Friday, July 1, 2011

Scorsese vs. Hitchcock: Camera as Character

Travis is introduced through his eyes and his reflection in rear-view-mirrors.
One of my favorite fields of interest in films of any kind is narrative point-of-view. This post may be about live-action films exclusively, but since animation artists are essentially film makers we can learn a great deal from analyzing the thinking behind two very controlled directors’ decisions. There are mild spoilers ahead, as always when classics are debated, so if you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Scrosese’s Taxi Driver (1975) yet, go see them, they are great examples of what night-time cab-driver Travis calls “morbid self-attention”. And hey, they both are masterfully scored by Bernard Herrmann and are available in stellar image quality on Bluray!

Film history provides us with a wide range of psychological studies that are essentially told from a character’s subjective perspective. With the exception of Robert Montgomery’s Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947) the camera doesn’t usually limit itself to the literal point-of-view of the first person narrator.
Lady in the Lake: a whole movie composed of point-of-view shots.

In fact, we are accustomed to the convention of seeing a character within the image and still accept it as his personal vision of reality. Yet in many subjective movies – particularly the ones dealing with voyeurism – there are moments when the director intentionally breaks the concept and either shifts the narrative’s point of view to another character (Brian de Palma’s Sisters, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) or – more interesting – has the camera see things that no character inside the movie could see. 

Voyeurism and self-reflection
The principal visual leitmotif of Taxi Driver is the mirror. We are introduced to protagonist Travis Bickle by seeing his eyes and their reflections in the rear-view-mirrors of his taxi before we see anything else of him. There’s no doubt that self-reflection is the central theme that is perhaps most obviously illustrated in the famous mirror-scene (“you talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”).

But Travis is also a voyeuristic substitute of ourselves as movie spectators – observing what goes on around him rather than being part of it – and he more disturbing, this leads him to become a murderer. Even without being aware that composer Herrmann cites his own Psycho motif just before Travis kills for the first time, the connection to Hitchcock’s “peeping tom” Norman Bates can be easily seen.

While Scorsese – with the exception of one and a half scenes – confines the narrative to Travis’ point of view, Hitchcock radically changes our perspective from a thief (Janet Leigh) to an obsessive murderer (Anthony Perkins). From that point on we also share the knowledge of his pursuers which is the basis of Hitchcock’s suspense technique. 

Manipulation vs. distancing effect 
Taxi Driver however is not a crime thriller since no one is really paying enough attention to Travis to pursue him – or at least we don’t see them. Furthermore, the two directors have fundamentally different agendas. Hitchcock uses subjective narration to manipulate our emotions so that we are as thrilled that we don’t question the logic as long as we are watching his films.

Scorsese on the other hand is constantly trying to disorient us with subtle jumpcuts and other Nouvelle Vague techniques to slightly distance us from morally ambivalent Travis. Even though he gets us interested in Travis’ life (the sentiments might be fascination as well as pity), he encourages us to reflect on what we see. He does so most obviously in some shots that are held longer than the information they give us needs to sink in, so that we become aware that we are watching a movie which would clearly break the suspense of a Hitchcock movie.

He also gives us moments of rest after something emotionally excruciating happened. In Taxi Driver the longest “pause scene” is the song that plays after Travis’ first murder. There is also a brief scene after he tried to kill the senator and Travis sits even down in the middle of his “roaring rampage” right after he killed Sport. Of course, in a Scorsese picture the distancing effect is never as dominant as in a Brecht play or a Godard film. 

Borrowing from horror movies
In the Criterion director’s commentary, Scorsese reveals that he applied techniques of classical Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur horror movies to suggest Travis’ paranoia. One of the examples I found is when Travis first enters the brothel with Iris.

In the following video we first see a classic suspense situation from Psycho and then the analogous scene from Taxi Driver. It’s interesting to see how much of Psycho is composed of simple shot-reverse shot scenes (the basic cinematic difference to theater) with extreme control over what is revealed at what time.

The Taxi Driver ends on a jump cut to De Niro in the room, which might not be noticed consciously but adds to the sense of uneasiness. More interesting, at the beginning of the excerpt, we believe that the camera shows us Travis’ point of view while the reverse-shot shows us that he hasn’t yet entered the room. 

Camera as additional character
We don’t normally perceive camera moves as long as they are reframings in order not to lose the actors from sight. We also accept camera moves along a character’s personal stuff inside his apartment, especially if the move ends on the person who lives there.

Hitchcock however likes to use his camera as an additional character who moves independently from the actors and points towards what he wants the audience to see. He always uses this device to give us additional information and heighten the suspense (while emphasizing a red herring once in a while, too).

In his British comeback film Frenzy (1972) we already know that a red-haired neck-tie murderer strangles women after telling them “you’re my type of woman”. Like in many scenes of Psycho and Taxi Driver the camera is positioned in a staircase while we see the murderer and his victim ascend the stairs. Once we heard the crucial sentence, we don’t have to see the murder to know what’s going on. Instead, the camera character tracks down the stairs and out of the house where we learn that no one will notice the murder because of the noise outside.

Both of Hitchcock’s observing cameras are clearly intended to transport information to the audience.

In Taxi Driver, however, there’s a scene where Travis is talking to Betsy on the phone one last time. According to Scorsese this is the key shot of the film and first that came fully formed to his mind when starting work on the film.
Here the camera, like in an Antonioni or Huillet/Straub film, moves independently away from Travis, but we only see a corridor. Scorsese repeatedly said that this conversation was too painful to watch, so he wanted to pan away from it. At the same time, this gives us one of those shots that outlast our expectations. From our subconscious movie knowledge we either expect someone coming through the corridor or out of one of the doors. The non-existing moment of suspense fizzling out, though, once we see Travis enter the frame from the left. 

Camera as transcendent observer
The last video starts with a scene from Psycho that pretends to reveal the long-awaited visual information about Norman’s mother. Ultimately, Hitchcock manages to deceive us once again, though, by having the camera perform a move that suggests a free floating agent who can assume any perspective, even one that is usually attributed to god alone.

typical Scorsese rostrum shot for rituals.
Scorsese (like his apt pupil Wes Anderson) likes these top shots a lot. Especially his 1990s films like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) are rife with god’s-eye-views that have been said to represent not only the point-of-view of a not-so-goodnatured divine being but also the point-of-view of a priest during consecration (looking down on the communion table). Therefore he often uses such rostrum type shots for ritualistic moments. In Taxi Driver we see it when Travis applies for the job, when he asks Betsy out on a date and when he purchases and handles the guns for his ritualistic killing.

He comes back to that perspective in the end, when the camera slowly observes Travis’ trail of blood and finally leads into a homage to the Frenzy scene described above.

There are also some more explicit intertextual references as in all of Martin Scorsese's works. A good account of many of those not documented on the imdb can be found in this essay by John Thurman.

Recommendation: Sony’s new Taxi Driver BD is among the best restorations of a 1970s film so far. Contrary to current practice the picture is not enhanced or “fixed” but just restored to what it looked (and sounded) like in 1976. The heavy involvement of Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman made sure that even the overly grainy Columbia logo used during the 1970s was kept intact.

The main difference to most of the earlier DVDs is that they were “color corrected” towards a colder white/blue whereas the film was always intentionally more yellow/dingy. Even the altered colors of Travis’ bloodbath are still in the grainy sepia look that made the artificial blood look much better than in other violent movies of the time. In short, it looks rather like film than like a super-enhanced DVD.
all comparison images lifted from
For DVD comparison see DVD Beaver's review. Don't be fooled by the relatively small difference in sharpness of the stills. Seen in motion this Bluray really looks like film rather than video and vastly superior to all previous editions. 

For more information about the restoration process: Digital Bits interview with Sony's Grover Crisp.

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