There are so many remarkable innovations that make Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a stylish ’40s noir set in grimy 1970s New York City. Its script calls for an alarming scale of violence in the act of saving one person. And most prescient, Robert De Niro delivers a spot-on portrayal of an archetype — the angry white male — that would soon become a force in the American political landscape.
But one overlooked contribution “Taxi Driver” brought to filmmaking was the use of the taxi as a storytelling device. Scorcese didn’t do as much with this as he could have, but the movie hints at the fascinating possibilities of bringing characters into temporary interaction with one another, setting up one of my favorite narrative components — the vignette.
While the vignettes presented through the windshield of Travis Bickle’s cab are a minor element of the movie, other filmmakers are sure to have picked up on the technique. Case in point: Matthew A. Cherry’s “9 Rides,” which recently screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Shot entirely on the iPhone 6, “9 Rides” is a feature-length film consisting of, as the title indicates, nine rides an Uber driver takes on over the course of New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles.
What results is a series of miniplays, each bringing varying levels of interest and pathos to the back seat of the unnamed Uber driver’s SUV. Some are innocuous. A daughter is transferred from mother’s to father’s custody. A flight attendant grabs a nap on the way to the airport. Others offer a glimpse into lives headed for misery. One couple’s bickering suggests an abusive relationship, but the short ride across town isn’t enough to confirm our suspicions. After considering intervention, the driver drops them at their stop, leaving us to wonder how that story will end.
The rides unfold against the backdrop of a personal crisis of sorts for the driver as he grapples with jealousy and uncertainty over his fiancee’s whereabouts that New Year’s Eve. That storyline draws to a somewhat predictable conclusion, but it serves to hold together a film that would otherwise be a series of unrelated interludes on the streets of L.A. As a result, we get the rare film that can be enjoyed in its entirety or in pieces.