scrabble life where they enjoy the little things like drinking with friends and deer hunting in the nearby mountains only to encounter horrors of war that none of them could have imagined. The result turns their lives upside down and also affects the lives of their friends and loved ones left behind. The film came out just a few years after the end of the war, and so it made quite an impression on the American audience.

The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. De Niro and Streep were also nominated but did not win. Walken’s performance was memorable and indicative of his great work to come over the years. His portrayal of Nick was haunting and intense and leaves you breathless during the climactic scene when De Niro returns to Vietnam to try to bring him home from his new life playing Russian Roulette for money. The scenes in Vietnam when the guys are captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and forced to play Russian Roulette are as dramatic as any scene ever filmed and leave a lasting impression; in fact, the film is often remembered specifically for that scene. But the scenes before the war and after the war back in Pennsylvania are equally emotional and powerful.

It’s hard to imagine another film that leaves you with such a bad taste in your mouth about war and the human condition related to war. Surely The Deer Hunter is as strong an indictment of war as any film ever made and it is undoubtedly one of the best American films ever made. I have always counted it among my all-time favorites and it’s a little surprising to me that it wasn’t higher on the AFI list. Apocalypse Now comes in at #30 and I think The Deer Hunter is superior in most ways (I’m sure many of you will disagree but this is my blog!).

Next up is the second straight De Niro flick: Taxi Driver

AFI #54: M*A*S*H

In my lifetime there have only been a few situation comedies that rank among the greats — Seinfeld, Cheers, Taxi and one of the best ever, M*A*S*H. The characters were unforgettable and the writing superb. Hawkeye, Trapper, Radar, Colonel Blake, Frank Burns and of course Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. The television show was a fixture for me growing up and to this day I can’t move on when I stumble across an old episode on cable. Which is why it’s so hard for me to love the film version from which the TV show spawned. I like the film, but I don’t love it like I do the TV version. Disagree if you like, but this is my blog!

That being said, the film version of M*A*S*H has a lot going for it. To begin with, the writing is brilliant. Ring Lardner Jr. won an Academy Award for the screenplay, which by the way was based on the book by Richard Hooker. Lardner delivered some memorable words, most of which were uttered by the sardonic Hawkeye and the lead troll Trapper. It’s a non-stop delight of wit and humor, and that in and of itself makes the film worthy of its place on the AFI list. But of course the lines had to be uttered by great actors and Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould were wonderful as Hawkeye and Trapper. I definitely like Alda’s Hawkeye better, but Gould’s Trapper kills Wayne Rogers’ version. Gould steals the film for my money and he was never better than in M*A*S*H.

The other thing that was cool about the film version versus the TV show was that the film was made in 1970 and since it was rated R it got away with a lot more vulgarity than the television version. Could you imagine an African American character being named “Spearchucker Jones” on TV? Or this exchange between Hawkeye and Frank:

Hawkeye Pierce: Morning, Frank. Heard from your wife? A bunch of the boys asked me to, uh, ask you, Frank, what Hot Lips was like in the sack. You know, was she…
Frank Burns: Mind your own business.
Hawkeye Pierce: No Frank, you know, is she better than self-abuse? Does that…does that big ass of hers move around a lot, Frank or does it sort of lie there flaccid? What would you say about that?

Classic. Hawkeye and Trapper are two of the great characters ever written and both the TV show and the film prove this point.

I do have one complaint about the film, though. Why can’t Robert Altman allow one actor to speak at a time? He drives me crazy with his “stream of consciousness” dialogue treatment. It may be realistic, but it’s hard to follow. I felt the same way about Altman’s Nashville which I reviewed earlier in this countdown. Damn Altman is overrated (except for The Player).

Next on the AFI list are back-to-back De Niro favorites: Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter.

Heart Attack? That Was So Six Months Ago

Today is the six-month anniversary of my heart attack. Milestones seem like a good time to reflect a little, so here are some random thoughts:

  • Thinking back to the early days of my recovery, it feels like I have traveled a “life marathon” since then. So much has happened, both physically and emotionally. Truth is the emotional has been more difficult.
  • Health wise I have made tremendous progress. Without getting too technical, my ejection fraction has gone from “about 30-35” in the days following my heart attack to “about 45” six months later. This measurement means my heart is working much more efficiently than it was at the time of my M.I. and is now pretty close to the normal range of “50-75.” My cholesterol is way down (much lower than yours I bet!) thanks to diet and medication. I have had no medical issues since my heart attack and in fact I’m probably stronger now than I was prior to the attack thanks to stronger blood flow through the three stents in my left anterior descending (LAD) artery. In other words, I feel great physically.
  • I am exercising without any issues 5-6 times per week.
  • The mental rehabilitation has been more complicated. Most days I feel great. Happy to be alive and feeling like I have the whole world in front of me. Some days I freak out that I had a heart attack and worry that I’m going to drop dead at any moment even though that is extremely unlikely. My cardiologist said he had a higher chance of having a heart than I do now. Still, it’s hard not to think about how close I came to death and how scary it would be to leave my family behind.
  • Some days I wake up feeling anxious even though there may be no apparent reason for the anxiety. It’s a nasty thing anxiety. If you’ve ever struggled with it you know it can manifest itself in physical ways including chest tightness, the inability to concentrate and even heart racing or palpitations. The anxiety comes less often now but it can strike at any time. If I seem short with you one day maybe I’m having one of those days. 😉
  • Some of my friends and co-workers seem to be worried that I have to avoid stress or I’m going to have another heart attack. To them I say thank you for your concern, but stress didn’t cause my heart attack and stress is not a big issue for me these days. Like everyone I have some days that are more stressful than others, but don’t baby me — I’m not going to drop dead from stress.
  • The biggest (and in some ways only significant) change in my life has been food. If you believe as I do that food can kill you and food can heal you then it seems like an obvious thing — eat well and you’ll be well. But it’s not that easy. There are three things I have to look out for — saturated fat, cholesterol and the biggest one, sodium. Lowering fat and cholesterol is really quite simple. I stay away from red meat and fatty foods. Simple. Sodium on the other hand is a bitch. Why is sodium so important? Well, sodium makes you retain water and that forces your heart to work harder and your blood pressure increases. You don’t want that, as a heart patient or as a normal person. It’s one of the biggest reasons why heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in America. The average American gets as much as 10 times the daily recommended allowance of 2,500 mg per day. As a heart patient, I’m supposed to keep my intake to around 1,200-1,500 mg per day. It’s not so much the added salt that troubles me (I don’t use any), but it’s the sodium in foods that you may not know about. Cooking at home makes things easier, but eating out is no fun. Do yourself a favor (and I won’t preach anymore) and check out the nutritional charts online for some of your favorite restaurants. It will scare the shit out of you. Before my heart attack one of my favorite places to eat was Rubios, where I’d typically have a shrimp burrito. The burrito has 2,200 mg of sodium, nearly double my daily allowance. Nowadays I still go to Rubios but I have the salmon or mahi mahi tacos on corn tortillas (190 mg of sodium per taco).
  • Eating out has become a social occasion for me rather than an eating event. For instance, tonight I am going to a concert with friends and we’re meeting beforehand for a meal. I checked out the online menu of the place we’re going and there’s really nothing I can eat, mostly because they don’t list their nutritional values on their site. I’m going to eat something at home beforehand and enjoy my time with my friends over a beer. This is, as my lovely wife likes to say, my new normal. I nearly lost my life because of food and I’m not about to give it a second chance to kill me. Most people who have heart attacks have more than one — I am never going to have another one because I am willing to sacrifice being a foodie for being alive. Yes, it’s a tough sacrifice, but I feel like I don’t have a choice. Not everyone who has suffered a heart attack makes this choice (some don’t even stop smoking), but I have too much to live for to let a little thing like food stop me from enjoying my life. I will miss you NYPD pizza and Rubios shrimp burritos…have fun killing someone else!
  • Lately I have thought about becoming a vegan. It is clear to me that a vegan diet is healthier for humans, and the research I’ve seen (including the film Forks Over Knives) makes a pretty compelling case. I was a pescaterian prior to my heart attack, meaning the only meat I ate was fish, but I ate a crap load of dairy and dairy is loaded with bad fat. From the way I’m eating now it’s not a stretch to get to veganism. Maybe if I make the decision it will take some of the stress away from worrying about meal preparation and eating out. It would certainly simplify it. I’m willing to listen to my vegan friends out there. Sell me.
  • I need a hobby. I love to read and watch films, but I need something more active. Any suggestions? Golf is fun but it’s expensive and it’s about to get hot in Phoenix. I’d love to go fishing if anyone out there enjoys it and wants to bring me along. I have a rod. Bowling maybe? At least it’s indoors which is a bonus here in Phoenix. I don’t really have an active hobby and frankly I’m a little bored in the evenings and on weekends. I certainly don’t want to work more!
  • I have been trying to be more active with my volunteering. I’ve always volunteered and done pro bono work, but these days it’s calling me. I’ve started to do some work with the Heart Association, helping them with PR and social media. I’m also looking into ways to be more involved with what my company has to offer in terms of corporate social responsibility. Apollo Group does a nice job in the community and I’ve already reached out to some folks in our external affairs department for ideas. I’m looking for something more in-depth than just doling out food or cleaning up trails — I’m thinking board level or committee chair. Send me your ideas. When I have been an active volunteer in the past it has come with many rewards.
  • I’m going to do more travelling with Leslie and Connor. I lost all of my vacation and sick time when I was on disability, so we haven’t done much travelling in the past six months. We did spend a wonderful weekend in Coronado at New Years and we’re planning something small for Memorial Day weekend. In July we’re going to go to Chicago to meet family and see some sites, and then after my vacation gets refreshed in August I think we’re going to plan something special for fall break. We’d also like to do something spectacular next summer — perhaps Europe. Having future things to look forward to makes life worth living.

Well, that’s about it for now. Consider this my therapy blog post! Six months post heart attack and frankly I think I’m doing great. People tell me I look great, which makes me wonder how I looked before October 15, 2011. I have lost about 20 pounds as a result of my healthy diet and I am exercising a ton so maybe I do look good! Oh, and methinks the goatee has outlived its usefulness so I think it’s coming off today to mark the anniversary. Hearing Josh Brolin make fun of goatees as “so 90s” last night on SNL was the clincher.

Thanks for reading.

AFI #55: North by Northwest

Few would argue that Alfred Hitchcock is the best director never to win an Academy Award. Why he never received the Oscar is beyond me, perhaps it was because he was British, or because he dealt almost exclusively in the much maligned suspense genre, or maybe it was because he had so much success in television. Regardless, one can’t argue with his importance to the motion picture business and if he was ever going to win an Oscar in my opinion it should have been for North by Northwest.

North by Northwest has it all — suspense, intrigue, great characters, witty and smart dialogue and that wonderful Hitchcock style. I may of course be biased since Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors, but he is superb in this film as an advertising man who is mistaken for a spy and ends up on the adventure of a lifetime. The Shakespearian plot even ends with a marriage as it were between the leading man and the leading lady, an absolutely stunning Eva Maria Saint.

Hitchcock has given us so many iconic moments and there are two in this film — the scene in which Grant is being chased down by a crop duster and of course the climactic chase scene on the face of Mount Rushmore. Grant is ever so smooth even as a “bumbling” ad man who stumbles into danger. And of course he gets the girl, even though he’s 20 years her senior at the time of the shooting. Only in the movies would a 55 year old man marry a 35 year old woman (who oh by the way was playing a 20-something woman in the film). But I suppose he is quite debonair and it was the late 50s after all. Grant made four films with Hitchcock, including my favorite Hitchock film To Catch a Thief. All told Hitchcock made close to 60 films including some of the greats like Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder and so many more. Four of his films made the AFI Top 100 list including two in the top 15 in Vertigo and Psycho. He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar six times but he never won, although Rebecca won Best Picture in 1940 (yet didn’t make the AFI Top 100).

What’s your favorite Hitchcock film?

Next: M*A*S*H

AFI #56: Jaws

It’s pretty hard to take Jaws seriously after seeing “Bruce the Shark” at Universal Studios so many times, and nearly 40 years later Bruce does seem rather ridiculous in the film. I mean, the shark essentially hunts down the Orca and crew as if it has a personal vendetta against them, and the scenes in which the shark attempts to crash through the walls of the boat to get Chief Brody are so unrealistic it’s flat out laughable. Captain Quint is a caricature of a salty sailor and all the blood bubbling up to the ocean surface after an attack is ludicrous. The fact that the town elders wouldn’t shut the beach even after three attacks is unbelievable. The shark blowing up at the end is silly. Frankly it’s a dumb film. But I love it!

Jaws may not hold up as a horror flick after all these years, but it is fun as hell to watch. Plus there’s the golden line that turned into what the kids today call a meme — we’re gonna need a bigger boat! When the film came out in 1975 I was 9 years old and since it’s rated PG and it was such a summer smash of course my parents took me to see it. I’m 45 years old now and I still fear the ocean (thanks Spielberg). Seriously, whenever I’m in the ocean I think about sharks, even for just a brief moment. You gotta give the film credit for at least that. Plus, the music is as memorable as any score.

Jaws came out during the heyday of the big disaster film including The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, but while those films were over the top Jaws at least had some character development. In fact, what does hold up about Jaws is the great acting by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and especially Richard Dreyfuss. All you need for proof that Dreyfuss’s Matt Hooper was a compelling character is to know that it was spoofed by Saturday Night Live (the ultimate compliment). Dreyfuss was never better than during the mid-70s. He stole American Graffiti and then followed that with the very underrated The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, then hit with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Quite a run by any measure.

Unfortunately, the follow ups to Jaws were lousy attempts at cashing in on the first film. Jaws 2, Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge all flamed out. I mean how many killer sharks can there be? I do question whether or not Jaws should be included in the AFI Top 100. It may not have been good film making, but it certainly had a profound effect on society in terms of striking fear in anyone who went swimming in the ocean for years to come. If you believe “impact” has a place in the “best of” ratings than I suppose Jaws belongs.

Next: North by Northwest