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 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, but you 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. Trash was everywhere. 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. 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, even if you are 11 years old (like I was on my first trip to NYC), that you need to stay alert. You knew immediately that IT – i.e. the city – 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 De Niro’s reaction shots during the great scene where Martin Scorsese plays the crazy guy in his back seat. What I was really present to this last time was the Scorsese character’s emotional fascism: 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 and dehumanizing. The taxi driver is not a naughty child you get to reprimand in that way. Travis Bickle, already well into his mad fantasies, says nothing during the 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 violence (i.e. the man was going to kill his wife, so Travis started moving in that direction, too), but that he was bucking 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.” We already know Travis is “off”, but for me it is impossible not to empathize with him, and the horror that that opens up is vast and mysterious and thrilling. The movie is thrilling on that psychologically unbalancing level. You cannot remain uninvolved or morally superior. 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. Bickle’s pathology crosses cultures and classes 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 junk food, his apartment is filled with garbage and empty food wrappers. He wallows in filth while simultaneously judging it severely. Self-loathing is buried and repressed in pathological white-boys, and 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 inarticulate. He falls for a cool blonde (Cybill Shepherd) and then humiliate hers by taking her to a porn movie on their first date. 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 couples went to movies like that.” His confusion would be genuine.
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 deep and yet unacknowledged self-hatred that comes out as vicious careless misogyny. A dynamic like that has a scent. When you smell it, run for the hills. Betsy (Shepherd) is intrigued, at first, by his shyness and flattered by his clear interest in her. But Travis Bickle cannot hide his true nature for long. It comes out with everyone. 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. Insomnia ratchets up the cycle. The cycle will always ratchet up 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 you can almost smell. The colors, dreamy and dark, float across the rainy windshield. Those montage sequences of the cab prowling the streets in the wee hours gives me a deeper understanding of how the movie operates. It’s Travis’ fevered dream. It is a completely subjective film, told entirely from Travis’ point of view – except for one scene when the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) dances with his teenage prostitute “girlfriend” Iris (Jodie Foster). That’s the only scene Travis is not present for. We get no break from Travis’ outlook.
The ending, when it becomes clear that Travis has become some kind of hero, resonates on a disturbing frequency. It has the ring of truth to it. The ending is off-the-charts cynical (no one in their right mind would see him as a hero), but it also asks questions for which there are no answers. Travis Bickle cannot be explained easily. He lives in New York, he writes 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.
I am not embarrassed for empathizing with him. I don’t need to make excuses. Representation is not endorsement. Say it with me: Representation is not endorsement. If you feel otherwise, that’s fine, you do you, but if that’s your attitude, let’s not pretend it’s art you care about. So I guess to you, in “The Third of May 1808”, Francisco Goya “endorses” indiscriminate mass executions. It’s just not an attitude I have any interest in engaging, because it’s not about art.
My empathy for Travis Bickle is part and parcel of the film, and the demands it makes on me as an audience member. 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 clinical 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 – and if you DON’T know it, then you should thank God you’ve never experienced it. Travis represents the feeling of isolation (especially in large crowds, the worst kind of loneliness). 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 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.”
There’s a scene where Travis asks to speak to another cab driver (played beautifully by Peter Boyle) privately, and they stand outside, leaning against a cab, and even though Travis asked to speak to him, he really doesn’t say much. 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. Travis’ inability to articulate his feelings manifests 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 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. I have always loved the scene, and loved Boyle’s baffled attempt at kindness, and De Niro’s squirming silent responses. But what I am left with is the memory of the look in De Niro’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. The panicked flitting-around of De Niro’s eyes entered into me, and I 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 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 and really go the distance – I am also not surprised. Anti-heroes such as Travis Bickle are confronting. If you think you aren’t somehow implicated in Travis Bickle’s predicament, you are wrong. But the film never makes the mistake of wagging its fingers at you, or intoning from on high “what should be done”. One of the best films of the last couple of years was Observe and Report (my review here), and the first time I watched it 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 a great film. But it was mis-marketed, and the current-day audience, spoonfed tales with easy morals and clear good guys and bad guys, rejected it. There is an audience for Taxi Driver, there will always be an audience for Taxi Driver, but it is hard to imagine the film being made now – and not only that – hard to imagine it being the smash success that it was in the 70s.
Bernard Hermann’s score (you do not want to miss Dana Stevens’ piece in Slate on that) is another character in the film. It 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.
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. Don’t kid yourself.