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Disturbed by Taxi Driver

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I watched the classic 1976 film Taxi Driver the other night and was interested in my reaction. It depressed me. Over the years, I’ve seen it around 10 times. This is not unusual, as several films from the Orson Welles, John Ford or Sam Peckinpah canon I’ve viewed an equal number of times. I just don’t remember being depressed after watching this before.

Martin Scorsese directed this open-sore of a film and of his many classic works, this is the one I return to most often with morbid fascination. Taxi Driver is such a raw, visceral experience that after viewing its nightmarish terrain one must decompress. It’s a bold, stomach-punch one hates or loves.

Seedy does not begin to describe the horror of Taxi Driver, which details a world of pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts and a loner psycho brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro. This film established some of the great talents in motion picture history including De Niro, Scorsese, Albert Brooks and Jodie Foster. Taxi Driver also came close to getting President Ronald Reagan assassinated.

Most people know the story of John Hinckley, an unstable loner who viewed Taxi Driver repeatedly. He began to stalk Foster and eventually tried to assassinate Reagan in a manner similar to the film’s Travis Bickle (who attempts to assassinate candidate Charles Palantine). It’s such an ugly story, echoing across the American landscape with the clarity of a snub-nosed revolver. A skate/punk band named themselves Jodie Foster’s Army (changed to JFA to avoid lawsuits) in a bizarre tribute to the incident.

I wonder about disturbing epics like Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Natural Born Killers. Whenever I visit the video store, I notice these films are usually checked out, empty boxes leaning against the shelf. Who’s watching these films, and why so often? Granted, a hypocritical question, since I have viewed Taxi Driver multiple times. The films share a common thread in that they have likable actors (De Niro, Malcolm McDowell, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Harrelson) playing despicable men prone to violent rages. Alienated one and all, these characters have become anti-heroes for a world severely lacking in heroes. Gary Cooper they are not.

Taxi Driver has been analyzed obsessively. And it should be. There are so many ways to view the film, with multiple levels serving as proof to its complicated brilliance. Urban alienation, cultural emptiness, veiled racism, Watergate analogy and Oswald repression are just a few of the metaphorical doors one can open in this nightmare. The racism specter, floating just beneath the surface, is most disturbing of all.

The racist stance in Taxi Driver is so obvious the film could not have been made today. In a cameo by Scorsese, he plays an obsessed stalker spying on his wife. We see her silhouette through a window and assume it’s the right person. Scorsese, sitting in the back seat of Bickle’s cab, claims his wife is having an affair with a “nigger.” Scorsese then goes into a long, unforgettable monologue where he discusses inserting a gun into his wife and pulling the trigger. It’s difficult to listen to this scene, if only because of the blatant racist and sexist tones.

Bickle later stumbles into a convenience store robbery, shooting the thief (a black man). The store owner then viciously beats the dying black man with a crow bar. Additional scenes show Bickle sitting in porno theaters, the only Caucasian man surrounded by black men and women. I think these scenes have been created to further emphasize Bickle’s alienation and isolation. But it also implies the only customers in New York going to porno films are black people.

The racism specter is further enhanced by the fact Paul Schrader’s original screenplay had the three main villains (if there truly are heroes or villains in Taxi Driver) written as black men. Scorsese wisely changed the characters to Caucasian men. Racism exists within a world of frustration and hate – and that is certainly the world of Taxi Driver. I’m just not sure I care to see this hate as unpleasantly as I do here.

De Niro’s Bickle is a Vietnam veteran suffering from insomnia. He takes a job as a cab driver to work nights, driving through the most dangerous New York neighborhoods for fares. He becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman (Cybill Shepherd) who works at the campaign office of Palantine. Bickle takes the woman to a porno theater on their first date, and she dumps him immediately. To no one’s surprise, Bickle soon begins to stalk her. He purchases a deadly arsenal of hand guns and intensely works out in preparation for his assassination of Palantine (and most likely the woman too). Along the way, Bickle stumbles across a 12-year old prostitute (Foster) whom he befriends. His attempted assassination fails and he drives over to the prostitute’s home and kills her pimp (Harvey Keitel), landlord and an unlucky gangster. Taxi Driver unbelievably ends with the prostitute having been returned to her parents and Bickle becoming an inner-city folk hero. Shepherd’s character tries to make a date with Bickle, but he’s now at peace with the inferno around him and drives on disinterested.

This ending has been debated for years. It is so controversial that when the film first ran on television, stations posted warnings stating they did not consider Bickle a hero. They’re right. Bickle’s a whacked-out cultural icon, granted, but he’s no hero. He wants to be a hero, and perhaps the final scene is Bickle at the moment of death dreaming of a happy ending. He’s essentially saved the day and rescued a damsel in distress. Bickle was seriously wounded after the shootout, having been shot in the neck. So it could have been a dream sequence, though Scorsese purposefully made it too vague to be entirely sure.

It’s clear Bickle wishes to be a cowboy hero in Taxi Driver, as seen by the boots he wears and the guns he straps on like an inner-city John Wayne. His famously improvised “You talkin’ to me?” speech is in fact a line of dialog lifted from the classic 1953 western Shane. And the final showdown has Bickle taking on three men (outnumbered a la Cooper in High Noon) in a bloody, ferocious battle that to this day is one of the most violent scenes in history.

Bickle, adorned in Mohawk and Army jacket, fires at random. He shoots off a man’s hand, is shot in the neck, stumbles upon the stairs, slips on blood and falls to the floor. The scene is a grotesque nightmare, the stock purposely faded so the blood would be dulled enough for the film to avoid an X rating. At one point, as Bickle falls to the blood-splattered tile like a stiff mannequin, Scorsese increases the speed of the film for several frames, creating a surreal, dream-like aura. It’s both brilliant and profoundly disturbing. The violence is so random and sloppy one gets the feeling they are viewing an actual crime scene. There is no music, only the jagged noises of constant screaming and guns blasting within closed-in spaces. While we love the balletic violence of the final shootout in The Wild Bunch, we turn away from the gore in Taxi Driver. It’s as repellant as reality.

Scorsese’s masterpiece is not intended for the young or emotionally disturbed. Bickle is not a hero in a film populated by an army of non-heroes. Still, viewers just might get confused. I know Bickle is crazy, but I feel sorry for him. At times, I even identify with him. And that depresses me.

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About Chris Wilson

  • http://www.sxxxy.org Nyx

    I thought it should have ended after the gunfight. Everything else was just meaningless.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I don’t see anything racist about the movie, although there are racist characters within it. Over several viewings, I never once got the impression that only black people watch porn — in fact I didn’t even notice it until you told me. At any rate, our focus is squarely on Travis and Betsy.

    Remember, too, that racism is a strong element among characters in Scorsese’s early films; I always just figured he was portraying them truthfully. Charlie in Mean Streets is in love with a black dancer, but can’t possibly let himself be seen with her. Characters in that movie and Raging Bull often make ethnic slurs against black people, using either the n word or “Mulunyan,” which is Italian for eggplant.

    I was shocked by Scorsese’s rant in the back of the cab the first time I saw the movie; over subsequent viewings, it seems darkly funny, since the guy is just such a whacked-out nut.

    Travis is a complex character and I don’t think you’re supposed to love or hate him; I think you just sympathize with him as far as you’re able. The same goes for the John Wayne character in The Searchers, from which Taxi Driver is derived in part. Wayne is an avowed racist who first wants to save his niece, Debbie, who has been kidnapped by Comanches; when he learns she has become a Comanche bride, he wants to kill her. Ultimately, the human side of him wins. We can never love the Wayne character, but we can love the part of him that saves Debbie rather than destroys her. We can never love Travis, but anyone who wipes out a gang of shitheels who are preying on teenage girls is not all bad.

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Nyx for your comment. I agree with your point, but wonder if the film would have been too tough to handle had they ended it after the gunfight?

  • Chris Kent

    Great thoughts Rodney, and I agree with your points. Each time I see Taxi Driver, I usually see something new.

    Scorsese cameo is darkly funny, and he does a terrific job. But depending upon one’s mood, which is crucial when watching this film, will determine how one handles certain scenes.

    I have heard The Searchers argument before and do agree with it. I wanted to give another stance which I thought was equally relevant. I do believe we are supposed to be repulsed by Travis/De Niro, but I don’t think the film entirely succeeds. Certainly we are not meant to feel sorry for him.

    But Travis does wipe out the shitheels, but only because his assassination attempt of Palantine is thwarted. Most of what he does is very cowardly – shooting an unarmed Keitel/Pimp, sitting down and trying to get up the nerve to finish the job; running from Palantine and his guards without even pulling a gun. But these cowardly acts are intended to make him unlikeable. Unfortunately, the acts make him human and identifiable…..

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Chris, great posts about one of my all-time favourite films here. In fact, i’d go as far as to say Taxi Driver was the film what got the duke so analy obsessed with film.

    I had an argument once with a college lecturer over wether or not taxi driver was rascist, reactionairy, all that jazz. the strange thing is, this lecturers favourite film of all time is The Searchers. Go figure? taxi driver is the searchers kicked a hundered years into the future. The main difference, i guess, is that Ford brought us a vision of the american dream being torn asunder purely through his protagonist. There is no external indication of the rot he was concerned with. Taxi Driver, of course, is awash with dark, neon-etched streets, a claustrophobic hell awahs with rain and steam.

    The racism thing is one i ahve battled with for a long time. In the end though, i think that any suggestion of a racism within the film, as opposed to within Bickle’s mind, is a fallicy (sp?). Bickle is as deluded in his racism as he is in everything else. It was certainly a wise move to replace the black pimp with a caucasian, although i doubt paul schrader had any serious racist motive on hand. (or had he? Schrader has stated repeatedly how much he felt like bickle during the writing of the film.)

    As Barry Norman says in his 100 best films of the century, “the audiences who cheered travis in his rampage were missing the point”. He’s right. Unlike Death Wish, were we were encouraged to cheer this murdering son of a bitch, Taxi Driver, like Irreversible, presents to us a vigilante as a desperately misguided and ultimately pitiful character.

    There film has sop much to say about america, about vietnam, about disenfranhisment, that it really is the closest scorsese came to making a film noir. Its a masterpiece, is what, and thanks Chris for bringing it back to mine skull.

    Incidentally, the punk connection is interesting. Lest we forget Joe Strummers bickle hair-do and the numerous references to taxi driver in combat rock. or, indeed, the track Travis Bicke from Rancids most recent album.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I don’t think repulsion is really it. Actually, I think we’re supposed to identify with him somewhat — this kind of “God’s lonely man” figure who is alienatied from society, and plagued by this very evil world that is rubbed in his face on a nightly basis. I think the reason he watches porn is probably the reason a lot of people do, sadly — it’s the closest he can get to the act, to connecting with another person. Probably the saddest line in the movie is when he writes in his diary that life shouldn’t be devoted to “morbid self-attention — I think you should become a person like other people.” It’s inarticulate, but it breaks your heart — a person like other people is the one thing Travis will never be.

    He feels oppressed, and I think ultimately all he feels he can do is save an innocent, Iris, who has been sucked into this predatory nightworld. I think he just wants to say “Screw it” to the laws of society that allow scum like the Harvey Keitel character to exist — if it means dying in the process, well fine, at least he tried.

    I don’t think it’s a perfect film, but I do think it’s a great film — it has lost none of its power over the decades, Scorsese’s sense of inner-city alienation is dead-on and DeNiro delivers a perfectly unique performance.

    Tell me this, though — why do you think he wants to kill Palantine? I’ve never really been satisfied that he had proper motivation. What did Palantine do to merit death — was he just a big fake or what? That part of the movie isn’t real clear — I’ve read the screenplay and I didn’t really get it there either.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    i think what happened with palantine is that Bickle wants to hurt betsy in retaliation for her rejection, but he cant do such a thing, so he heads for the nearest alternative. by taking a pop at palantine, id wager he’s taking a pop at betsy.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    That sounds like as good an explanation as any, Duke.

  • http://www.asstr.org/~99ernotions/ Hapax Legomenon

    I just wanted to make the point that the wish-fullfillment ending of Taxi Driver parallels the same kind of ending of Scorcese’s King of Comedy. (In fact, as I think about it, I realize that the two films share a lot of parallels). The ending satisfies us by granting the character some moment of “grace” while leaving it unclear whether the event exist in this flawed character’s imagination or is actually portrayed as happening.

  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    The first time I saw “Taxi Driver” as a impressionable yoot, I thought anybody who watched that movie more than three times should be locked up as a hazard to society. Then, on my fourth viewing, I changed my mind.

    Having visited NYC in the 70s, it really does represent what the city was like. It stank, it was violent, hateful, dirty, full of screwheads. It is like a Nan Golden snapshot. Brutal truth.

    Give me Travis Bickle over Bernard Goetz..

  • Greg

    In Times square right now: no porn, drugs or street crime (indeed no litter!) But there is a Disney store, An Applebees, a 26-plex movie mall on 7 separate floors, and of course a McDonalds with a full movie theater marquee, so i guess you could say prostitution is still rampant.

  • Chris Kent

    Schrader’s screenplay was inspired by the writings of some lone assassin who tried to kill Presidential candidate George Wallace sometime during the late 60s/early 70s. Taxi Driver was made in 1976, so the filmmakers were not far removed from many of the lone assassins of the 1960s. I think part of the inspiration of this film is an attempt to portray the type of person who would assassinate a world leader – Bickle is Oswald, Ray and Sirhan all roled into one. Also, by killing Palantine, I think Bickle thought he would be saving/rescuing Betsy. Bickle backs out at the last moment for reasons left open to interpretation. Sure, he had been spotted, but he still could have succeeded. Why he ran away and then “saved” Iris is never clear. I think Bickle chickened out and then in frustration decided, “What the hell,” I can still save Iris.

    Bickle is also a sexually repressed man waiting to explode. He refuses to have sex with Iris though she wishes to. He is almost repulsed by the thought. Bickle obsessively views porno films, but seems to lead an asexual life. For Bickle, the violent explosion during the film’s climax is his sexual release, thus giving an entirely new meaning to Taxi Driver’s final scene when Bickle seems to be at peace. Bickle’s gun/guns represent his libido. He is a man unable to express himself emotionally or physically, the bloody chaos eventually being his release.

    Still, why does he back out of the assassination of Palantine and choose to kill Iris’ pimp, landlord, etc..? Is there a part of him left still human, still wishing to do good? While certainly Bickle was contemplating “saving” Iris, his decision to actually do so was impulsive. The only reason he went to her apartment was because his assassination of Palantine failed.

    There is one moment when Bickle begins to run away and they show Palantine – the candidate freezes, staring off into space as if he turned into a mannequin. Could this be the moment in which everything turns into a dream sequence, and everything that follows is Bickle at the moment of death? Maybe Bickle really did attempt to assassinate Palantine, and was killed doing so, and the bloody chaos that follows is all but a dream of a desperate, dying man.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Good thoughts, Chris. Some point-by-point notes.

    *The Wallace assassin was Arthur Bremer, who did indeed leave behind a diary. (Question to whoever knows: is he still alive? Don’t recall ever hearing after he was sent away.) Also, Schrader’s screenplay is based on his time as a drifter in NYC.

    * I hope most of us would be repulsed by the thought of sex with Iris. Bickle’s refusal has less to do with repression than morality; he doesn’t want to have sex with a child, and all power to him. Isis, by the way, is not portrayed as a little Lolita — there’s no precocious prepubescent sexuality to her. She’s portrayed as a garish little china doll, a kid trapped in a nasty world. I double-checked this with Paul Schrader’s screenplay: “IRIS tries to unzip TRAVIS’ fly. This only unnerves TRAVIS
    more: sexual contact is something he’s never really confronted.”

    You’re correct, though, that there is something definitely orgasmic about the ending, that all those deaths are the result of stored-up repression.

    *You’re thoughts on Palantine are interesting and most welcome — if for no other reason than that it tells me I’m not alone in thinking this aspect of the story is not 100 percent clear and can be interpreted in several ways. Duke’s comments above made sense to me, but so do yours. Which I guess is my way of saying I’m not sure and I might have to see the film again to say exactly.

    I’m inclined to believe, though, that the whorehouse massacre was part of his plan all along, mainly because all his planning is so specific: the gun on the little slider, the knife in the boot, etc., is not the work of someone intent simply on popping a political candidate, but on nailing several. He’s a veteran, remember, and I think he’s thinking hand-to-hand combat with several. His diary comments are aimed at a plurality of oppressors: “Listen you screwheads: Here is a man who wouldn’t take it any more, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth.”

    You could, possibly, say he’s thinking of nailing Palantine and all the Secret Service agents who come after him, but I don’t think that’s it — mainly because the whorehouse massacre goes very much according to plan, his own injuries notwithstanding.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Something else that just occured to following Chris’ commentsabove – the whole thing about why does he kill the pimp and so on and yet not palantine?
    Maybe it’s becuase he regards the criminals as less than human. Killing them, he thinks, isn’t in the same league as killing Palantine, a respectable member of society.
    Also, as hinted in the ambiguos finale (sp?), bickle sees this act as something to be rewarded. He can kill these folks (unleashing those urges chris mentioned) without fear of serious consequences. He would get death for killing palantine, yet he gets a slap on the back for killing Kietel etc.
    Also, what’s with that weird backwards ZING! on the soundtrack at the very end? What the hell did he see in the mirror? Who knows?

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/http://www.rodneywel Rodney Welch

    How about this — is it possible Palantine was just target practice for the whorehouse killings? To see if he could pull off one murder and get away with it before he moves on to the predators so much on his mind?

  • Chris Kent

    Rodney,

    Thanks for mentioning the name of Wallace wannabe assassin, and it was definitely him Schrader partially based his screenplay upon. I agree with you that the idea of sex with a 12-year old should be repulsive to Bickle, but I get the feeling that it would not matter the woman’s age, Bickle would still be replused by the sex act. He is repressed emotionally and physically, which eventually leads to the bloody chaos.

    As for the reasons behind his intent to assassinate Palantine, I think the subplot is necessary if only to convey to the viewer that Taxi Driver is at least attempting to recreate the world of a lone assassin/gunman which had become apart of the American fabric during the 1960s.

    I really don’t think Bickle planned on anything in reference to the killing of Iris’ pimp, landlord, etc….It was an impulsive act, and though he succeeded, the violence was random and brutal. Bickle succeeded, but he also got lucky. Part of the reasons he does not go through with the Palantine assassination is because he does not wish to confront the armed secret servicemen. Bickle is a coward in many ways, and this act (along with what was supposed to be an unappealing mohawk) is supposed to make him unlikeable. He only has the courage to surprise an unarmed pimp, and even then there is reluctance before carrying out the eventual act.

    Duke,

    As for the ZING during the film’s closing scene, I think it is Scorsese’s way of letting the viewer know that Bickle’s character still carries some of the rage from earlier in the film. While he is seemingly at peace, that rage still lurks just beneath the surface.

  • Chris Kent

    ….and thanks for the link to Schrader’s Taxi Driver screenplay! Great stuff!!

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Chris,

    I think I’ll have to disagree for the reasons I cited above. I don’t think either assault was impulsive or cowardly, particularly in light of how things turned out. First, there was a considerable amount of planning involved, considering all the working out and the weaponry. Second, it was an act of suicide, as he basically says in his last letter to Iris (“By the time you read this I will be dead.”) He knew he’d die trying to kill off her predators and, for all we know, he did.

    The look he gives the rear-view at the end is deliberately ambiguous, in keeping with what may well be a dream sequence of events; I think we’re invited to consider whether Travis is actually looking at himself, or if he’s just dreaming.

  • Chris Kent

    Rodney,

    You could be right, and I would have to watch the film again and pay attention to specific scenes. Each time I watch this film, I pick up on something different that perhaps I had not noticed before – which is just a sign how good the film is.

    Certainly, Bickle was prepared, though why he left Palantine and headed over to Iris’ pad is perplexing. The ZING during the film’s last scene could be related to the final scenes being a dream sequence. Once again, I would have to watch this scene specifically. Usually, by the time I have made it to the last shot, I am emotionally spent….and depressed…lol

    I do think the screenplay (I read your entire link) would support some claims of racism in Scorsese’s film, as there are several shots in the film when Bickle looks down upon black men sitting in the coffee shop or outside of the coffee shop which are not in the script. This is not to imply Scorsese is racist, which he most definitely is not. However, the racism portrayed is extremely uncomfortable and perhaps would not be used or detailed in the same manner if the film were made today…..This film makes me squirm in my seat….

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    A few more of my thoughts thoughts on Taxi Driver, particularly Schrader’s script, in a review I wrote some time back.

  • Chris Kent

    An excellent review Rodney and thank you. I would like to note that my favorite Schrader film (as writer AND director) is Hardcore, which I think comes most closely to resembling his work for Taxi Driver. All of Schrader’s work IS dark, but always interesting.

    I was also a big fan of Blue Collar, though not much relation to Taxi Driver or Hardcore. Even Light of Day caught me by surprise. The most underrated film of the year it was released.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Thanks — I’ve missed some of the movies you’ve cited (they get harder and harder to find). As I noted in the review I’m a huge fan of Cat People — a lot of people laughed it off, but I found it riveting, and Ithought it had real guts in the way it went into that whole dark area of forbidden sexual desire.

  • Chris Kent

    There was always something about Schrader’s remake to Cat People that always appealed to me. I watched it again recently with a girlfriend who had never heard of it, and it holds up very well. I’m with you on that film – an excellent work more people should check out.

    I remember when I first saw it at the theater, I fell in love with Nastassja Kinski, and even went to see it at the theater a second time (well, I was just barely out of HS, so give me a break). It’s such a sad movie in many ways, and I loved the New Orleans locale.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I agree completely that it holds up. There’s another thread here where we’re discussing the pros and cons of remakes; Schrader’s version is definitely on the pro side. The 1942 version by Jacques Tourneur is a classic of noir horror, but Schrader, rather than just updating it with sex and violence, took it and managed to put his own very personal and uniquely perverse stamp on it.

  • Steven Michael Salinas

    i personally love the film taxi driver. i love the character of travis bickle. in terms of being a paranoid schizophrenic myself, being portrayed on film. i personally felt that scorcese did a disservice to bickle’s character and to the writer of the story and characters presented on film. i felt that if the characters were black. the film and the audience could explore the racist theme elment. which i feel hasn’t been explore on film. at least a true racist theme platform.

  • http://travelingmushroom.blogspot.com/ Todd

    I like what you wrote, it gave me an insight on a thing or two that I missed or didn’t think of.

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