Where the Lonely Go: An in depth look at Martin Scorsese Nightmare "Taxi Driver"
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
A new year viewing calls for an in depth look at the afflicted Travis Bickel. The quintessential loner at the center of a radicalized era mirroring the now.
What can I say about Taxi Driver that hasn’t already been said? Can I say a few meaningful words that match the criteria of More than Meets the Lens, or Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael? I’ll give it a try: a film which defines the seventies, and more importantly New York that eerily mirrors today. A radicalized New Wave, and reflecting on the film's controversial release generated from the late sixties boom of revolutionized American cinema -- Taxi Driver denotes the traumatically at lost aura often misunderstood, or praised, but nevertheless, hauntingly visceral.
It is the best first person character study, ever. I guess if I were to think of a film modestly in par with the first person character study, it would be Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel, who also plays the pimp dealer Sport, in this film. But Ferrara's vision is more cut edged, grim in its realism, and bleak. It isn't about a lonely man more than it is about a man of self demolition. Scorsese's film touches upon this first person point of view rather deeply through simplistic occurrences. A prolonged melody that heightens and digresses. It even, questionably, gets rather surreally hopeful, almost feverishly mythical in its final scene with Betsy (a bona fide Cybil Sheapard) peering tenderly at Travis from the head view mirror of his cab.
This character study truly puts you through the point of view of this character. Here’s a lonely man in the ghetto, subjected to Vietnam, a war and time almost never fully comprised in American cinema. A piece of Travis' backstory which is only ever visualized by harrowing sounds, nightmarish resonant transitions of his awakenings. He experienced life and death from all angles as a Marine. All he sees is a world that repels him. Scorsese and Michael Chapman, the cinematographer of the film (and who was a frequent collaborator of Marty's), capture this intoxicating, yet freely terrorized-trance seen through Travis’ perspective, and from the exteriors of the inner city. New York, in particular, is such a different landscape, compared to most fevered-crime pictures. For all of the film's sordid thematics, the city as a setting is a pigment of moody tones. Its so alive, vibrant, softening disguised over its pulpy malevolence. And at the same time, from its spontaneous movements, there's nothing particularly flashy or glamorous. It's never visually contrived, it’s just simply what it is. I think where it gets rather fantastical, or idyllic, is when the film tours through Midtown, Time Square, and Harlem seen from the inside of the cab. The softness of the traffic lights are almost a harmonious display of hope in what appears to be a grim and polluted state of madness.
Consider the scene when Travis coincidentally drives Charles Palatine (played by American film critic Leonard Harris). He asks Travis what he wants to see changed in the city, and Travis, with subtle inner rage, goes on ridiculing the filth and scum that exist day and night on the streets. The contrast between Palatine and Bickel is evident, but just notice the composition of the exchange. Notice how the out of focus traffic lights in the backdrop, behind the back windshield play an essential role -- and I suppose this is purely from my own interpretation, a role constituted to the vague goodness those behind Travis bring for just a moment. Or the complete unknown, the social reach to which Travis has no understanding of, nor will ever really see it clearly.
Whether it’s how Travis looks to the mirror and talks to himself (Scorsese referencing Marlon Brando’s mirror stare in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye). Or how Travis attempts on getting Betsy to go on another date with him from the phone after foolishly taking her to a porno theater. Scorsese dolly pans away from Travis to an empty frame of the hall, hearing him question Betsy, and mildly pleading. It is the film's most crucial moment. The arrogance stemmed from the delusion of being socially accepted is, in itself, the only constant grasp Travis Bickel will ever have. The montage of Travis working out, flexing his forearm over the stove top flame, the sequence juxtaposing with Herrmann’s score, along with an unpolished narration of Travis’ thunderous retaliation. It is for sequences such as these, encourage the viewers to form their own empathy to an ultimately impenetrable character.
Empathy in which the film tonally and masterfully captures Travis in moments of true isolation. How his biased perceptions could've only originated from a history of hostile rejection. In Scorsese's The King of Comedy, Rupert Pumpkin, in his fifteen minutes of fame performing his stand up at the Jerry Langford show, devices a comical riff on what's to be examined as childhood trauma. Travis has, nor gives himself a moment to vocalize such trauma because he isn't even aware of his own traumas. What's normal to him is antithetical to any means of ordinary. I think Travis, at the time just when John Warnock Hinckley Jr attempted to assassinate Reagan, represented two sides of the coin. There’s the honestly misguided side of a man desperately trying to connect. Something meaningful, such as a relationship with Betsy, is less genuine than what he believes it to be. Meaning is reward, what bestows essential beauty is that of a prize, a fixation for seldom said love but carnal affliction (given his visits to the porno theater). He’s so inept to social cues that he just enforces an unattractive guise. The moment he shares with Wizard (Peter Boyle), when he mildly surrenders his lukewarm facade, he divulges his confusion, yet at the same time, restrains himself from even vocally admitting what he believes he wants to be or needs to be.
"I’ve got some bad ideas in my head"
Perhaps the only slight encounter that shifts to something less grimacing is his encounter with Iris (Jodie Foster), an underage prostitute employed by Sport. Her lack of understanding moral virtue is something Travis realizes. Their scenes, together are the frequent times in the film when he's actually trying to liberate from the vices he's soulfully corrupted by. What she could've had in her years prior were robbed from her for the kind of lecherous snuff Travis indulges from the porno theater. To terminate Sport and the men during the film's violent climax, is to put an end to Travis' misery, and liberate Iris to a pure beginning.
And even, still. There are several decisions Travis makes that even to this day, after countless viewings, still seem horrifically vague. Like Warnock's assassination attempt, Bickel attempted to assassinate Palatine. With great determination, he builds himself to becoming an indestructible sociopath. From the very opening frame, with the cab emerging through fog and haze, it is suggested there is only one kind of ending for Travis. One that is thunderous, mystic, but all in all, faintly cruel.
Much criticism for the film revolves around the film's tendency for being racist. I've never seen the film as being racist, but it is a film about a racist and because this is a film told through a first person point of view, we are seeing what Travis sees. He sees what he fears, what he repels, and what he chooses to believe. The pimps, or the black cabbie, Charlie T (Norman Matlock). He perceives them in ways far more deeper than just bigotry. To an extent, he may even fear them because he sees something within them that he cannot see for himself. The irony is for Travis to be a racist, he surprisingly doesn’t kill any black people. He kills a white pimp, and the white men sharing a room with Iris. He makes an attempt to kill a white man running for office. A man running for office, who, from the exchange both Travis and Palatine share in the cab, is supposed hope for a city, seen from Travis as pure filth.
Now while Taxi Driver is ultimately a first person film; there’s so many moments of shifting tones that are fun and completely at odds with what we’re seeing. Most of this comes from Betsy’s scenes with Albert Brooks, who adlibs most of his lines since this was the only role in the script Paul Schrader didn’t know what to do with. Their scenes at the publication's company have a little bit of a Blessed Event tone to it, the film by Roy del Ruth starring Lee Tracy. Or Howard Hughes’ The Front Page with Pat O’Brien. Brooks’ Tom is almost a less mature version of the Aaron Altman character he plays in Broadcast News, while at the same time, for the short amount of time he's in the film, seems almost socially blundering as Travis is.
I often forget I’m watching De Niro. His performance is fearless, often simmering in the brinks of havoc. To convey such resentment, and urge comes a nuanced performance often illustrated from his facial and physical mannerisms. What he does here, is often compared to his work as Rupert Pumpkin, two radically different types of men with a distinctively similar void and desire.
I love this film. I love it for personal reasons that go outside of the film. What it says to me now than what it did when I saw it at thirteen. There’s sometimes an air of pitifulness I believe many individuals of their own loneliness shamefully bare. That someone of such troubled capacity could do what Travis does, is of course abhorrent to even imagine, and yet, we live in a society to which, in America, multiple shootings occur weekly. The film does not suggest empathy for a man of engraved sin, but for the instruments to which occupy a mind absent of hope. A film that can be interpreted more ways than most. It may even come across as an aimless film by the time you've spent hours mustering different angles and different meanings. But as the poster tagline suggests, 'on every street in every city in this country, there's a nobody who dreams of being somebody. He's a lonely forgotten man desperate to prove that he's alive'. How often do we try to make the world find us and see us. When we seldom embrace our own truths and dignify our purpose for what the world can one day embrace?
"On every street in every city in this country, there's a nobody who dreams of being somebody."
Paul Schrader, who had written the film through the course of a divorce, getting fired from AFI, developed an obsession over porn and laid a loaded automatic beside his desk as a source of inspiration, stripped his afflictions that go so beyond circumstance, he ended up creating one of the greatly, puzzled characters of American cinema. It was within Scorsese's ability of finding cause in characters of such pain, to see beneath the ideas, and give viewers a reality many, even to this day, still resent by its powerful truth.