Taxi Driver, Part 2

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.