Sunday, November 30, 2008

Weighing In: Taxi Driver

"Partly truth, partly fiction --
a walking contradiction."


The first time I saw Taxi Driver, I was merely a passenger in the backseat of a cab. I was vaguely familiar with [the genius of] Martin Scorsese and hardly old enough to grasp the cold realities he so solemnly depicts. But after over a decade of inexcusable procrastination, I owed it to myself (and to the film gods) to it watch again; this time around, the difference was glaring. A lot older and a bit more cynical (living in New York City can have that effect), the film was much more than what I remembered (an array of pop images hanging on the walls of the freshman dorms). Rather perversely, Scorsese wills us to empathize with the protagonist's downfall: his alienation, his vulnerability, and his immorality. It is both a profound and painful portrayal of one average man's complete mental decay. But despite it's complex themes, the storyline is not all that complicated: Man is alone. Man moves to the city. Man gets a job. Man likes woman. Woman doesn't like man. Man is disillusioned. Man goes crazy. Man goes on killing spree. Man is once again, alone.

The film, penned by screenwriter Paul Schrader (Raging Bull), centers around anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a purported ex-Marine Vietnam vet who works the graveyard shift as a cabbie in order to combat his chronic insomnia. Our first impression of Travis is rather benign -- he is respectful and possesses that boy-scout sort of duty for his job (he's even willing to work on Jewish holidays). He is almost the kind of guy you want driving you home at 3 a.m. But as we soon come to see, appearances are only skin deep. Travis is a loner of the worst kind: he has a pathologic contempt for a society over which he ultimately has no control.

Truthful to the film's title, Travis endlessly traverses across the city's underbelly -- a gritty landscape that only fuels his already fragile psyche. Critic Roger Ebert describes it as a "Stygian passage;" I liken it to Dante's descent through the circles of hell. Night after night, Travis is surrounded by steaming manholes, neon lights, peep shows, pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers (or as a friend of mine so evocatively calls it "old New York"). Worse yet, Travis hasn't the faintest clue about how to interact with his fellow citizens -- male or female. He is pitifully lost and alone. Even Travis acknowledges his Sisyphean curse: "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."

As the film progresses (accompanied by the wonderful scoring by Bernard Hermann of Hitchcock fame), Travis covets the attractive and ambitious Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for fictional presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). After persistent prodding, Betsy begrudgingly agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Even during this first encounter, it is obvious that Travis is incapable of carrying on any semblance of a normal relationship. Despite fumbling through conversation, a confounded Betsy is willing to overlook Travis's feeble persona (after all, De Niro was a pretty handsome guy back in the day) and agrees to see him again. Quoting Kris Kristofferson (who two years earlier starred in Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Betsy tells Travis that he is "partly truth, partly fiction -- a walking contradiction." Little does she know, her observation is spot-on: Travis is a walking contradiction. He is infatuated with the scummy parts of town, but despises its inhabitants; he is a loyal patron of the porno theaters, but is sickened by the sexual sin that surrounds him; he denounces the dope dealers, but is himself a habitual pill-popper.

Barely into their second date, Travis's courtship with Betsy takes a nosedive after he daftly takes her to see the 1969 Swedish "sex education" film, Language of Love -- the obvious wrong way to impress a woman. Not surprisingly, Betsy storms out of the theater leaving Travis frustrated and alone. But despite Betsy's overt disinterest in seeing him again, Travis continues his forlorn pursuit which only bolsters his inability to woo her. During an awkward telephone conversation, Travis desperately begs for a second chance, but we already know that he's acting in vain. In a now famous shot, the camera tracks away from the downtrodden Travis and towards an empty hallway, sparing us his all-too-painful rejection. I think it is this event that ignites the powder keg that is Travis Bickle.

Travis's Descent Into Madness

Apparent that his mental state is rapidly deteriorating, Travis finds himself, intentionally or by chance, involved in a series of violent encounters. In one scene, he intervenes during the course of a convenience store holdup, fatally wounding the black crook. This sort of vigilante justice is common in Scorsese's films (recall in The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio's character similarly defends a store clerk from extorting mobsters or Ray Liotta's line in Goodfellas, "[w]hat the organization [mafia] does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops. They're like the police department for wiseguys."). Perhaps Travis, an outspoken bigot, saw this as a "justifiable" excuse to lash out against those he scorns. He then concocts a botched assassination attempt against Palantine, who just weeks earlier, Travis praised during a chance encounter with the candidate in his cab. Famously, it is during rehearsal for this maniacal act that Travis engages in schizophrenic dialogue with his mirrored reflection: "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking...you talking to me? Well, I'm the only one here." That he is.

The last part of the film documents Travis's quest to "rescue" Iris (Jodi Foster), a young prostitute who, much to Travis's consternation, is rather complacent about her lifestyle. After realizing that Iris won't voluntarily abandon her world of corruption, Travis again resorts to vigilantism -- this time against the pimps and players who prey on his angelic Iris. At the forefront of this group is Sport (Harvey Keitel), a second-rate pimp whom Iris claims is her spiritual counterpart. Iris's naivety becomes apparent when after Travis remarks that Sport "looks like a killer," she replies, "he never killed nobody. He's a Libra."

There is much commentary on the comparison between Taxi Driver and The Searchers -- another film which depicts one man's [John Wayne] attempt to rescue the "innocent" from the "immoral." Both Scorsese and Schrader were undoubtedly influenced by John Ford, and on a wider scale, the formulaic themes within the Western genre as a whole. Indeed, Schrader himself remarked, "I make sure to see The Searchers at least once a year; [T]he Searchers plays the fullest artistic hand -- the best American film." Expounding on this topic, critic Matthew Iannucci points out, "Travis's lack of distinct identity compels him to cut and paste together what he believes is a heroic identity from an external menu of personages such as the 'gunslinger' and the Indian." These parallels are confirmed when we watch Travis twirling his guns in the mirror a la Dodge City.

In a now notorious sequence, a mohawk-clad Travis gruesomely massacres Sport and the other lowlifes who he perceives (albeit correctly) as threats to Iris's well-being. However, in an ironic twist of fate, the blood-bath ends in a failed attempt to take his own life; Travis cannot escape his curse of loneliness, literally or figuratively. But the film's epilogue offers one final wrinkle: Travis is coined a hero by Iris's parents, the Steensmas, for having saved their daughter and more notably, by the media, who report that his rampage took out a variety of underworld characters, including local gangsters.

We are then back where we began, this time, riding shotgun with Travis. He picks up a passenger who happens to be Betsy, only now, she admires his "heroism." Travis cooly downplays his injuries and drops her off outside her upscale apartment on 56th Street. In the blink of an eye, Scorsese quickly cuts to the rear-view mirror which displays an empty seat. Was Betsy ever in the cab? Was this a fantasy played out in Travis's head? Did Travis ultimately succumb to his wounds and are these his deathbed hallucinations? Scorsese leaves us pondering...partly truth or partly fiction?

Some 32 years later, the film remains just as relevant as it did upon its initial release. Many critics view the film as an indictment against the fallout from Vietnam, the plight of the veterans, or governmental impotency. In his own review, Iannucci quotes writer Richard Martin who observed, "Taxi Driver...reinvents noir in a context more suited to the sociopolitical realities of mid-seventies America...it is informed by an understanding of political paranoia, economic deprivation, inner-city decay, and the violence of the seventies." I think there is much truth to this -- even more so in light of the current State of the Union. But beyond these implications, at its core, this is a film about human loneliness -- a condition to which no one is immune. Indeed, Ebert confessed, "we have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are better at dealing with it."

Verdict: Heavyweight

--D.S., Weightstaff

1 comment:

Rasp Polermo said...

Great review and good analysis. Maybe Scorsese's best film next to Goodfellas