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 Facets.com 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.