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Writing About Film

Taxi Driver, 1976Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

Paper for Film Noir Cinema class, 1987

 

Taxi Driver is screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese’s tribute to the film noir genre of the 1940s and early 50s. The film’s claustrophobic atmosphere and its use of certain noir devices embodies much of the character and conventions of those dark films of the post-World War II era. Schrader would assert that though the film may not embody all of the plot necessities of a true film noir, its style is noir, and that is all that matters.1

Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is an unequivocal psychopath, full of an anger and guilt whose origins he cannot identify. One of the most chilling aspects of the film is the viewer’s realization that Travis is not recognizably unstable, and that people like him probably cross our paths every day. Like the film’s other characters, we may not always be aware of the really dangerous members of our society, those who have the potential to do the most harm.

Travis’s background is ambiguous. He comes to New York from the Midwest. He was a Marine in Vietnam and is a testament to the condition of the wandering, unaccepted veteran. Did he return to his middle-American origins only to discover that they no longer applied to him? Did he come to New York because he could not sleep, or can he not sleep because he is in New York? And did he come specifically to search out the “scum and garbage” of the city, or was he alerted to their presence when he got there? These are all questions that we as viewers need to know about Travis to reach some understanding of the motivations behind his actions.

Among other things, Travis is not well-educated, and to cover up his insecurities, he tries to replicate intelligent conversation through meaningless double-talk. His inept and often laughable language exemplifies his struggle to communicate with others, as it does his lack of ability to externalize his emotions, both to those around him and to himself. This is also an example of his often pathetic attempts at integrating himself into group structures, attempts which invariably fail, leaving him feeling more desolate than ever.

Travis is forever a loner, one who will never be able to know others or get others to know him. His strange speech mannerisms and his self-isolation attest to this, as he remains separate from both personal and cultural acquaintances: he is ignorant of politics, music, and the “correct” methods of interaction. His loneliness is deepened by his cab-driving job: he comes into contact with many people, but gets to know none of them. This is an occupation of Travis’s choosing, but we get the impression that his past has forced him into taking this route. The mysteries of his past — his home, his family, his possibly traumatic experiences in Vietnam — are left unexplained, and are up to the viewer to identify and interpret. Travis’s diaries, scrawled in a childish hand, take the form of a letter to his parents, but his emotional separation from them is evidenced by his failure to remember their wedding anniversary.

Selected Bibliography
Allen, Tom. “A Taxi to Despair.” America 134 (March 6, 1976), p. 182.
Dempsey, Michael. “Reviews: Taxi Driver.” Film Quarterly 29 (no. 4, 1976), pp. 37-41.
Goldstein, Richard & Jacobsen, Mark. “Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!” Village Voice 21 (April 5, 1976), pp. 69-71
Goodman, Walter. “On Making Movies About Madness.” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, sec. 2 (Sunday, March 13, 1976), p. 1, 13.
Hatch, Robert. “Films.” The Nation 222 (February 28, 1976), pp. 253-254.
Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. New York: Da Capo Press, inc., 1986.
Kael, Pauline. “Underground Man.” The New Yorker 51 (February 19, 1976), pp. 82-85.
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” In Barry Grant, editor, Film Genre Reader. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Travis is fascinated by the very world he despises. He is willing to accept any assignment, to drive a fare anywhere, because, to him, all of New York is a festering, decaying sore, filled with cruelty and corruption, ready to lash out at all times. A wailing, dissonant saxophone creates the film’s mood as the opening credits roll by, and we see that “the signature of this picture is the fragmentation of neon-bedecked canyons through a rain-obscured windshield.”2 The point is that we see the world through Travis’s eyes, in a morass of dreamy slow-motion effects. The film’s outlook takes on a slightly more normal vision in the scenes of Candidate Palantine’s campaign office, as we get a glimpse of the more brightly-lit, rational world that most others live in. Travis is completely absent from these scenes.

Travis realizes his loneliness, but he seems cursed by it, aware of his destiny. In actions motivated by desperation and masochism, he rejects the friendly advances of his fellow cabbies, and tries to start a relationship with Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy. In her white dress, she is an angel: the pure, pristine woman Travis does not believe exists. Travis seals his defeat when he takes Betsy to a hard-core porn movie on their first date. Travis goes to those films to feed his hate; he is disgusted by them, not attracted to them as “art”, which is what he halfheartedly claims. By taking Betsy, Travis tries to prove that either he is not worthy of the type of woman she exemplifies, or that women such as her are illusionists, hiding their guilt beneath a veil of innocence.

Travis is not a child, seeing evil for the first time. He is aware of his hates and prejudices, and of his racism, which existed before he came to New York. The film charts Travis’s progression from hiding from the malevolence of mass industrialized culture to his final attempt at destroying it. Either way Betsy reacts to the porn film, Travis will prove the city’s malevolent power, and push himself further toward the film’s violent denouement. After she furiously rejects him, Travis is confronted with director Scorsese in a cameo as a petulant and twisted cuckold (by a black man) — an encounter which further proves that women (and, by extension, blacks) are inherently evil, forever tainted by society (or maybe just New York).

Travis, as played by Robert De Niro, represents the only paced — though not necessarily sane — element of Taxi Driver. The film’s other elements are garbled, jumpy, as Scorsese quick-cuts to eliminate short periods of inactivity. Once again, we plunge into Travis’s perceptions, which are mostly chaotic and rushed, but which sometimes slow down to a dreamlike stupor. During these pauses, these slow-motion effects, we are witness to Travis’s New York, a mystery world of swirling gases, splashing water, and angry “natives.”

The imbalance between the speed at which Travis lives and the way he perceives the world is exemplified in his encounters with Harvey Keitel’s Sport: “The pimp is so eager for action that he can’t stand still; the hipster, with his rhythmic jiggling, makes an eerily hostile contrast to the paralyzed, dumbfounded Travis.”3 The yokel cab driver responds to these situations with a silly grin, 'though he is seething inside. Yet the world of Taxi Driver is not completely one of Travis’s twisted mind. Some of his sentiments are echoed by Scorsese: the hypnotic sway of Sport as he soothes the troubled Iris (as played by Jodie Foster) is an example of Scorsese’s representation of the city as an insidious urban poppy field. The director goes so far as to say that the film’s slow-motion scenes are representative of his own often angry and racist feelings.4 Writer Schrader’s Calvinist upbringing, and his work on films such as Hard Core may attest to his agreement on many of those points.5

In any event, Travis has, by whatever circumstances, trapped himself in an environment which proves its hellishness with every passing moment. Faced with his own decadence (the porn, the junk food, his fascination with the pre-pubescent Iris), Travis purifies himself and sets out to fulfill a twisted religious ritual. He fancies that the 12-year-old Iris is the one woman he can “save,” though he is disappointed and further enraged by his later conversations with her. Travis shaves his head in the Mohawk fashion, a ritual practiced by Special Forces soldiers before entering particularly vicious battles. He spends hours with his arsenal of weapons, practicing the techniques he hopes to use to purge the city of the filth he so despises, and in the process, cure himself of the “stomach cancer” he has internalized. He is preparing for a ritual of sacrifice. The final battles combines an expulsion of the money-lenders, a rescue of the beautiful maiden, and a martyrdom, as Travis becomes god, priest, and worshipper to his own religion of hate. The only thing that Travis does not achieve, possibly the only thing he really wants, is his own death. This feeling is expressed in Travis’s pressing of his finger to his temple, as he smiles pitifully at the stunned policemen. The atmosphere of a religious ritual is heightened by Scorsese’s final, slow pan over the battlefield of blood, corpses, and spent weaponry.

The film’s final question is whether Travis has truly purged himself, or whether he has merely released some tension, and is ready to explode again. His smiling rejection of the timid advances of Betsy (why is she not terrified of this killer?) are equally ambivalent — is he showing a newfound arrogance, or has he merely accepted the fact that her purity will never be attainable to him, and that he must concentrate on the corrupted souls? I tend to agree with New Yorker critic Pauline Kael’s assertion that Travis realizes “. . . it’s not that he’s cured but [just] that the city is crazier than he is.”6 To Schrader and Scorsese, this is film noir, but a film noir which takes place in a more decayed, more evil environment than Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade ever had to face. And its main character is a product of that escalation.

Endnotes
1Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir”, in Barry Grant, editor, Film Genre Reader (Austin: University of Austin Press, 1986), p. 177.
2Robert Hatch, “Films,” The Nation 222 (February 28, 1976), p. 253.
3Pauline Kael, “Underground Man,” The New Yorker 51 (February 19, 1976), p. 83.
4Richard Goldstein and Mark Jacobsen, “Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!,” Village Voice 21 (April 5, 1976), p. 70.
5Ibid.
6Kael, “Underground Man,” p. 85.
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