Sunday, 28 March 2010

Adventures of a Taxi Driver

For the critics of the time this 1976 entry was was a sex comedy that was neither sexy nor funny and which had absolutely nothing of interest in form, content or their combination.

Thirty plus years on what’s interesting about in this regard is the way it relates, albeit unconsciously, to some of the major critical debates taking place at the same time.

The opening sequence is a case in point. Taking a pseudo-documentary approach via a stentorian voice-of-god styled voice-off, it introduces the character of the taxi driver in the abstract. However, rather than providing us with a picture of a singular reality it instead emphasises, to comic effect, the contradiction between the official and actual versions of reality. Whereas the official version given in the voice-over presents an idealised vision of the taxi driver, the unofficial version given in the image mocks this ideal.

If we turn to academic film studies we might relate this to debates about the role of realism in cinema and whether it could be used to politically progressive ends.

Significantly the distinction here was not between left and right but rather between different left wing critics associated with different theoretical approaches.

On the one hand there were those critics associated with the journal Screen. They took a structuralist approach. On the other hand there were critics, sometimes associated with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, who took a culturalist approach.

The Screen theorists were sceptical about the progressive potential of realism. Realism, they argued, relied upon a hierarchy of discourses and was unable to adequately address contradictions. They emphasised a cinema which was radical in both form and content and in which no-one element was privileged above the others as the conveyor of truth.

Despite its left-wing subject matter and the impeccable credentials of director Ken Loach and writer Jim Allen, the 1975 TV series Days of Hope was criticised by Screen theorists for taking a basically realist approach.

Much of the debate around the series ultimately came to focus upon one scene, in which an official report indicating that a workers strike will be resolved peacefully is juxtaposed with images of soldiers about to be sent in to combat the strikers. The problem the structuralists had with this scene was in its form: Sound and image were implicitly placed in a discursive hierarchy with one another, with the latter showing the truth that the former did not.

The structuralists themselves preferred taking an approach inspired by Berthold Brecht, by which the spectator was always to be reminded that he was watching a constructed fiction through the use of various distanciating techniques – here, for instance, audio and visual elements should have been separated out, made independent of one another.

Another of Brecht’s distanciating techniques was to have character directly address the spectator, thus breaking the fourth wall and the illusion that we were simply observing events as they naturally occurred.

My name is Joe North...

Coincidentally this also happens in Adventures of a Taxi Driver. Not only does protagonist Joe North then introduce himself to us immediately after the pseudo-documentary sequence – as a relatively common device – but he also continues these addresses throughout the course of the narrative:

“I've been at it a year or so now. I've got my own cab – well, I will have, as soon as I've finished paying for it.”

“I know what she needs. I can tell whether a bird has had a good seeing to the night before”

“Something tells me this could be my lucky night […] A right little sex bomb this one. You can tell from that voice, can't you – all husky and sexy. I reckon this one will need the smooth, suave, James Bond style chat-up.”

However simply using a distanciating technique does not mean that it will necessarily have a distanciating effect of the type assumed by Brecht and his 1970s acolytes. The primary purpose of these monologues, after all, is clearly to draw the viewer into identifying with Joe and agreeing with rather than challenging or rejecting his world-view.

A Blakey-like role for Stephen Lewis

Here it is true that we may reject this and read Joe's remarks against the grain. This, after all, was the idea encouraged by another of the structuralists' major influences, Barthes.

The problem for the 1970s Screen theorist is that the text in which Barthes most fully developed this idea, The Pleasures of the Text, is also a more post-structuralist work in which he made a number of challenges to their position; this challenge was all the more ironic insofar as he himself had profoundly influenced the Screen position through some of his earlier structuralist writings.

To the post-structuralist Barthes the issue was that those on the left who had eagerly taken up his ideas as a means of challenging the dominant bourgeois doxa were themselves increasingly becoming overly assertive in the absolute rectitude of their own para-doxa.

The issue here is whether we feel that contradiction has an end point. Marxist theory says that all contradictions will be resolved when we reach the final stage of communism. But what if we do not accept this position? Are we to be terrorised into silence for out own good, that as victims of false consciousness we do not know our own interests? Should we be prevented from seeing Adventures of a Window Cleaner? Should we be denied its pleasures and, indeed, displeasures?

Geeson as the bait, Anna Bergman as the switch?

For audiences at the time, displeasure likely manifest for those drawn in by the presence of Judy Geeson as a stripper who somehow manages never to show actually show any boobs, bums or bush, unlike the rest of the female cast; it should however also be pointed out that the film is more of an equal opportunities exploitationer than most others, inasmuch as we do get to see Barry Evans's bits.

The Jacey

Pinball wizard

For today's trash cinema fan the pleasures of the film text may well include such incidentals as the shots of 1970s Soho at night in an episode involving one of Joe's regular fares, a prostitute, who performs oral sex on her respectable middle-class pick-up with amusingly nasty consequences when Joe stops his cab suddenly.

Much like the episode in which Joe fails to realise that his fare is a female impersonator and the gay / transgendered impersonator misreads Joe's remarks about his friend Tom as indicating his own homosexuality, here we also see pleasure and unpleasure mixed up more directly.

The point, I would argue, is that trash cinema is far more complex than most criticism cares to acknowledge. The pity is that by keeping such films at arms length, the political potential of genuinely engaging with the popular audience and its preferred choice of culture remained unfulfilled. And when we consider that the film was more successful than Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver at the UK box-office, that has to be seen as something of a loss.

Antonio Gramsci and Birmingham School 1, Louis Althusser and Screen 0?

No comments: