Looking Forward into the Rear View Mirror: Taxi Driver Turns 35
For a man of the 1970s, Travis Bickle spends a lot of time looking at and through screens. His world is nearly always framed, either by a movie screen, an old TV, a windshield, a shop window or a rear view mirror. As Travis would know, at the movies everything is bigger than on TV. Taxi Driver is a different film on the big screen, especially in the gleaming print released to commemorate its 35th birthday (Travis himself would be 61 in 2011, does he live in Westchester now?), but not all elements of the film grow at the same rate. As the city around Travis becomes more detailed, more luminous and seductive, the film becomes more than the tale of “God’s lonely man,” more than a prelude to violence. Taxi Driver gets pulled out of the gutter Travis is so desperate to clean.
It struck me that Travis Bickle’s life, at least before he gives in to his “bad thoughts,” is not nearly as bad he thinks it is, or perhaps wishes it to be in order to satisfy his personal myth of himself. When Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), quoting a Kris Kristofferson song, calls Travis “a walking contradiction,” he certainly would be if he didn’t drive everywhere, but he can’t reply “Very well then I contradict myself” because he is just as unreflective as the film’s white bread presidential candidate Charles Palantine. Travis’ obsessive diary entries, spoken aloud at the speed of writing, have the anguish of art, but he lacks the artist’s ability to create a distance between himself and his emotions. He cannot turn his destructive self-absorption into a creative detachment or even imagine that such detachment might be possible, or more healthy than peach brandy poured over Wonder Bread. He cannot, or chooses not to, imagine an alternative to acting out the bloody climax of his own myth.
That American cinema celebrates action over thought is something Martin Scorsese must know well, existing as he does between Hollywood and something else. The Daily News-style public adulation that unexpectedly results from Travis’ final rampage is ironic because it ignores the entire trail of private self-justification which seemed so important to Travis. The result is possibly the most disturbing “happy” ending in cinema history. The Travis we see insatiably checking his rear view mirror in the denouement is simultaneously unchanged and transformed into a monster perhaps more dangerous than before. He appears more at ease with others, Betsy seems genuinely attracted to him in the final scene, and yet there is something terrifying in his silent theatrical gesture of not charging her for that last cab ride. It’s as though he adapted the gesture from a western and it doesn’t quite fit. Travis, finally aware of the cinematic power of his own actions, remains as disturbed and as unable to defuse himself as ever. Whatever innocence he had, and the film takes pains to show that he had more than a little, is gone.
Travis is one the few truly unreliable narrators in cinema. Though the gap between who he thinks he is and who we know him to be is occasionally so vast as to be humorous and even a little endearing (“I do not believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe one should become a person like other people.”), the discrepancy is more subtle than it seems. Taxi Driver is one of the few Scorsese films in which the voice over narration has a diegetic explanation. In movies, a diary is normally the vehicle by which a character reveals themselves to the audience. In Taxi Driver, the narration ensures that we know much more about Travis than the rest of the characters, or at least we think we do; there remains a void in the character that most films would embroider with psychology. Travis’ multitudes remain unseen both because he cannot articulate them and because he is the kind of unreliable narrator who, aware of the audience and of himself as a character in a narrative, deliberately withholds information. He knows that diary is a historical document to be poured over by the tabloid journalists of the future.
Travis’ unreliability is nowhere more evident than in the film’s central event, his disastrous date with Betsy. Why does he take her to the porno house? Paul Schrader’s screenplay repeatedly reminds us of Travis’ almost ET-like naiveté (“what’s moonlighting?”), but after Betsy storms out of the theatre his plea of ignorance — “I don’t know much about movies” — rings false. Travis must have known what her reaction would be because he is disgusted with himself for spending his days in such places. Does he bring her in order to hurt her? Is it the passive aggressive equivalent of a nuclear bomb? Is this, as a movie of the week therapist might say, a plea for help? Does he need to engineer her rejection in order to motivate himself for the violent actions to come? Is he ashamed enough of the more charming aspects of his personality that he wants to obliterate them? Does he love Betsy so much that he needs her to descend by his side into his 42nd street hell?
One strength of the film is that it provides no simple explanation for Travis. Schrader and Scorsese mercifully let the various MacGuffins — Vietnam, insomnia, loneliness, excessive sugar consumption, that he “runs all over town” — which would seem to account for Travis slide by without comment. Any explanation is bene trovato as far as it goes. Also left open is the question of what others think of Travis. Betsy clearly regards him with a mixture of preppy curiosity, boredom and affection, but her motivation seems to shift constantly, making her far more interesting than she initially seems. Part of Travis‘ problem is that he is unable to cope with the reality that the motivations of others are usually obscure. Like a Tea Party stalwart, Travis politicizes his personal frustrations. He obsessively seeks tidy solutions to “organizize” the mess he sees around him, a mess which becomes all the more galling as his social interactions fail to satisfy his expectations.
And the interesting thing is that, at least before his date with Betsy, those interactions are mostly no better or worse than what one would expect in a big city. By charming Betsy enough to go out with him twice and persuading Iris (Jody Foster) to dump her pimp, he actually achieves the “goals” a more conventional screenplay would set for his character. His fellow taxi drivers try to involve him in their tired banter. They are no more or less convivial than most work colleagues and if Travis’ faltering heart to heart with Wizard (Peter Boyle) is useless, it is at least well-intended. In a contemporary romantic comedy, as much as romantic comedies are still made today, one could imagine Travis as a slacker gradually coaxed out of his shell by Betsy, Iris and a chorus of bantering cab drivers. The disturbing thing is not the depth of Travis’ loneliness, but the way he obsessively rejects his incipient connections with others. What are we to make of a man whose diary entries range from bland descriptions of what he eats to apocalyptic litanies? Does the former somehow feed the latter? Like a postmodern flagellant he uses the sleepless urban night to punish himself. Whatever caused Travis to be Travis did not create his loneliness, but caused him to seek it out by slowly immolating himself in the worst of his surroundings. His attention, both to himself and the city around him, is decidedly morbid.
There are few films which really understand our emotional relationship with cities. More than the parable of a lonely man, Taxi Driver is about Travis’ dysfunctional relationship with New York, a city then in crisis. Much writing on Taxi Driver praises the film for creating an anti-hero to whom we who live in cities can at least partially relate. If cities sometimes seem designed to make us feel helpless, it’s because we are. To live in a city means submitting to an uncontrollable dynamic which is not the work of awesome nature, but of other saps like ourselves. However sick your city, it is likely to outlive you. What Travis finds so hard to take is New York’s singular relentlessness, not the pace of life or the indifferent people, but the way that The City is always so emphatically itself, never diluting its “New Yorkness” for a minute. Other cities at least allow some generic space for the self, space where the self can imagine its own idea of the city, but New York, whether one loves it or not, is never not New York. Travis “runs all over town” as Melville’s Ishmael goes to sea:
It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Travis can imagine no such escape. He reacts against the city (how long has he lived there anyway?) by living the narrative of his own loneliness, a task which requires him to massively over-inflate his expectations of his social interactions with those around him. Unlike Ishmael, he cannot accept the unknowability of those around him. His internal misery plays out as an epic struggle with New York, a humorless version of Balzac’s “à nous deux maintenant!” grown out of the uniquely Bickleian “morbid self-attention” which produces no self-awareness whatsoever. New York and Travis: there just isn’t room for the two of them.
The New American Cinema, like the nouvelle vague which at least partially enabled it, was not so much a unified intellectual movement as the rise of a new generation in opposition to what had come before. Time would show how much the nature of that opposition varied among its various auteurs. If 1968 was the French new wave’s abrupt cut to black, the NAC itself ended with a very brief fade. Just think how different the careers of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, DePalma and Altman already were by 1980, just four years after Taxi Driver was released by a major studio (though the budget was difficult enough to raise that Scorsese considered shooting on black and white videotape). The moment was too diverse to be a real movement. Taxi Driver has more in common with Melville (Herman) that it does with, say, Midnight Cowboy (1969), a film which shares a more counterculture inflected version of its milieu but develops its Joe and Ratzo with all the subtlety of a two dollar hot dog. What Taxi Driver might imply in a glance, Midnight Cowboy belabors in repeated flashbacks. The two films are as fundamentally different as Cassavetes and Star Wars: Scorsese’s film points the way toward the best American independent film tradition, while Schlesinger’s was perhaps the first in a line of ‘worthy’ treatments of ‘edgy’ subjects, the kind designed to haul in Academy Awards. The period was of course a great one for American movies, but it was a moment, like Travis, too opposed to its surroundings and too contradictory to endure.
In his entry on Bernard Herrmann in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thompson writes that Taxi Driver’s violence would be “nearly unbearable” without Herrmann’s score. That music, a jazz score as structured and romantic (and catchy!) as any of the composer’s orchestral work, is the most important of several grace notes which prevent Taxi Driver itself from descending into Travis’ hell. The film’s reputation as the bleakest of urban fables is contradicted and enriched by the music and by Michael Chapman’s cinematography, both of which which emerge only on the big screen. Chapman’s alternation of expressionist nights and days which “go on and on” under the bruised sunshine of a Midtown summer allows the film exist simultaneously as a primal myth and as a document of a now bygone city, or as Scorsese put it “a cross between a Gothic horror and the New York Daily News.” As anthropology, the Belmore Cafeteria seems nearly as foreign as the old New York Academy of Music in The Age of Innocence (1993).
Paul Schrader’s screenplay comes out of an equally lost era in which scripts were considered to have their own artistic value. Travis is Schrader’s creation. Today if we say a character in a film is ‘three dimensional’ it either means we need cardboard glasses to see them (God help us) or that the writer or rewriters have bothered to insert a few details about a character’s job, hobby or favorite soda pop. It is well known that Schrader wrote the script in response to his own feelings of urban loneliness, but his ability to detach himself from that experience, to see his life through the lens of The Searchers or Bresson, is an example of the redemptive creativity which so tragically eludes Travis. The script is never conventional or confessional. It uses generic elements such as the workplace banter between Albert Brooks and Cybil Shepherd in the way that a spider connects its unfurling web to a sturdy branch. Such support keeps the story from exploding before the exact moment in which it finally must.
What tempts me to call Taxi Driver Scorsese’s best film, has as much to do with its shape as an artwork as with the experience of watching it. There is a self-contained freshness about it, as though it is the result of Scorsese simply making a film rather than also contending with some externally imposed burden such as re-imagining the prestige literary adaptation or the biopic. The Scorsese of Taxi Driver is not Scorsese the Great American Filmmaker, he’s just a really good director, full of ideas and at the top of his form (to take one example, consider the brilliance of the high shot of Travis’ arm sweeping across Betsy’s desk which suddenly, as though out of time, interrupts the shot reverse shot of their conversation — who other than Scorsese would ever think of it?). If we were talking about Le Corbusier, Taxi Driver would be Ronchamp, the masterpiece which is not created to be a “machine for living in” or some such manifesto, but to be experienced as the space it is in the place where it is. Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino are all superb films, but they’re all films burdened by attached strings, by being about something external to themselves, not least the expectations created by the films like Taxi Driver which preceded them.Taxi Driver, like Travis, stands alone.