Rarely does one find a film that so powerfully grips its viewers. Rarer still when two films do so with the same subject at heart: New York City. Through Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’, we gain a fascinating insight into the ‘City That Never Sleeps’. From the gritty alleyways overcast by the gleaming skyscrapers we explore one city that remains two worlds apart.
New York is ruled by time and ‘Manhattan’ is no exception. Like a typical New Yorker, Woody Allen understands this all too well and swiftly takes us on a tour of the city. At first, we observe a quiet street transform into a bustling market. From then on, the party begins as we join in a parade and sit back whilst fireworks light up the night sky over a momentous event at the Yankee stadium. Allen pulls out all the stops to reel us in with a montage that doesn’t fail to impress. How could we possibly resist? Our grand tour from the rooftops of ‘Manhattan’ takes a death defying fall into a cab in the pouring rain in ‘Taxi Driver’.
The flashing lights behind the blurred windscreen offer no comfort or welcome; the camera’s long exposure creates a distorted and somewhat drugged atmosphere. Complete with a saxophone playing eerily in the background, Scorsese creates a painfully unnerving setting and his sluggish opening serves as a reminder of a city caught up in the woes of urban life. Both directors compose their openings with a clear intention of describing the mood, whether it be the thrill and excitement of ‘Manhattan’ or the sullen setting of ‘Taxi Driver’. They skilfully evoke reactions of disgust or a desire for more. In ‘Manhattan’ we are greeted with a vast sense of movement and energy, whereas ‘Taxi Driver’ has all the time in the world to create an overwhelming sense of discomfort, achieved by an enclosed, yet twisted environment.
Allen and Scorsese each create their opening with astute artistic control with the intent of enforcing an impression of their New York upon the audience. A careful selection of scenes and camera angles allow them to achieve this. As important it is that we visit the landmarks that characterize New York, we are also given a touch of normality interwoven with the panoramic and long shots that instil awe into the viewers. In ‘Manhattan’, scenes include people shopping, happy school kids and the
romance of a couple kissing on a balcony. All of which is accompanied by an orchestra that so eloquently strings these scenes together. We are drawn by the appeal that there is something for everyone and that it is a place to live and enjoy as well as tourist destination. However, Allen has a habit of filming the city through rose tinted glasses. Despite a brief encounter with a pile of rubbish and run-down housing, its impact is easily lost as the camera lingers for a few seconds before cutting to a more pleasant image. Perhaps his ‘touch of normality’ only extends to happy school children and neatly arranged bin bags left out to be collected. What about behind the glossy billboards and inside the crumbling brickwork? Woody Allen’s creation of an idyllic world poses unanswered questions by the viewer who are inclined to think it is too good to be true. Similarly, ‘Taxi Driver’ shows us a side to New York not often seen or spoken about, but its focus remains on these subjects for a considerable amount of time.
This is carefully illustrated when the camera pans across the Travis Bickle’s dingy studio apartment where there are papers strewn across his bed amongst untold mess. From this we realise the poor conditions that couldn’t possible exist in New York. Scorsese further makes his point through his use of extreme close ups that magnify the disorder that encases the Driver’s mind. Unlike ‘Manhattan’, the film’s protagonist, played by award winning actor Robert De Niro, soon becomes the backbone of the film. As a result we’re coaxed into seeing the world through his eyes, with blinkers firmly fixed throughout.
The selection of shots in ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ are integral in enforcing different perceptions of New York. Allen successfully executes this in ‘Manhattan’ as he provides a platform that encourages us to look at the bigger picture and ignore those minor imperfections. However, at times he overloads us with the squeaky clean image of New York that distances the film from the viewer at times. Allen tackles this by moving quickly so we have little time to question his motives or intentions. On the other hand, ‘Taxi Driver’ keeps our feet firmly on the ground and hides no shame in the problems that plague such a big city. It suffers too from a lain ‘Manhattan’. But all is forgiven as De Niro’s character provides a credible reason for entering such a dark underworld.
Oddly, it is an underworld home to millions of people from all corners of the globe. New York is arguably the most metropolitan city in America, if not, the world. It is these different traditions and cultures that shape and characterize the city. Therefore, allowing the audience to identify with New York is a task given to the actors. Once again, in ‘Manhattan’ we are urged to look at the city as a whole. The immense gathering at the football stadium for instance signifies the unity of this great city. Furthermore, Allen is not concerned over introducing a main character; New York City has the leading role and is a character in itself. One exception however would be the actor’s voiceover that accompanies the sequence of clips. Woody Allen uses this as an opportunity to incorporate more realism in case the viewer still feels detached from the shock of city life.
His accent is somewhat stereotypical but gives a voice, if not a face, to New York. Moreover, the actor’s voiceover comes across as rather personal because in actual fact he is speaking to himself and not to the viewer. Already, we have been invited to listen in on his private thoughts and he even hesitates several times, “Uh, no. Let me start this over.” His spontaneity reflects New York life perfectly and as we warm to him, we warm to the city. On the other hand, in ‘Taxi Driver’ no such care or attention is spent on the audience, or seemingly so. Scorsese’s direction and De Niro’s unique interpretation of the driver combine to make this supremely dark and sinister character. It is his calm and empty expression that haunts the viewer. Even with a devil-like appearance as his face is bathed in red light, De Niro remains expressionless.
Yet we are allowed to collect our thoughts and see the driver (literally) in a different light during the day. With an almost Jekyll and Hyde resemblance, we fear what he is capable of and simply wait as to whether our fears actually materialize. After a brief moment of sanity in a slightly awkward job interview, we return to the cab of doom. What’s more, when he speaks, he talks not to himself but to us. At times his monologue borders genuine concern and horror at the views of the “skunk pussies” that walk the sidewalks. To him, they are nothing more than dirt, “Thank God for the rain…Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets”. Our return to the blurred windscreen can now be explained because we now know that the world becomes distorted when we’re overcome by anger and lust. Still, why does he hate these women so much? Or maybe, is he just taking his anger out on something else?
The actors’ direction in ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ are extremely important because they characterize New York and the people that live there. In ‘Manhattan’, Allen has cleverly balanced a dramatic display of the city with some normality which is evident through the extras and actor’s voiceover. This gives us the feeling that New York is not too-good-to-be-true after all. However as the actors’ direction in ‘Manhattan’ personifies the city, ‘Taxi Driver’ dehumanizes New York and the prostitutes that are seen as “animals”. Both directors use their actors to commanding effect in subtle ways less obvious than the pompous music in ‘Manhattan’ or dim lighting in ‘Taxi Driver’.
Everyone wants a chunk of the Big Apple. And this desire is realized in ‘Manhattan’ through Allen’s masterful depiction of New York City. His manipulation of picture, music, lighting and timing so effortlessly come together and result in a hypnotic intro oozing with confidence and charm. But Allen fails to crack through the toffee coating that conceals the maggot infested apple within. ‘Taxi Driver’ paints a very different picture of New York. Scorsese’s cinematography creates an equally powerful impression. However, he candidly confronts our misconceptions of New York, and what better way to do so but through the eyes of a demented cabbie? It seems the Big Apple just got big-headed in ‘Manhattan’ but for a city that even the media shy away from, it just isn’t big enough.