SEASON2/EP4: THE SEARCHERS AND TAXI DRIVER

The Searchers movie review & film summary (1956) | Roger Ebert
photo courtesy of rogerebert.com
Taxi Driver (1976) - Turner Classic Movies
photo courtesy of tcm.com

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-SEARCHERS-AND-TAXI-DRIVER-e14qrja

Over a black screen, the title reads: “TEXAS 1868.” After the title fades the screen is finally illuminated as a door swings open and the silhouette of a woman stands in the open doorway. As the woman steps forward the camera slowly follows her through the doorway and outside and when it turns we are given the signature, most beautiful shot in the outstanding career of John Ford. John Wayne, deep in the distance, flanked on each side by two massive rock formations in Monument Valley, riding slowly on horseback from background to foreground as his sister in law Martha, the silhouette, now stands in full color in the foreground waiting for her brother-in-law and Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards. The breathtaking shot and subsequent reunion that opens The Searchers, temporarily masks the real conflict of the film, which is the fact that Ethan Edwards, in perhaps John Wayne’s greatest performance, is a Confederate soldier, returning home form the Civil War, full of hate and bitterness, unable to accept the defeat of the Confederacy. Ethan’s hatred doesn’t stop with his War experience as we will soon find out that he detests Native Americans as well. While they were made twenty years apart and at almost opposite ends of the American landscape, the Texas frontier of the mid 1800’s and the gritty, filthy, and steamy New York City Streets of the 1970’s, The Searchers and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver share almost identical protagonists.

The Searchers has always been one of the most misunderstood films of all time. Sadly, a large portion of the moviegoing audience saw this film as another heroic performance by John Wayne as he hunts down the Comanche Indians who have murdered his brother’s family and kidnapped their young daughter, Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. Ethan Edwards, along with his nephew Martin, played by Jeffrey Hunter, embark on a years long journey to track down Debbie. When they finally catch up with her they find that she has been indoctrinated into the Comanche civilization. This becomes too much for Ethan whom upon rescuing Debbie, contemplates whether or not she would be better off dead. The film ends with another doorway shot only this time we are on the inside looking out. Looking out at Ethan as he stands helplessly outside his family’s home, knowing that he cannot go inside while at the same time, completely unsure of where he will go next. The film is not a glorious tale of John Wayne rescuing his young niece from danger. It is a tale of hatred and how it can consume a man and turn him loose on the world around him. It is clear that Ethan Edwards is suffering some type of PTSD from his Civil War experience, not to mention him having a particular disdain and bloodlust for Native Americans. This is a direct line to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s story about a Vietnam Veteran returning to normal life, feeling increasingly isolated in the summer of 1976, a time when New York City was quite possibly more dangerous than the Wild West.

Summer of 1976. As the fictional Democratic Presidential candidate, Charles Palantine ramps up his campaign, a taxi driver named Travis Bickle begins arming himself with several automatic weapons with seemingly no motive in sight. What starts as a way of defending himself on the tough and dangerous city streets spirals out of control when Travis begins writing violent and deranged missives in his diary about “cleaning up the garbage and the filth in the city.” He then shoots and kills a thief in a deli. before he befriends a teenage prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster. As Travis and Iris get to know each other, Travis sees that Iris is being controlled by her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel with his long hair parted down the middle resembles a Native American, even going as far as telling Travis that he once had a horse in Coney Island. Travis then makes it his quest to save Iris from her abusers, mush the same way Ethan quested to save Debbie from the Commanche’s. Travis goes on a killing spree at the end of the film as he rescues Iris from another session with a John. This is the plot of Taxi Driver, Scorsese and Schrader’s journey into the decay and danger of New York City in the 1970’s and how it can push one lonely and isolated man to the breaking point. Much like John Wayne in The Searchers, this is definitely one of the best performance’s in the scintillating career of Robert De Niro. Travis Bickle not only shares the intense hatred of humanity with Ethan Edwards but with his arsenal of revolvers and cowboy boots, Travis looks like he belongs next to Ethan in the Wild West, battling with Commanches.

Martin Scorsese has always referenced John Ford and The Searchers in particular but it was in maybe his most daring film Taxi Driver that his devotion to the great John Ford was on full display.

FOR SAMA: For Your Consideration

Image result for for sama poster"
photo courtesy of www.forsamafilm.com


In 92 years of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s tradition of awarding filmmakers, only 5 times has a woman been nominated for Best Director. Their names are Kathryn Bigelow(The Hurt Locker/won), Lina Wertmuller(Seven Beauties), Jane Campion(The Piano), Sofia Coppola(Lost in Translation), and Greta Gerwig(Ladybird). When the 2020 Academy Award Nominations came out the usual discussions took place among movie fans. All of the hype surrounds the hottest race: Best Director. Who will it be? Will it be Quentin Tarantino for his two and a half hour film about an aging Hollywood actor and his best buddy that ends with a violent twist to one of the most violent episodes in Hollywood history? Or will it be Martin Scorsese for his even longer three hour epic about a murderer who had to be played by an aging Robert DeNiro made to look like he was 50 years younger? Don’t count out Todd Phillips who decided to throw the Comic Book film model on its head by not making a movie about the Heroes but instead about the Villain who becomes…you guessed it, a murderer! Little do these 3 men, or the Academy for that matter, know that there is a director that in 2019 blew all 3 of their films combined out of the water. And this Director is a WOMAN.

This woman, Waad Al-Kateab, is the director of the Oscar nominated documentary “For Sama.” To say this movie is breathtaking and powerful would be a gross understatement. It is the story of a girl who moved to the city of Aleppo to study and stayed there, fell in love, got married, had a baby girl named Sama, was pregnant with her second child when she was finally forced to flee the city of Aleppo in December 2016. Waad used her camera to document all of those happy moments that I just mentioned but she also wanted to document the siege of Aleppo from a perspective no one else got to see until now which sadly is too late. The footage she captured is beyond shocking. Her original plan for filming the siege was to try and get the outside world’s attention and show them the atrocities being committed by the Syrian and Russian forces. Along with her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab, who is a doctor, and their friends, they set up a makeshift hospital in the city. Watching the camera shake and hearing the blasts of missiles and rockets is nothing compared to seeing the scores of casualties being dragged into the hospital. As a spoiler I can tell you that this is not for the faint of heart and while the efforts of Hamza and Waad and their friends are beyond heroic, they were definitely fighting a losing battle to put it mildly.

Throughout the film Waad narrates and explains that this film is a message to her daughter, Sama. Sama was born in Aleppo in 2015 just as the siege led by the brutal forces of Bashar al Assad and backed strongly by the Russian military, was about to enter its most violent stage. This little miracle named Sama drinks her bottle, plays with her toys, and smiles at the camera all while she is shown at other moments being carried through dust from an explosion or cowering from the loud explosions right outside her window. I don’t know how Waad found such strength, courage, determination to document this horror even if it meant handing off Sama to a friend when there was a missile attack and she wanted to grab her camera to film.

For Sama is a film that the world needs to see. Waad Al-Kateab masterfully tells her story about moving to a new city, studying, making friends, falling in love, getting married and starting a family. This is a universal story. However, she also captures something that some of her male colleagues from Hollywood can hopefully learn from, even at their old age. Waad showed the world the destruction of her city and country by an oppressive regime. More than anything though, she showed violence, only her violence is not “cinematic.” It’s the type of violence most people can’t even imagine exists and at the same time hopes and prays that they never have to experience it the same way Waad and Hamza and most importantly Sama experienced it.

Rolling Thunder Revue: “Speaking the Truth”

Image result for rolling thunder bob dylan
Photo courtesy of Ultimate Classic Rock

Early on in Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix documentary “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” we are told that the term “Rolling Thunder” was considered by the Native Americans to mean “Speaking the Truth.” Well, after 2 hours and 22 minutes, it is the epic live concert footage that tells the truth. Not the clumsy Bob Dylan/Martin Scorsese story.

The Rolling Thunder Revue was conceived by Dylan to be an old-time traveling road show. After completing a huge stadium tour with The Band in 1974, he was tired of the rock star adulation. Dylan was looking for intimacy and connection which is why Rolling Thunder was held in what appears in the movie to be high school gyms and auditoriums. Everything was scaled down including the amenities. Some scenes show Bob Dylan himself driving the tour bus…that’s right, a tour bus. It’s incredible to imagine the excess of 1970’s rock stars like Led Zeppelin who owned their own plane while Bob Dylan was driving a tour bus down the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The narrative parts of the film are bizarre to say the least. Did a young Sharon Stone join the tour? No. Did her KISS t-shirt inspire Dylan’s white face paint? No. Did “filmmaker” Stefan Van Dorp capture all of the original footage from 1975? No.Why Scorsese and Dylan decided to go this route I don’t know. Naturally it could just be Dylan trying to have fun with the audience by telling absurd stories. These stories could be amusing if not for the fact they fall in between some mesmerizing stage performances by Dylan as well as some heavy political issues he was dealing with such as his visit with the Iroquois Nation and his crusade to free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison. Scorsese has also been down this road before with a documentary not exactly portraying reality. His classic “The Last Waltz”, the final concert of The Band which also featured Dylan, was a work of fiction. Although it was billed as their final concert it was widely known that the members, especially Levon Helm, did not want to break up The Band and hated working on the film. The concert was really what made that film and the same goes for “Rolling Thunder.”

The idea to show full songs in the concert footage was a brilliant move by Scorsese. Dylan, in white face paint and peacock feather in his hat is haunting. He screams and scowls on songs like “Isis” and does an excellent up-tempo version of “Just Like A Woman.” “Hurricane”, intercut with the story and footage of Rubin Carter is intense. Dylan’s performance is filled with rage and should remind all viewers that sadly the song is still topical 40 years later. The scenes of Joan Baez and Dylan singing together are timeless and as usual Baez has no problem deferring to Bob but still showing immense grace and power.

In the film Bob Dylan says “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” This quote may encapsule not just the film but also the Rolling Thunder Revue itself. While the “Bob Dylan Story” is told by Bob, unmasked, telling stories that he admits he “can’t remember”, the “Rolling Thunder Revue” was Bob Dylan, on stage, sometimes wearing a mask, sometimes not, but always “speaking the truth.”