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Taxi Driver

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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.

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About Michael Kanbergs

  • http://www.cinemaetcetera.blogspot.com Michael Kanbergs

    I blew it, I think. (With regards to the bit about fascism.) Instead of changing my review (fuck amends), I’ll just say it here: Maybe the fascism belongs to Scorsese, but this is highly unlikely. Rather, Scorsese realizes that this is fascism. His denouement is cheery – too cheery – it’s ironic. If fascism is the only means to this end, then this is an impossible end. Iunno – anyone smarter got an opinion?

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat

    I’m afraid I’m not smarter, or with an opinion to that end at the moment, but wanted to say that this is a fascinating, well written review. I may have to pull out the old DVD and watch it again with these thoughts in mind. I’ll have to ponder the fascism angle a bit before I speak.

  • http://www.cinemaetcetera.blogspot.com Michael Kanbergs

    Thank you. I hope you do watch the film again. I think the difficulty in writing (or even talking) about Taxi Driver lies the complexity of the film. Many questions are brought up, very few are answered.

  • Richard Porter

    Michael

    Whew..that was an incredible review. I have watched Taxi Driver and have found something extra and amazing in it each time.
    Truly there is something to be said when Schrader, Scorsese and DeNiro get together but I beg them not to make a sequel (as I read somewhere).
    Also turning in fine spots were Jodie Foster (her role and movie became reality), Cybill Shepard and an underrated Harvey Keitel (loved him in Reservoir Dogs).

  • Richard Porter

    Michael

    Have you seen Sean Penn in the Assassination of Richard Nixon? How does it compare (if at all)?

  • http://www.cinemaetcetera.blogspot.com Michael Kanbergs

    Thanks Richard. Yeah – Keitel is fantastic. It’s so easy to forget about him amongst all the other greatness. Thanks for reminding me.

    No, I haven’t The Assassination of Richard Nixon. I’ve heard mixed things about the film, but most people have said Penn is very good in it. From what I gather, that film is about a man truly insane, Taxi Driver‘s brilliance partly lies in the fact that the audience is never sure. (I could be wrong, though, seeing that I haven’t seen Richard Nixon yet.)

  • Richard Porter

    Michael

    I haven’t seen it yet either but I hear it is very good.

    How do you feel about Scorsese’s other works? The King of Comedy? After Hours?

  • http://www.cinemaetcetera.blogspot.com Michael Kanbergs

    Ha, you’re exposing me for the neophyte I am. Or at the least the Scorsese neophyte I am. I’ve seen neither The King of Comedy nor After Hours. I have seen Raging Bull, the aforementioned Bringing Out the Dead, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas , Casino, and Gangs of New York. In the order above: Very good, meh, masterpiece, near-masterpiece, wretched filth, and meh. Last Temptation does what no other film has been able to do – bring to light (whether factual) the actual dread – in accordance with the Bible – that must be felt when realizing that you are human and God. Moreover, the Last Temptation, as a set piece, is one of the finest in all of film. Goodfellas is marvelous in style and invention, but I found myself caring little about the characters. I don’t believe Scorsese intended this reaction. Casino is a deplorable Goodfellas rip-off, redeemed only slightly by DeNiro’s great performance. I haven’t seen Raging Bull in a very long time, so I can’t really comment. For the others, “meh” succinctly and completely summarizes my feelings re: the film.

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat

    I’ve never seen a Scorcese film I didn’t like in some manner. King of Comedy is worth the price of the ticket to watch Jerry Lewis, well, play Jerry Lewis being kidnapped. After Hours is an underrated gem. Scorcese doing fast paced light comedy, terrific stuff.

    The DVD notes that Keitel’s character was originally supposed to be played by a black actor, but Scorcese feared that there was already too much racial tension in the film and instead chose Keitel. Agreed though, his performance is beautiful.

  • Bruce

    All fascinating, but for a novice like me the question remains: how much of the last 20 minutes of Taxi Driver was fantasy? I can’t believe the ending: no Bickle is going to return sane from hospital (no injuries either) & carry on where he left off before going beserk. Either that’s a dream, or the whole Iris rescue job’s a dream. Perhaps the mohican sequence is too?

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I applaud the ambition of this review, but most of your language and attempts at insight are BS here.

    I do agree with your amendment to the fascism better describing Bickle, but all great film-directing is fascism isn’t it? :)

    Nonetheless, this is a great film and Scorsese helped invent what I think is now a common, taken-for-granted archetype: that of the isolated, angry, homicidal white male on the fringes of society whose rage is at once sexualized and directionless in its explosion into mass violence. Many of the film characters we’ve seen in the last 20 years wouldn’t be possible without Taxi Driver and even our language and imagery for understanding mass shootings or disgruntled people “going postal” are shaped by the events and psychology of this film.

    That is all.