Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.
Martin Scorsese was intent on writing and directing Genre Pictures in Hollywood. Westerns, Sci-Fi, War films, Musicals – he wanted to make traditional pictures influenced by the auteur theory. Even though he abandoned this idea as a career, Scorsese still made a few attempts at the genre film. Taxi Driver is, among other things, a final apotheosis in the evolution of Film Noir. Not a strict Noir, not even a Neo-Noir by most standards, Taxi Driver nonetheless contains many of the elements found in the traditional Film Noir – the modern fatalistic protagonist just returned from the war, chiaroscuro lighting, voice-over narration, an ambient jazz score. Unlike the war the original Noir protagonists were returning home from (WWII), Travis Bickle’s war (Vietnam) is entirely senseless – devoid of purpose and meaning. The life Bickle returns to – New York City in the late 70’s – is equally senseless. Ergo, just as Bickle is differentiated from the previous Noir protagonists by war and society, the form and technique in Taxi Driver is differentiated from that of the former Noirs as well. Each element is pushed to its utmost limit. The lighting obfuscates to the point of surrealism – people are bathed in the red glow of neon or lost in the sable shadows of the night. The voice-over wavers between a tight, sensible narrative (“June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape”) and an insanity-limned, detached ramble (“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”) Taken any further, these elements would cease to be Noir, instead mutating into a completely different animal. This is the point – Travis Bickle is a man on the edge. The first half of the film could be a modern neo-noir ala Chinatown or Body Heat, but Travis Bickle slips over the edge, dragging all of the Noir trappings in his wake.
What Film Noir hinted at, but rarely examined, was the solitude – the utter isolation and personal confinement – of individuals living in post-war America and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world. Travis Bickle’s descent into madness is the result of his isolation. His voice-over (his audible thoughts and journal entries, really) begins in a state of coherence – the day’s events, feelings about life, etc. As Bickle wallows in isolation, his only attempts at some type of bond being rebuffed, his narration becomes grim, morbid, and fragmented. His logic begins to fail; his syntax collapses. Bickle is a character of duality: the Everyman, but also the Pariah. He talks of cleaning the streets of filth and scum (like the Everyman would), while simultaneously embodying the lifestyle of that filth (attending porno theatres, and, you know, plotting out assassinations and stuff.) Because of this, Bickle is a stand-in for the societal whole; that is, his place in society is both everywhere (due to his plurality) and nowhere (how can a person embodying everyone fit in any one place?) His descent into madness is not clear to the viewer – is he truly psychotic or is he a lucid vigilante? Scorsese’s direction, Paul Shrader’s script, and Robert DeNiro’s performance (to the credit of all) leave this point decidedly ambiguous. Once again, Bickle is a stand-in for the all – both the sane and insane.
This point – the pluralistic dichotomy of Travis Bickle – is illustrated throughout Taxi Driver. Scorsese seems to be commenting not only on Bickle, but on society as a whole. Bickle’s interior – that is, the forces acting within him – are as much a part of society as Bickle’s exterior, or the forces acting upon him. Bickle’s attempts to eradicate the filth via violence are as much suicide as they are homicide. Therefore, the same can be said of society’s violent and bickering back-and-forth between paradise and perdition.
This is where Noir steps in – the overarching theme behind Noir is pointlessness and fatality. Keeping Taxi Driver from being Noir is its ultimate lack of these concepts. Bickle works by means fatal, but his fatal actions bring new life and meaning. In the last five minutes of the film, Scorsese deconstructs the Noir genre, claiming that sense can be born out of senselessness; the two halves of Bickle (sane/insane, everyman/pariah, etc.) are united to form a complete person. Scorsese’s idea, therefore, seems to border on fascism – in order to achieve balance and sense, these ideas must first be abandoned completely, leaving destruction in their wake. Or: in order to make an omelet, you gotta’ break a few eggs. Regardless of subtext (I may be right, I’m probably wrong), Taxi Driver is an intriguing, obscured portrait of one man struggling to find his place in the world, and reaching for a rope to pull himself out of solitude.Powered by Sidelines