Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Taxi Driver

“You talkin’ to me?” Jon Voight as Joe Buck from John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969)

TAXI DRIVER                A                
USA  (113 mi)  1976  d:  Martin Scorsese

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people -- not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.       
 —Thomas Wolfe, God’s Lonely Man

Loneliness has followed me all my life. The life of loneliness pursues me wherever I go:  in bars, in cars, coffee shops, theaters, stores, sidewalks. There is no escape. I am God's lonely man.                     —Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)

Perhaps the film of the decade, and the 70’s was one of the most remarkable of all decades in cinema.  This is a gritty and darkly disturbing film that expresses a harsh, nightmarish sense of alienation in modern urban society, painting the city of New York as a teeming cesspool filled with the scum of the earth, perhaps the most definitive portrait of loneliness and alienation ever created in reflecting an increasing violence in urban American life.  Much like Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), this film takes place over a long hot summer where under the surface a Hellish rage simmers in the form of a tortured Vietnam veteran cab driver Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro, positively chilling in one of his most intense and vividly realized characters, a man living alone trapped by his own isolation, developing a sickness in his soul where all around him he sees signs of moral rot and decay, obsessed with the filth he finds in the city late at night.  Both repulsed and allured by the things he supposedly despises, Bickle’s life consists of driving a taxi, working the night shift, caught up in a strange, subterranean world of misfits, porn theaters, pimps, whores, and petty criminals.  This is the world he chooses to live in, where he’s upset by it, yet he’s surrounded and completely absorbed by it, literally torturing himself, a haunted man endlessly wandering the streets in a surrealistic nightmare of the living dead where steam rises from the street, as if from Hell, a world of constantly lurking shadows where he may as well be a modern day Charon who ferries dead souls through the underworld of the city.  Bickle is defined by his own self-imposed claustrophobic existence, where his monotonous routine is an endlessly dreary and unfulfilling life, where his diary entries, reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From an Underground Man, which opens with the self-aware confession “I am a sick man,” are extended existential rants of pent-up rage, bleak anger, and a nauseating contempt for what he views as society’s moral decline.  In voiceover he describes his nocturnal prowlings, “All the animals come out at night — whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal.  Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”  Shot by Michael Chapman, the film has a visually impressionistic, urbanized style, with shots through rain-soaked windshields of changing traffic lights or neon signs, accentuating a haunted, illuminated city at night. 

Shot during a garbage strike, the film has garbage strewn throughout the streets, giving this a near apocalyptic feel, as if this story exists in a netherworld of nihilism and discontent, which expresses the post-Vietnam War feelings of the era.  One of the more conflicted wars in American history, it basically split the nation along race and social class guidelines, as those who could afford to, mostly whites, avoided the draft by legal maneuvers or technicalities, while those without financial means mostly served in combat, where a disproportionate number of those served were racial minorities.  The avoidance of military service was a striking aspect of the anti-war, counterculture mentality which was not embraced by impoverished communities.  TAXI DRIVER feeds on this layer of outsiderism and social malaise that were reflective of the times, where many felt disconnected from a mainstream that hardly represented their core values.   Many felt betrayed by the government’s refusal to act sooner to end the war, actually lying to the nation while extending the combat missions into further regions of Cambodia, while many who served felt equally betrayed by not only the racial dynamic of minorities being sent to the front lines as the sacrificial lambs, so to speak, but also the dizzyingly confusing conditions of fighting a mostly invisible and unseen enemy in the jungle, where the harsh environmental conditions were as miserable as the horrors of war.  Due to Agent Orange, toxic chemicals sprayed onto the foliage by U.S. helicopters, many of the American veterans returned suffering from higher rates of birth defects and cancer, also nerve, digestive, skin, and respiratory problems that the military refused to connect to the chemicals used in Vietnam. Twenty years after the war ended, only 400 veterans had been compensated by the Veteran’s Administration out of nearly 40,000 applicants.  As a result, many Vietnam veterans returned in a completely different psychological state of mind, often fending for themselves on their own, feeling alienated by a society that felt nothing but contempt for them.  In an unprecedented display of misplaced blame, returning veterans were shamed and despised by an angry and unforgiving public that inappropriately held them responsible for the reprehensible acts of the government, drawing a hypocritical moral line between themselves and those who served, which only sparked a continuing class warfare that likely still exists decades later, where society continues to be split between the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots. 

Paul Schrader’s original script contained more of that racial animosity, where Travis Bickle was initially driven by his own hatred of blacks, who he sees as the pimps and the scum on the streets, where he develops a fantasy vigilante mindset to eradicate the streets of their filth, where in the final shoot out, all his victims are black.  In fact, during Harvey Keitel’s pre-shoot surveillance and study of pimps on the streets of New York, talking to as many as he could in preparation for his role, he wasn’t able to find a single white pimp.  This original vision, which was changed by the studios, knowing the hostile reactions this would have caused, actually has more uncompromising honesty and truthfulness about it, as it’s more reflective of the reality of today, where especially with a black President, previously disguised or hidden acts of racism have become a more mainstream presence, where blatantly divisive comments are now more open and are the mainstay of white conservatism, especially Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the political right, where according to film critic Amy Taubin Taxi Driver by Amy Taubin – review, “Obama's presidency has inflamed the racism that is entrenched in the American psyche,” where she claims downplaying the racism only makes Travis a more acceptable and appealing character to those living on the fringe who are more apt to identify with him.  Similarly John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956) and Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) both feature psychotic heroes, where Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates keeps secretly hidden his personality disorder reflecting a duality of obsessive mother love which turns him into an overly protective psychotic murderer, while Wayne’s Ethan Edwards expresses a maniacal hatred of Indians in his years-long obsessive pursuit of tracking down his captured niece.  TAXI DRIVER offers a similar feeling of bottled up and exploding violence coming from within the lead character, yet another outcast from society, whose personal choices only reinforce that outsiderism, where the pathology grows until it becomes malignant and violent, where Travis utters “The idea’s been growing in my mind for some time:  True force.  All the King’s men cannot put it back together again.”

TAXI DRIVER will forever be associated with an actual Presidential assassination attempt five years after the movie was released, as the film became part of a delusional fantasy of one mentally imbalanced viewer, John Hinckley Jr, who became fixated and obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, following her to Yale University, moving to New Haven, Connecticut to stalk her, actually enrolling in a writing class there, leaving poems and messages under her door while continually phoning her.  Unable to attract her attention, he concocted a plan to assassinate the President of the United States and started following President Jimmy Carter around from state to state until he was arrested on a weapons charge.  After a brief treatment for depression, he again started to stalk the movements of newly elected President Ronald Reagan, becoming obsessed with Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination.  Hinckley wrote a cryptic letter to Foster before his attempted Presidential assassination:  “Over the past seven months I've left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself. [...] the reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you.”  On March 30, 1981, he attempted to assassinate President Reagan, firing six shots, wounding a police officer, a secret service agent, and most seriously Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head.  Once arrested, Hinckley claimed watching TAXI DRIVER was the impetus behind his actions, that shooting the President was an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster, just like Travis Bickle in the film.  The defense attorneys continued to play the film over and over again in front of the jury in an attempt to show the extent of Hinckley’s identification and fixation on the Bickle character, where he was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity.  While there was a public outcry that violence on television and in movies has led to more violence in our society, there was little evidence to support this claim, as great literature, such as Shakespeare, Homer, and even The Bible is replete with violence, so this soon faded away over time and if anything, media violence has only increased, and is now often thought to reflect the stark presence of violence that already exists.  

The pervasive mood of the film is beautifully captured by composer Bernard Hermann, his final score completed a day before his death, adding a jazzy yet heartbreakingly sad element of a lonely horn continually blowing in the dead of night, offering insight into the interior world of this alienated and isolated character who also offers a monotone, stream-of-conscious, voiceover narration that he reads from his diary entries.  The atmospheric mood is reflective of film noir, from DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1941) to Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), feeding off the same guilt and paranoia, as these films always portray a pervasive sense of doom, with faceless men with guns walking around in trench coats creating a menacing sense of lurking violence and foreshadowing danger.  Basically a loner, a disaffected outsider, a loser unable to develop meaningful relationships with people, who often takes the wrong turns in life and makes the wrong choices, continually ostracizing himself from society, this film is a mirror image of Bickle’s soul, as the camera turns around and sees into his mindset as he observes the whole rotten world around him.  In a way, following up on the exuberant street life of Mean Streets (1973), this is a modern era coming-of-age picture, merging youth and adulthood, where there’s obviously room for growth, but without it you can remain stuck in a Hellish self-imposed prison of isolation.  “My life has taken another turn again, the days move along with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next, a long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is a change.”  Smoking, popping pills, and pouring peach brandy on his over-sugared cereal, Travis is an insomniac who hates being alone in his room, yet he’s constantly seen there in wordless stretches of time, a conflicted character with no cultural background, who is not highly educated, but reacts to what he sees in the world around him, becoming a vigilante avenging angel protecting who he sees as the most vulnerable, very much like a soldier in combat, but in his zeal, he crosses the line, entering the hallucinatory realm of the My Lai Massacre, where at 4:30 in the morning he sees the world differently than the rest of us.  Frequently shifting between fantasy and reality where the fantasy element actually appears real, as the character identifies it as real, where the dream is real, the paranoia is real, and where the warped perception of the world around him becomes disturbing and highly invasive, causing the individual to lash out in strange and mysterious ways that may not make sense to some, but it makes sense to him.  “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads, here is a man who would not take it anymore, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.” 

Travis Bickle decides to be the saintly hero that rides in and rescues the damsel in distress, even if she doesn’t need saving.  Initially failing in his attempt to relate to Cybill Shepherd as Betsy, a campaign worker for a Presidential candidate, seen initially in a slow motion intro with her hair waving in the wind like a perfume commercial as Travis describes her, “She was wearing a white dress, she appeared like an angel.  They can not touch her,” where Scorsese himself is conveniently sitting directly outside the campaign office watching her walk into the office door (also appearing later as a more than slightly deranged taxi passenger).  After a brutally miscalculated date and an embarrassingly awkward rejection, Travis decides to catch Betsy’s attention by assassinating her Presidential hero, while at the same time save Jodie Foster as Iris, the 12-year old prostitute who may as well be the property of her pimp, Harvey Keitel.  In his radical transformation, he keeps cutting his hair shorter as he grows more aloof from reality, where with two holstered guns, De Niro improvised the mirror scene, “You talkin’ to me?”  As an interesting contrast, one might think of a similar mirror scene with Jon Voight as male stud Joe Buck wearing a cowboy hat in John Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), always seeing the brighter side when he looks in the mirror, while it’s Dustin Hoffman’s crippled scam artist Ratso Rizzo who is the down-and-out outcast who lives and deals with the scum of the earth in another searingly realistic New York City movie.  “Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.”  Finally wearing a Mohawk haircut and an army jacket, carrying multiple weapons, Bickle is a well rehearsed and highly trained killing machine as he carries out the final bloodbath, initially targeting the Presidential candidate, but failing, before going after Keitel’s pimp and his seedy operations.  Ironically in this film, the media quickly anoints him a “hero,” an example of celebrity worship where there are no real values, failing to comprehend the bigger picture, that Bickle attempted to assassinate the Presidential candidate and that he was a psychopath who went on a murder rampage killing untold numbers of people.  Ultimately a picture about vigilantism, something most people don’t want to hear or talk about, especially politicians, this film is a truthful and unvarnished representation of the untapped violence in our society that spills over onto the surface from time to time in graphically horrifying ways, an exploration of the psychological madness that lies within.  Almost as if it was a dream, Scorsese shoots the final bloodbath much like a low-budget horror film, using tracking shots down a narrow hallway where someone continually jumps out of the darkness, using a God’s eye view, slow motion overhead tracking shot to quietly observe the gruesome aftermath, where in order to keep an “R” rating, the colors were desaturated at the end, losing much of the original bloody effect.  In the end, nothing’s changed, as he’s the same guy, like an uncaged animal let loose on the streets.  

A film seen entirely through his eyes, where for the viewer there is no escape, Bickle himself is continually shot isolated and disconnected from others, seen off to the side of the frame, alone in his room, or walking down the street in his own world, often shot in slow motion as if he’s drifting on air and literally floating down the street.  Many of the characters of the 70’s are living on the edge, filled with pent-up loneliness and isolation, anti-heroes who can’t come to terms with the world, or if they do, their lives come to a bad end.  They prefer conflict or confrontation to security and comfort, often realized through bloody means.  Clint Eastwood’s avenging angel personas in High Plains Drifter (1973) and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) come to mind, also his near ostracized, renegade cop Harry Callahan from DIRTY HARRY (1971), the lonely outcasts of Sam Peckinpah films, such as Ride the High Country (1962) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), the alienated Jack Nicholson characters in FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) or ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), or the mafia families in THE GODFATHER (1972), all characters that exist outside the realms of society, who advocate something that remains untouchable or undefined to most people, even going so far as to enforce a kind of outlaw justice.  Before Travis Bickle, the most graphic and brutal example of western anti-heroes was seen in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), showing a ruthless band of outlaws with darker and more violent tendencies, who rob and kill for profit, like mercenaries, as in their world, violence is a necessity, where often civilians are caught in the crossfire, much like modern wars since Vietnam, which include rising numbers of innocent casualties of war.  But the psychological mindset of The Wild Bunch perhaps best explains Bickle, who envisions himself as a kind of saintly hero with a death wish that cleans up the sewage on the streets, living a brief but glorious life followed by a glorious death, entering a state of mind exhibiting a kind of triumphant, pathological, suicidal glory, going down under a hail of bullets, revealing pure madness, the second coming of a true psychopath.  If you watch his ghoulish, slowed down movements at the end, already shot several times, as he sits on the couch and slowly raises his head he starts to resemble Michael Myers from HALLOWEEN (1978).  He also personifies the utter emptiness of a depleted human being, a man with no soul and no possible redemption.  This is an American film that boldly tackles the most terrifying interior psychological exploration, where Travis Bickle, a character who may have the darkest impulses and the most violent tendencies of them all, continues to walk among us and holds a mirror to our nation’s own violent and often blood-soaked history.   


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  2. Thanks for your comments, Chris.

    That review is one of the most detailed and comprehensive essays on the entire site and took several days to write, so I'm glad you appreciate the effort.