“I watch it again and again, unsure where it will take me this time. Or whether it’s a return journey.”
- David Thomson
Every year, there are more comic book movies, more special effect extravaganzas, more fantasy and sci-fi flicks, more Pixar and Dreamworks adorableness, more escapist fare to distract us from our worries, and after we go home from the multiplex in the hopes of sleeping soundly, our worries multiply as we toss and turn in our beds.
Don’t get me wrong, a comic book or special effect movie can be very insightful and culturally relevant, but trying to be relevant in a genre that’s escapist is like being a champion swimmer with one arm. It’s all the more an amazing feat to make a work of fantasy to which we can relate in our real lives, but it’s so difficult that why try at all?
As I watched Taxi Driver on October 1st at the Charles Theater’s amazing Revival Series of classic movies, it occurred to me yet again that a movie as truthful, as risky, as bloody-minded, as Taxi Driver could never be made today. The violence of Taxi Driver is not the violence of comic book movies - it’s violence as it really is, with the sickness of the soul that drives men to it, and the full human horror of the act is felt with the full weight of bodies severed and souls leaving the earth with all their dreams gone to waste. Taxi Driver is far from a perfect movie, but is there any movie in the history of film that ever got closer to the rotten core of the human animal?
This is why we need more human movies, we need more political movies, we need more movies about our real problems. It’s very easy to tolerate acts of violence when you’re desensitized to what violence really means. It’s nice to have series of movies about the problems of Hobbits and Rebel Forces and the Seven Kingdoms, but we don’t need them. If no more B-movies were made for the next thirty years, it wouldn’t be a tragedy - we already have far too many movies that let us escape from ourselves to ever see them all; but it’s a tragedy that we don’t have encyclopedias worth of more movies that trap us within ourselves.
Look all around you. You can’t possibly watch Taxi Driver and not see Baltimore reflected back. Modern Baltimore is not like 1970’s New York, modern Baltimore IS 1970’s New York. Baltimore, the real Baltimore, is not just a place of dysfunctionally clinical institutions like The Wire (though once upon a time, New York was that too… and it probably still is....). Modern Baltimore is also a nightmare of a place in which the exhaust from cars and our declining factories permeates the air like the smoke of Hellfire. It’s a place that, if you look at it without Smalltimore goggles, can’t help but weather your soul to rust - forever dancing upon a volcano, crying out for violence and vengeance, revenge at the hundreds of thousands of lives ruined and wasted - promise unfulfilled, hopes dashed, opportunity un-knocked.
Our Baltimore, our ‘Smalltimore’, the Baltimore of just about everybody reading this, is not Martin Scorsese’s Baltimore, it’s Woody Allen’s Baltimore. Three years after Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, a vision of New York as the abyss, Woody Allen made Manhattan, a vision of New York as the Celestial City. We ‘Smalltimorons’ live in a free-floating bubble of neurotic but privileged white pseudo-intellectuals who could completely ignore the Inferno at our doorstep every day of our lives if we wanted to. Our politics are radical without commitment, our conversations are filled with trendy jargon, our hookup networks are completely incestual. Like the New York of Woody Allen, it’s a Baltimore based on a lie - a culture that would seem ridiculous to anybody who wasn’t part of it.
The real Baltimore is the Baltimore of misbegotten dreams. The hookers walking the streets at night with their pimps holding an intimidating watch nearby, the schizos yelling at imaginary interlocutors, the addicts slumping on the street and the violent teen gangs nearby on the corners peddling what feeds them, the homeless veterans in wheelchairs trying to accost every passer by, and every panhandler who begs you for change as you walk by them and pretend not to know that there’s an agonizing story which led them to such a state. And if you see that much agony near Station North or Mount Vernon, just imagine how bad it must be a few blocks away at the intersection of North and Bel Air, or Orleans and Front.
This real Baltimore’s story does not stop at The Wire, and it needs to be told. We don’t need to remake Taxi Driver here (though we could do worse), we need oral history to tell the stories of all those unfulfilled hopes and dreams. We need writers and playwrights and filmmakers who go to Baltimore's worst neighborhoods, to interview every person serviced in a homeless shelter, every worshipper in a Church pew, every taxi driver and policeman and gang member. Every teacher in the schools and every student dropout. Every woman in a woman's shelter who has a story of abuse and rape, and every rapist and abuser about why they feel they have the right. Every parent who’s lost a child to violence, every child who’s lost a parent, and every murderer who robbed one of the other. We need to feel the weight of the violence they live with upon our souls, and the only way of feeling it is by helping them tell those stories which only they know.