God’s Lonely Man: Taxi Driver Restored

Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man…

In honor of Taxi Driver‘s 35th anniversary, a stunning new 35mm restoration is now making the arthouse rounds, and I went to the Film Forum yesterday to check it out. Although I have seen this movie more times than I really can count, this was my first time seeing it on the big screen. I was a bit nervous that the “restoration” would neaten up the mess that was New York City at that time, a mess that I remember from childhood visits and which, even 10 years ago, could still be glimpsed on occasion. New York was truly frightening at that time, and it hit you like a blast in the face when you emerged from the train into Penn Station. It is hard to picture now, with everything so cleaned up, but you honestly had to put your guard up immediately upon getting off the train because you would be swindled INSTANTLY if you didn’t toughen up. Homeless people, many of them mentally ill, slept in public, and at times it felt that there were far more of “them” than “us”. Crime was rampant, the subway trains were covered in violently beautiful grafitti, you’d watch person after person sail over the turnstiles without paying … and the streets were filthy. But more than any of those surface details, it was what it felt like. Violence does not have to be witnessed to be omnipresent. The potential of violence is in the air. Of course violence can come from out of nowhere in unexpected places, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about violence being present in between the molecules, so that you walk out of a train and into a train station and the hackles on your neck rise up, and you know, instinctively, even if you are 11 years old (like I was on my first trip to NYC), that you need to be wary, you need to be careful. You knew immediately that IT was bigger than YOU.

Travis Bickle knows that. Travis Bickle understands what it means to be dominated, by poverty, by rampant crime, by insomnia, by other people. This latest time viewing it, I was struck by DeNiro’s reaction shots during the great scene where Martin Scorsese plays the crazy guy in his back seat. It’s a terrific scene, no matter which way you look at it, but what I was really present to this last time was the Scorsese character’s emotional fascism, how he is the type of guy who not only has to control his wife, but has to control everyone in his vicinity. The way he talks to Travis is deeply disrespectful, having no sense that the cab driver is a human being, not a naughty child that you get to reprimand in that way. Travis Bickle, already well on the way to his mad fantasies, says nothing during that scene, maybe one or two lines, but what I felt this last viewing was that he was not so much inspired by this man’s dedication to violence (he was going to kill his wife, so Travis started moving in that direction, too), but that he was buckling internally against the guy’s assumption of domination over him. There are many ways to analyze it, and that’s the best part about it, that’s why the movie keeps working. All I felt this last time was sympathetic rage WITH Travis, and I wanted him to turn around and give the backseat tyrant a piece of his mind, and say something like, “Listen, buddy, you don’t get to talk to me that way. Watch your manners, I’m warning you.” We already know Travis is “off”, but for me it is impossible not to empathize with him, and the horror that that opens up in myself is vast and mysterious and also thrilling. The movie is thrilling on that psychologically unbalancing level. You cannot remain uninvolved. It will not let you.

This was a man who decided he would not take it anymore. Of course Travis Bickles emerge from rural environments as well. It is a pathology that crosses cultures and eras (Paul Schrader calls it a “particular white boy pathology”), but the city of New York is as much a part of Travis Bickle’s story as Travis himself and the people he encounters. The filth of New York personally offends him, and yet he does not overcompensate by becoming some maniacal clean-freak. He lives in filth, he eats like shit, his apartment is filled with garbage and empty food wrappers. He wallows in filth and then judges it severely. Self-loathing is always buried and repressed in pathological white-boys. It is unbearable. What he is present to is a sense of being wronged, and a sense of being misunderstood. He is self-righteous, and yet totally inarticulate. He falls for a cool blonde (Cybill Shepherd) and then has a need to humiliate her by taking her to a porn movie on their first date. He knows no other way. That’s not just malice, it’s self-loathing coming out in cruel ways that seem to surprise even him. If you asked him, “Now, Travis, seriously, why did you take her to that movie?” he would say, confused, “I thought she might like it. I thought couples went to movies like that.” And his confusion would be genuine. The script NAILS that dynamic. Aware women know when they are in the presence of such a man. You get that spidey-sense at the back of your neck. You can tell that he is operating from a place of deep self-hatred (unacknowledged) and yet it comes out as vicious careless misogyny. Run for the hills. Betsy (Shepherd) is intrigued, at first, by his shyness and also his deep interest in her, which is flattering. But Travis Bickle cannot hide his true nature for long. It comes out with everyone and that is the tragedy of it (for him). He is not ALLOWED to hide in the shadows. He eats slices of banana drenched in peach schnappes for breakfast, and pops pills, and has (at times) the dazed disoriented look of a man who hasn’t slept for four days. And the cycle keeps ratcheting up, as it always does with the Travis Bickles of the world.

The restoration has lost none of the overwhelming sense of filth in the original. If anything, its dingy poetry is accentuated. It’s a movie that you can almost smell. The colors, dreamy and dark, float across the rainy windshield, and seeing those montage sequences of the cab prowling the streets in the wee hours on the big screen gave me a deeper understanding of how the movie operates, even after seeing it so many times. It’s a fevered dream. It is a completely subjective film, told entirely (except for that one scene between Sport and Iris where they slow dance) from Travis’ point of view. We get no break from his outlook, no air is let into it. This is what it means to have an uncompromising attitude towards your art and the story that you want to tell. The ending, where it becomes clear that Travis has become some kind of hero, resonates on a deeply disturbing level (not to mention how prescient the film is), and while it is a completely cynical ending (no one in their right mind, who has watched Taxi Driver would see him as a hero), it also asks questions for which there are no answers. Travis Bickle cannot be explained easily. He lives in New York, he writes home lying letters to his parents where he says he is doing sensitive work for the government. Who knows what happened to him, or maybe nothing happened to him. He is not a product of society, he’s a natural byproduct of the human race. There have always been Travis Bickles. There have always been psychopaths, before we even had a name for them. And nothing we do can change that phenomenon. John Steinbeck pulled no punches when he described Cathy in East of Eden:

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.

It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighed, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.

In Taxi Driver, we go inside that phenomenon, and it is confrontational, because he is the “lead” of the movie. He is in every frame. He is our “way in”. I am not embarrassed for empathizing with him. I think my empathy is part and parcel of the film, and the demands it makes on an audience. What becomes impossible is to distance yourself from Travis, and to say with any degree of certainty, “Well, THAT’S him. NOT ME.” On a rational level, we know there are differences between psychopaths and the rest of the population. There are studies. Many studies. Papers, books have been written about such people. But this is a movie, not a diagnosis. Travis Bickle represents the darkest heart of our culture, yes, but he also represents the existential ache of loneliness that most of us know, the feeling of isolation (especially in large crowds, the worst kind of loneliness) and of never quite fitting in. Of knowing, deep down, that you are not like anyone else. Schrader tells a story of a man showing up in his office after Taxi Driver first came out, and the man saying, “How did you find out about me?” At first Schrader thought the man was accusing him of somehow stealing his life story, that it was a copyright issue. “So … you’re a taxi driver?” he asked. The man said, “No. I want to know how you found out about me.” Schrader then realized he was in the presence of “the real thing”, and said to the guy something along the lines of, “I know that you feel your pain is unique, that no one else could be feeling what you are feeling – but I’ve felt it – everyone involved with the film knows what that pain is – and has felt it too – and you are not alone.”

To quote Seal, “It’s the loneliness that’s the killer.”

It’s comforting, to be able to look at a psychopath and say to yourself, with relief, “Well, thank goodness I’m not anything like that.” And perhaps you are not. But Taxi Driver doesn’t let you distance yourself that much. There’s a scene where Travis asks to speak to another cab driver privately (he is played beautifully by Peter Boyle), and they stand outside, leaning against a cab, and even though Travis asked to speak to him, he really doesn’t say much in that scene. Peter Boyle does all the talking, and he pours out all of the cliches that everyone on the planet has probably ever said to anyone who is suffering. “Buck up, have fun, don’t let it get you down …” He means well, but he completely misses what is going on in the moment. Travis’ responses are surrounded by vast silences, his inability to articulate his feelings manifesting itself almost physically. “I got some bad thoughts in my head …” he says with a smile that looks more like a rictus leer. The pain in his eyes in this scene is almost akin to panic. The pain he feels is so extreme that something must be done about it, something big, something sacrificial, something … something … The scene plays very differently on the big screen than on the small (at least that was my experience). I have always loved the scene, and loved Boyle’s baffled attempt at kindness, and DeNiro’s squirming silent responses. But now what I am left with is the memory of the look in DeNiro’s eyes, in between his few lines, the painful attempts at a smile – the painful attempts to be normal – to not REALLY reveal his true nature. It cannot be revealed, right? Society can’t take it, right? Society can’t take someone like me. I can’t ever “fit” here. The pain on his face in this particular scene actually took my breath away, sitting there in the dark seats at the Film Forum. My breath caught in my throat. The panicked flitting-around of the eyes entered into me, and I also wanted escape. I found myself thinking, “Jesus, something needs to be DONE for this man. This can’t go on!” And I know the ending of the damn movie.

Moviegoers’ tolerance for true anti-heroes is at an all-time low right now, and while that is disappointing and I often think current-day movies could be greatly improved by accepting the implications of their anti-heroes (the ending of The Town comes to mind), I am also not surprised. Antiheroes such as Travis Bickle are deeply confronting, and lets no one off the hook. If you think you aren’t somehow implicated in Travis Bickle’s predicament, then you are not paying attention. But the film never makes the mistake of wagging its fingers at you, or intoning from on high “what should be done”. It is relentlessly from his point of view, and that (in a way) is the greatest empathetic act ever shown to someone like Travis Bickle. It is why that guy traveled across the country to find Paul Schrader and demand of him, “How did you find out about me?” One of the best films of the last couple of years was Observe and Report (my review here), and the first time I watched that film, I started to get thrilled, about 1/4 of the way through, and I thought, “I wonder if they are going to follow this to its inevitable conclusion … or if they’re going to cop out.” The movie doesn’t cop out. It’s the real deal. But it was mis-marketed, and trying to market to an audience being spoonfed tales with easy morals and clear good guys and bad guys is a losing battle. There is still an audience for Taxi Driver, there will always be an audience for Taxi Driver, but it is hard to imagine that film being made now – and not only that – hard to imagine it being the smash success that it was in the 70s.

The violent confrontation that ends the film has lost none of its impact, and is even MORE powerful today because of its grittiness and reliance on special makeup effects rather than glorious CGI-created sprays of blood, which distance you from any sense that this is really going down right now. That hallway becomes the entranceway to hell. The blood-soaked walls feel real, and it’s interesting: with the sanitization of violence (as violent as movies still are), something that feels like it is really happening can still knock an entire jaded New York audience into total silence.

Bernard Hermann’s score (you do not want to miss Dana Stevens’ piece in Slate on that) emerges as another character in the film, in a way that I don’t remember from my earlier viewings. I think some of that had to do with my having read Dana’s piece, and so I was aware of it. The music is not just underscoring. It is omnipresent. It flows from eerie melancholy to nearly-unbearable tension to romantic swoony saxophone in sometimes a 10-second period. It is a bold bold score.

Paul Schrader spoke to the discomfort many people feel when confronted with a character like Travis Bickle, and the inevitable calls for censorship that followed Taxi Driver, the common misperception being that the movie was somehow an endorsement of Travis Bickle:

We will always have that character, and I honestly believe in censorship but I do believe artists need to be responsible, and I’m not someone who says you can do anything. But you are not going to get rid of the John Hinckleys of this world by censoring art. They are more triggered by a lot of things out there. They’re triggered by commercials and by advertisements, on fashion … What will happen if you censor genuine studies of this kind of pathology – you will still have the pathology, you just won’t have the study. In other words, you will still have Raskolnikov, but you won’t have Crime and Punishment. That’s all that will happen. You will lose the work of art that comments on the character but the character will still be going on his merry way, because he really wasn’t created by art.

He’s still out there. He’s always out there. He will always be with us.

The restored Taxi Driver is only playing until this Thursday at the Film Forum, so you have two days left.

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19 Responses to God’s Lonely Man: Taxi Driver Restored

  1. george says:

    This is about as fascinating a movie and character as I could ever hope to watch. The initial, natural, and momentary, instinct is to avoid looking, as in seeing a bad car wreck up ahead, knowing you’re liable to see mangled bodies and blood splashed about; and yet you end up craning your neck and assuming every manner of contortion to see just that.

    Much the same idea with Taxi Driver and Bickle – AND NYC; this isn’t going to end well you think; if you stick around you’ll be drawn ever deeper into the muck of trashed minds wallowing in a trashed city – but you stay, just a few more minutes, a few more, deeper and deeper…

    And I don’t know what it says about me but I do so love to linger on New York in the state it’s in way back then, as portrayed in – Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver – you don’t want to go there… oh yes I do… I want to see/feel/experience that for myself.

  2. sheila says:

    George – I’m with you. The thought that 42nd Street was once lined with skin flicks, prostitutes and junkies – where now Disney rules the day – is really amazing to think. It was dangeorus, you could feel it. That’s kind of why I loved it, of course. I don’t like Disneyworld. I don’t want to live there. There are still some rough areas of New York, but nothing like what it once was. If you wanted to get this level of grime and neglect, you’d have to go somewhere else. Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, maybe.

    Taxi Driver is still scary, still revolutionary – it still packs a huge wallop. And I feel like you. “Oh God, I can’t watch this … I can’t watch him go so deep into this delusion … ” But you have to watch. DeNiro is riveting, first of all. But more than that: it’s the character himself. “Travis Bickle” is now a way to describe someone. Thankfully, we don’t meet them often.

  3. sheila says:

    And despite the fact that I felt for him and his loneliness – I was also scared to death of him. And when he charges into that campaign headquarters the second time, it’s still one of those moments that makes me clench up in awful anticipation. You can see the dawning look on Shepherd’s face like, “Oh my God. What have I let into my life.”

  4. Shelley says:

    I’ll just put a twist on that “born without a conscience” by saying that after watching another film, the documentary Inside Job, the one thing that shocked me was that the few Wall Street men who allowed themselves to be interviewed had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say in response to the few questions asked about how they felt about having hurt other people.

    They weren’t frightened by the question; they simply couldn’t process it. It had no meaning.

  5. Desirae says:

    This movie was what finally allowed me to “get” DeNiro as an actor. I never did before – I thought he was fine but couldn’t understand why he was considered one of the greats. But he’s harrowing here, and so convincingly Travis Bickle that it’s hard to believe he isn’t actually that guy. The scene where he takes her to the porno theatre is actively embarrassing, like watching someone make an ass out of themselves in public. He has no idea that he is being inappropriate. He can’t understand why she gets up to leave. And the movie just sinks deeper and deeper into his POV from that point on. It’s very claustrophobic.

    And the ending! God, what a weird, unexpected ending. When I saw it I thought that the whole Travis as a hero thing was some hallucination he was having while he bled to death in that hallway. But no, that wasn’t it at all.

  6. sheila says:

    Desirae – Yes, this is one of the all-time great performances. Every detail, every nuance, I had forgotten about the confrontation scene on the stoop of the brothel with Harvey Keitel – there’s a couple different ones ,but the one I’m talking about is when he first “buys” her – and Keitel keeps calling him a cop – and you can just tell that Travis Bickle has zero tolerance for teasing. He doesn’t even understand teasing. It all feels like a threat to his ego. At one point he says to Keitel, “I’m hip” – and you can see Keitel almost bust out laughing. It’s a very genuine moment. Sad.

    He’s tone deaf to humor – which is one of the main calling cards for this type of guy … and self-deprecating humor? Forget about it.

    That scene really struck me this last time. How LONG it goes on, how LONG Scorsese lets the scene sit in that agonizing awkwardness when you just wnat both men to walk away, please – at least to give me a BREAK.

    I always wondered what happened to Iris – how she would look back on Travis, what her perspective on him was – especially as she grew older.

  7. Jake Cole says:

    I first saw Taxi Driver when I was 17, which is the best and worst time to see it. After all, who feels that their pain is unique and singular more than a teenager? I was overpowered by the rage, the open force of the surprisingly dark thoughts I think we all have: I mean, how many jokes exist about strangling talkers in a theater? How often do people scream in their cars at someone who cut them off, in all likelihood because that other driver just didn’t see them? But Travis gives voice to those macabre ideas, and that’s what makes him so troublesome. In the ’70s, who didn’t think some of the things Bickle did, that New York was in squalor and that nothing short of a purge could cleanse it?

    But it wasn’t until the second time I watched it, about a year later (I couldn’t get it out of my head), that the pain hit me. Maybe because I was so taken aback by the anger I never noticed, but now I cannot watch the movie without shuddering in empathetic pain. Many writers, including myself, describe Rupert Pupkin with the shorthand of a comedic Bickle, but really the only difference is that Pupkin at least tries to be funny; Bickle cannot even crack a joke from his woes. I can always tell who has never seen Taxi Driver before when I watch the film in a classroom setting because the ones who haven’t laugh at Travis taking Betsy to the porno theater. To be sure, it is ludicrous, but I cannot watch that scene now without grimacing. If it’s comedic, it’s comedic in the way only the very darkest moments of the original Office are funny: it freezes the blood.

    And De Niro just GETS IT. All that prepwork he did for accents and routine is great, but he fundamentally understood this person because, hey, he’s all of us. Like any lonely man, he cannot just ask someone out; he feels that he’s missed so many opportunities that if he does not do everything in his power to stack the situation into his favor (and in the process putting a woman he barely knows on a pedestal that could rise through the stratosphere and dock with the ISS), he will fail. Naturally, because of that, he fails miserably and gets to confirm his self-loathing and lack of confidence. He cannot even make a friend, as that haunting scene with Boyle attests. I loved hearing your thoughts on that scene because I’ve never had the chance to see it on a big screen and have always had a more ethereal connection to it. On the small screen, you get the irony but not the sucker-punching gravity of the conversation, but the more Boyle talks the more you realize not even the Wizard has seen a man like this, not so uninhibited.

    My favorite moment is still that pan away from Travis when on the phone with Betsy after their disastrous date. It serves two purposes: A) Travis’ mind finally tilts off its axis, his perceived last chance at normalcy snatched away and B) Not even Scorsese, who makes us see so much throughout this film, can bring himself to mock Travis this way. It shows a sympathy with someone we’d actually recognize if we paid attention, but who would want to pay attention if it meant finding people like this, people that even the most advanced science and reasoning cannot save?

    That Schrader story about the man who hitched from Seattle to confront him scares me to death. It proves the point of perspective as much as the actual film: we only know Schrader’s view of this man, who appeared threateningly in his office. What must that guy have been like hitching, stewing in hatred as oblivious West Coasters took him down the seaboard? Could Schrader’s conversation have helped him, or like Travis, like all such people, was he too convinced of his singularity, too much like a drug addict who thinks himself unworthy and incapable of redemption?

    I so wish I could see this on the big screen, but I don’t know if I’m strong enough for it. It still hits too close to home when I can physically loom over its image. To have it look down on me might be too much.

  8. Craig says:

    Travis sort of tries out a joke in the coffee-and-pie scene with Betsy: “I need one of those signs that says, “One Of These Days I Gotta Get Organa-zizzed.’” And, to be honest (though it ties into a funny sight gag later, the sign now in Travis’s apartment), I always thought that was a little out of character. At last week’s screening I asked Schrader if De Niro (brilliant though he is) subtly altered the conception of the character: Travis is supposed to be a Midwesterner – a fish out of water, repulsed yet drawn to what he sees – and that sort of ties into the dorky humor with both the sign and the anniversary card (“To a couple of good scouts”); yet because De Niro is such a born and bred New Yorker, I’m left more with the sense that Travis has been living with this stuff all his life and finally snaps. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    I’m enjoying all the discussions (everywhere) about the ending, one amazing constant being that no one remembers the last ten minutes of the movie. Schrader has his own thoughts on the subject, and he was unambiguous about his intentions while allowing for other people’s interpretations.

    Great piece, Sheila.

  9. David Newell says:

    My uncle Jack drove a black cab here in London for twenty-odd years. Three generations lay between him and his Cork ancestors but he still looked like someone’s Irish uncle. He wore a tweedy jacket and cardigan, a flat cap and horn-rimmed bifocals.
    As far as I knew he drove the cab, watched Arsenal play, bet on the horses, and took a drink. But he did once go to the pictures to see Taxi Driver. From that day on his conversation was peppered with lines from the film.
    On occasion he would put on a really heavy Irish accent and do the scene about the rain and the streets, take a puff on the cigarette he rolled himself and say “Too fekkin’ roight!” as if that answered it all, and then go down the pub.
    I know this does not add much to the thoughts on Taxi Driver, but I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes rocking with laughter at the memory.
    I like your page, Sheila.
    All the best.

  10. blue girl says:

    Sheila, as a long time Taxi Driver fan, I just loved this. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for writing it.

  11. sheila says:

    Jake – That pan away from Travis as he talks on the phone is (in my mind) one of the most indelible portraits (visually) of pain, and what it feels like, in American cinema. I’ve felt that. In the moment of a rejection or a disappointment – there’s a part of me that tries to float away from it, to avoid it. Even the filmmaker here cannot bear to be a “witness” to Travis’ rejection. An amazingly compassionate moment – eerie and awful. It’s funny, in that Making of Taxi Driver doc stories are told about how the crew often balked at these things – like: “what the hell is he up to? He wants me to pan away here? What???” It’s so effective, so disorienting – the camera IS Travis. AS she says to him on the phone, “Please don’t call me again” – his psyche splits off and floats down the silent empty hallway. So brilliant.

  12. sheila says:

    Craig – Oh, that organizz-ized joke is agonizing to watch. Because at first you think he’s mispronounced “organized” and he seems like such a fragile guy that I ached at the thought of him being embarrassed – knowing he wouldn’t handle it well (amazing how much your heart goes out to this psycho) – and then when you see he’s making a joke, and THEN when you see the sign on the wall, and you know where he got the joke … Ugh. It’s painful. People often talk about psychopaths or sociopaths (same thing) as being tone-deaf to certain subtleties of human communication – it’s like they can hear the music, but they cannot differentiate the notes, or perceive the melody. It must make conversation terribly strange to these people. Like: what is everyone LAUGHING about?

    I hadn’t thought about the Midwesterner thing – and I guess in that “organiz-izzed” moment I thought it was Travis Bickle’s lame (and un-understanding) way of being a “good date”. Telling a joke to the lady to make her laugh. You know, he’s seen movies – he knows how Cary Grant did it … but when he tries to imitate it, it falls flat. Everything comes out WRONG with him – so I thought him trying to make a joke (as painful as it was for me to watch) added to my conception of him. It’s like he’s an alien dropped down on this planet and he still doesn’t “know our ways” yet.

    And it’s not that NOBODY mentioned the coda – I actually did here! :) That quick glance in the rear view mirror is so freakin’ disturbing (with the “backwards sting” in the score) – I know Scorsese said he felt that Travis was still a “ticking time bomb” – and I am in total agreement with that. No way will this dude not blow again.

  13. sheila says:

    Craig – Thanks for that link. Frankly, I am amazed that anyone would see that coda as “upbeat”, or like Travis has “learned”, “grown”, “changed”. However: humanity has always had an almost evolutionary-based distaste for psychopaths – we want to avoid the implications of them (see the Steinbeck quote above) – and people start to babble on about “nature/nurture” when you bring up a moral monster like Stalin (as I have expereinced on my site time and time again). This is a human thing: Social workers/prison guards who have histories working with violent people often say they get a strange goosebumpy feeling on the back of their necks when in the presence of certain prisoners – and it is always these prisoners that are off-the-charts on the psychopathy checklist. There is something “other” about these people, and we don’t want to deal with it. Are they BORN? Are they MADE?

    People who have easy answers to these questions often occur to me as very kneejerk in nature. They, too, want to seem like they have control over the situation, they “understand’ Travis Bickle … but, like an earthquake, or a meteor from outer space, what is to “understand” about someone like him? Not that the conversation should be OVER – it’s just I think that people have a deep-seated resistance to dealing with the reality of such people – and wanting to see that coda as “upbeat” is part and parcel of that. (Not to mention a failure in critical analysis, in my opinion).

    Travis became a hero. (Unlike “Moonraker”, I don’t find it “improbable” at all that Bickle would become a hero. We see that time and time again in our culture – and if all you saw was the outer aspect of that event: random cab driver shoots up a brothel and saves child prostitute – you might think: Wow, what a bad ass! What a hero!) But nothing has changed for him inside.

    Perhaps it is because deep down he himself knows how “off” he is (sociopaths often know how different they are from others – although it doesn’t really matter to them) – he knows the truth about himself … Psychopaths cannot be cured.

    That quick look in the rear view mirror still gives me chills.

    We are not off the hook. He is still “out there”.

  14. Craig says:

    Oh, I know you remembered the ending. I was referring to two separate podcasts I listened to the other day, where both pairs of podcasters exclaimed nearly verbatim that they remembered the movie ending with the overhead shot following the climactic shoot-out. (One of them also said, as you wrote above, that Travis reminded him of an alien.) It cracked me up.

    I think you’re right that people want to see the coda as upbeat in some way. And, when they realize it isn’t, they blot it out of their memories. It’ll be interesting to read the reactions for the 40th and 50th anniversaries.

    I enjoyed Moonraker’s overview of my Q&A with Schrader. Forgive me if I link to my version of the events. I rarely get to meet famous or even semi-famous people, and it was such a thrill to talk with him for an hour or so.

  15. sheila says:

    Craig – yes, I read your piece voraciously! Love the little details you remembered – and his “Wow” when he looked at the folder. Gulp.

    His work means so much to me, it’s always great to get a glimpse of his process.

    I think I know one of the podcasts you mean. People seem to miss the point entirely sometimes, and I wonder – in the case of TAXI DRIVER – if that is deliberate. As I mentioned, I think people in general balk at the implications (not just with the film, but in real life – they search for sense, for “whys”, for comfort) – and TAXI DRIVER refuses you shelter of any kind.

  16. Craig says:

    The Kael thing was amazing: they had a very close, very complicated relationship that included two breaks (one of them lasting more than a decade) over a 30-year period. He wrote about it here shortly after her death. (Scroll past the weird Gwyneth Paltrow cover.) He had no idea that her papers were in Bloomington, or that she must have saved every letter he ever wrote her, every letter everyone else wrote her. He must have felt like she had found him again, beyond the grave. Undoubtedly a discombobulating experience, but I hope it pleased him to know that her stuff is here and her spirit is still alive.

    Next door to the Cinema, the same evening as “Taxi Driver,” Sarah Silverman was onstage at the IU Auditorium. I like Sarah Silverman, but I doubt she was any funnier than Schrader regaling our audience with the decision to cast Harvey Keitel in a role that was originally to be a black character – a journey Schrader called “The Search For The Great White Pimp.”

  17. sheila says:

    hahahahahahaha I love his honesty.

  18. Great article on a classic film! I really enjoyed reading this, thank you!

    Have you ever seen “The Collector”? I haven’t read the novel it was based on, but one memorable quote from it is where the narrator says this of her captor: “He isn’t human! He isn’t even a monster! He is an empty space disguised as a human being!”

    Not only is Travis socially inept and painfully lacking an ability to process the subtleties and nuances of human interaction: he is empty. He is not into sports, the arts, books, history, politics, or anything. He has no hobby or passion to occupy his time or help him connect with and better understand the world around him. More so, I wonder if his emptiness prevents him from being able to process art, sports, books, etc.

    Your analysis has me rethinking the scene with The Wizard. Maybe he really didn’t know what advice to give…….or maybe he could sense Travis’ emptiness. Maybe Wizard internally recoiled at the enormous amount of work it would take to help him, so he brushed it off with “go get laid”.

    For me, the most heartbreaking scene, and my personal “Someone must help him!” moment is when he is sitting down with his enormous revolver and watching American Bandstand and Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” is playing:

    “Awake again I can’t pretend and I know I’m alone
    And close to the end of the feeling we’ve known
    How long have I been sleeping
    How long have I been drifting alone through the night
    How long have I been running for that morning flight
    Through the whispered promises and the changing light
    Of the bed where we both lie
    Late for the sky”

    Thankfully, I have never met anyone nearly as “empty” as Travis, but I have met some people who were somewhat similar and in need of help. It’s sad because there are people who need that help, but they don’t always have someone in their life who is not only perceptive enough to pick up on it, but also mentally and emotionally ready for the enormous amount of heavy lifting to make it happen. On one hand, we don’t want people becoming like Travis, but on the other we are afraid we will be recoiling in horror like Betsey asking ourselves “Oh no, what have I let into my life?”

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