No nation or empire lasts forever. Herman Broch wrote a great novel early in the last century entiteld “The Sleepwalkers” about the privileged class of Vienna on the brink of the World War One, the empire about to fall and social order disrupted. But they continue to walk through life with the same petty concerns and selfish pursuits as if nothing were wrong, even though they perceived it had all gone haywire.

The life of nations is much like a version of Pac-Man where you begin with a finite number of lives, but aren’t aware of how many turns you get. Some may play a glorious turn that stretches on for hours, but it all ends with the first ghost capturing Pac-Man. Others could be played with complete mediocrity, but stretch on for hours because the game just gifted them lots and lots of chances to try again.

The United States is a little of both of those examples. We’ve had some astoundingly successful runs, so successful that we tend to think of ourselves as special and unique. In some very important ways, that status is deserved. But lately, we’ve been burning through our Pac-Men at a terrifying rate. Our turns are lasting seconds, not minutes. What’s worse, our goals have become warped. On some turns, we do little more than try to get revenge on the Blue ghost just because we’ve decided he’s our nemesis. If we gobble the ghost but lose soon afterwards, we even convince ourselves it’s a small victory.

We can’t really know for sure whether we are coming to the end of our game, but it sure feels that way. We used to be good at this game, now we keep playing just because the coding has let us go again and again and again. But this nagging feeling that it’s all going to come down is dragging on us.

When I observe people out and about in the world these days, the first thing I notice is how few of them there are. Most people are still at home at most times on most days. Those who are out seem to fit Herman Broch’s description. They are going through the motions of a normal life, but they aren’t really living them. They are hanging on for dear life to what we’ve grown to accept as normal.

There’s a vitality missing, however, and the social circles are tiny. People talk about plans that have been pushed back … maybe this fall … maybe next year. All of this is just resumption, as if we will at once awake from the dream/nightmare and resume. The infinite lives given to our national leaders — not just political, but also economic and cultural — give us some comfort that a return to the past is just a matter of time.

Great disruptions like this, however, almost never lead to an easy resumption of lives as once lived. Often periods of great hardship are followed by times of rampant hedonism — the 1920s being a prime example. It is hard to imagine our culture finding a way to become even more nihilistic, narcissistic and hedonistic than it is already, but who knows, maybe that’s just a view of an old man who cannot fully appreciate how younger people are living today and what they yearn for.

That might be the best we can hope for, a deeper escapism to make us forget all that we’ve lost. There’s a darker possibility as well, unfortunately. The next ghost that gobbles our Pac-Man could very well be the last. That feeling that we are running out of chances could be prescient.

In that case, this period of sleepwalking may be seen in future generations as our period of self delusion, our time of pretending that we will soon return to the same world that is rapidly crumbling around us. No one really knows what game over for us will mean, and I for one am not eager to find out.

There are some posts that I have written for this site that I have, over time, become uncomfortable sharing publicly. Consequently, I have moved all of these stories to a second blog that I maintain.

If you ever go looking for one of these old stories and really want to read it, contact me in whatever form you prefer — email, text message, Facebook message, message on the My Montaigne Project page on Facebook — and I will send you the new URL and a password for the more sensitive material.

I will use that site from time to time to post material in a similar vein. If you don’t care about that kind of stuff and just want to read my musings about whatever I decided to cover, I’ll still be here. I just want to keep this site separate from the really internal stuff from now on.

The thing about this blog is that everything here is a first draft, for better or worse. I would never present professional work in the manner that I dash it off here, although I used to do exactly that. I’ve learned over time that writing is rewriting. Rereading is also reading, which creates a special problem for a site devoted to instant analysis of material I’ve often just read for the first time and have taken no time to digest.

It usually works out ok, but occasionally I have to go back and clean up something I got wildly wrong. I’m starting to fear that’s the case for everything I posted during my Jung series. I casually went back and read one of my pieces yesterday and thought “this is gibberish!” Maybe I’m a little fatigued now and the original is fine, but what I read was off in a disturbing way, I couldn’t recognize myself in it.

UPDATE: I was concerned about one piece in particular, and I put a preamble on top that explained my problems with it. But overall, I think the Jung/Anima pieces hold up fine, they aren’t in need of substantial rewriting. The fears expressed below don’t read true to me this morning. I think what happened here is that I just felt a bit of revulsion yesterday at how much this anima discussion returned me to subject matter that I hoped to be done with. Maybe it helped me heal some more, maybe it was self inflicted pain. I really don’t know anymore, but I no longer find the concept helpful as an explanation or distancing mechanism.

That might seem like a strange concept for a speechwriter and ghostwriter, whose job it is to be a chameleon. I do adapt styles often and readily. But I still can see parts of me in the text. In the Jung parts I re-read, I can’t follow my train of thought and that’s unusual. It felt like I was being possessed in this work.

So over the next few days, I’m going to go back and rewrite that series as necessary. I won’t push any of the revision to the top of the blog, you’ll need to search them out yourself, but if I run across any interesting meta-insights, I’ll post about them and link back.

By the way, I’m amused by today’s I Ching reading … it’s like a Star Wars intro scroll attached to a Bergman film.

As a side note to this morning’s piece about Travis Bickle, I want to present another voice of alienation, this one also “partly fact, partly fiction.” I’ll begin with the factual:

Happiness is not based on oneself, it does not consist of a small home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world, and the world in general.

That sounds a bit like Bickle (but is also in contrast to his “person like other people” monologue.) In fact it’s a real life quote from Lee Harvey Oswald, in a letter to his brother. It is also the epigram of Don DeLillo’s novel about Oswald entitled “Libra.”

The impact that lone men of violence have on the world has been an obsession of DeLillo throughout his career. The lament behind it is this — why try, as an artist or thinker, to influence the world when people who harness and use destructive power end up making a much bigger impact? He shares this thought directly in his novel “Mao II:”

‘Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” says (DeLillo writer alter ego Bill) Gray. ”Now bomb makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.”

What makes DeLillo a great writer is that he’s not content with an aphoristic conclusion like this, he wants to keep examining it. So he imagines how Oswald may not have been such a singular disruption of the world, but rather an extension of the books that influenced him:

He kept the Marxist books in his room, took them to the library for renewal, carried them back home. He let classmates read the titles if they were curious, just to see their silly faces crinkle up, but he didn’t show the books to his mother. The books were private, like something you find and hide, some lucky piece that contains the secret of who you are. The books themselves were secret. Forbidden and hard to read. They altered the room, charged it with meaning.

This excerpt has a slightly different feel 30 years later because so much of what we read comes to us not in books that alter a room, but inside technology that has overwhelmed our consciousness. This is a thought more akin to Thomas Pynchon than DeLillo, but perhaps the writer/artist is equally threatened today by the device makers who compete not only for consumer dollars, but the gateways to social acceptance and status.

This doesn’t detract from DeLillo’s message, it raises the stakes. The writer in our age has been rebranded, as blandly as possible, as a communicator, whose skills are now prized above any thinking that might be brought to light because of them. That is the great dichotomy of technology — how to balance the hedonistic rewards of the new, which have assumed an oddly ethereal quality, with the forever earth bound demands of the soul.

But returning to that quote, if not in the books that sit on our shelves, what now “contains the secret of who you are”? Is it even acceptable anymore to harbor such secrets or are we expected to be fully disclosing of our desires, alliances and dream self images?

Those secrets inevitably manifest in all people regardless of the pervasiveness of masks meant to hide them from us. Social media may appear to reveal all about all, but the reality is that everyone now recognizes that these personae are just driving the secrets deeper, perhaps to a place where individuals no longer recognize them.

I believe the pandemic is summoning these dark impulses in a way that we have not fully experienced yet. Right now we are in an inward turn where people are shortening their circles of trust and raising new mental suspicions about everyone else. The fear of catching COVID-19 from those others could either recede or morph into new fears.

If we are very lucky, artist and thinkers will notice this and put it before our eyes so we can remember what we’ve lost and try to adapt. But it’s more likely that the dark forces, the fears, paranoia and dark impulses, will find form in the alienated individuals DeLillo writes about and the horror unleashed by them will drive us even further into our holes.

I hope I’m wrong about this.

It’s time to conclude my analysis of “Taxi Driver,” not a moment too soon. It’s never terribly healthy to dwell too long in this movie, especially with everyone facing that extra layer of human alienation known as the Coronavirus pandemic. The stories of cocaine abuse on the set of “Taxi Driver” are legendary and completely unsurprising. This can be very tough material to handle with a clear mind

I wrote yesterday about how it’s a mistake to apply personality disorders or any type of diagnosis to Travis Bickle. It’s tempting to try to define Bickle and to identify with him. How can you not feel empathy for a character that expresses this:

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.

But is he a man? We really must think of Bickle as a literary archetype. Would a real human have the dark power to inspire someone like John Hinkley to take a shot at the President? Bickle is a symbol of the alienated modern/postmodern man. His literary twin is Holden Caulfield, who has a similar inner voice and also inspired a madman to assassinate. Caulfield lives his own imaginative heroic life, where he saves children as they haphazardly run off the edge of a cliff. Bickle becomes that catcher in the film’s final act by rescuing Iris.

To me, the narration that tips us off most accurately about Bickle is this:

I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people. 

The two parts of this statement are blocked off with the affirmation “I believe.” It’s basically Cartesian, Bickle is affirming his humanity by stating his values directly. Except is he? That phrase “morbid self-attention” stings a bit, until I step back and recognize that Bickle is writing it in a personal diary to no one in particular. The other belief, that “one” should become a person like other people is fascinating. Who is one? The One? While I am not claiming here that Bickle identifies with Jesus in this moment, he is certainly taking an otherworldly stance, which I will call ur-human. A real human being never has to question whether he is human, never mind take a strong affirmative stance about becoming not just a person, but one “like other people.” To this “one,” blending into the crowd is difficult work.

I have read in another analysis on that Bickle believes he is better than everyone else, and I don’t buy that. I do believe that he holds up a mirror to the weaknesses and flaws of men in the 1970s — and I’ll return to that in a minute — but this only heightens his alienation from a humanity he wants to join. In Betsy, he sees a path to a form of union with humanity.

But he doesn’t seek out Betsy because he wants a normal human connection. Rather, she appears to him “like an angel” and she also, he believes, shares his sense of lonely alienation. Betsy could easily be creeped out by this analysis, but embraces both sides of it — she doesn’t mind being worshiped like an angel for her beauty and tacitly accepts Bickle’s assertion that she is a lonely person who deserves better than the weak, ironic men who half-heartedly pursue her.

The short-term meeting of minds between Travis and Betsy is meaningful, even if doomed, because it gives a glimpse into the world around them that is crumbling rapidly. Not caring and developing a blindness to the insanity all around isn’t working out well for anyone in mid-70s New York. Travis and Betsy agree that it will take some form of passionate commitment and action to turn things around. They just discover, rather quickly in Betsy’s case, that they cannot pursue this mission together.

In fact, they have opposite views of how this world should be turned around, but that too is fine. This yin/yang of social activism where both sides actively pursue change-directed agendas is what democracy is supposed to be all about. Partisanship only becomes a dirty word when the motives become blurred and people act in their own self interests purely to gain power and to enrich those who can keep them in power, losing sight of the ideals that make political struggles worth having.

I don’t want to make too much of the political angle because the ur-human Bickle seems to lack the intelligence to form anything close to a coherent political position on anything. But he is awake and aware of the suffering around him and he refuses to tolerate it. If we avoid the temptation of identifying with Bickle, that gives us an interesting view of the culture.

There are numerous human archetypes of alienation, the most stark being Jesus Christ, the son of God who takes on human form to save us. Scorsese will later directly take on the loneliness of being Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Here he gives us an ur-human who will not save us. He won’t even give us a direction to a new humanity, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Bickle just brings the storm. He declares that “someday a real rain will come” and later delivers on it.

Bickle is not a demon nor anti-Christ, he provides no false hope of salvation. He is misinterpreted as a hero, but that says more about the culture than about him or his actions. By the mid-1970s, the culture is craving heroes to rise and save them from the mess they created and are too caught up in their own shit to clean up. Bickle rises out of this dung heap and “saves” Iris by giving her another fresh trauma to relive for a lifetime, murdering three people along the way.

Did his victims deserve that fate? By the mid-1970s, it had become perfectly acceptable to answer yes, that the criminal justice system couldn’t possibly fix the social wrongs of child sex trafficking. This shows just how corrupted we view our own criminal justice system. We’ve lost the ability to see a horrific crime underneath our noses, plan about how to bring those involved to justice, execute those orders effectively, then try those criminals in a court of their peers where fair sentences will be given to the guilty. Re-enacting a scene out of a Western movie seems like a reasonable solution, given our societal neglect and failure.

We are living right now with a backlash to the mentality that arouse out of that era, but be careful in your judgment. Are we putting the kind of rigorous thought and debate into fixing the criminal justice system so that we can avoid returning to mid-1970s New York in cities across the nation? Chicago today doesn’t look like the New York of that era, but I wouldn’t argue with the assessment that we seem to be sitting on a powder keg.

Knee jerk swings of the political pendulum, to me, just invite future rounds of apathy to social ills and more lazy acceptance of vigilante solutions. I am relieved, so far at least, that Trump’s “law and order” calls are not moving voters, especially given his joy at sending unidentified federal troops into harms way that at least violates the spirit of the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean that this rhetoric won’t work in four weeks or four years. Public opinion can turn on a dime. Fascism in America is gaining a dangerous foothold.

Travis Bickle is part of that story, and that should scare us for as long as we remain in this cycle of willful neglect.

I want to start today by going back to that “shaggy dog” quality that I’ve noticed in “Taxi Driver.” I think much of that has to do with the fact that the movie was edited by committee. So much of Scorsese’s work is defined by his relationship with Thelma Schoonmaker starting with “Raging Bull” — the Scorsese/Schoonmaker movies are cut with brutal efficiency.

“Taxi Driver” was the work of three editors. Tom Rolf, who did excellent work later in his career, especially in his collaborations with Adrian Lyne. But he wasn’t an A-list editor in the 70s and was known for a lot of action sequel schlock early in his career. That continued with his work on “Taxi Driver” and parts of the movie have that lurid quality. Melvin Shapiro took on part of the work as well. He was best known as a TV police drama editor, and again the movie feels like a procedural in places. Lending some coherence to all of it is the great Marcia Lucas, the ex-wife of George Lucas, who some claim saved the movie in her credited role as “supervising film editor.”

“Taxi Driver” was the movie that convinced Martin Scorsese to use only female editors from that point forward. He said about that preference, and his evolving professional relationship over the years with Schoonmaker:

I’m not a person who believes in the great difference between women and men as editors. But I do think that quality is key. We’re very good at organizing and discipline and patience, and patience is 50 per cent of editing. You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that.

Along those lines, Marcia Lucas came into the project late and basically blended the Rolf and Shapiro approaches with an extra layer of dreamy schizophrenia. Combined with Bernard Herrman’s nightmarish score, “Taxi Driver” feels a bit like an early 50s film noir banned by the censors and finally released in 1976. But it was, of course, purely a movie of and about its age.

Somehow it all hangs together. The movie combines DeNiro’s goofy humor, Schrader’s psychology-informed moralizing and Scorsese’s Catholicism into something completely unique, even compared to other movies by the same creative team. But because the movie is so disjointed in its approaches and scene-to-scene pace, it is among the most misunderstood movies of all time, to the point that it, insanely, inspired John Hinkley to attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan to win Jodie Foster’s affections.

That’s just the farthest out of range misinterpretation of the movie and I mentioned my own evolution on the film in yesterday’s piece. It’s easy to get the sense while watching “Taxi Driver” that you’re seeing something unusual, vital and important while not really understanding why you feel like you do while watching it. Should you love or loathe Travis? Root for his defeat or triumph? Should you want him to win Betsy’s heart in the end or drive her into permanent safety? It is actually Betsy, who I believe is the most awake, clear-eyed character in the film, who recognizes all of this in Travis and explains him via the Kris Kristofferson song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.” By the way, there’s a really nice series about “Taxi Driver” and music here that I highly recommend you read for another interesting perspective on the movie. Betsy quotes the “prophet and a preacher” chorus of the song in explaining Travis to himself, but actually the entire song is incredibly insightful about him:

See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans,
Wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile–
Once he had a future full of money, love, and dreams,
Which he spent like they was goin’ outta style–
And he keeps right on a’changin’ for the better or the worse,
Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found–
Never knowin’ if believin’ is a blessin’ or a curse,
Or if the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down–

He’s a poet, he’s a picker–
He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher–
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned–
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars,
And he’s traded in tomorrow for today–
Runnin’ from his devils, lord, and reachin’ for the stars,
And losin’ all he’s loved along the way–
But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse,
And all he ever gets is older and around–
from the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse,
The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down–

He’s a poet, he’s a picker–
He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher–
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned–
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
There’s a lotta wrong directions on that lonely way back home.

The blog series that I linked to above had another interesting theory about “Taxi Driver’s” connection to the Van Morrison album “Astral Weeks,” but I’ll leave it to you to click to that story and read it for yourself. The movie inspires many interesting takes and theories. But it also inspires some garbage and incoherent theories.

This essay from someone named Dan Schneider I found especially annoying on two counts. First, it attempts to affix a personality disorder to Travis Bickle, which is 1) something lay people should never do to actual people, 2) something real mental health professionals do with great caution and 3) a completely pointless exercise for a fictional character.

Even worse in my book, Schneider takes some wild potshots at Betsy. He says of her:

Bickle also does not have delusions. In fact, the film, in many instances, makes it clear that he is the only character in the film that sees reality for what it is. He recognizes Betsy’s coldness, and the film, even to the end, shows her as a cold and manipulative person more interested in Bickle as a case study than potential lover. 

Really, Bickle doesn’t have delusions? He doesn’t write to his parents that he’s working on a serious project for the government and is dating Betsy? And he is most certainly not the only character to see reality for how it is — Betsy, in fact, is far more clear eyed than him about that reality. She’s the one that recognizes the danger of his porn theater “date” right away. In fact, every one of her observations in the film is spot on from an objective standpoint.

To call Betsy cold and manipulative (who, exactly, is she manipulating?) says more about the writer than the character. I think even in the times when I was most sympathetic towards Bickle, I never embraced such a harsh opinion about her.

One of the things that gives “Taxi Driver” its unique lasting power is that it is not as male-centric as many films of that era. Betsy and Iris are fully drawn characters, well performed, that maintain the spine of the film. They are victimized by the deranged men around them, but somehow survive with their dignity intact. They aren’t saved by the men of “Taxi Driver,” they are simply lucky to endure them.

Refreshing my readers and myself, the thesis I’m developing is that there was something unique and odd about how Americans adjusted to the new world that they entered in the 1970s, and one way to examine the changes that altered family dynamics, sexual behavior and social violence, while spawning political apathy, is to look at the movies of that era. Movies aren’t always a gateway into the behaviors of a decade, but in 1970s, movies became more personal and freed from restraints of traditional genres, making them ripe material for such an exploration.

To this end, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver” is something of a philosopher’s stone to understanding 1970s movies and the era in general. You can perform a lot of critical alchemy around the margins of the 1970s, but without “Taxi Driver,” none of it fully comes together. It is in this movie where all of the pathologies of the era explode into one brilliant, inimitable mess of a movie.

I never would have used that word ‘mess’ to describe “Taxi Driver” after my first 10 billion (slight exaggeration) viewings of the movie, but watching it again yesterday, I now think the term fits. There is a “shaggy dog” quality to the movie that probably requires it seeping into your unconscious first before becoming obvious. The first way this manifests is in Robert DeNiro’s complete bizarre characterization of Travis Bickle.

I noticed maybe 10 viewings of “Taxi Driver” ago that there’s a strong disconnect between the Travis Bickle we hear in the voice-over narration and the one we see interacting with other characters. I chalked that up in previous viewings to an unreliable narrator, one who lies to his parents in a letter about a romantic relationship that does not exist and frequently starts and stops trains of thoughts to get the words just right. Bickle in his waking life doesn’t show so much hesitancy and, if anything, comes across as scrupulously honest. If we didn’t see Bickle sometimes write these words on a page, I might even assume that he isn’t the real narrator.

That opinion changed in my viewing yesterday. I now believe that the Bickle in narration is the authentic self expressing his moods, desires, disappointments and terrifying plans. The evidence for this comes in the moments where Bickle appears to step out of character and express himself differently, his voice suddenly matching that in the narration. It doesn’t happen often. I noticed it first when he exploded with rage in the Palantine campaign office, confronting Betsy about the way she’s ghosted him. It happens again when he sadly and softly tries to engage Wizard in a discussion about the “bad things” running through his head. Then we see it again when Bickle sits down with Iris in a coffee shop and tries to convince her to escape from her pimp-captor.

In between these rare moment of alignment between Bickle’s running monologue and his interactions with people, DeNiro turns in a performance that can almost be described as goofy. I have been disturbed for a number of years now by my initial reactions to “Taxi Driver” when I first saw it in my late teens and early 20s. At that time, I didn’t just empathize with Bickle, I nearly identified with him.

That isn’t to say I approved of his violence and embrace of gun culture — I always found those aspects repulsive — but I did find DeNiro’s characterization of him somewhat appealing. Bickle has an oddball sense of humor at times, like when he goofs with a Secret Service agent and then gives him a false name and address in New Jersey.

There is also a dark idealism to Bickle, which I believe is the feature that Betsy found appealing . Surrounded by all of these men entrenched in their ironic detachment, Betsy sees Travis walk through the door and notices a different type of man, one who has genuine passions, who can see the world around him, and who is willing to fight for what he believes in. In this sense, Betsy is viewing part of herself. She isn’t working for a political candidate because she’s on an ego trip road to power — she genuinely believes in the candidate and what he stands for. She has not surrendered to the political cynicism of the age and still believes that a democratically-elected leader can enact change for the better.

Still, it bothers me that I gave Bickle so many passes in my youth. The way he treats Betsy is extremely disturbing and happens relatively early in the film. Yes, I can empathize with Bickle for being so socially screwed up that he thought taking a woman to a porn theater on a first date is a good idea. And I can empathize with his cringe-worthy attempts at making amends (and the brilliant scene, as Bill Hader pointed out in a Criterion Channel commentary, where the camera seems to get embarrassed by Bickle’s failed wooing and turns to an empty hallway to avoid looking at him.)

What I can’t believe that I ever forgave were the stalking scenes that followed afterwards. Again, I can excuse his confusion and even anger at that time, but I can’t forgive the terrifying way he expressed those feelings. I also completely empathize with Bickle’s instinct to do something big and heroic as a way of conquering his feelings about Betsy — but for years I let myself gloss over the fact that this man was planning a political assassination and didn’t back out due to conscience, but out of fear that his attempt would fall short.

I also in my youth bought into the movie’s ending at face value, which I’m sure would have shocked and disappointed Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader. Bickle’s spasm of violence was misunderstood as heroism by the general public of the film, but I bought it as well as a dark act of good. Speaking of cringe-worthy moments where the camera turns away, in a film class in college, I even voiced the opinion that Bickle was doing an act of social good by going on his bloody rampage at the end of the film and murdering the “scum” who enslaved Iris.

There’s an element of decency in my youthful opinion, I was repulsed by the child prostitution in the film and accepted Bickle’s explanation that the police would do nothing about it. We get some support for that theory by how the bloody conclusion plays out, because it begins with a mafioso taking protection money from Sport (Harvey Keitel) then going inside the brothel.

Where I was completely wrongheaded, however, was my belief that Bickle had a flash of conscience that turned him away from the assassination and towards another violent act of good. It is pure happenstance that keeps Bickle from going through with the murder of Charles Palantine. It is also clear that Bickle seems to believe he was noticed while getting away and feels that he is in imminent danger. Believing that his end is near, he goes on a suicide mission to take out the prostitution ring and, again by dumb luck, happens to survive it.

So, I think I finally have put my head straight in regards to Bickle, but it took quite a bit of work because DeNiro’s performance fights against my ultimate conclusion every step of the way. He finds a way to make us feel for this monster. And I don’t use that word lightly, because even if I no longer directly empathize with Bickle as he exists within the borders of “Taxi Driver,” I do feel for him because of the path that took him to that dark place.

In the 1970s, as I’ve noted many times in this series, most Americans retreated to a place of ironic detachment from the world around them. They found ways to look past the decay, freeing them to become politically apathetic and powerfully self-centered. There were always people in this era, however, who never had the freedom to take that stance. Many of them, like Bickle, fought in Vietnam. Others were police officers — and it’s not hard to imagine Bickle taking up that line of work after being discharged from the Marines. Others were on the front lines in other ways. I give Schrader credit for seeing that a taxi driver is an excellent secular version of that front line personnel.

Some people in that world, such as the Wizard, develop their own coping mechanisms to create the distance they need to survive the work. The speech that Wizard gives Bickle when he asks for help with his “dark thoughts” sounds almost word for word with what I imagined the characters in “The Last Detail” might say to justify their amoral attitudes — punctuated with “we’re all basically fucked.” Bickle rejects the speech. He is too far immersed into the real world to accept finding hedonistic joy in it.

Therefore, I feel for Bickle and his transformation into a monster, because the culture basically demanded that a monster rise and lash out at the insanity taking place. Detachment and hedonism cannot win out forever, there will always be people who find loneliness in the detachment and emptiness in the hedonism. There is nothing inherently wrong with these feelings, they can even be healthy if properly channeled. But Travis never had a fair shot at channeling his thoughts and feelings in a healthy way.

I’ll have more to say about “Taxi Driver” in the days ahead — the movie is far too immense to cover in one essay. But I want to end this part with a return to Jung and Cervantes and two other recent series. While “Taxi Driver” is firmly rooted in the real world of the 1970s and fits comfortably with the contemporary dramas of that era, it is also a deeply archetypal movie. It’s based on John Ford’s classic “The Searchers” and has the same bone structure as that movie.

That means that “Taxi Driver” straddles the realist/new cinema style and the archetypal/mythic storytelling form. Bickle is on a very typical hero journey in the film. The story almost seems like it was summoned from the cultural unconscious of the era as a way of explaining the appeal of vigilantes. With only slight tweaks, I can imagine a remake of “Taxi Driver” in the form of “Batman” … well, actually, they made something of a “Taxi Driver” remake recently in “Joker.” Even though I’m not a fan of that film, I do appreciate the filmmakers recognizing that this was not as large a leap from story to story as you might expect. It’s also no surprise that I loved “Taxi Driver” in young adulthood because I loved “Batman” as a child.

Where Cervantes comes in is the object of Bickle’s quest. Just like the Knights Errant dedicated their acts of bravery to a maiden, Bickle dedicates his bloody missions to Betsy. As I noted at the conclusion of my Don Quixote cycle of essays, there is always something oppressive about these dedications, especially given that the maidens in question aren’t asking for these acts to be carried out, often aren’t aware that they are happening, and in general have a right to just be left alone and not be bothered by these questing dudes thinking they are earning a trophy via their bravery.

I’m not repulsed by much in “Taxi Driver,” but I strongly dislike the final scene. Betsy, to me, is the most genuinely heroic character of the film. Despite her intuitive misgivings about Travis, she gives him a chance when he first woos her, because she senses his ability to act passionately and take a stand for his beliefs. She has real insights into his character and agrees to go on a real date with Travis. And when that date turns out to be something genuinely disturbing, Betsy acts appropriately — she gets out and chastises him, then sticks to her ideals and doesn’t give Bickle a second chance.

I therefore find it sad that Schrader and Scorsese felt it necessary to bring Betsy back for one final scene where she second guesses herself and reaches out to Travis. This man put her in danger and will do so again. It’s fine that she admires his bravery and perhaps the way he protected this young woman, but the things she isn’t aware of — including his plans to murder her boss — would have horrified her. Betsy deserved to be left out of the ending and should not have become the story’s Dulcinea del Toboso.

I will have more to say on this subject tomorrow.

I don’t know if my visit to the 1970s world of movies is unearthing any insights, this film era has been examined to death at this point, but I am certainly enjoying the vacation. I love the movies of this era, especially for the variety of storytelling that was permitted. The 1970s gave us big budget disaster movies, gangster epics, menacing sharks, Superman and Star Wars, but it also gave us ambitious literary adaptations and tiny movies so personal that it seems amazing someone approved a budget for them.

The vast majority of these movies I experienced after the fact like an archeologist trying to unearth artifacts of that confounding era. But there is one movie that I saw in its first release that still amuses me when I think of the 11 year old me reacting to it. It was May 1977, and I was six months into my complete assurance that “Rocky” was the greatest movie ever made. I was at a mall multiplex with my female cousin and sister, dropped off by my aunt to find a movie to see. I wanted to see some awful “Rocky” knockoff starring Muhammad Ali that some studio had rapidly cobbled together. But my cousin Laura wanted to see “Annie Hall,” and as the youngest of the group, I had no power to override her.

I didn’t expect much from it — I had a vague sense of disliking Woody Allen even though I’d never seen one of his movies and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t a life changing experience — “Rocky” wasn’t dethroned and held onto its title for exactly one more month until “Star Wars” came out — but I laughed a lot and thought better of Woody Allen afterwards. The following April, I watched the Academy Awards, sure that “Star Wars” would clean up, and watched with amazement as “Annie Hall” walked off with the top prize.

I think I’ve seen “Annie Hall” at every stage of my life and the movie gets a bit sadder every time I see it. Today I watch it mostly in awe of Diane Keaton’s characterization of Annie, which is one of the great heroic romantic performances in movies. I call it heroic because Keaton/Hall is attempting something very new in this movie, the creation of a feminine-feminist archetype that both fully embraces the tenets of Romanticism while refusing to surrender the hard won gains of Sexual Revolution.

There a “Pygmalion” myth at the center of the movie. Alvy Singer discovers this extremely neurotic, oddly dressed woman at a tennis outing. He asks her out, and is sometimes amused by her quirkiness and sometimes just tolerates it. He proceeds to mold her into the type of woman he wants her to be — he convinces her to take adult education classes to make up for her lack of a college education, gets her to read gloomy books with the word ‘death’ in the title, introduces her to psychotherapy and, eventually, gives her the courage to get in front of an audience and sing.

I find Annie heroic because she identifies the implicit criticism in all of Alvy’s renovation schemes, voices her fears, but does them anyway. She not only goes along with them, actually, she crushes them. Annie makes real progress in her therapy, unlike Alvy who has spent decades in analysis and seems stuck in mud. She not only goes to her classes, she forms a bond with her instructor and becomes more open to other influences. She not only gets on stage to sing, she attracts the attention of a music producer who wants to help guide her career. In short, she accepts Alvy’s influence and finds the kindest possible interpretation of his meddling, assuming that he cares about her personal growth and openness to continued influence and social growth.

Alvy reacts badly to all of this. He becomes jealous of Annie’s new influences, criticizes her therapy and classes. They go to Los Angeles, where Annie takes another step forward in her career, and Alvy can do nothing but, hilariously, mock the fake culture all around them. The relationship feels doomed and the couple breaks up. Alvy’s feelings, however, get in the way. He begins to feel nostalgia for their bond and feels compelled to take one last shot at Annie’s affections.

In the old fashioned romantic comedy, Alvy flying out to his hated Hollywood to beg Annie to come back would be seen as a heroic gesture that must be rewarded. And that reward, naturally, would be her returning to his life. But Annie seizes the heroism from him and stands her ground, refusing to go back with Alvy. And old Hollywood, and perhaps cultural, view of American couples dies out with Alvy’s failure.

The 1970s put us in the in between space of old values dying before new ones could be created, so we were left to dwell in that bittersweet in between. But what if Alvy had listened to his emotions and decided to match Annie’s romantic heroism with his own form of courage? Imagine an alternative “Annie Hall” where Alvy doesn’t just ask Annie to begin again, but he also makes the enormous sacrifice of giving up the protective bubble that Manhattan had become for him and join Annie in Los Angeles?

You could argue that this would be inauthentic, that Woody/Alvy would be sacrificing his genuine self purely for Annie and that this would lead to resentment and failure. I would argue that, if Alvy genuinely loved Annie, he would be willing to take the same leap of faith that she did and would be willing to risk as much growth and change as she to be with her.

This ending did not happen, either in the movie or in the fake “happily ever after” play that Alvy later writes to soothe himself over Annie’s loss. The ethos carried forward from “Annie Hall” lives on. Most romantic comedies since then depend on the movie’s form — it’s impossible to imagine “When Harry Met Sally” without “Annie Hall,” and the same can be said of “Seinfeld.” The lonely, sad core of these new romantic comedies is the idea that we should always wait and look for that one person who requires us to change as little about ourselves as necessary to make it work, overlooking the possibility that it is just this kind of influence and openness to the new that makes love so indispensable and transformational.

It’s unfortunate that, like so many 1970s anti-heroes, Alvy Singer lacked the courage to listen to what his aching heart was trying to tell him, that the safety and comfort of his predictable life in New York wasn’t worth the loss of the woman he loved. She had changed for him, it was time for him to pay back her courageous growth. But in the end, he wimped out.

I’ve noticed a theme running through many of the films of the 1970s. Characters talk a lot about authenticity and consistently take actions on the margins that feel right for them, but they ultimately lack the power to do anything significant. These characters use authenticity as an adornment, something to make bad situations more tolerable. Sometimes they even feel in control, but ultimately, they are locked inside Max Weber’s Iron Cage.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hal Ashby’s 1973 film “The Last Detail” starring Jack Nicholson. Written by Robert Towne in 1970, the movie sat on the shelf for three years because the studio, Columbia Pictures, wanted the heavy profanity toned down, fearing the movie would receive an X rating. The filmmakers stood their ground and standards evolved pretty rapidly in three years, easing Columbia’s fears. At the time, “The Last Detail” held the record for the most uses of the word ‘fuck’ in a film, but it probably no longer ranks in the top 100 in that category.

The plot of “The Last Detail” is simple — two Navy lifers, Billy Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mule Mughals (played by Otis Young) are assigned a shore patrol detail to escort Larry Meadows (played by Randy Quaid) from Norfolk Navy Yard to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. They are enticed into the detail by a very generous per diem and a full week to complete the task.

Buddusky and Mughals originally plan to take Meadows up to Portsmouth as directly and quickly as possible, then use the time and money for a slow, fun filled trek back to Virginia. But when they get to meet Meadows and learn more about his outrageous eight year sentence for unsuccessfully attempting to steal $40 from a polio charity box, they begin to alter their plans.

The film is basically a picaresque journey up the east coast, introducing the sad, unlucky 19 year old to a little life before he begins his prison term. They get him drunk in Washington, D.C., try to visit his mom in Camden, N.J., come into contact with Buddhist chanters and hippie young women in New York City, then eventually seek out a prostitute for him in Boston.

The tone of the film is highly defiant and there’s are lots of little lessons that Nicholson’s ”Badass” passes on, attempting to shape the young sailor into a more authentic person. They pick a fight with a group of Marines for no good reason, just to introduce a little violence into the Anima Possessed Meadows. They shape him into a character who even tries to escape their guard in Boston, with no luck.

Meadows is a character doomed to suffer the consequences of a military commander making an example of him. Buddusky and Mulhall are chosen for this mission not for their rock solid commitment to following the rules, but because they are Navy lifers and will not do anything to jeopardize their careers. So they use the little power they have to carry out orders in the most roundabout, “authentic” manner that they know.

In the end, they still carry out their orders and Meadows isn’t even given a moment to leave the movie with some sense of accomplishment or wisdom, he’s just silently escorted up the stairs to a new life behind bars. There he will likely learn how to become a career criminal and likely a substance abuser, the life as he knew it very likely over.

“The Last Detail” was a box office bomb upon its original release, but Columbia repackaged it months later as a ribald comedy and the movie took off. Those who remember it fondly think of it as something of an “Animal House” for the Navy, glossing over the film’s offhand, but rather terrifying ending.

This is a glimpse at what was happening in the 1970s. Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign had affected the culture deeply. Longer prison sentences were seen as a reasonable reaction to the rise in crime and the “lawlessness” all around. Never mind that Nixon used that word as a cudgel against war protestors and others fighting for social justice, lock them all up if that helped restore order.

Yet order was not restored, chaos was rampant. Crime rates weren’t being brought under control, they were spiraling higher. The criminal justice system was becoming systemically unjust, and the “crime” at the center of “The Last Detail” is a perfect example. Audiences at the time were numb to the movie’s central idea that, no matter how much playing around the rules Buddusky and Mulhall could do, they were essential pieces of an authority structure destroying a life.

The truth is that these men weren’t actually powerless. They could have conspired to lose Meadows in a crowd or helped him escape to Canada. They were free human beings who could have acted to thwart an injustice. In the end, their acts of authenticity were meaningless and the ultimate example of inauthenticity. They had become the caricatures that Nietzsche described as the Last Man.

Buddusky gives some tongue in cheek monologues to a woman during the NY party scenes where he waxes philosophic about life on the sea. Nietzsche would argue that one should not romanticize the sea, but try to become a sea that overcomes the evils of the world:

Everything superhuman appears to man as illness and madness. You have to be a sea to absorb a dirty stream without getting dirty.

My guess is that Robert Towne and Hal Ashby — maybe even Jack Nicholson — believe this Nietzschean ethos and intended the audience to see these characters as deficient failures. The audience, however, was ready for a different interpretation, one that cast them as 1970s anti-heroes who rejected justice as naive and fully embraced a nihilist ethos that we’re all fucked eventually, so we might as well have a good time on our way to hell.

I was tempted today to write another really long piece about Warren Beatty and how his films of the 1970s exemplify the point I made yesterday about surrendering to escapism — as Beatty did with “Heaven Can Wait” in 1978, then trying bravely to recapture some political meaning in 1981 with “Reds,” although by then it was too late. But I’m not really up for going that deep today and will instead focus on just one movie, “The Parallax View” from 1974.

If you’re very strict about auteur theory, you wouldn’t call “The Parallax View” a Warren Beatty movie at all, because he’s listed only as an actor in the credits. You would call it an Alan J. Pakula film and fit it into his resume of films that included “Klute” and “All The President’s Men.” But the truth is, Beatty almost always took on a far bigger role in the creation of his movies than the credits would lead you to believe.

In this case, it was Beatty who discovered the 1970 novel by Loren Singer and pushed Paramount to make it. He also oversaw the screenplay’s various rewrites and brought in Robert Towne for an uncredited polish of the script before filming. During filming, Beatty was intimately involved in dialogue rewrites and it was he who made the ultimate decision to make his character a journalist. The original novel had no single protagonist, there were four characters who witnessed an assassination who trade off in the role.

There’s no other movie like “The Parallax View” — it is clearly the greatest paranoid political thriller ever made. It achieves this status through it’s absolute logic from beginning to end, there are no flights of fancy or Oliver Stone like outlandish theories in the movie. Everything in it makes complete sense, even the moments when you question if something is off in the film and wonder if you should be suspending disbelief. It turns out, no, you shouldn’t be suspending disbelief, that dissonance you felt was completely intentional.

In fact, the movie has such a Swiss-watch beauty to its construction that I don’t want to describe the plot at all. It needs to be experienced with as few expectations as possible. I say this even through I’ve seen the movie four times and am still surprised by aspects of it on each new viewing.

I bring up this movie in the context of the failed 1970s ethos for a few reasons. First, the movie is certainly an example of artistic vision and execution. If a decade were conscious and could be proud of the things achieved in it, the 1970s should be very proud of this movie for having a strong point of view and artistic vision and pulling it off completely.

It was also gutsy for not following the herd and making the conspiratorial villains someone other than politicians, mafioso or shadowy operators of the Deep State. The evil person at the heart of “The Parallax View” is the Parallax Corporation, an entity without motive, without defined purpose, without any identifiable leadership. Parallax simply is and why it does what it does isn’t the concern of the viewer, because this movie is about corporate power, not corporate ethics.

To think that a major corporate body like Paramount, owned at the time by the Gulf + Western conglomerate, would fund such a movie demonstrates Warren Beatty’s power in Hollywood and the co-optive ability of movie makers in that era to bite the hands that fed. But having said that, there’s another aspect of “The Parallax View” that I’d be remiss if I overlooked.

The movie speaks perfectly to that Shawn-Wallace argument in “My Dinner With Andre” about art that confirms the darkest fears of the audience and therefore sends them back into their slumber. This is a movie where the bad guys don’t just turn out on top at the end, they seem indomitable. That isn’t even the worst part of it. “The Parallax View” is arguably the most deeply irresponsible movie ever made.

It’s irresponsible because it takes all of the leftover nihilistic, defeatist fears about politics from the 1960s — that there are shadowy forces at play that will prevent progress, so don’t even try — and it doesn’t just confirm them, it spells out in detail just how easily it could happen without clearly defined motive. This isn’t a movie about raising consciousness about power and pointing a way for people to take it back. It’s saying that even our deepest fears about the state of our political-economy aren’t dark enough. We’re far more fucked than we ever imagined.

Taken in this context, there’s a very dark reason why Gulf + Western would gleefully finance a movie like “The Parallax View.” It doesn’t call anyone to activism. It doesn’t raise fears about a possible future — it lays out the horror embedded in the status quo. It doesn’t even give the audience heroic politicians who might escape assassination and save the nation — just a series of bland, barely-partisan independent men mouthing platitudes whose banality still isn’t enough to placate the dark corporate overlords, whoever they are.

It’s a movie to scare the hell out of you and give you good reason to not volunteer to go door to door for your favorite candidate this fall. Just smoke a bong or try to join an orgy instead. What’s the point of caring when the world is so thoroughly fucked by forces you can’t even see or understand?

So, the movie is beautifully made and perfectly executed, but ends up reinforcing cynicism and nihilism. But it also includes a segment that I never paid much attention to until my last viewing that so defies explanation that I wonder why it hasn’t become an iconic moment in American film.

At the 55:12 mark of the movie, Beatty’s character Joseph Frady has gone undercover and is hoping to be hired by the Parallax Corporation as an assassin. As part of the job interview process, Frady is placed in a chair, his hands on sensors on both sides of the chair, and he is presented with a short film that the tester says “I hope you enjoy.”

What unspools in front of him is a montage of images, words and sounds, reminiscent both of the opening credits of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and the brainwashing sequences of “A Clockwork Orange.” In this case, we have no idea of the intention of the images. Are they really testing the subject for reactions or are they a form of brainwashing? The movie never tells, which makes the segment even more compelling.

The sequence lasts for just under five minutes. In that time, Frady is presented with the words love, mother, father, me, home, country, God, enemy and happiness in a variety of different sequences. The images accompanying these words range from comforting to horrifying and they skip around between the words. The shape shifting is purely intentional and, together, it creates a horrifying pastiche of American life in 1974.

I could imagine a Trump campaign version of this montage, perhaps built around the words person, woman, man, camera, tv. I could say more about this sequence, but it’s best experienced for yourself — and you can do so via this YouTube clip.