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Still Dots #49

Second #2976, 49:36, Image © Studio Canal After inciting a mob and being chased through the Viennese streets, Holly has ducked into a movie theater and parted ways with Anna. Determined to live up to his cowboy/detective role, Holly rushes back to his hotel and asks the hotel clerk to get “Major Callahan” (while he […]

Second #2976, 49:36, Image © Studio Canal

After inciting a mob and being chased through the Viennese streets, Holly has ducked into a movie theater and parted ways with Anna. Determined to live up to his cowboy/detective role, Holly rushes back to his hotel and asks the hotel clerk to get “Major Callahan” (while he of course means Calloway) on the phone. Holly, for the first time, has dug up some real dirt and he can’t wait to report it to the authorities. A real murder may go far to alleviate the boy-who-cried-wolf phenomenon that has plagued Holly since he first declared that Harry had been murdered. But as Holly bustles through the door, it is clear that this frame’s nefarious central figure is lying in wait for him. The clerk and this dark stranger have just conversed in German, every word going over my head aside from the name “Martens”. Holly will of course be directed to go with this shady figure, a cab driver who has been waiting for him. In what be his most naive act yet, Holly gets into the back of the man’s cab without question and is swiftly jerked into the reality of the situation–this nameless cab driver is taking him somewhere he doesn’t want to go.

But what of this shadowy cab-driver? From his posturing and his costume (the low-turned brim of his cap and the high collar of his coat) we can tell that he is a man hiding from something, if only the cold Vienna night. Bur his posturing tells us yet more. His face, half illuminated, leans across the desk mimicking that lamp right behind him–even the dark cone of the lampshade and the dark cone of his brim echo each other. This man is certainly operating in service of some higher power who has ordered him to pick up Holly and take him somewhere, but beyond that his function in this story is as a tool. He is a sophisticated tool, one capable of chatting with this clerk, operating a cab, and putting Holly at ease enough to corral him into the back seat, but his function is as a part of a larger machine. Were this man an automaton instead of a man, would he be any less menacing or any less shady? The answer is of course no, and though I think it likely that the character was portrayed by a flesh-and-blood human actor, the figure of the taxi driver has within it an inherent robotic nature.

Inventor C.A. Rotwang built of the world's first automatons in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927), Image © Kino Lorber Films.

Are all taxi drivers in films robots? Of course all taxi drivers operates as a part of the small machinery (their individual cab) that operates as a part of the larger machinery of the city, but that could be said of nearly any driver in a city. As a purely urban profession, taxi drivers are a product of the modernization that created robots in the social consciousness. To imagine the terrifying cyborgification of humanity is a modernized notion; pre-modern cities lacked the industrial machinery to sketch the image of human as device, and the cab driver is that uniquely urban profession that leads the imagination toward a purely automated future. In that sense, the cabbie is the first robot, or more specifically, the first proto-robot which can serve until a viable automoton can be invented, perhaps by C. A. Rotwang. In a rapidly advancing world, the concept of mechanized humans seemed too imaginable not to lie in the near future, and perhaps human taxi drivers also imagined they might soon be replaced by robotic counterparts.

Robert Deniro tests his homemade robotic appendage in "Taxi Driver" (1976) © Columbia Pictures

Many of the cabbie’s necessary tools of the trade are mechanized, from the gearbox that shifts as if a part of the driver’s own body to the meter ticking motion and time into dollars. Even the rigid mandates of roads, traffic lights and cab stands form a mechanical, if not quite digital, understanding of motion, movement and transportation. Perhaps cinema’s most famous taxi driver is Travis Bickle, the eponymous protagonist of Taxi Driver (1976). Fed up with his job, or people, or society, or injustice (it’s really not all that clear), Travis build his own jury-rigged mechanical gun, reminiscent of the built-in weapon of Paul Verhoven’s conventionally cybernetic Robocop. As our cabbie today leans his way into the exact center of the frame, he is evidencing his own cybernetic nature. Even extremely futuristic cities seem to maintain the taxi driver role, like the roguish Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element (1997):

Donna Haraway would of course argue that simply by existing in contempory culture we all demonstrate elements of the cyborg. In her Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway put forward the concept of the cyborgian as the eventual product of science and culture, one that exists in fiction, but also in life. In her later book, When Species Meet, Haraway would go on to demonstrate what she calls her “cyborgian wound,” an assertion that humanity has itself gone beyond flesh to become the cybernetic “hybrid of machine and organism” that science fiction has long foretold.

While it makes little difference for Holly, something in our cabbie’s eyes makes me think that a little robotic heart is beginning to tick where his human one once beat. Beguiled by this man’s robotic eyes, Holly will jump into the back of his cab and be at the man’s mercy. The inherent personal trust built into the cabbie-passenger relationship is put to the test when it is unclear whether said cabbie is a human or an android. But whatever his organic persuasion, this shadowy man is a threat to Holly and he has leapt out of the frying pan and into the cyber-fire.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.