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 [don’t] 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 will always be out there.
The restored Taxi Driver is only playing until this Thursday at the Film Forum, so you have two days left.