Driven: Taxi Drivers and Two Films About Them

For this post we’re talking about films featuring taxi drivers. Many of the ideas would translate to Uber drivers, bus drivers, train engineers…even pilots would probably loosely fit the bill.

So…Why Ponder Cab Drivers and Films About Them?
In a French TV interview Jim Jarmusch shared the following insights:

  • When you step into a cab you have nothing invested in the relationship with the driver.
  • You can say whatever you want.
  • You can be completely honest…or dishonest.
  • In a cab, you have the freedom of an intimate relationship…with a stranger…for a  brief time.
  • With this person you have no past, no future…just the moment.
  • Typically, your starting point and ending point are what are significant—what happens on the taxi ride is not significant.

Job Description
The workplace of a taxi driver involves driving around in their taxi cab for the entire shift. Some people find this to be boring, while others enjoy the sights and sounds of driving and meeting new people. The job of a taxi driver can, at times, be dangerous. A driver occasionally faces robbery, car accidents, and hazardous weather conditions.1

The two films I’ve chosen to highlight this occupation are: Night on Earth (1991)—directed by Jim Jarmusch; and Taxi Driver (1976)—directed by Martin Scorsese. Night on Earth features 5 vignettes, each about a different cab driver in a different part of the world (LA, NYC, Paris, Rome, Helsinki). Taxi Driver focuses on the psyche of one particular cab driver, Travis Bickle, and his decision to take on the occupation of taxi driver and the inferiority complex that ensues.

Dialogue from Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch)
Victoria/Passenger (Gena Rowlands): You’re really happy driving this taxi aren’t you?”
Corky/Driver (Winona Ryder): F__ yeah! … I mean, yeah! It’s a cool job.
Victoria: Is that your whole goal in life?
Corky: Something with that? … Like Popeye says, “I am what I am.”

While Corky loves driving people around at night in LA (“This is what I do”); the occupation is not always one of delight.

The Loneliness of the Taxi Driver
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life,” Travis Bickle tells us, “In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

Driving can be a great escape allowing one to get enveloped in their thoughts. Those same thoughts can lead one down dangerous paths.

Paying Attention to Details
For the cab driver it is important that they make note of the details in the world around them: “Pick me up at the fence next to the restaurant with the worn-out NO PARKING sign.” You have to know landmarks and signs and locations. For the taxi driver—driving becomes an exercise in seeing. For the sake of their job—and sometimes survival—they need to know the terrain they traverse day in and day out. There are many dangers that face the taxi driver—especially at night.

“All the animals come out at night,” Travis Bickle, once again, “Whores, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Outside the Law?
Taxi drivers find solace in the front seat of their vehicle. It is their space unhindered by passengers; their own domain outside the law. Where anything can happen. From here they are in a unique position to observe the world around them.

Multiple “Screens”
The driver’s seat of a car offers multiple “screen” views: through the front windshield, rear windshield, rearview mirror, side mirrors, shield (sometimes placed between driver and back seat) and door windows. Martin Scorsese uses the the observation of the driver as a metaphor for the moviegoer. A similar approach was used by Alfred Hitchcock decades earlier in his film Rear Window. The idea that these drivers: OBSERVE for a living; KNOW their cities inside and out; READ people really well; WITNESS sinful behavior (sometimes in the backseat; in their rear view mirror); and they WITNESS LIFE (and DEATH) in the cities around them.

The Cab As Confessional
Jamusch’s film Night on Earth includes five such “insignificant” experiences—including Roberto Benini’s playing a cabbie whose confession to his priestly passenger goes south really quick.

Mr. Cab Driver I Might Need Some Help
The Helsinki segment in Night on Earth involves a cab driver picking up three friends—one of whom has lost his job causing the three to go on a drinking binge spending away a portion of his pension. After explaining their friends plight (the man is passed out) they ask the cabbie, “What happened to you that was worse than that?” He tells them his own story and they find solace in his tale. They leave the cab saying, “Send greetings to your wife.”

Mr. Cab Driver Only Thinks About Himself
Time spent in a cab is—well time spent with you. You have plenty of time to ponder and work out your life.

Corky (Wynona Rider, Night on Earth):
“I’m a cab driver, this is what I do. I have everything planned out. Everything is going just right for me now.”

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver):  
“Now I see it clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. I see that now. There never has been any choice for me.”

Let’s think together: Some Questions to Ponder

  1. When you think of a “cab driver” or a “Uber driver” what image do you conjure up?
  2. What do you think about when you drive?
  3. What do think about when someone is driving you (friend, parents, Uber driver, bus driver)?
  4. How does your thinking change when you are the one driving others around?
  5. Where are your eyes when you drive?
  6. Is the landscape in your immediate purview—or merely passing through your subconscious?

Matthew Hundley holds degrees in Film and Broadcasting from the University of Colorado. He earned his Masters at Covenant Theological Seminary. He has written on film for CRITIQUE magazine and FILMNOTES.COM and has spoken on film from time to time including as a guest for Dr. Luke Bobo’s Film & Theology classes at Lindenwood University (St. Charles, MO).

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Topics: Meaning in Our Work, Service Sector, The City