Professing * Reflecting

Monday, September 20, 2004

Great Mirror Scenes, Part One

"You talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me? . . I don't see anyone else here."

Yes, yes--it's far too easy to say that DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver performed the greatest mirror scene of all time, so let me explain something about "great scenes." One night over the phone, my best friend from graduate school (also an assistant professor on the t-t, but at a different school in a different city) and I--tired from teaching, frustrated from grading papers, but giddy from the healthy doses of red wine required to grade said papers--dreamed up the perfect undergraduate course: Great Scenes.

My friend, let's call her Coco, and I have been amused and confused for years by student writing that makes grandiose claims about the obvious greatness of certain texts and authors over wildly illogical spans of time, e.g. "Throughout the history of man, Shakespeare's plays have proved to be great." Why not just give in? Why not do away with analysis and theory all together? Why not adopt a sadistic form of criticism that fully embraces the idea of quality and the process of mystification?

So the class would go like this: one text per semester would be covered and it would
be presented as "the greatest text in the history of man." The text would change each time the class is taught and would still be presented as "the greatest text in the history of man." The chosen text should not be one that the students would recognize as "great," but rather something like "The Cosby Show" or Armageddon. (Incidentally, Coco and I actually do find many, many scenes in this show and in this movie to be incontrovertibly great.) During each class session, a scene would be viewed and proclaimed to be great. Students who would want to discuss why the scene is great would receive a rigorously critical lecture about greatness and how you can not and should not explain it. Exams would consist of a list of scenes accompanied by a yes/no question: Is this a great scene? Students should only circle yes or no. Any attempt to explain why or why not the scene is great would result in failure of the exam. For the final project, each student would choose a "great scene" not covered in class. If the professor finds it to be a great scene, the student would pass. If not, the student would fail. Any failing student who attempted to explain why he or she thinks the scene is great even though the professor might not think it is great would face possible expulsion from the program.

So, in one sense, I do not need to explain why DeNiro's "You talkin' to me?" scene
is a great mirror scene. But Coco and I have yet to realize our vision for the future of literary/cultural criticism. If the pseudo-mainstream popularity of critics like Harold Bloom-who has always been a "great scenes" critic, but most recently and overtly and unapologetically in Genius--is any indication, we are well on our way. Until then, though, I will try to explain why this is a particularly satisfying, memorable, or interesting scene:

1. The acting: Given the direction "Travis looks at himself in the mirror," DeNiro improvises the entire scene. Improvisation is particularly satisfying, because through it we get to see the actor's process at its most creative point. The actor becomes the writer and this "writing" seems spontaneously present to us.

2. The mise-en-scene: Scorcese (at least in this film) is obsessed with mirrors. The film begins with the camera as the rear-view mirror, watching Travis's eyes as he drives around the city. When Travis applies for the job at the cab company, the mirror above his interviewer shows two men arguing. One man keeps pointing a finger at the other. When the camera's point-of-view shifts to the interviewer's point-of-view, facing Travis, the two men disappear. They are only present when the camera shares Travis's point-of-view. In the proposed "great scene," DeNiro is looking into the "mirror" that is the camera, which is watching DeNiro watching himself. Travis is watching his alter-ego, the bad-ass with enough (however twisted) political conviction to assasinate a presidential candidate and thereby to impress Betsy. Travis is pointing a gun at the bad-ass, taunting him. Go crazy with the camera/mirror thing, especially if you are into film theory via Lacan.

3. The cultural impact: Before I knew this film, I knew this scene. I knew this scene, because it was constantly quoted and performed by high-school friends, particularly boys looking into the mirrors on the inside of their locker doors. And it still happens. Most recent sighting--last Saturday night outside of a pub among the smokers on the sidewalk. Can we call this a "cultural impact"? I don't know. We do know that this scene made it into a federal courthouse in 1982. The defense's argument--John Hinckley, Jr. was inspired by the film and through identification with Travis Bickle to attempt assasination--is problematic. Their argument that Hinckley "absorbed" the character of Travis Bickle and was therefore "insane" is really fucking interesting for anyone studying film.

4. Narcissism & psychosis: The film--especially in the "great scene" under question--explores the connections between alienation, narcissism, and psychosis.
Does an alienated narcissist "become" what might be called "psychotic"? Is narcissism a form of psychosis? Does the mirror separate the narcissist from the psychotic? What happens when Narcissus falls through the water and meets his reflection? Finally, what's our beef with narcissism? Doesn't it, by definition, provide the line that keeps us from becoming totally "absorbed" and--according to the defense and to the jury--"insane"?

OK--have gone on for far too long. Just realized this as I realized that the "Kerry" they were discussing on the radio show I was half-listening to was NOT Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex and the City."



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