24 March, 2006

Alone in N.Y.C.

Sidney Lumet, dir. The Pawnbroker (1964).
Martin Scorsese, dir. Taxi Driver (1976).

Dos Passos has a lot to answer for; New York has been the great locus of romantic urbanism in literature at least since Manhattan Transfer (1925) and USA (1930-36). In 1940, Piet Mondrian moved to the city and was transfigured, rendering the upbeat grid of downtown Manhattan in vivid primaries. And the camera loves the place, since the twenties soaring adoringly upwards along long magnificent facades, and opening up the perspectives of its glass and steel canyons. But the world of The Pawnbroker and Taxi Driver—dirty uptown Harlem, Mau Mau Land—is another place altogether. There are no vistas here, no glittering verticals; only two men who look out at the city from a cell—pawn shop, taxicab—and see only filth. "One day a real rain is gonna come and wash all the scum off the streets".

Neither Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) nor Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro, of course) belong in NYC. Both are haunted by carnage, but of a fundamentally different nature; the camps and senseless Nazi torture for the Jew, and the purposive guerilla warfare of Vietnam for Bickle. Nazerman reacts to this experience by turning away into an amoral, impassive solipsism, relieved by bouts of anger. But Bickle's fury is a righteous, active one—it quickly becomes his goal to purify the city of its disgusting elements. Each character loses himself in his work; the routine allows him to dissociate himself from his surroundings, preventing the establishment of meaningful relations with those around him. Nazerman, although he openly expresses disgust at the prostitution and objectification of women, is too broken, too stilled and distant, to help those in distress; Bickle, on the other hand, obsesses over such a self-levied imperative. He has to, in order to articulate some meaning in his life. In the end he loses all touch with reality, whereas the Jew, who had almost given up, begins to reconnect. What constitutes a dereliction of duty to our world?

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