Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese

One of the greatest films of all time, Scorsese’s look at the disintegration of American culture following the Vietnam War won four Academy Awards in 1976.

Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle – electrifying. Twelve year old Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris – astounding.  Everything, and everyone in this film was so realistic, and so good, I could smell the sweat pouring off these guys – summer in New York City before everyone had air conditioning – fuhgeddaboutit!

I hadn’t seen this movie since it originally came out, so I’d forgotten how slowed-down it was in places. Not “Blade Runner” slow, but pretty damned close. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it did require the viewer to forget the last 40 years of movies and just go with it. Slow down a little, baby. It’s worth it.

Travis Bickle, our Vietnam vet, has chronic, pernicious insomnia (probably as a result of what he’d seen, and done in Vietnam, although it’s never spelled out). So he figures why fight it? He will work a night job, like drive a taxi. Genius. And it’s as a New York City cab driver that Travis gets to see the city’s, and by extension the country’s, dark and dirty underbelly – violence, crime, drugs, prostitution – it’s all there, all night, every night. The result is that it just feeds, and feeds, Travis’s growing rage.

I had my doubts about this assignment, because even though Travis Bickle does technically kill several guys, they are all bad guys! Travis is not your mother’s serial killer. He is instead a vigilante of the highest order – a good guy who knows all this shit is wrong – and he tries to right that wrong in the only way available to a small fry like him. (And no, the answer is NOT through a vigorous leaflet campaign, or by voting for the best candidate.)

Travis gets a gun; in fact he gets a LOT of guns. He practices, he poses – there’s his iconic “You lookin’ at me?” line – and just generally prepares for … what? With a problem as big as “What is wrong with America?” it’s hard to know where to point the gun. Travis flirts briefly with shooting a local politician, but then doesn’t. Although it’s never made clear, I figured Travis chickened out because the guy was too much of a cardboard cutout. There were bigger, more immediate threats to humanity right there in his own backyard. Enter Jodie Foster’s character, Iris. Travis had encountered her briefly when she got in the back of his cab one night, only to be pulled out of it a moment later by her pimp. The pimp, Sport – played by a dazzlingly young Harvey Keitel – tosses a $20 bill at Travis and tells him to “forget about it.”

But Travis can’t. He finds the pimp and pays to meet with Iris. Only instead of adding to her degradation, he tries to save her. He tells her this – prostitution – is “No kind of thing for a person to do.” I love that. He could have gone so many ways in his condemnation – you’re just a kid, prostitution is wrong, it’s a sin, blah blah blah – but instead, he looks at Iris and sees a person. Not an “unfortunate” or a “stupid kid” or a hopeless slut, but a person who should be living a real person’s life. Unable to convince her to leave the life she’s grown accustomed to, he returns later, only this time as an avenging angel.

The violent and bloody gunfight that ensues ends with a bunch of bad guys dead, a seriously wounded Travis Bickle, and a crying Iris huddled behind the couch. The police arrive and the newspapers make Travis a hero. Iris’s parents later write to him, thanking him for saving their daughter’s life – she’s back home with them in Pittsburgh and going to school. Travis even re-connects with a woman he tried to date earlier, Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd.

There has been some speculation that the ending was all just a dying dream, and that Travis actually dies in the shoot-out. However, I think that Scorsese wanted to show us how whimsical fate can be, and just how thin the line between villain and hero can be sometimes. If Travis had been a little quicker with his gun and actually shot the politician instead, he would have been reviled as a murderer. Instead, he kills a pimp, a drug dealer, and a Mafioso – all to save a little girl’s life – and becomes a hero.

As far as I’m concerned, Travis Bickle did not fit the psycho stereotype we’ve come to know and love — no messed up childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse, and killing isn’t the only way he can find emotional satisfaction or sexual release — he was just a guy who got pushed to the edge, and who finally fell over it.

The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme

There is so much going on in this movie, so many conflicting sensations. It’s like standing in the surf up to your waist in the middle of August – you have the light and heat of the sun beating down on you, the chilly water sluicing around your body as the waves rise and fall, the soft sand between your toes, and the knowledge that most shark attacks occur near shore in two to three feet of water.

Part of the fun of this movie is having not one, but two, serial killers to play with, er, worry about. The first one we’re supposed to worry about, Buffalo Bill (played by the always delightful, and always surprising, Ted Levine).  Bill is running around killing and then skinning women (thank God it’s not the other way around), and making the FBI crazy. And the second one who is “safely” behind bars, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by a chillingly urbane Anthony Hopkins). Lector is a brilliant psychiatrist and a bloodthirsty cannibal.

When the calculating head of the Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), sends little FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to go see Dr. Lecter on a fake “mission” to get his serial killer profile it made me cringe. Talk about sending a lamb to the slaughter! However, as is often the case, by the end of the movie everyone in this little threesome gets more than they bargained for.

I have to admit I felt sorry for Buffalo Bill. He was all kinds of messed up and it looked like he had experienced a bad childhood along with mental illness. He was horribly alienated from himself (suffering from gender dysphoria), and other human beings as well. His classic line, “It uses the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose” when speaking to one of his captives pretty much says it all.

The U.S. Senator’s attempt to humanize her captive daughter on TV definitely fell on deaf ears in his case. Besides, I don’t think Bill even owned a television.

On the other hand, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a whole different kind of serial killer. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter finds it easy, maybe insultingly so, to hide what he is. He’s smart, wealthy, accomplished … he could easily be living a great life, but instead he’s driven by dark desires to do unbelievable things.

At least, we hope he’s “driven” by those desires, and not the other way around. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter seems more “driver” than “driven” when it comes to his murderous impulses. Then there are those creepily heightened senses he possesses – smell definitely, hearing yep, taste probably (ick). Lecter the psychopath is the kind of over-endowed human being who makes me wonder just where humanity is heading, evolutionarily speaking – smarter and kinder? Or smarter and crueler?

But let’s leave these two losers behind, and talk about Clarice Starling. Smart, driven, unbelievably tough – I want to be just like her when I grow up. It is Starling, with her “good bag and cheap shoes” who pierces through Dr. Lecter’s egotism and boredom, causing him to recognize her for that rare bird, an authentic human being. Dr. Lecter, to his credit, returns the favor and acknowledges Starling’s worth and professionalism. (Something it takes her boss, Jack Crawford, an entire movie to do, by the way.)

So it’s no surprise at the end when she could conceivably shout at Crawford (who is slowly going upstairs), and tell him Lecter is on the phone right now, but she doesn’t. You could take the cynical approach and say Lecter was playing Starling (and who would know how to better than him?), but I think at the end they were just two outsiders who’d grown to respect, and maybe just a little bit, like each other.

The Blob (1998), directed by Chuck Russell

First of all, I’d like to point out that this time I watched the right version. (Although, to be perfectly honest, only after I had already re-watched the original 1958 version first.)

Be that as it may.  Let’s talk remakes, because that’s what the 1988 version of The Blob was – a remake of the original starring a 28-year-old Steve McQueen in his debut starring role as teenager Steve Andrews. The 1988 version had a 22-year-old Kevin Dillon playing a teen, so there’s that.

The 1988 version follows the original pretty closely right up until the point when the guys in hazmat suits show up. It seems that they suspect that an alien microbe has landed on Earth in a meteorite and is now running around infecting people. Only … it turns out the nice, avuncular Dr. Meddows – civilian head of the hazmat guys – is LYING, and The Blob is really a biological warfare experiment belonging to the U.S. that’s crashed here in a satellite and is running around dissolving people!

I don’t know about you, but I hate when that happens.

The movie itself was an odd mixture of Fifties/Eighties sensibilities.  The clothes and hairstyles all screamed Eighties, while the high school scenes (our team wins!), and the small town scenes (with the motherly diner owner feeding the sad, malnourished juvenile delinquent a sandwich even though the diner is closed for the night) all said Fifties to me. The random scene in the car where one of the “teenagers” tries to cop a feel from his passed-out girlfriend was creepily reminiscent of the allegations against Bill Cosby, and as a result had a nice, timeless quality to it. Plus, the jerk gets blobbed, which was also nice.

The special effects in the 1988 version were vastly superior to the clunky 1958 effects (although, the 1958 ones were not that bad, I thought). Thirty years of advances in special effects allowed the filmmaker to show us all kinds of variations on the Blob theme, the best ones being the “ceiling Blobs,” and the “telephone booth Blob,” and the “scaling the town hall Blob”. I also liked the pretty crystalline Blob when it gets flash-frozen at the end.

Speaking of which, in the 1988 version, a girl – played by actual teenager, Shawnee Smith – figures out that the Blob doesn’t like cold, and she sets about fighting back with a fire extinguisher just like in the 1958 version. Of course, since this was the Eighties they had to do it up bigger than that, so the juvenile delinquent/heartthrob, Kevin Dillon, goes and gets the town’s snow-making truck to try and finish the Blob off. (In case you were wondering, size does matter, it seems. At least when you’re trying to kill evil, covert science experiments gone awry.) And then … and then, once the Blob is lying all over Main Street in these pretty, pastel crystals, the town mechanic says something like, “Let’s get this thing put in the town’s ice house before morning.” (!)

The one bit of wisdom I learned from both versions is this – If you see a meteorite streak across the sky at night, don’t try to track it down. But if you do find out where it landed, don’t go near it. But if you do go near it, then for God’s sake, don’t poke the glowing crack in said meteorite with a stick. And if you do poke it with a stick, for the love of God, don’t lift the stick coated with the weird, alien goo up close to your face to take a better look at it!

Are we clear on that? Good. I can’t take any more versions of The Blob.

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