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16:9 in English: Antonioni Pirouette


“There’s a shot in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle is talking on the phone to Betsy and the camera tracks away from him down the long hallway and there’s nobody there. That was the first shot I thought of in the film, and it was the last I filmed” (Scorsese in Christie & Thompson 2003, p. 54).

It is rare for a film reviewer to comment on a particular camera movement in his or her evaluation of a film. However, this is exactly what Pauline Kael did when she reviewed Taxi Driver (1976) in the New Yorker magazine and singled out the above-mentioned camera movement as Scorsese’s “Antonioni Pirouette” (Kael 1994, p. 684).

Taxi Driver is a major, yet controversial, classic of contemporary American cinema. It may seem atomistic or amputated to focus on one single camera movement when writing on the film. Nevertheless, this is what I intend to do here but although the topic may at first seem narrow-minded, it will turn out to encapsulate key aspects of the film.

In order to place the reader in the scene, I will briefly summarize the events leading up to the shot in question (1). Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle – a Vietnam veteran whose life is permeated by loneliness. He takes a job driving a taxi in New York City both days and nights. He appears to break out of his solitude as he enters into a relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shephard) who works for senatorial candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). However, their relationship quickly turns sour as Travis takes her to see a ‘dirty picture’.

The shot in question is initially static, showing us Travis taking in the first words of rejection from Betsy (fig. 2). But in the course of the conversation, the camera – unmotivated by moving action – tracks right and stops on an empty hallway while we continue to hear Travis off-screen (fig. 3-4). At the end of the hallway is a door opening onto the street. As the shot unfolds, Travis hangs up the phone and walks into the hallway. Herrmann’s score joins forces with Travis’ voice-over to convey how he tried to contact her after that – but to no avail (fig. 5).

Given the attention bestowed upon the camera movement by Kael (and others subsequently) and the privileged position it holds for Martin Scorsese it is worth asking why this shot – in particular the camera movement contained within it – is so arresting?

A Phone Conversation

Cinematic phone conversations have a long history dating back to early silent cinema. They are even linked to formal experiments such as split-screen (Are You There?, 1901) and cross-cutting (The Physician and the Castle, 1908) (Salt 2009, p. 62, 108). The shot in question is first and foremost a peculiarly staged phone conversation.

At 93 seconds it is a particularly lengthy take that could easily have been staged differently, for example by intercutting shots of Travis and Betsy at the end of the line. The first thing we can say about the shot, is that it de-emphasizes Betsy’s perspective – we can deduce what she says from Travis’ part of the conversation but do not hear or see her first-hand.

However, when the camera detaches itself from Travis it also – at least partially - detaches itself from his experiential perspective. It may still communicate something to us about Travis subjective state but does so throughnarrative agency (‘Scorsese’) rather than through character and performance.

Norms and conventions provide significant analytical frameworks but my interest is not of a normative kind: whether this is a problematic or brilliant way of staging the conversation is secondary. Instead I want to propose a number of functions that the camera movement can be said to have (also taking other properties of the shot into consideration).

The Wandering Camera and Narrative Agency

It is important to establish why the camera movement stands out. The standard approach to camera movement in mainstream narrative cinema is to subordinate the movement of the camera to moving action. Cinematographer John Seale tells Peter Ettedgui that he spent years learning to hide crane shots, tracking shots and zooms in the movement of “whoever or whatever was in front of the camera” (Ettedgui 1998, p. 139). And Michael Chapman, the director of photography on Taxi Driver, talks of the flabbergasted response of his crew to the various ways in which Scorsese detaches the movement of the camera from the movement of his main character (Chapman to the camera in Making Taxi Driver).

Like a number of camera movements in Taxi Driver this is not a synchronous follow shot but an autonomous tracking shot. It relinquishes its compositional obligation to the main character and detaches itself from what Kenneth Johnson refers to as its “characterological function” (Johnson 1993, p. 51). It leaves the film’s main protagonist in off-screen space and wanders off to show the viewer an empty hallway instead.

Although commentators such as Roger Ebert and Scorsese himself have done their best to motivate the movement on various grounds – character subjectivity primarily - few would claim that the camera movement does not stand out. Scorsese himself does not motivate the movement by arguing that it is unnoticeable: “I know what you’re saying, ‘I’m aware now that the camera is moving’ but that’s okay because of his intensity. Travis can handle obvious camera moves, you know.” (Scorsese to Cousins in Scene by Scene).

Wandering camera marks “traces of enunciatory activity” and thereby reveals a transition “from one level of narration to another” (Johnson 1993, p. 49). The camera movement in Taxi Driver is fundamentally puzzling, prompting the viewer to ask, “why is it done in this way? What is the filmmaker trying to communicate?” We are touching upon a function which Alexandre Astruc was the first to point to in his article “L’avenir du cinema” (1948). The detachment of the camera from its main protagonist introduces “that breach, that imperceptible tissue between the work and the author by which the latter takes a stance in relation to it” (Astruc translated in Bacher 1978, p. 229).

Another function related to narrative agency is that wandering camera creates a momentary “conflict in tense experience” because it marks a “shift in emphasis from the story as something understood to be already complete, to the story in the process of being created” (Johnson 1993, p. 50). The wandering camera can therefore be said to re-emphasize an aliveness of the medium.

Given the classical norms of camera movement in narrative cinema, Scorsese has sometimes been asked to/or perhaps felt obliged to defend the camera movement for being overt or reflexive: “I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there,” he tells Ian Christie and David Thompson (Christie & Thompson 2003, p. 54) and Mark Cousins asks him if he regrets staging the shot like that “…because it’s an unmotivated movement” (1998). Scorsese does not regret staging the shot in this way – and why should he? Scorsese’s own analyses of the camera movement will be introduced as the article unfolds.

Compositional Pressure

In a way the initial view of Travis is already setting up the peculiar development within the course of the shot. The initial composition is imbalanced with Travis standing off-centre to the right, momentarily with his back to the camera but generally with his face and eyes directed to the right. His eye-line does not stretch out across the frame but is directed at his hands or outside the frame. He has very little space to look into and because we as viewers tend to follow the direction of a character’s gaze, our gaze quickly meets the right hand edge of the frame. The initial compositional imbalance leads to at least two ways of understanding the shot.

First, it appears that Travis is already on his way out of frame. Second, the movement of the camera could be said to be compositionally motivated in the sense that it is reacting to the ‘pull’ of the image (in this case the term ‘push’ or ‘pressure’ of the image would seem more adequate because the implication is that the gaze of the viewer would seem to ‘push’ the framing towards the right). Even the staggered placement of three phones on the wall behind Travis appear to ‘open' the composition unto the right-hand side of the frame (see fig. 2). In either case it seems that the orchestrator ‘Scorsese’ is ahead of his character.

Objective Correlative

Naturally, the mere structure of the movement tells us very little about the function of the shot. We always have to consider what it is that the camera moves in relation to. Had the camera tracked off Travis to show us a flower shop, our understanding of the shot would have been very different. The movement of the camera and the objects and characters in the camera’s field of view are intrinsically bound up with one another. We are dealing with a dynamic interplay of cinematography and mise-en-scene. Nevertheless, we canstudy the contribution made by camera movement to this dynamic interrelationship and we can ask how the camera movement realizes or brings out particular values of the shot.

One way of understanding the shot is to argue that the camera movement invites the spectator to interpret the empty hallway as an objective correlative to Travis’ state of mind. The drab, sad, vacant, solitary look of the hallway represents Travis’ state of mind – as it is or as it is going to be once the phone call has been terminated. Scorsese himself says something to this effect in Scorsese on Scorsese: “I like it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing […].” (Christie & Thompson 2003, p. 54)

The interplay of camera movement and mise-en-scene in this shot could be said to be one of a series of techniques that evoke the theme or experience of loneliness – others would include Bernard Herrmann’s romantic urban score, compositional design that cuts Travis off from his co-taxi drivers, inner monologue, the use of telephoto lenses and slow motion to single out Travis amongst a blurred crowd and so forth.


Fig. 1. Taxi Driver (1976). The vantage point of this article is a brief analysis in Nielsen (2007, p. 190-2).


(1) I hope the reader will forgive my skipping over various questions concerning the events leading up to the phone conversation: e.g. whether Travis is misrepresenting his past and was, in fact, never in the marines nor in Vietnam; whether his loneliness is self-imposed; whether the film Travis takes Betsy to see is a sex education film or a pornographic film masked as one etc.


Fig. 2. The camera tracks from a shot of Travis talking to Betsy on the phone …

Fig. 3. … to an empty...

Fig. 4. … hallway. The camera does not, in fact, track “down the long hallway” as insinuated by Scorsese but simply tracks right to present us with a view of the hallway.


Fig. 5. Travis enters the hallway and walks away from the camera towards the NYC street in the background. Photo: Columbia TriStar Home Video.


A related understanding of the camera movement is to interpret the empty hallway as an objective correlative to the state of Betsy and Travis’ relationship. The end of the hallway thus marks a symbolic exit to their relationship – an exit that opens onto a Manhattan street. Now that human entanglement has ceased, Travis takes to the streets. This development on Travis’ part is, in fact, what comes to pass in the film (fig. 6-8).

Spatial realism

In a talk given at the PHOTO L.A. conference in 2003, Wim Wenders asks the audience: “What is the driving force inside the film, its engine, its soul?” (Wenders 2003). He goes on to argue that particularly in an American context the standard reply would be “The Story”. Wenders then goes on to suggest another driving force, namely that of places and describes how the city of Berlin was the starting point of the project that later became Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987). Naturally, he also thought of characters that inhabit Berlin – he considered characters that would get around a lot “so they would meet a lot of people, in order for me to be able to look into a lot of apartments, and really see into all these lives.” Wenders even considered making a taxi driver the main protagonist of his story (ibid).

Both Paul Schrader and Roger Ebert have argued that Taxi Driver is not fundamentally a ‘New York film’ but an ‘urban film’ (Ebert 1976a, Schrader to the camera in Making Taxi Driver). Regardless, Taxi Driver certainly assigns a significant role to place. For instance when the camera moves independently of moving action it often does so to privilege the representation of place.  About five minutes into the film the camera tracks laterally across the walls, door, sink and bed in Travis’ apartment to finally locate him at a table writing his diary. In the process of the movement we not only see the cluttered décor of Travis’ bachelor habitat but are given an almost tactile impression of the texture of the walls that hold him in. Compared to Scorsese’s ‘Antonioni pirouette’, this camera movement is more straightforwardly motivated as an establishing shot that lays out the living quarters in a way that helps us determine the particular qualities of the character living there. Similarly, just prior to this shot, Scorsese lets Travis walk behind the camera to let the camera (and microphone) take in the sounds, characters and objects of the taxi lot before re-locating Travis at the end of the camera’s roundabout. Again ‘place’ is highlighted – this time a place of work.

Even though the two above-mentioned camera movements are more straightforwardly motivated, they point to a way of representing place as more than ‘a frame containing the action.’ You could argue that these places are merely significant because they reflect on the characters in the movie – they are descriptive of the character’s psyche, marital status or social class for instance. This would be a typical way for viewers to cognitively assign significance to a figure of style. Nevertheless, another interpretive option of Scorsese’s Antonioni pirouette is to view the camera movement as a device that intensifies realism of place.

By giving the hallway and the street beyond it such a privileged position in the film, Scorsese lets a slice of urban space or New York City space seep into the fictional fabric of the film. This authenticity of place can also be linked to the shift in registers from experiencing the film as something already complete to experiencing the film as being in the process of unfolding. But as opposed to the interpretation suggested in the “Wandering camera”-section it is not the intentions or actions of the orchestrating agency (‘Scorsese’) that are fore-grounded but the visual and auditory materiality of the place that is laid out before us. Here it is also worth noting the sounds of the city that we hear throughout the shot: cars engines, honking horns and a siren that we – interestingly – begin to hear just as the camera begins to move.

Pain Relief

A different understanding of the camera movement was suggested by Scorsese in an interview with Robert Ebert in March 1976 and restated in Cousins’ interview with the director in Scene by Scene: “It’s an emotionally motivated move because it’s too painful to watch him go through that humiliation on the phone.” (1998) As has been noted by Roger Ebert, it is interesting that Scorsese and Chapman turn their camera away from the humiliation of rejection but do not hold back in terms of representing bloody carnage (1976a).


Fig. 6. Pauline Kael’s reference to Michelangelo Antonioni is particularly appropriate in this respect. For instance in The Passenger (1975) the camera tracks off David Locke (Jack Nicholson) to a shot of the desert.

Fig. 7. Elsewhere I argue that this shot must be studied in relation to four leftward wandering movements that precede it (Nielsen 2007, p. 192-4). While Locke is supposedly making progress in pursuit of the militia, the camera turns on him by panning or tracking off him to the left. Instead of leading him on and anticipating what lies ahead, the camera returns to motifs or characters that he left behind.

Fig. 8. The breakdown of the jeep marks the end of Locke’s life as an investigative reporter. The camera pans right, showing the spectator what lies ahead. The spatial vacuum of the desert and its reference to Locke’s existential vacuum establish a starting point for the ‘real’ story line of the film - Locke taking over another man’s identity.


Although there are no women present in the actual scene (except for the inaudible voice of Betsy on the phone), the pain of rejection is surely connected to Travis’ problem of negotiating the bipolar roles of women as whores on one hand and angels or Madonnas on the other: “She appeared like an angel” is the first thing we hear of Betsy but her response to Travis’ movie outing is that he makes a whore out of her: ”Taking me to a place like this is about as exciting to me as saying, ’Let’s fuck’.” (fig. 9). With Jodie Foster’s Iris, Travis apparently goes for the reverse transformation (Seeßlen 2003, p. 107-110).

Regardless of the nature of the pain, the function of the camera movement is completely different when viewed from this perspective. From Scorsese’s standpoint the camera is not as much in the process of showing us something new but in the process of deflecting our attention from the initial motif. To Scorsese’s way of thinking it was simply too painful to watch Travis being humiliated and thus the tracking shot is relieving us (and Scorsese) of the pain of watching Travis being rejected. Again spatial orientation is significant but for a very different reason.

A Plea

A related way of understanding the camera movement was suggested to me quite recently by a student in the audience when I screened the example at the European Film College in Ebeltoft. The implication would be that there is a form of meta-communication and a peculiar interplay of camera and character. Perhaps the camera movement is not deflecting attention from the initial motif but pleading Travis to abort his increasingly humiliating attempt to reconnect with Betsy as if the movement was prompting him to ‘get out of that situation.’ Again, this interpretation could be supported by the awkwardness imparted by the initial imbalance of the composition.

Where It All Begins – and Ends

At the beginning of this article, Scorsese was quoted for saying that this particular shot was the first one he thought of and the last one he actually filmed. Given the multiple ways of understanding the camera movement we can begin to speculate why it held such a central position in the making of the film. However, there is no need to second-guess the vagaries of the creative process because looking at the film as it is preserved, it is clear that the shot does not merely stand out because it contains an overt or awkward camera movement. In the words of editor, Tom Rolf, the viewer is offered the opportunity of “reinvesting into the shot” (Rolf to the camera in Making Taxi Driver).

The shot - and the camera movement contained within it - are memorable because they offer multiple interpretations that connect to sentiments as well as formal and material properties that are at the core of the film: loneliness, warped (male) perspectives on women, narrative agency, place. The shot does not retreat into enigma or ambiguity but lays out a rich experiential potential for us to explore.


Fig. 9. ”Taking me to a place like this is about as exciting to me as saying, ’Let’s fuck’.” Note the working girl to the left of Betsy. Photo: Columbia TriStar Home Video.




Astruc, Alexandre (1948). “L’avenir du cinéma,” La Nef no. 48 (December).

Bacher, Lutz (1978). The Mobile Mise en SceneA Critical Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the Narrative Film. N.Y.: Arno Press.

Christie, Ian; Thompson, David (2003). Scorsese on Scorsese, revised edition. New York, Faber & Faber.

Ebert, Roger (1976a). “Taxi Driver” January 1, 1976.

Ebert, Roger (1976b): “Interview with Martin Scorsese” March 7, 1976.

Ettedgui, Peter (1998). Cinematography: Screencraft. Crans-Près-Céligny: RotoVision SA.

Johnson, Kenneth (1993). “The Point of View of the Wandering Camera.” Cinema Journal 32, 2 (Winter): 49-56.

Kael, Pauline (1994). For Keeps. N.Y.: Dutton. Kolker, Robert Phillip (1980). A Cinema of Loneliness. New York: Oxford  UP.

Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2007). Camera Movement in Narrative Cinema: Towards a Taxonomy of Functions. Aarhus: Department of Information and Media Studies. Ph.d.-dissertation.

Seeßlen, Georg (2003). Martin Scorsese. Berlin: Bertz. Seeßlen’s book contains an extensive bibliography on Taxi Driver, p. 544-546.

Wenders, Wim (2003). “In Defense of Places” by Wim Wenders, source: transcript at The Director’s Guild of America’s web-site (DGA Magazine, November 2003).

Wood, Robin (1986). “Taxi Driver” in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. NY: Columbia University Press: 50-55.



Martin Scorsese’s audio commentary on Criterion’s laserdisc-edition of Taxi Driver.

Making ‘Taxi Driver’ (1999). Columbia TriStar Home Video. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau.

Scene by Scene (BBC 1998). Mark Cousins interviews Martin Scorsese. This part of the interview was not published in Mark Cousins book based on the series: Scene by Scene (2002).  

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16:9 - november 2010 - 8. årgang - nummer 39

Udgives med støtte fra Det Danske Filminstitut samt Kulturministeriets bevilling til almenkulturelle tidsskrifter.
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