I was a cab driver once myself (in Los Angeles, in the mid-1970s), and I’ve been sensitive ever since to how the profession is portrayed on the screen. As it happened, I was driving a cab when Taxi Driver came out, and I was offended by its lies about the economic status of a cabdriver. New York cabdrivers were then earning about $100 to $120 per week, just above the minimum wage (the same as we made in Los Angeles). Travis Bickle made $300 to $400 per week, so he was free of the mundane financial worries that bedeviled me. An innocent fantasy? A Marxist would claim that Taxi Driver mystifies capitalist relations of production by magically restoring to the worker’s wages the surplus value extracted by the capitalist (with perhaps a little extra thrown in). I wouldn’t discount this ideological project, but there is more at stake for screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese: it is precisely by relieving Travis Bickle of money worries that they make credible his obsession with metaphysical evil. In any case, they allow us to forget the real evils of exploitation and oppression.
In fairness, I should note that most of my co-workers loved Taxi Driver. Were they dupes of capitalist ideology and metaphysics? No, they just identified with Travis Bickle, and they wanted to be like him. He wouldn’t take shit from anybody, and that was our loftiest ambition.
I prefer the cabdriver movies of the thirties in which the drama turns on economic struggles: Taxi!, directed by Roy Del Ruth, from a script by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, and I Stole a Million, directed by Frank Tuttle, from a script by Lester Cole and Nathanael West. Taxi! is, first of all, a ragged, unwieldy showcase for James Cagney’s versatility. He dances—for the first time in movies! He speaks Yiddish—for the first and only time! But he also rallies the indepen-dent cabdrivers against the efforts of the Consolidated Cab Company to put them out of business through strong-arm tactics and establish a monopoly. Thus Taxi! is a prototype for the truck driver movies of the 1970s. I Stole a Million may be regarded as the first film noir, but with an absurdist cast that recalls West’s novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell. In short, the American dream goes obscenely wrong for a decent but impetuous taxi driver (played by George Raft) who wants to buy his own cab.
When I teach screenwriting, I use cabdriver scenes to demonstrate the importance of bit parts, to prove the validity of Eugene Vale’s claim that the “characterization of bit parts distinguishes good pictures from bad ones.” John Cassavetes never made a movie about a cabdriver, although Moskowitz in Minnie and Moskowitz is a close kin, a parking lot attendant. But his main characters often get around by taxi, and he generally takes a few moments to show the driver, creating memorable miniportraits. There are the heroic cab-drivers of Gloria, who protect Gloria from the mobsters tailing her, and the uncannily considerate cab-drivers of Minnie and Moskowitz, who watch over Minnie when she gets too drunk. And, of course, there is the bemused, speechless, but kindly cabdriver in Love Streams, who patiently helps Sarah unload a whole menagerie of animals (a large dog, two miniature horses, a goat, a duck, some chickens, and other small birds) that she has rashly brought home to her brother’s house from a rural animal shelter.
All of which is to say that, whenever a movie with a cab-driver as the protagonist comes along, I’m there. Night on Earth was a special treat: five cabdrivers, in five different cities. It can also be characterized as five encounters, five moral tales, five city portraits. Of course, the first episode, set in Los Angeles, is closest to my heart, and I can write about it with the most authority, but first some more general thoughts on Jim Jarmusch’s work.
I have a special fondness for some Jarmusch films that are generally counted among his minor works: Night on Earth, and also Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes (how could I not love a movie that begins and ends with the two best versions of “Louie, Louie,” the original, by Richard Berry, and Iggy Pop’s cover?). I prefer them to Dead Man, his most recent film to receive serious critical attention. After his first few films, it seems that critics, and maybe even some ordinary fans, started to take Jarmusch films for granted, in the same way that an older generation of critics and fans took Howard Hawks films for granted. The pleasures they offered were evident, but predictable. With Hawks, critics have come to value these pleasures more highly and to appreciate the variations he worked on recurring themes. Maybe Jarmusch’s day will come also.
Both Hawks and Jarmusch create a special complicity among their actors and a sense of conviviality that passes across the screen so that we in the audience may come to regard them as friends rather than as performers enacting a role. Jarmusch seems to have a real fondness for actors, equaled among his contemporaries only by Quentin Tarantino, and this feeling elicits a special grace in their performances. I could make a long list of actors who have never been better than in a Jarmusch film. It would include not only Tom Waits (hopelessly hammy under Robert Altman’s direction), Henry Silva, Roberto Benigni, and Jessica Lange, but even Bill Murray (in Coffee and Cigarettes), Johnny Depp, and the always reliable Forest Whitaker. After seeing Stranger Than Paradise, I was convinced that John Lurie, Eszter Balint, and Richard Edson would become big movie stars. Lurie and Edson have been good in bit parts since, but they never found another director who appreciated them enough.
I can’t claim that Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands have never been better than in the Los Angeles episode of Night on Earth, but they do create a feeling of camaraderie that is strong and affecting. Ryder’s unflappable tomboy cabdriver Corky is a fantasy, I suppose, but at least it is a generous fantasy, full of life and respect for human possibilities. She reminds me of Cagney’s cabdriver in Taxi! She has the same bravado and professional pride. When her passenger, casting agent Victoria Snelling (Rowlands), offers a request or a reproach, she answers with the good-natured refrain “Sure, Mom” or “Okay, Mom,” echoing Cagney’s repeated response to his wife’s nagging, “All right, Ma.” Victoria is impeccably mannered and coolly professional. We can gather from her side of the frequent cell phone calls she makes and receives that she is successful, but also stressed-out and dissatisfied. Corky notices the vulnerabilities in Victoria, but she doesn’t allow herself to feel superior; instead, she uses the knowledge to create a bond between them. In the end, she teaches Victoria a small lesson, but we may wonder how long Victoria will remember it.
Interspersed with this encounter between Corky and Victoria, there is a portrait of Los Angeles at dusk. Jarmusch’s portrait is certainly not literalist, but it is evocative, and it has aged much better than the hysterically pessimistic visions of the city prevalent in the early 1990s. As in The Replacement Killers, the downtown railway station fills in for the airport. A taxi ride from the airport to “Beverly Circle” would as a rule proceed north on the San Diego Freeway (now the most congested, despised freeway in Los Angeles), then east on Sunset Boulevard, and through the residential quarters of upper Beverly Hills, which have a spooky, funereal quietude at night (I wouldn’t live there if they paid me to). Visually, it wouldn’t be very interesting, and it wouldn’t reveal much of the city. Instead, Corky takes what we call here “surface streets,” and the sights glimpsed in passing are not to be found on any direct route from the airport to Beverly Hills, with one or two exceptions.
Jarmusch concentrates on structures that some might call seedy but are actually just ordinary. He values a takeout stand as much as a landmark (another virtue he shares with Tarantino). The only landmarks in Night on Earth are the Great Western Forum, in Inglewood (then a sports arena, now a megachurch), and the statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle on the Sunset Strip (still standing today). There are also some iconic images, such as a car under a tarp that recalls a famous photograph from The Americans, by Robert Frank, taken in Long Beach. Frank’s car was flanked by two small palm trees, and Jarmusch concentrates on these transplants, which always look a bit scraggly in his movie (as palm trees often do outside of Beverly Hills).
Most of the shots come from around Hollywood, with an emphasis on its poorer, eastern end. I recognized a Pioneer Chicken stand on Western, near Sunset (since demolished), and a minimall at Sunset and Harvard (its stores are now all Armenian businesses). Things change, things stay the same. If you rephotographed most of his locations today, they would be changed beyond recognition. But every shot could be almost exactly duplicated somewhere else in the city. And maybe that used-car lot that could be anywhere is still there and still under the same ownership. Auto dealerships are now our most enduring institutions.
With some justice, Philippe Garnier lamented the disposability of Los Angeles architecture; he called it an “architecture of amnesia.” He noted, “Intersections change so fast that remembering how they used to be has almost become a civic duty.” Yet as Eric Hobsbawm noted in his autobiography Interesting Times, American cities, Los Angeles included, have changed less radically in the past fifty years than European cities. And perhaps Los Angeles has changed less than any other U.S. city. Because it was first for so many years—it built the first freeway system, the first airport for jet airliners, the first midcentury-modern baseball stadium, the first shoddy neoclassical cultural palaces—it is in many ways the oldest U.S. city. Jarmusch knows New York better, but he values what is ancient in each of the cities he portrays.