Taxi Driver

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April 24, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

The restored print and ensuing Blu-Ray of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver thankfully does not prettify one of the most deliberately ugly yet intoxicating films ever made. Instead, it enhances the grime that lays over Scorsese’s fever dream acid vision of New York. I never got the chance to see the city in its outlaw mystique, not visiting until well after Giuliani “Disney-fied” the place and created an odd but understandable nostalgia for the danger of yore.

Travis Bickle embodies that contradiction along with his host of discrepancies. Not a native New Yorker, Bickle abhors yet imbibes the filth of the city he despises yet chose to make his home. Robert De Niro’s voiceover diary entries, a take on the writings of George Wallace’s shooter Arthur Bremer, speak of an overwhelming hatred of the slime and crime caking the streets. But consider where Travis spends his time: he takes the edge off his insomnia by hanging around musty, crusty porn theaters and driving a cab that routinely ferries pimps, whores, dope fiends and psychopaths. His apartment is messy and damp, so ascetic it looks as if someone robs it each day.

From the outset, one can plainly see Travis’ loneliness. The titular occupation is darkly ironic in this respect, constantly putting the cabbie in contact with others but denying connection. People who ride in a cab — Travis’ or otherwise — just want to get to their destination. Some of the passengers in Bickle’s cab act as if he isn’t even there, fighting or screwing right in the backseat where he can plainly see them. Even the people he does talk to (other cabbies) only make small talk with him; the unofficial leader of the taxi drivers, a supposedly wise old-timer named Wizard (Peter Boyle), can only react to a moment of ragged honesty from a desperate Travis with trite clichés he’s passing off as world wisdom. Even other cabbies pay so little attention to Bickle that they cannot see the raging storm.

Like so many troubled, lonely young men, Travis places all his hopes in a woman, a woman who has no idea he exists. Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) works as a staffer for the presidential campaign of Charles Palantine, combining sex and politics into one vision as Travis tries to get a foothold in sanity. Yet the film does not so easily pigeonhole Travis’ reaction against society along sexual or sociopolitical lines: he freely admits that he does not know Palantine’s platform, and his desire for Betsy seems little more than a final grab for stability that has come far too late.

At times, this approach to Travis’ psyche can make some of the tangents in the film look underdeveloped. Some have slammed the film for only briefly touching upon the protagonist’s racism, confining it mostly to lingering POV shots of black people with reverse shots of a wild-eyed Travis scarcely able to hold back his contempt. Schrader originally intended his racism to be more pronounced, but Scorsese realized that using only black characters in the bloody climax would set off a firestorm. Looking back at the controversy the film nevertheless caused, Scorsese’s decision seems more than wise. Consider how viscerally some reacted against the film; how much worse would it have been if people thought that the movie not only vindicated Travis but did so over the corpses of black men?

As it stands, however, the inconsequential nature of politics, racism, even sex forces the audience to contend with Travis himself, not any causes for his hate. When he subconsciously attempts to morph his idealized Madonna into a whore by taking her to a porn theater — and later takes the reverse path to save the child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) — he seems less a man dedicated by love or concern than a lowlife trying to assert control over something. He’d have tried to kill a politician regardless of the candidate’s beliefs, because he’s bought into the hype that politicians are worse than the common man no matter what they advocate (and for the record, Palantine does seem to be a snake oil salesman, or perhaps that’s me reacting to the same social bias that encourages Travis to act out). Travis tries to use what are motivations for most as outlets for his pain, as if trying to focus his anger into one niche and dealing with it. But his fury is too big, too all-consuming to be tamped down in one area.

Much has been made of the sheer number of auteurs at work on Taxi Driver, and several of them looked to yet more artists for inspiration. Behind the camera was Martin Scorsese, a visual master whose own unique and identifiable touch is itself informed by mixing the traits of countless other filmmakers — he even cited The Searchers as an influence on this film. Paul Schrader wrote the script, taking cues from Dostoevsky. De Niro, by this point a star and instant legend, interpreted Bickle in ways that differed from Schrader’s script (such as making Travis a Midwestern import instead of a city native). Then, there was Bernard Herrmann, who offered up his final (and possibly best) score, twisting and mangling nightclub jazz together with his own penchant for heart-racing orchestration.

What links them all is a shared understanding of a certain form of pain, the kind of alienation seemingly every teenage male — especially middle-class whites without a clear social target for their anxiety — has felt. I first watched Taxi Driver in high school when I was overwhelmed by its fury. Only after another three viewings in two years did the sadness become apparent, the clawing depression and loneliness tearing Travis’ flesh. That the film, however hectic and warped it is, ultimately emerges with a singular emotional arc is a testament to the universality of a pain that hurts so bad because it convinces the sufferer of its uniqueness.

Yet because these four individualist talents apply their visions to a single story, an attentive viewer can spot the strands of each harmony. Scorsese visualizes Bickle’s growing madness through what David Bordwell rightly noted is Scorsese’s mastery of both grandiose expressionism and intimate impressionism1, of being able to twist the world to match his characters’ perceptions and then using the camera itself to film that world through the characters’ eyes. Through his lens, the streets are always blurred, streaking with sick neon reflections. The exaggerated glow of a neon sign turns the entire frame ruby-red. The altering slow motion and jump cuts show Travis’ jerking mindset as it lingers on certain details and skips over others, as if he cannot remember doing the steps between some actions. There is a savage grace to the director’s style, every cut, pan and track perfectly timed to Bickle’s thoughts and desires.

Paul Schrader’s take is considerably more blunt. His dialogue, especially in the diary voiceovers, conveys harsh fractals of bile and insanity. Schrader was always a perfect fit for Scorsese, because the director always specialized in making pulp-prose subjects such as crime and gangsterism into poetry, while Schrader chiefly makes the poetic prosaic. That sounds like an insult (and, depending on the film, it might be), but it is also a gift: Schrader can take intellectual ideas and portray them with gritty directness. At the best of times, he does not lose the full meaning in the conversion, and Taxi Driver remains his crowning achievement. In the process of mining Dostoevsky, Schrader managed to put more of the Russian into his script than he thought: like Dostoevsky, Schrader lacks style, but he makes up for it in sheer, overwhelming insight.

Though Scorsese and Schrader displayed an innate understanding of one another, Herrmann helped bridge their talents for their first collaboration. His score mixes climactic brass and lighter jazz, a reflection of both the literal New York and its hip swing and the nightmarish perception of it Travis sees. Herrmann was infamously stern with his filmmakers, insisting upon final cut and practically dictating how his music should be integrated into the sound mix. Yet even Scorsese concedes that the gruff instructions he received from the composer were the right ones: for all the hints of hubris in Herrmann’s demands that sound effects be muted whenever he wanted the music to take precedence, he’s right that the end result is more tense and surreal for burying the diegetic sound.2

However, the most magnetic force propelling the film is, of course, De Niro. Actors and fans have justly elevated De Niro’s performance into the pantheon of great work, but it can be difficult to see why his work is so perfect looking up at it on that pedestal. De Niro’s entire body is invested in Travis: his sinewy muscles look as if all his tissue were made of tendons and ligaments waiting to spring. This is not brute force, this is honed rage, the small voice of unrelenting darkness worming its way through the recesses of the mind and emerging taut and terrifyingly lithe. Every twitch, every second glance is so scary that it’s no wonder I missed the pain in those eyes the first time I saw the movie. The great tragedy of this man’s life is that no one ever got close to him, but can you really blame anyone when you look in those bloodshot orbs?

De Niro’s Travis has no sense of humor: his fleeting attempts at making jokes seem the robotic actions of a man trying to fit in without putting his heart into it. And when people joke with him, such as the black cabbie calling him “Killer” or the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) calling him a cop, he cannot see the jest and nearly pummels them both on the spot. The most terrible thing about him is that he never yells. Not even at the end, when he charges through that dingy apartment complex brutally murdering pimps and mobsters, does he ever scream. The flatness of his voice chills the blood: when Palantine gets into Travis’ cab (which funnily enough may be the least realistic moment of this deeply subjective film), the politician asks Travis what he’d like to see changed about the city. Travis’ resultant monologue about the city’s filth is disturbing, but all the more so because his tone remains the same, all flat disgust. Even when the volume increases slightly, the tone doesn’t. Scorsese cuts back to Palantine listening, and the look of horror on his face is both funny and reflective of our own repulsion.

And then, he’ll let the fury subside for a moment and give the audience a chance to see the broken man channeling Hell. That conversation he has with The Wizard is scary because of the things Travis quiet pleads — “I got some bad ideas in my head” — but also heartbreaking. He realizes no one will ever ask him what’s wrong, so he tries to reach out to a person and receives only empty clichés in return. And no moment of the film finds De Niro and Scorsese in greater harmony than that horrible moment of Travis on the phone, trying to win back Betsy. We cannot hear her responses but know what they are, and when it becomes painfully obvious that she has definitively shot down the poor man, that camera drifts away into the hall. The shot serves two purposes: to express some sympathy for Travis, as if even the director cannot bear to watch a man suffer like this, and also to communicate Travis’ mind at last tilting fully off its axis.

As befits a movie set in the fractured perspective of an insane person, Taxi Driver has a definite focus for its anger but occasionally drifts into tattered vignettes. A passenger (Scorsese himself) forces Travis to keep the meter running as he watches his wife meet her lover and describes in ghastly detail how he will murder her. Coming off Travis’ denunciation of women, the man’s viciously misogynistic speech fits within the context of what came before it, but the scene also reveals that Travis isn’t alone in his hatred. In a retrospective look at the film, Schrader related a story about a man who hitched from Seattle to come to his office and demanded to know how the writer had heard about him and his life. Eventually, Schrader realized that the man was a real-life Travis, and he explained to the poor soul that the pain he felt was unique is felt by many. The two men in that cab share a rage looking for the nearest outlet (both seek refuge in racism and misogyny), yet all they can do is hold each other in contempt, to perceive the other as inferior.

Despite the tight shooting schedule — $1.3 million doesn’t buy a whole lot of time — Taxi Driver displays a level of detail that suggests a far less spontaneous shooting and assembly than Scorsese describes. Travis’ preparations for the assassination (making improvised quick-draw devices, shaving his head) reveal his Marine background, while, on a structural level, the music is placed in such perfect context that the same notes can take on different meanings. Take that sax theme: at first, it sounds romantic, but when Scorsese and Herrmann play it over a scene of Sport manipulating the not-as-bright-as-she-thinks Iris, those flowery, swooning notes no longer seem so sweet. And yet, one can see the freer style in numerous shots. As Scorsese says in a commentary track recorded for the old Criterion laserdisc, he notes how regular people mingled with the extras and actors in the street shots until you couldn’t tell who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t.

That commentary track is as wonderful a boon of the new Blu-Ray as the rich new transfer. My favorite tidbit offered up by the track is Scorsese’s mention of planning his shots not to the rhythm of Herrmann’s score but to Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets.” When you think about it, that’s the perfect song for this movie: Morrison’s horrific vision of a lover dying of tuberculosis, but its sense of gasping desperation, like Taxi Driver’s, is undercut by the narcissism of its protagonist. Morrison, like Travis, surveys horror, but he can only think about himself. The ironies and hypocrisies of both are unmistakable: Morrison, trapped in a room with a woman whose lungs are collapsing, can only beg “open up the window and let me breathe.” Enraged over violence, Travis ironically turns into violence’s most terrible agent.

I also love that Scorsese casually points out what his ending means, seemingly unaware of the intense debates over it until he briefly notes the disagreements of his meaning. Having saved Iris in a way that ensures she’ll be scarred forever, Travis recovers and finds himself hailed a hero for his actions. Betsy, who recoiled in disgust when Travis took her to a dirty movie, suddenly finds herself turned on by his Angel-of-Death purification that she seeks him out and makes clear hints that she is now open to reconciling.

But Bickle, now so far gone in his Messianic vision, rejects physical temptation as Jesus did and drives on. As he pulls away, a distorted sound (a vibraphone riff played backwards) pulls sharply into focus as De Niro’s eyes dart with exaggerated speed toward the rear-view mirror. Some interpret this as proof of Travis being in a dying dream, the post-climax dénouement all a hallucination of glory by the bullet-ridden Bickle lying in the stuffy apartment room. But that view smacks of a cop out, a way to avoid confronting the idea that society might actually embrace Travis. We’ve spent time with him, so we know what he’s like. But what about those who know the name only because they read a story saying that a cabbie killed mafiosos and pimps to free a 12-year-old? Given only that information, wouldn’t you call him a hero?

Of course, the darker implications of that glance in the mirror is that everything happened and now Travis is left free of scrutiny to continue his downward spiral. He’s gone from being a nobody to a star, a huge leap in exposure but one that affords no increase in approachability. Where people used to ignore him, now they revere him, denying him the chance of ever making a meaningful connection. He will strike again, and no one will mistake the next eruption for justice.

1 Bordwell, David. “Scorsese, ‘pressionist.”

2 As wonderful as the ending cacophony is, I think my favorite aspect of Herrmann’s soundtrack is still that wonderful theme, played on an alto sax so smooth I almost mistake it for a clarinet until it hits those growls that only a saxophone can produce. I would take that brief theme, which is half-sincere, half-bitterly ironic, over the wholes of other scores, including some of Herrmann’s more acclaimed soundtracks.

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