If there was ever a shining example of a movie being summed up in one shot it’s this moment from Taxi Driver (1976).
Martin Scorsese’s seminal urban noir is full of visual flourishes and audacious camera moves. He plunges his audience fearlessly into the point of view of his unhinged protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) by shooting the movie exclusively from his point-of-view. It’s a masterclass of subjective filmmaking, seen here at it’s most effective.
It’s a very simple but evocative moment. Travis stares deeply into a glass of fizzing water as an Alka-Seltzer dissolves inside. The slow zoom into the bubbling liquid is an image that has always stayed with me and it’s the first that springs to mind whenever I think of Taxi Driver. Not the shootout, not “You talkin’ to me?”, not the infamous pan away phone call, nope: that fizzing water is what Taxi Driver means to me. What a perfect way to illustrate Travis’ state of mind: a chemical reaction, slowly increasing and becoming more severe. An element undergoing change, reaching it’s boiling point. That’s Taxi Driver in a nutshell.
Like many filmmakers in the 70s, Scorsese found himself freed up by the rule-breaking of French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and it inspired him to make bold abstract touches such as this one. As Mark Cousins points out in The Story of Film, a thread of influence can be traced from this shot through Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) all the way back to Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947):
Scorsese loves the films of Carol Reed and Jean-Luc Godard and so used the same idea that a character looking into bubbles can see their own troubles and also, somehow, the cosmos – Mark Cousins, The Story of Film
It’s certainly an unconventional beat and one that isn’t entirely subtle, but that’s what’s so great about it. Just like Travis we become transfixed by this moment and reality slips away for a second. Within that fizzing water lies the fuse which will eventually spark and transform Travis from a man of dark thoughts to a man of horrific action. Want to see how a master filmmaker can transport you into a character’s psyche with pure imagery? Look no further.