Watching and Re-Watching Taxi Driver in a Digital Age

illustration by Brianna Ashby

You know you’re in a great film within the first few minutes. Even in a challenging film, it becomes evident fairly quickly that the filmmaker is taking care of you—that the film has a reliable underlying logic in its narrative, its themes, and its characters. Like millions of others, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver struck me as something “great” immediately—in the first few minutes upon my very first viewing. Its ideas and images were so rich and swirling, I couldn’t articulate exactly what I thought it was about—late-capitalist alienation, post-Vietnam fear, 1970s counter-cultural failure, American madness? But something fundamental in the way the opening scenes played out—the deep brass minor chords in crescendo, the explosive billow of subway steam, the city lights reflecting emergency red and blue against Travis Bickle’s darting eyes in extreme close up—instantly reassured me: I was in the right place.

It was with this sense of homecoming that I enthusiastically attended a Friday night showing of Taxi Driver last month in Sydney. Keen to jump on board the city’s present wave of cinephilia and film festivals, the big multiplex in the central business district had just started programming a new stream of classic cult films. They proudly advertised that Taxi Driver was screening in ‘4K’ – a high-resolution digital format comprising four thousand vertical lines. Most films screen in 2K, and the new format promised unsurpassed visual quality.

As I settled into my plush red multiplex seat, the lights went down and that familiar discordant music struck. It was as unsettling as ever. But as the film played out, I realised something was amiss. The out-of-focus street lights did not shimmer. The blues and reds on Travis’ face did not glow. His reflection in his rearview mirror was flattened. The film’s Caravaggio-like division between light and dark—chiaroscuro, in painting terms—was not quite so dramatic in contrast; the paleness of Travis’ face did not leap out from the black night behind him.

I was watching a facsimile of Taxi Driver—the ghost of Travis Bickle. Something intangible had been lost in the process of scanning, converting, reformatting and compressing the original 35mm print. The flickering, glowering quality of the film had given way to a shiny, smooth, lossless video. The scratches and emulsion dirt had been cleaned up, the colours matched and graded uniformly. The film hadn’t been restored, it had been remade: the grainy texture of the real artifact was slicked over with a 21st-century gloss. All those analogue elements that had only registered subconsciously until now suddenly became glaring in their absence; the grit of Travis and Iris’s New York is contained in the very graininess of the original film’s celluloid. No digital format could do it justice.

I had experienced something similar last year at the same cinema complex during the Russian film festival’s screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975). As with the Taxi Driver screening, I lept at the chance to see this auteur’s film on the big screen. And, as with the Taxi Driver screening, something was just slightly off. The colours seemed to oscillate, and the image was off-kilter, as if it were overlapping itself—a pianist playing the left- and right-hand parts out of time. I later found out that the previous screening in that theatre had been in 3D; the cinema staff had forgotten to switch the projector setting back to 2D. Digital cinema has, by and large, made the profession of projectionist redundant and allowed cost-cutting cinemas to rely more on untrained, underpaid juniors to perform the digital basics—now it seems even flicking a switch from one setting to another has become a kind of lost art, too.

At its most basic technological essence, photography is light, and digital and analogue formats process light in entirely different ways. Not only does a 35mm print project about 5000 lines—just ahead of 4K—but it also has distinct material properties: crystals in an emulsion on a silky film strip. Light shines through a digital print. The still images flicker through the projector at twenty-four frames per second, and the imperceptible but tangible gaps in between the frames dynamize inanimate objects onscreen with a subtle flutter and shimmer.

No longer. A digital image is a stable grid of pixels: it’s videoish. Something as simple as the way in which a film is screened and projected changes the very way we experience it. In the world of images, perception is everything. Now that film lives in a laptop or a smartphone as much as it does in a motion picture theatre, it’s not just what we watch, but how we watch it that matters.

I fear that the new excitement and convenience of digital technology has rewritten how we watch films by masters like Scorsese; cinemas have already thrown out their 35mm projectors, and distributors emptied their warehouses of archived film cans. A format is not just a malleable vessel for viewing—it’s a concrete container for the films that we’ve canonized and adored and dissected. What happens and what is lost when that format changes?

Has the solace of the darkened theatre been replaced with the pixelated sadness of a digital cinema? Though a private experience at heart, a movie theatre also gives us a sense of community. We’ve all gone to that private/public space for such a reason, sometimes even—like Travis—just to have somewhere to go. A digital screening life might literally be alone. Then again, how many times have I spent the evening in bed with something cheap and trashy streaming off VOD? Probably the only thing worse than a big digital screen is the cold blue glow of a laptop playing something stripped of its 35mm glory.

The scenes in which Travis goes to the theatre really drive home the shortcomings of the digital format. Travis reveals the depth of his social ineptitude in his failure to chat up the candy-bar woman, and in taking Betsy to a dirty movie on their first date (“2 Exciting Adult Hits! Bold XXX Entertainment. Sometime Sweet Susan. Explicit! Provocative!”). In another movie, alone, slumped in the cheap red seats, he peeks like a child through two crooked fingers after aiming them gunnishly at the projector. Bang, bang. We understand that something in him is slipping; his imaginary world is dissolving into his real one.

In these scenes, Taxi Driver betrays itself as a tainted love letter to cinema—to the dives and repertory houses and porn theaters that characterised New York City in its pre-gentrification days. Like so many others, I’ve only come to know that history through cinema itself. That New York is full and busy, but Travis’ place in it is not assured. We understand his need for “total organisation” and “true force” in the chaos. He’s on the periphery of the mob bustle, always looking out of his cab and in on the lives of others: Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere.

No matter the format, the world of Taxi Driver is still convincing – in that theatre, I could almost smell the New York trash and taste Iris’ sugar-on-jam-on-toast breakfast in the diner. Travis’ paranoia was still fearsome, his despair and rage at the sexual exploitation of a girl—a child!—still as understandable, his vigilante righteousness still as bloody and real. The epilogue’s revelation that the media and community have praised Travis’ misanthropy and violence as heroic still horrifies (more than the actual massacre – the film’s great achievement, in my view).

The Taxi Driver I watched that night wasn’t a completely different film—just a flatter, duller version in which our anti-hero’s cheeks weren’t quite so hollow and starved. The only consolation? Travis would’ve hated this digital nonsense! Nothing’s sacred. Another lonely forgotten something, fallen by the wayside. It was just like all those good-for-nothin phoneys and weirdos and sickos, all this change, and for what?

Trust nobody. The world’s gone mad. Shmucks.

Lauren Carroll Harris has written about art, film and Australian national cinema for Guardian Australia, Meanjin, Overland, Documentary online, Junkee, Runway, Real Time Arts, Time Out Sydney, Big Issue and Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand 2. She’s a contributing editor of Metro, a film studies PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, and the author of ‘Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem’ (Platform Papers, Currency House, 2013).