I’m a big fan of films set in the prohibition era – the core ingredients should be pretty easy to combine into the perfect cinema experience: stylish cars, col clothes, snappy dialogue, gangsters, femme fatales, double crossing, violence. What’s not to like? But after the classic film noir period, it’s been a mixed bag. In the past 20 years we’ve had the middling Lawless, the boring Public Enemies and the made from off cuts found on the floor Gangster Squad. Only the Coen brothers Millers Crossing has captured the style, complex plotting and panache of the early films.
So into this context comes Ben Affleck’s Live By Night. It boasts many of the elements you’d want – beautiful cinematography, battling gangster factions, and a good smattering of shoot ups. Following the longer narrative arc of the life of Affleck’s reluctant gangster, it’s more Scarface than Maltese Falcon. While he provides a reasonable center Affleck doesn’t have the gravitas to portray the duality of a man pulled into the life, the way Pacino does in Godfather 2, or the menace of someone to be genuinely feared, the way, erm, Pacino did in Scarface.
Live by Night is really an HBO series condensed into a film. It features a number of sub-plots and engaging side characters, such as the Police Chief and his religious daughter, Affleck’s moralistic Irish cop father, and Zoe Saldana’s Cuban political ambitions. But here it suffers by comparison to the imperious Boardwalk Empire which explored the emotional and dramatic landscape so completely that there seems little point in revisiting it. In terms of the cinematic genre of modern prohibition films, Affleck’s outing ranks above Gangster Squad, but below Millers Crossing, which is ok, but not quite what you’d hoped for.
In The Comedians Graham Greene wrote that “For writers it is always said that the first twenty years of life contain the whole of experience – the rest is observation”. This is true for film fans also. The films that shape your tastes at the same time as your sense of your own personality is forming are never really supplanted. I might put in some recent films in a list to demonstrate eclectic taste, but truthfully my top three would be Jaws, The Thing – and Taxi Driver. All of which I saw before I was sixteen. This was in the great VHS revolution – we would bunk off school to watch movies, catch favourite scenes at lunchtime, gather round someone’s house to watch a pirate copy.
But I haven’t seen many of the films from that era on the big screen, so tonight’s showing of Taxi Driver at the local multiplex was a rare chance to see Scorsese’s influential film up large. Paul Schrader created a modern take on the existential loner of books such as The Outsider and Nausea in Travis Bickle. It is very much an adolescent, male movie – Bickle is alienated, separated from the world he sees others partaking in easily. The film is essentially him looking for a key to enter that world, and is so often with young men, violence seems to offer the answer. This sense of confusion and isolation has never been better captured than through De Niro’s drawling diary monologues. These could be the thoughts of any high school shooter, terrorist or internet troll.
What was so powerful for me as a teenager was this was the first time I had realised what films could do. That they weren’t just entertainment, that the director shaped what your saw and an actor embodied a role. After this I started looking for other Scorsese movies, then similar directors. It woke me up to what filmmaking was. Seeing it now it’s still an incredibly powerful film – the audience applauded at the end for chrissakes. It’s also morally ambiguous, hard to take at times and open to interpretation. I hadn’t encountered that before, and I rarely encounter it now.
The benefits of seeing it on the big screen include the menacing impression of the taxi prowling the streets, the beautiful Bernard Herrmann score in full stereo sound, an appreciation of just how charming Cybill Shepherd is, and THAT talkin to me scene in its full glory. Schrader has called it a piece of juvenilia and he’s right, it connects more with the confused adolescent in a very different way than it does to the slightly less confused adult. But it’s still a masterpiece and holds up. Given the current damage angry, confused men are doing to the planet, it is worth revisiting.