Taxi Driver, Part 1

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.