Obscure Yugoslavian movie director Jovan Joca Jovanovic claims that Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976) was highly influenced by his cinematic debut “Distinctly Me“ (1967) – a short film that won multiple awards in 1969 at the Esquire magazine international college film festival in New York.
He argues that „Taxi Driver“ is basically a „rework of his film’s basic narrative motif“.
His statements prompted an urban legend in Serbia that, when Jovanovic’s film premiered in NYC, way back in it’s festival run, that it was seen by some of the movie brats (presumably Spielberg, Scorsese and Paul Schrader) who expressed an admiration for the film.
The director, Jovan Jovanovic, to this day claims that his movie was an inspiration to Schrader and Scorsese in making Taxi driver. He claims to have tried to start a lawsuit over it, but since back then Serbia was behind curtain wall, he says his efforts were ultimately pointless – besides that he had his own problems, he is known as “the most frequently banned Yugoslav author” as his work was often banned by the then communist censorship.
Fact is that Jovanovic’s first movie is – strangely enough – rather reminiscent of Taxi Driver in terms of narrative.
Jovanovic’s movie is about a mind sick man wandering the streets of Belgrade, thinking about killing people on the streets – he is similar to Travis Bickle in terms of their disgust for the decadent world in which they are living.
Both movies also have similar cinematic motifs, most notable being „the mirror scene“.
There is a scene in Jovanovic’s film where the main protagonist is talking to himself in the mirror, which is somewhat reminiscent of Travis Bickle.
Hollywood films taking inspiration from other countries is nothing new, but fact is that Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese never referenced Jovanovic as an artist who influenced them in making „Taxi driver“.
The possibility remains that Jovanovic’s claims are just an attempt to toot his own horn.
Schrader who wrote the script for „Taxi Driver“ claimed that he took inspiration from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and from the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.
The director Scorsese reportedly assimilated the sensibilities and traits of classical and New Hollywood filmmaking, European arthouse cinema, film noir and, climactically, exploitation movies in realising Schrader’s script.
To establish whether he copied Jovanovic it is needed to make a comparison between two films.
ICONOGRAPHY AND SYMBOLISM
In both Jovanovic’s and Scorsese’s film there is a strong presence of political iconography.
Jovanovic’s movie opens with the scenes showing main protagonist walking through the streets of Belgrade, watching political symbols of the communist regime. He stares at billboards showing Lenin and Tito, at memorials dedicated to October revolution, he examines “hammer and sickle” monument…
Political symbols are in contrast with film’s main character alienation from society.
Similar theme can be found in „Taxi driver“. While Travis Bickle walks down the streets New York, traditional red, white and blue banners, ribbons and signs keep popping up in the background, posters of Palantine are a recurring motif. This red, white and blue posters represent patriotism, social order, for Americans this means „the best country in the world“. Political symbolism in „Taxi driver“ highlights Bickle’s alienation and loneliness from society in the same way as in Jovanovic’s movie.
In both cases political iconography is used to underline the gap between main protagonist’s and the idea of ideal state.
In Jovanovic’s movie main character is wearing sunglasses even at night. Although one could say that wearing sunglasses at night is a blatant tell that you’re trying to look cool, emphasis at „trying“, in this movie, wearing sunglasses at night plays into protagonist’s devil-may-care attitude, Jovanovic’s protagonist does not seem worried about the consequences of his actions. In „Taxi driver“ sunglasses also look cool on Travis Bickle and scenes with him wearing sunglasses became iconic to that point that after „Taxi driver“ classic pair of aviators became synonymous with rebels with nothing to lose.
Jovanovic’s protagonist walks the streets with a concealed gun, same as Bickle. First scene where we see the gun in his hands is in the public bathroom. He stand against the urinal stroking a gun in his hands. „Everyone thinks I am peeing, but I never pee at public bathrooms“, said the protagonist to himself, while gently stroking the gun and staring at it. For this scene, Jovanovic took inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre’s story “Erostratus” in which lonely impotent man replaces his penis for a gun, and carries it around in public, becoming sexually aroused by the possibilities, and the power he now possesses. Similar motif is found in „Taxi driver“. The gun in Taxi driver is a phallic symbol. Just read this excerpts from Paul Schrader script for „Taxi Driver“:
„Travis hefts the huge gun. It seems out of place in his hand. It is built on Michelangelo’s scale. The Magnum belongs in the hand of a marble god, not a slight taxi driver“
„Travis stands rock solid, firing the .44 Magnum at an arm’s length. With each blasting discharge from the Magnum, Travis’ body shudders and shakes, his arm as if each recoil from the giant gun was a direct attack on his masculinity“
In Jovanovic’s move just after the main character is done stroking his gun, he comes in front of mirror and fixes his hair. In the script fot the Taxi driver, mirror scene was simply described as: “Travis looks in the mirror.” Robert De Niro improvised all of the dialogue, making the most iconic scene in the Taxi driver. The scene in which Travis Bickle starts talking to himself in the mirror, repeating the phrase “You talkin’ to me?” signposts the sheer intensity of Travis’ loneliness, and even people who haven’t seen the movie are familiar with the line.
In both movies many scenes are filmed from inside of a moving car. Travis and Jovanovic’s character spend their time driving through streets of city at night. Travis sees people walking by and hates them. He is an ultimate misanthrope, evaluating entire persons existence at a passing glance. The same is with Jovanovic’s protagonist. While he is driving, he thinks for himself how someone should ram the car into a caffe shop just to make a spectacle.
Although both movies have scenes where protagonist’s are sitting in a caffe with friends, difference between two character’s is clearly seen here. While in „Taxi Driver“ Travis is shown as an outcast even in a room of his colleagues (even in an seating composition Travis is more distant then the rest of the group), while Jovanovic’s protagonist is in the center, people are looking at him, he leads the conversation. While Travis is portrayed as a forever a loner, Jovanovic’s protagonist is more socially adept, his misery does not come from his inability to communicate with others – he is miserable because of mundanity of everyday life – and with that his story is perhaps even more scarier than Travis’s. While decadence and sleaze of New York fueled Travis’s urge for violent action, Jovanovic’s protagonist is thinking about shooting people and ram into them with a car just to „shake things up“, in order to „make a spectacle“ as he is bored with meaningless of normal life. „People have patterns. They do more or less the same things every day“, this is the thing that terrifies Jovanovic’s protagonist.
Difference between characters is seen in their love stories. Unlike Travis, Jovanovic’s protagonist is not socially awkward, he gets a girl in a room with him, they lie in the bed together, exchange punchlines but they realize that they are not for one another. She leaves tomorrow, leaving him to go alone to a drink with his friends, where, with a sad smile on his face, he states „It was lost cause. Rubbish“. His failure in love is caused with people’s inability to really understand one another, something that is universal problem.
On the other hand, Travis lost Betsy because he is socially awkward, he wants to be normal and to lead a normal life but he does not know that it is inappropriate to take the girl out in a porno theater.
This is where the similarities end.
Although both movies are somewhat similar in terms of narrative and general message they convey, „Taxi Driver“ has better character development and better acting performances, it is an an incredible character study and gorgeously shot film, Bickle is played to terrifying perfection by Robert De Niro, while Jovanovic’s main actor is an amateur – just an ordinary young man who never acted professionally before or after.
Also, „Taxi Driver“is much more aesthetically pleasing which is understandable knowing that this was a Hollywood studio project, while on the other hand Jovanovic’s film is a work of a student.
The plot in „Taxi Driver“ is more complex, after all this is the two-hour movie, while duration of Jovanovic’s film is only 35 minutes. Perhaps „Taxi Driver“ was indeed a little influenced by Jovanovic’s “Distinctly Me“, but if influence really existed, it is limited to an existential angst atmosphere.
„Taxi Driver“ is a film that stands on his own two feet, it has become widely recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time. “Taxi Driver” influenced the industry, it changed history. It established director Scorsese, then 33, as Hollywood’s premier auteur, whose influence would be later felt by a new generation of New Wave filmmakers, including Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and many others.
If you watch Joca Jovanovic’s “Distinctly Me“ movie, you will notice the censorship.
In several scenes movie’s main hero opens his mouth, but the voice is not heard. In those scenes, provocative language is muted by the communist censorship.
Here you can watch Joca Jovanovic’s “Distinctly Me“ with English sub. Subtitles are bad – someone must have used Google’s translator, there is a lot of inaccuracies in translation.